TRANSPORTATION Technology Center Inc (TTCI) has been at the forefront of North American railway research for the past 40 years. Many of the technologies that have driven the sector forward over that time were honed by engineers and researchers working at the Transportation Technology Center (TTC) in Pueblo, Colorado: ac traction diesel locomotives, double stack container operation, and Positive Train Control (PTC), to name just a few.
With Ensco set to become the proprietor of TTC under a new contract with its owner, the US Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), on October 1, a new era beckons for the research facility and for TTCI.
TTCI is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Association of American Railroads (AAR). And rather than disappear, with the support of its owners, including the Class 1 railways and Amtrak, TTCI is being reborn.
Ground was broken on a new railway research facility in Pueblo in May, two months after the rebranding. MxV Rail is derived from the basic formula for momentum: Mass x Velocity. And with construction ramping up on the 9.3km High Speed Loop (HSL) at PuebloPlex industrial park, which is located adjacent to the TTC, MxV Rail is steaming ahead to the formal start of operations this autumn.
Ms Kari Gonzales was announced by AAR as MxV Rail’s president in September 2021. Gonzales has spent her 20-year career at TTCI, and as a native of Pueblo, she is a passionate proponent of the research company’s work and contribution to the North American railway sector.
Gonzales previously served as TTCI’s vice-president and chief financial officer where she was responsible for company-wide strategic planning and business functions associated with day-to-day operations.
Speaking to IRJ at the World Congress on Railway Research (WCRR) in Birmingham, Britain, on June 7, Gonzales says discussions about the company’s future and an extension of its care and custodial contract at TTC date back to 2014. By 2018 she says the US Department of Transportation (DoT) began to talk about better utilisation of its assets, including the TTC, which was reflected in a request for proposals issued in 2020, a document that Gonzales admits surprised TTCI management.
“There was a lot of new stuff in there that is not in our current contract,” she says. “This included expanding into other modes of transport. We have dabbled here and there, but our DNA is the railroad. So that was a little hard to address.”
Other conditions that raised eyebrows concerned new reporting requirements and an emphasis on maintaining the facility in a state of good repair. As a condition for not paying any rent, TTCI was contractually obliged to invest $US 2.7m in TTC on an annual basis, including $US 1m in capital improvements.
“Where we are operating a 50-year-old facility, we have taken the approach that if we are using it, we will maintain it,” Gonzales says. “It was a little bit concerning due to the cost of the overheads.”
Nevertheless, Gonzales says TTCI went ahead and submitted what she felt was a “strong proposal” to remain at TTC. Work also got underway on an alternative plan, so the company was ready if the decision went the other way. This was confirmed with the award of an initial five-year base contract with three five-year options to Ensco to operate TTC in March 2021.
Sites across the United States were considered for MxV’s new home, but with the local government in Pueblo keen to retain some of the area’s highest taxpayers, the PuebloPlex facility soon emerged as the leading candidate.
“What we’re really trying to achieve is to develop a footprint that aligns with the research needs of our owners in the Class 1 railroads and the AAR.”Kari Gonzales
“I think it is important for everyone to understand that the decision for us to relocate our testing facilities was not taken lightly,” Gonzales says. “Our board of directors is made up of the chief operating officers of the seven Class 1 railroads and it took six to eight months to get a decision to move the facility. That decision was based on conversations with FRA and Ensco about how we could retain a presence at the facility. There were some initial discussions, but from cost, access and priority perspectives, it didn’t really align with the needs of our organisation, which led to the decision in December 2021 to relocate the testing aspects of what we do.”
MxV’s headquarters and research laboratories will be located at Pueblo Industrial Park, which it will rent free of charge under a five-year contract with a five-year option as part of the agreement reached with the Pueblo Economic Development Corporation (Pedco). The laboratory buildings are currently undergoing renovation and will include instrumentation, calibration and metallurgy labs, testing equipment including 660 load frame and small test machines, damage prevention and loading test machines, and the rolling contact fatigue simulator. Renovation of the corporate headquarters will take place in phase two.
The PuebloPlex site itself is located around 24km east of Pueblo, a five-minute drive from the industrial park, and directly south of TTC, sharing access to the BNSF mainline at West Avondale, which connects with Union Pacific a few kilometres east at NA Junction. The approximately 32km of operational track on the site was originally used to transport munitions for The Pueblo Chemical Depot, a US army base and storage site for chemical weapons since the 1950s, including 780,000 munitions and 2613 tonnes of mustard gas. The depot was directed to destroy these weapons in 2015 and is expected to cease activities at the site by 2023.
By this point MxV will be up and running. The site for the HSL is already clear of army activities and Gonzales says the remaining area for MxV will be available by the end of the year (see below track image and panel).
MxV is investing $US 35-40m on the initial build, which is majority funded through its own cash reserves, as well as a lending programme through sister company RailInc, and some external financing. MxV is also transferring $US 75-100m of assets from the TTC to the new facility. Gonzales was keen though to make a distinction between the new and the old.
MxV Rail track facilities at PuebloPlex
The 177km/h HSL Loop will support freight and passenger rail programmes including the AAR’s M-976 freight bogie testing, performance testing for new rail technology, and approvals testing for rolling stock. Running as a siding to the HSL for 5.5km of its length is the Suspension Resonance Track, which will support operation at 120km/h through perturbed test zones and will be used to assess pitch and bounce, twist and roll, yaw and sway. Also connecting to the HSL is a 3.5km Curving Performance Track while MxV is planning to construct a second self-contained 5.3km loop comprising a 4.5km main loop and a bypass, which will offer a “reimagined” Facility for Accelerated Service Testing (Fast), a service it was renowned for providing at TTC. Among the other facilities is an impact wall to test vehicle crash worthiness while construction is underway on Building 583 at the site, which will house Security and Emergency Response Training Center (SERTC) classrooms, craft offices, the machine and weld shop, and customer support area.
“One thing I like to make sure that everyone recognises is that we are not rebuilding TTC,” Gonzales says. “The scale of the TTC is massive. And what we’re really trying to achieve is to develop a footprint that aligns with the research needs of our owners in the Class 1 railroads and the AAR along with some of the existing customers that we had on the passenger side.”
In practice this means that MxV will not possess overhead catenary or third rail electrification facilities like TTC, which can also support speeds of 225km/h. However, MxV will be able to provide vendors with 140MGT per year as it did at TTC. Other improvements include expanded vehicle maintenance facilities, which will initially be a single bay through track with a view to eventually installing a four bay through track with wheel lathes and drop tables.
Evaluate and improve
With much of the TTC’s infrastructure - the buildings, the railway and the sleepers - in use for 40 years, Gonzales says relocating is an opportunity to evaluate and improve the infrastructure and its offer. “From the track infrastructure, buildings and overall facilities, we’re in a much better position from an operational aspect, which is going to allow us to pass on some cost savings to our customers,” she says.
Gonzales says work from AAR members will remain with MxV and will continue to be the primary source of the company’s revenue. She says MxV will continue to work with international clients. It is also exploring new partnerships. MxV has already signed an agreement with Swisspod to develop and build a hyperloop testing facility at PuebloPlex, which will include full scale infrastructure and vehicles designed for freight transport. It is also working with Parallel Systems, which is testing a self-propelled battery powered freight wagon concept designed for short line freight. And following the trip to Britain for WCRR, MxV and Ricardo confirmed a strategic alliance agreement that will bring together the two companies’ engineering and testing capabilities.
While AAR traditionally accounted for 50% of TTCI’s revenue, the FRA was responsible for 15-20%. Much of this work will remain at TTC with Ensco. However, Gonzales expects there to be some overlap between both TTC and MxV’s activities, and says her company is open to working with Ensco where it cannot support business at its own facility. She also believes some MxV employees will occasionally work at TTC.
“We really want to try and do that because it’s good for the community,” Gonzales says. “I’m a Pueblo kid and I think it’s great that we’re going to have facilities to be able to grow rail.”
Gonzales says the rebranding was a necessary step because of TTCI’s close connection with the TTC. However, she says it was never about the facility and the real value is its people. MxV is retaining its existing staff of 300 researchers and engineers, and as Gonzales puts it, is providing them with “a new playground to innovate and supply the research and testing for a global customer base.”
She adds that MxV is also benefitting from hybrid working models that have become commonplace since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is now possible to have MxV employees located elsewhere in the United States, and she refers to one team member who is located in Pennsylvania and has not set foot on the TTC, but is responding directly to customer needs on the east coast, using their resources to perform the necessary work. “It really helps with the evolution of business to be more responsive,” she says.
Greater workforce agility could also help MxV address issues facing the wider rail sector. Gonzales reflects on some of the issues discussed at WCRR (p4) including climate change and how rail researchers might respond to the need to reach net zero emissions. “We’re starting to mobilise on that front and are figuring out… how we adapt our business to be able to be more responsive to some of these things that come up [so we] have more immediacy to them,” she says, pointing to the alliance with Ricardo as one partnership which will focus on helping industry suppliers deploy sustainable products, including battery and hydrogen traction, in a safe and efficient manner.
Recruiting young researchers and engineers is difficult for companies such as MxV in a competitive labour market. Gonzales describes tackling the issue of securing the next-generation railway workforce as “a real passion,” particularly with US universities, while undoubtedly capable, still not yet meeting the industry’s demand for new hires. She highlights a bill signed by Colorado governor, Mr Jared Polis, on May 27, to establish the Transportation Technology Institute at Colorado State University-Pueblo as a positive recent development that will foster local talent, but she admits more needs to be done.
“We have an uphill battle because the perception of rail is just not sexy,” she says.
Certainly, having another new world-class railway research facility in the United States is one way of improving the industry’s appeal. MxV along with Ensco at TTC are set to be the proving ground for new generations of technology that will potentially unlock growth from the US rail freight and passenger market well into the future, an exciting proposition for any new recruit, and the sector as a whole.