Can’t Anybody Here Build These Coaches?

December 23, 2014

by F. K. Plous

CHICAGO (Dec. 19)— Casey Stengel is said to have vented his frustration with the hapless New York Mets one day by asking his dugout, “Can’t anybody here play this game?”

And after the Chicago Cubs made another one of their boneheaded, game-blowing plays, veteran Cubs third fielder-turned-broadcaster Ron Santo sputtered to his TV audience, “Look — the game is not that hard.”

That same spirit of futility and frustration is finally settling over U.S. passenger-rail advocates as each day brings fresh proof that new rolling stock to carry the nation’s growing army of train riders just isn’t coming.

Among those now donning the sackcloth-and-ashes wardrobe popularized by Stengel and Santo is veteran Trains magazine correspondent Fred Frailey, who noted in his December 18th blog the new Viewliner cars Amtrak ordered for its Eastern and Southern long-distance trains nearly five years ago are just now beginning to trickle into the system. The first Viewliner cars — built to carry baggage only — are being hauled down the East Coast from the factory where they were built in Elmira Heights, New York, to the Amtrak maintenance base at Hialeah, Florida.

“As for the Viewliner deliveries, about time!” — Frailey writes. “The 130-car order was placed in mid-2010 and initial deliveries were scheduled more than two years ago. And at that, the baggage cars are by far the easiest to build.”

That may not sound like Stengelesque or Santonian grumbling, but Frailey notes the 70 baggage cars in the 130-car order are all to be delivered first, with the 25 sleepers, 25 diners and 10 baggage-dormitory cars to come later. So from the date the manufacturer was ordered to start building to the date when Amtrak passengers will start riding in this equipment is — do the math — at least five years, versus the three years originally promised.

Why so late? Why so long?

Can’t anybody here play this game? Can’t the U.S. deliver an order of urgently needed passenger-rail cars in less than five years? Amtrak ridership now is growing at more than a million passengers a year, and virtually all of the growth is being crammed into a dwindling inventory of seating on existing trains because neither Amtrak nor the states has a pool of equipment to accommodate the overflow.

That means an unknown number of travelers seeking space on trains is turned away each day because there isn’t any space for them (the number of turnaways is unknown because Amtrak’s reservation computers lack software that tracks the second and third choices to which applicants default when they can’t get the space they want).

The 2009 Stimulus Act was supposed to solve the problem. It contained grants sufficient to fund 130 new bi-level Next Generation coaches, business-class/café cars and coach/cab cars to run in state-supported passenger-train programs in California, Illinois, Michigan and Missouri.

But, here we are more than five years later and the first car in the order has yet to be delivered. Designer Nippon Sharyo built a new plant to produce the cars at Rochelle, Illinois, but so far Car 1 has not emerged, and when it does it will have to go to the Facility for Accelerated Testing (FAST) at Pueblo, Colorado, to be inspected and field-tested. And one example of each car type must be tested and passed before copies can go into serial production, further extending what seems to be turning into an open-ended delivery timetable.

So when will the Next Gen cars actually arrive in numbers sufficient to form a complete train set people can ride?

Depends on who you talk to. Last April, the Illinois Department of Transportation Director of Public and Intermodal Transportation said his state expected its first “pilot cars” would arrive in the spring of 2016 with “production cars” arriving in the fall of that year. That would mean more than five years will have elapsed between the manufacturer’s receipt of a Notice to Proceed with construction and delivery of the first coaches.

5-year lead time is the New Normal

That’s just too long. There’s something wrong with a system that takes more than five years to deliver urgently needed new passenger railcars. Especially when that timetable is normal. A study of the last 15 years of U.S. passenger railcar procurements conducted by Corridor Capital showed a 5-year delivery timetable is typical — not average, with some taking longer and some finishing sooner, but typical — the prevailing Best Practice in the industry. It doesn’t even matter whether the product is a complex, cranky dining car, a Plain-Jane commuter coach or even a simple rapid-transit car. They all take five years now.

“O.K., smarty,” you say. “How long do you think it should take to deliver new set of trains?”

Would “back to the future” work better?

Fine. Let’s review what happened three generations back when the U.S. railroad system decided it needed to re-equip its passenger trains with faster, stronger, safer and more comfortable rolling stock. That would have been when the streamliner movement broke out in the mid-1930s as the railroad industry tried to overcome Depression-driven passenger-traffic losses by luring travelers back from the highways with exciting new lightweight trains.

Shortly after New Year’s Day 1939, the Chicago & North Western Railway, desperate to compete with the new streamliners already operating between Chicago and the Twin Cities on the Burlington Route and the Milwaukee Road, jumped into the high-speed game by ordering two new streamliners of its own. The trains were called the “400s” because their 100-mph-plus speeds would enable them to complete the 400-mile run in 400 minutes.

But over-the-road travel time wasn’t the only kind of speed the engineers designed into the “400s.” Despite a delay of several months while builder Pullman-Standard re-engineered the coaches for greater strength, two complete 10-car trains, consisting of coaches, parlor cars, a diner, a baggage-tap room-lounge and a parlor-lounge-observation car, were delivered to C&NW in September 1939 − within nine months of the order − and entered regular service after several days of publicity tours.

The Electro-Motive Division of General Motors was even faster in delivering the four new diesel locomotives. They were on the property June 2nd. Burlington and Milwaukee Road, now busily re-equipping and upgrading their own trains with the latest models, enjoyed similar production timetables. And neither builder had the luxury of simply ramping up production of an existing product. Diesel-locomotive technology and streamlined-passenger-car technology both were evolving fast during the late ‘30s, so that EMD and Pullman-Standard were essentially continuing to experiment as they created the “400s” for their new client, North Western (the same thing was going on at the Budd Company and the Milwaukee Road’s West Milwaukee Shops, where second-generation Zephyrs and Hiawathas, respectively, emerged looking substantially different from the first-generation trains — and still managed to enter service a year after the orders were placed).

Why can’t Americans build trains this way again?

One cannot help feel something precious has been lost in American traincraft. We used to be able to design and build great passenger trains quickly with no loss in quality. Yes, today’s product is more technologically complex than the streamliners of the 1930s, and, yes, the government and its bureaucrats are deeply involved in the process now, but remember too that those Budd, Pullman and Milwaukee Road engineers were doing all their calculations on slide rules, manually drawing each component on paper without the aid of Computer-Aided Drafting and exchanging information with colleagues outside the company with no technology more advanced than air mail and long-distance telephone.

Knowing what we know about how we used to build trains, the current five-year build time is unacceptable and unsustainable, especially in view of the steeply rising demand curve for space on the nation’s few passenger trains. Some way must be found to telescope the process and get top-quality passenger cars out of the factory and running on the U.S. rail system in time to carry the passengers who want to travel.

And there is a way. Corridor Capital owns 50 stainless-steel “Hi-Level” cars built in the 1950s and 1960s for the long-distance trains of the Santa Fe Railway — the famed El Capitan, Texas Chief, San Francisco Chief and Grand Canyon. Engineers say they’re the strongest, most rugged passenger cars ever built — operating regularly at speeds up to 110 mph on Santa Fe main lines across Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and California..

Talk about Next Gen cars — Corridor Capital can have the Hi-Levels remanufactured to include all the same technology and passenger amenities as the Next Gen cars and deliver the first 4-car trainset before the first of the actual Next Gen trainsets arrives.

And not “pilot cars,” either. Complete, ready-to-run trainsets. The Hi-Levels will need little field testing because they’ve already been tested in millions of miles of service on some of the most challenging and even grueling long-distance passenger-train routes in North America. Like those “400” streamliner cars of the 1930s, they can go right into service as soon as they’re delivered and start saving the states that fund passenger trains millions of dollars in operating costs and subsidies each year.

Look, the game is not that hard. Which state wants to be first?

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