Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Who will build this train?

Written by  William C. Vantuono, Editor
Concept American high speed trainset Concept American high speed trainset Cesar Vergara/VergarsStudio

The stakes are big in the race to build a new generation of American high speed trains. "If we can get one high speed system up and running, others will follow."

Siemens Mobility President Oliver Hauck's pronouncement to Railway Age sums up the outlook of several countries and their affiliated railway suppliers on the prospects for high speed rail in the United States—one of the few developed nations without a "true" (very high speed, 200 mph or faster) HSR system. Indeed, Germany, France, Spain, Japan, and China are all vying for a piece of what is now a $13 billion U.S. market—a start, at best, but one with lots of growth potential.

Realistically, observers and supporters say, at least $50 billion in guaranteed federal HSR funding is needed to attract state dollars and private investment. The Obama Administration's financial commitment is, again, a start, and there's momentum in Congress to expand it. Forget Florida Overland eXpress, Texas TGV, and other failed HSR projects from a decade or more ago. Except for a few shelved plans that can be resurrected and dusted off, those projects are from another era, when cheerful, optimistic rhetoric was in abundance, but the federal government had nothing financial to offer other than a few crumbs for research and development.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world has surged ahead with high speed rail. China has raced by everyone else with nearly 2,000 miles of line costing close to $100 billion—and that's just for starters. A European system of interconnected, interoperable lines should be finished within a decade. Russia is making steady progress. Central Japan Railway's Tokaido Shinkansen, with 323 trains carrying 400,000 passengers per day, turns a healthy annual profit, by some measures.

Seeing opportunity, offshore railways are knocking on America's door, with investment capital in hand. The Chinese Ministry of Railways, for example, has joined forces with General Electric and is offering the California High Speed Rail Authority a 30-year DBOM (design-build-operate-maintain) deal. Central Japan Railway, its sights set on Florida, is prepared to offer financing through JBIC (Japan Bank for International Cooperation), as is East Japan Railway in California. SNCF (French National Railways), Deutsche Bahn (German Rail), and RENFE (Spanish National Railways) have similar proposals. Working with key suppliers—Alstom, Siemens, Talgo, Bombardier, Kawasaki, Mitsubishi, CAF—these established HSR operators are prepared to meet rather stringent "Buy America" requirements that some say are unrealistic.

The Federal Railroad Administration's HSR grant program, funded under ARRA (American Reinvestment and Recovery Act), contains a 100% Buy America requirement. That means everything—vehicles, train control, rail, crossties, track fasteners—must be sourced and manufactured in the U.S. The FRA is willing to grant waivers on a case-by-case basis, but "only as a last resort," Deputy Administrator Karen Rae told a Railway Supply Institute audience last month in Washington. "Foreign companies have talked with us asking us to change the requirement, and we told them absolutely not," House Railroad Subcommittee Majority Staff Director Jennifer Esposito (a former Teamsters official) told the same group.

For politicians who feel compelled to wax patriotic and talk about creating American jobs in a recessionary economy, this is perfect public prose. But is it plausible? "Buy America is an emotional and political issue," says National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association President Chuck Baker. "There is a greater short-term political risk in resisting it than a long-term manufacturing risk. Buy America is what works; it's what creates political support. It's too easy to kill high speed rail, so at least for now, there's little choice but to agree."

Privately, some carbuilders are shaking their heads. "We need a sustained capital market for high speed equipment," says one. "We're already at 80% to 85% U.S. content, and moving our carbody manufacturing to the U.S. could bring us close to 100%. But it will drive up our manufacturing costs. We'll have to create a new supply chain." Says another, "From a manufacturing perspective, we are one industry, and transit cars are our biggest piece of business. Given the thousands of components that go into a passenger rail vehicle, creating requirements for only one mode, high speed, which represents a fraction of the market, does not provide the economies of scale we need to make a relatively small order viable."

Another part of this debate is safety regulations. FRA is now developing a rulemaking (details, p. 10) covering track standards and vehicle crashworthiness. One encouraging development is that FRA appears willing to consider safety regulations that rely on collision avoidance, rather than collision protection—a system approach to safety that incorporates train and traffic control as well as vehicles with CEM (crash energy management). This is how the European and Japanese systems have approached safety, with great success. Late last month, FRA issued a waiver to Caltrain to allow operation of electric multiple-unit passenger rail equipment built to European standards in mixed traffic. The waiver, deemed by Caltrain to be critical to its electrification and modernization program, relies heavily on installation of Positive Train Control along Caltrain's 55-mile San Jose-San Francisco route, which is linked to the state's 700-mile high speed rail plan. Without the waiver, Caltrain says it would be unable to complete its $1.5 billion electrification project. Though the waiver allows EMU and diesel-hauled passenger equipment to operate concurrently, freight operations remain subject to temporal separation.

"Collision avoidance . . . is the first line of defense in assuring passenger rail safety," FRA said. "Collision management, achieved through the operation of vehicles designed with CEM, is the second line of defense that effectively reduces the severity of an incident." California must apply for a similar waiver from FRA for the HSR project, but since Caltrain has established a guideline, such a waiver might be more easily attained.

What about design? Should U.S. HSR equipment have a distinctly "American" character? "French, German, Japanese, Chinese, and Spanish high speed trains have altered the perception of these countries within and outside their borders," says railway industrial designer Cesar Vergara, whose concept of a U.S. high speed train appears on this issue's cover and on p. 14. "For many nations, these trains have become an iconic 'coat of arms' of technological advances. U.S. high speed trains will have a similar responsibility—to act as symbols of our renewed commitment to passenger rail, particularly high speed. While appearance is dictated to an extent by aerodynamics and crashworthiness, there is plenty of room to imprint character on our trains. Moreover, U.S. regulations and our operating environment tend to render as-built European and Japanese equipment inadequate for FRA territory. American trains should have their own personality and appearance. They are hardly the most expensive part of a new system, but they do represent what it stands for. We should ensure that our trains, the moving part of a great new interstate transportation system, look the part."

"High speed rail issues are the same all over the world," French Foreign Trade Minister Anne-Marie Idrac said in remarks last month at an HSR conference in Miami. "National pride, the desire to have the best technology, must be part of the ambition. So must job creation, and community and economic development. Equally important are dealing with the long-term issues of air travel and highways, and protecting the environment. The challenges are public perception and objections, finding a balance between speed and the number of stops that promote economic development, identifying and building ridership, and financing—who pays how much, and with what financial instruments."

The criteria of success for developers of high speed rail, Idrac said, are technical viability, the ability to capture market share from air and highways, and providing a long-term vision for investors. "Now, in Europe, no one thinks of anything but high speed trains," she said.

That's where America needs to be. How long will it take, and who will build our trains?