A Commuter Rail Cautionary Tale

A cautionary tale in the annals of climate change policy implementation was offered up last week by Colorado Railcar Manufacturers LLC and Portland, Oregonâ''s, TriMet system when Colorado Railcar announced on December 23 that it was ceasing operations. The companyâ''s website stated that the firm has a â''major liquidity problem and its lenders have secured a position in the company.â''

In 2005, TriMet contracted with Colorado Railcar to pay $17 million for the purchase of railcars for its new Westside Express Service between the Portland suburbs of Beaverton and Wilsonville. The WES is to run every thirty minutes during commuting hours, Monday through Friday. According to a December 14 article in the Oregonian, TriMet spent an additional $5.5 million in public money to keep Colorado Railcar afloat since it signed the contract, including paying the CEOâ''s salary. Trimet also discovered that some of the monies it paid for the manufacture of its railcars were diverted to other projects.

Why did TriMet choose to do business with Colorado Railcar? The WES is to run on active freight lines and apparently Colorado Railcar manufactured the only commuter railcar that meets the Federal Railroad Associationâ''s crash test standards for mixed use freight lines. The companyâ''s DMU (diesel multiple unit) is a self- propelled rail passenger car that can pull up to three additional coaches. According to the Colorado Railcar website, the DMU logs 2 miles per gallon carrying 90 seated passengers (or up to 200 passengers including standing room)â''four times better than a standard commuter rail locomotive. While European railcar makers like Siemens and Bombardier manufacture DMUs, theirs donâ''t meet FRA crash-test standards. Furthermore, TriMet has reported that it was compelled to purchase from a US manufacturer in order to access federal funding for the WES.

There is clearly considerable skepticism about Colorado Railcarâ''s management practices and many unanswered questions about why TriMet undertook the WES project in the first place, especially since to realize the project it was required to sign a $17 million dollar agreement to build railcars with a firm that was already experiencing financial stress. Although the WES is still expected to start operations in February 2009, how its railcars will be serviced and repaired going forward is anyoneâ''s guess.

We all want to hope that once policies to address climate changeâ''like the approval and funding of mass transit systemsâ''are put in place all will be clear sailing. But Trimetâ''s misfortunes prove otherwise and that the devil, as ever, is in the implementation details.


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