NextGen Bi-Level build is put on hold; Midwestern states at risk of missing the train? Uncertainty reigned as MIRPC met in St. Paul

November 3, 2015

As NextGen bi-level build is put on hold, are Midwestern states at risk of missing the train? Uncertainty reigned as the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission met in St. Paul

By F.K. Plous

When the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission (MIPRC) held its annual two-day conference in St. Paul, Minnesota September 23-24, 2015, perhaps the most important development in the effort to build a modern Midwestern passenger rail operation was a small item on the second day’s agenda.

That development was the revelation two weeks earlier 72 of the 88 new “Next Generation” bi-level passenger cars being built with federal funds for three Midwestern states aren’t being built at all — and, indeed may never be built because their federal funding is likely to expire before most of the cars can be delivered.

Nippon Sharyo U.S.A./Sumitomo, which won the bid to build the new cars in the fall of 2012, admitted the first car shells had failed the 800,000-pound “buff compression test” required by the Association of American Railroads.

Well before the early September test failure, there were increasing signs the NextGen bi-level build was in trouble.

Originally, the first prototype cars were supposed to be rolled out in 2014, with delivery of “pilot cars” to California, Missouri, Illinois and Michigan promised for mid-2015.

But, 2014 came and went with no prototypes completed. Nippon Sharyo tried to downplay its tardiness by recalibrating the build and skipping the prototypes, moving directly to serial production, a timesaving move achieved by eliminating several months of testing and debugging most engineers deem essential to assuring a trouble-free production process and a satisfactory product.

In addition to failing their critical compression-strength test, the NextGen cars proved hard to assemble when the roof sections could not be aligned properly with side panels. The Rochelle, Illinois plant also had been plagued by labor troubles.

In early September Nippon Sharyo issued a carefully worded announcement saying it was laying off 100 employees at the Rochelle plant and discontinuing work on the NextGen bi-level cars until its engineers could come up with a solution to unspecified design and manufacturing problems.

MIPRC gets the news

You would think that news would have been the topic du jour at the MIPRC conference. After all, Michigan and Illinois had been slated to get 40 cars each for their three Amtrak routes, while Missouri was scheduled to get eight — enough to replace all of Amtrak’s antiquated Horizon series cars on its 258 mile St. Louis-Kansas City route.

 

MIPRC attendees received a full briefing on Positive Train Control. Click here to see the briefing: Steve Ditmeyer PTC PPT MIPRC 2015 Annual Mtg St Paul

MIPRC let Congress know the PTC deadline needs to be extended beyond the end of 2015: MIPRC letter to Midwestern Members of Congress regarding extension of PTC implementation deadline 100115

 

The failure of the NextGen build wasn’t on the agenda for the first day of the conference, and the half hour set aside for it just before lunch on the second day did not use the words “failure,” delay” or “crisis.” The segment was simply titled “Report/Discussion on the Next Generation Equipment Committee, Midwest Next Generation Procurement,” much the same way the issue is virtually untreated on the bi-weekly Next Generation Equipment Committee conference calls.

A “setback”

“The latest is, we’ve had a setback in testing the car shells,” a state official announced. “The car shells failed the crush test at 797,000 pounds. We don’t know what the next step is. We’re waiting to hear back from the carbuilder on this — whether it’s a design issue, a fabrication issue or something else. Hopefully, we’ll have some answers in a month.”

It was conceded “The funding does have a sunset date, so there’s a lot of pressure on the FRA.” Michigan DOT Rail Chief Tim Hoeffner, who also serves as chairman of the MIPRC, said, “The FRA is looking at creative ways to protect against the ‘evaporation date’ when the funds go away and to take some corrective action toward Nippon Sharyo.”

When former Missouri State Sen Joan Bray asked Hoeffner whether an “alternative timetable” had been established for delivery of the cars, he replied, “We really don’t know. We’re dealing with a serious issue. There are ways Nippon Sharyo could get back on schedule. They could spend money to save themselves.”

Would throwing extra money at the problem really make it go away and put the delivery timetable back on schedule? Experts acquainted with the failure point out production cannot resume until Nippon Sharyo engineers first find out what’s wrong, and then develop a solution. Because it’s not known what’s wrong, it’s impossible to predict how long it will take to identify the problem, or how complex and time consuming the solution is likely to be.

“We’ve got to hold their feet to the fire,” said Bray. “This is serious business.”

What nobody at the conference seemed to want to face is the NextGen build already is so hopelessly behind schedule, even if the product’s engineering problems were solved tomorrow, there is not enough time left to build, test and deliver the 72 cars before the federal funding deadline expires September 30, 2017. On that date any unspent funds revert to the federal Treasury — and by law funds cannot be spent until a product is delivered. Even if Nippon Sharyo hired another 100 workers and went to double shifts, there would not be enough time to train the new work force, double the production rate and deliver all the cars before the deadline.

Strangely, the consequences of that failure were not discussed at the conference, at all.

“Sen. Bray was correct in calling in labeling this NextGen bi-level failure ‘serious business,’ said Jim Coston, Chairman of Corridor Capital, “but neither she, nor anyone else at the conference, explained in detail just how serious it is.”

New tracks are coming — and so are the passengers — but, where are the trains?

The full importance of the missing bi-level railcars, Coston said, will not become clear until late 2016 when Illinois and Michigan open their new 110-mph intercity corridors. Illinois and Michigan will find they lack adequate rolling stock to carry all the new passengers the modernized rail infrastructure will attract.

“Both the Chicago-St. Louis route and the Chicago-Detroit route are 284 miles long, and currently trains make the trip in five-and-a-half hours,” Coston said.

“Sometime next year the governor of Michigan will cut a ribbon opening up 232 miles of new track that will enable the train speed to rise from 79-mph to 110-mph and the Chicago-Detroit running time to drop to a little over four hours,” he said, noting that at about the same time the governor of Illinois will cut a ribbon opening up 217 miles of the Chicago-St. Louis line to 110-mph, four hour service.

“Where will those states find the new trains to run on their shiny new railroads?” Coston said. “The NextGen bi-levels are not coming, and Amtrak’s existing fleet of upgraded “Horizon” commuter cars, already is approaching exhaustion.Website Insert 5000 New Seats copy

“Ridership on the Wolverine corridor and the Lincoln Service corridor has been growing for more than a decade at rates of 3 to 7 percent per year,” Coston said. “Even at 79 miles per hour, many of the trains sell out. Can you imagine how many new passengers are going to start flocking to these trains when they learn you can get from Chicago to St. Louis or Detroit in four hours — an hour faster than on the Interstate, and almost as fast as by air?”

Coston said Amtrak and the state DOTs were unable to model the demand likely to emerge when the faster train service becomes a fact.

“There are no historical data on what happens when a major passenger train route suddenly transitions from 79-mph to 110-mph, and travel time drops from five-and-a-half hours to four,” he said. “It’s never been done before in this country. My back-of-the-envelope projection is the demand could crash Amtrak’s reservation computers.”

Even in the so-called “Golden Age” of streamliners, the trains connecting Chicago with St. Louis and Detroit never did the trip in less than five hours, Coston said.

“At four hours the trains are going to be besieged with passengers looking for space, but where will the people sit?” he said. “Amtrak has only a limited number of coaches, and they seat only 65-72 passengers. The NextGen cars are designed to seat 90 on two levels. Where are we supposed to put all those new riders if we don’t get more cars? How are we supposed to reduce the state subsidized deficits on these trains if we can’t sell more tickets?”

“They have acknowledged the problem, and they feel they can overcome it,” Hoeffner told the MIPRC conference.Website Insert Development Finance and Management copy

Like everyone else at the conference, Hoeffner continued to define “the problem” as one of late deliveries rather than a major capacity shortage in the face of a looming explosion in passenger demand. He closed his report with something that sounded more like resignation than a plan.

“A lot of sausage is being made, but it’s not working,” he said. “I don’t know of any rail procurement that doesn’t have its glitches. It is what it is.”

Delegates to the 2015 MIPRC event in St. Paul, Minnesota traveled from Chicago to St. Paul in two private, reserved Amtrak Superliner cars on the rear of the regularly scheduled Empire Builder. Delegates to the 2015 MIPRC event in St. Paul, Minnesota traveled from Chicago to St. Paul in two private, reserved Amtrak Superliner cars on the rear of the regularly scheduled Empire Builder. MIPRC attendees at the 2015 conference in St. Paul, Minnesota. MIPRC attendees at the 2015 conference in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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