INVESTMENT in urban rail systems in US cities has been growing steadily as planners try to tempt commuters out of their cars and into trains. Recognising this trend, Swiss train builder Stadler decided to enter the US passenger rail market, first by supplying trains from Switzerland, but more recently from its US plant.
Stadler received its first US order in 2002, for 20 three-car GTW articulated multiple units for New Jersey Transit. This was followed in 2007 by six three-car low-floor GTW DMUs to Austin, Texas (plus another four in 2017), and 11 DMUs of the same type in 2011 to Denton County Transportation Authority, Texas, for its 34km A-Train commuter rail line. Another order, for eight three-car GTW DMUs for San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit Authority’s (Bart) EBart project, was delivered last year.
All these diesel units were designed and manufactured in Switzerland. Then, in 2015, Stadler received an order for eight five-car Flirt trains from TexRail, a new Texan operator, which included federal funding. That meant conforming with the Buy America Act, which stipulates that final assembly and testing of trains has to be done in the US, with 60% of components manufactured in the US as of 2017, rising to 70% in 2020.
Stadler US was duly founded soon afterwards in Salt Lake City. Delivery of the TexRail Flirts, which were designed in Switzerland, started in October and will be used on a new line under construction between Fort Worth and Dallas Fort Worth International Airport.
“We examined other sites, in 19 states in all, and shortlisted three, including Georgia and Texas,” says Mr Martin Ritter, CEO of Stadler US. “But it was sheer luck that we found this building. It’s located in what used to be a maintenance shop, so it has high ceilings and cranes, and is also the right size.” 120 workers are employed on the 2750m2 site, working on pre-assembly, final assembly, bogie assembly, commissioning and start-up.
Other orders are in the pipeline. Delivery of 10 panorama coaches to Rocky Mountaineer, a private tourist train operator based in Vancouver, has already started. Each of these luxury double-deck coaches has only 72 seats and a lift between the decks.
Stadler US has now received its first order for Kiss electric trains. The contract for 16 six-car EMUs was placed by the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board (PCJPB), California, for the Caltrain line between San Francisco and San Jose. Each train has 573 seats and space for 64 bicycles.
The EMUs were designed by Stadler Altenrhein in Switzerland, and will be assembled in Salt Lake City for delivery in 2019-2021, in time for the completion of the upgrading and electrification of the Caltrain line in 2022.
The budget for this project is $US 1.98bn, of which $US 551m is for the rolling stock and $US 697m for electrification and upgrading, the latter being financed by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). Local funding is also available.
There is an unavoidable two-year delay between delivery of the new Kiss units and their entry into service because of the need for testing and commissioning.
“Caltrain is one of our most important projects in the US,” Ritter says. “It’s a challenge because this is not an off-the-shelf solution, and it’s the fastest bi-level car we’ve made up to now. We’re trying to be as European as we can, which is a plus point, but we have to comply with certain US standards, for example the horn, which accounts 25% of the train’s air consumption.”
Finally, Stadler US has been commissioned to build three three-car Flirt diesel units for San Bernardino County Transit Authority, California, for delivery in 2019-2020.
With these new orders, it became clear that the existing facility in Salt Lake City is no longer adequate. Another site with highway and rail links has already been found on the perimeter of the city, and a groundbreaking ceremony was held on October 13 2017. The 20-hectare plant will open later this year allowing the existing plant to close at the end of 2018.
Ritter says the decision to stay in Salt Lake City was swayed by Utah’s dedication to public transport, the state’s proximity to customers on the West Coast, and a workforce of enthusiastic and well-trained workers. “Only 20 out of our workforce of 120 are US citizens, so it’s very multi-lingual, with a lot of our staff coming from Poland,” Ritter says. The workforce will increase to 300, and ultimately 1000 at the new plant.
“Finding suitable employees is not easy because Stadler is not well known, and the US doesn’t have the apprenticeship system that we do in Switzerland,” Ritter explains. “So it’s a constant training process. But we have good technical staff, and we are also forming links with technical institutes. Our work is special in any case - we don’t for example outsource the electrics, but do it ourselves.”
Supply chains also need a lot of care. At the moment Stadler US sources components from both US and European suppliers with an emphasis on localisation. “We made a conscious decision to have a mix of approximately 50:50, which has turned out to be pretty good,” Ritter says. Some European suppliers have decided to open their own facilities in the US for Stadler. Other suppliers already have a US operation, such as ABB while Stadler is using some US suppliers to comply with the Buy America Act.
Ritter is confident about the future and believes that US commuter rail operators are starting to consider DMUs rather than traditional locomotive-powered trains. “We attracted a lot of interest at the American Public Transportation Association (Apta) exhibition recently, so we are in a strong position with our DMU,” he says.