December 29, 2008 at 8:35 am

Colorado Railcar Gone: What is next?

With the sudden end to Colorado Railcar Manufacturing LLC, announced on December 23rd, 2008, left a huge hole in a unique market; The end of the only Ultra Dome passenger cars and the end of the only known FRA-Compliant Diesel-Multiple-Unit.

The rest after the jump

The last DMU’s under CRM was the last DMU for Tri-Rail and a joint venture between Alaska Railroad and the U.S. Forest Service’s bi-level DMU, which is sitting at Denver, Colorado’s Union Station, awaiting the final decision of whom will deliver the car to Seattle for its barge ride to Alaska.

Several agencies who won voter approval in November 2008, such as Hawaii, SMART in Somona - Marlin, CA, Amtrak in Vermont, and various other agencies were seeking use of the CRM DMU’s. With no FRA-compliant DMU available this leaves the door open to a small market that seemed to be growing rapidly. Bombardier, Siemens, Stadler Bussnang AG, and Alstom offer DMU’s but are not available for the U.S. Market due to the strict FRA rules. If these rules were to lessen or to be changed with the Obama Administration to allow these light passenger rail vehicles to operate with freight traffic, they could very well change the foundation of how we commute and travel, and how railroads can save money.

There are several things that could happen that probably won’t due to the economy at its current point.

1. CRM could sell it’s DMU rights and design to a company who would have the capability to mass produce the vehicles.
2. One of the mentioned companies above could begin work on a U.S. model.
3. The transit agencies also mentioned above could seek an FRA wavier to operate the vehicles but at the risk of being turned into a light-rail corridor and thus restricted to 55mph by the FTA.
4. Nothing will be done and those voter approved corridors will have to seek a much more expensive option.

The Eastside Rail Corridor as a good example was going to use the CRM vehicles. The demise of the company will no longer be able to use those vehicles. The only few options remain, all of which have a very slim chance. If the operating freight company would allow a non-compliant DMU to run on their rails after obtaining a waiver from the FRA. The other blow to this is no connection to Monroe, Everett, or Tukwila which would all require to run on BNSF, unless they were to buy their own right of way, which is just simply to expensive for a meager company to risk.

Until more details of the demise of CRM comes out, we can only speculate what the outcome of this huge lost to a unique company will be but now lays the question of just how long until something new and unique is available to agencies whom wish to start a small to moderate rail service, cheaper, but efficiently and effectively.

I’ll keep an eye out on more details and will update this post accordingly.

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Comment by Matt the Engineer
2008-12-29 09:02:47

Why does the US have different rail standards than, say, the EU? It seems like since passenger rail is such a small market in the US compared to the rest of the world it would be a good idea to use someone else’s standards instead of expecting global companies to conform to our rules. Except for our silly inch-pound system, we work with international standards for most products (we now use the International Building Code in many states, DVDs all use one standard, etc.).

Comment by Nathanael Nerode
2009-01-01 22:29:06

Because we’re idiots. The FRA rules date from the 1930s and 1940s, and in some cases early.

They have been literally proven to be inferior to the European rules in testing done by Caltrain — Caltrain’s non-complaint Euro vehicles protect people better in every single type of crash than FRA-complaint vehicles. But the rules still haven’t been changed.

The FRA rules simply need to be changed.

Comment by Wolf Harper
2009-01-02 02:18:30

Simply put, because America isn’t Europe.

Truth is European rails are as dysfunctional as ours - where we fail passenger, they fail freight. We have a very robust freight system that makes money, saves us money and keeps millions of trucks off our highways. Europe does not, and suffers accordingly. Result: Our trains have to be tougher because they must actually, truly interoperate with freight trains. Even so, European accidents tend to be more bloody than ours. Good dispatching can’t prevent every kind of accident.

Contrary to the anti-government arm-waving here, there is nothing wrong with our standards. That CalTrain study was written to justify light vehicles for their Caltrain specifically, where they want a relatively isolated rapid-transit system like BART. (while emphatically trying to justify why they shouldn’t simply be replaced by BART, lol!) In their study they deliberately ignore scenarios like those which have caused fatalities on Amtrak and Metrolink. They envision their system being one where those types of accidents “just don’t happen”. Heh. Suffice it to say, even CalTrain would agree that their study really only fits CalTrain, and it would be a mistake to say “all passenger trains should be like this”.

As for Amtrak Acela’s problems, every high speed rail system has problems, just look at the ICE.

It’s quite right we need ATCS/PTC, and we’re going to get it, due to the Chatsworth tragedy. But PTC won’t prevent accidents like Glendale or Eschede, which is why you still need solidly built cars. As for “crush zones”, where do you think those are on an EMU? The first few rows of coach seats!

I’m not too worried about DMU availability. Most light-rail cars are custom designs anyway, done to spec. (it’s one of the things that makes light mail maddeningly expensive and unreliable.) If somebody really wants a CRM design, the low bidder will license it from what’s left of CRM.

Comment by Jessica
2008-12-29 09:58:34

I’ve been to London and Paris on a business trip and took trains and buses for my whole time over there. No need for a car, I just used Eurostar to get between the cities. I agree with Matt: why do we have unique rules when we barely have passenger rail in comparison to France & the UK (I say them as I haven’t been to another part of Europe yet)?

See for yourself:

Comment by Brian Bundridge
2008-12-29 11:15:34

The best way that I can put it - Just another agency to hinder the progress of transportation.

Caltrain in San Francisco has already proven that our stricter safety car and locomotive standards make it more likely for injuries than the EU standard. This is why the Acela has so many issues with warped brake rotors and bolster cracking due to the heavy weight of the trainset. This is also why the train is much slower accelerating than its TGV/Eurostar/ICE counterparts.

It would be much smarter if the United States went with a ATCS setup like European Railways but have always and only primarily relied upon human abilities. This is also why the likelihood of getting into a head on or rear end train accident is slim to none in virtually every country except of course, North America… the only exception to that is Alaska Railroad which installed Automatic Train Stop on all of its railways.

Comment by Gary
2008-12-29 11:52:43

“The mess explains in part why TriMet is late launching its new westside commuter service, and it shows what can happen when a public agency makes a risky choice to do business with an unproven vendor.”

This is classic. Eastside Rail Now (Will Knedlik + The Discovery Institute) have been bashing away at light rail (a proven technology) for over a decade now. They pushed hard for an expansion of the monorail, which suffered from the same risk factors as Colorado Railcar. But, despite all these warning signs, Eastside Rail Now activists told us these DMU’s were cheap and easy to deploy. How many more debacles will it take for the Seattle media to figure out these folks always attach themselves to lost causes?

Comment by Brian Bundridge
2008-12-29 14:24:09


And the only reason why Tri-met went with the CRM vehicles is simply because Portland and Western Railroad run many trains during the day. The original choice was the Siemens Desiro Classic vehicles (same as Sprinter) Which has hundreds and hundreds of models running around in Europe.

Comment by The Overhead Wire
2008-12-29 14:49:58

Hawaii i believe is actually going to have an ALRT like in Vancouver, these are elevated electric trains.

Another company making DMU’s is Stadler, which Austin got its vehicles from, though rather expensive I might say.

Comment by EvergreenRailfan
2008-12-29 15:34:33

So, the ARR unit was finished before the demise? Good, if the Chugach service does not work out, they can use it to replace the Budd RDCs on the Hurricane flag-stop service. I heard the latter flunked inspections and have been retired. Perhaps if the ARR had ordered some of them when times were good, they might have been in better shape. That is one reason I liked this particular vehicle, it had some potential. Maybe a Stadler car can be used on the ARR in the several roles the CRC DMU could have been used up there. It had the potential for Anchorage Commuter Rail, the Chugach Service that it was going to be used for, replacing the Budds on the Hurricane, and maybe even filling in for loco-hauled stock on the winter Aurora service.

I wonder if TriRail in Miami will keep their’s.

Comment by Brian Bundridge
2008-12-29 19:36:25

EGR: The RDC’s have already been pulled out of service and posted up for sale. They are enroute to Seattle then to Canada from what I last heard.

The ARR vehicle isn’t “complete” but the paint and such has been completed from the pictures. I think the incomplete part is the unfinished interior.

I would think that TriRail will keep theirs, they should be receiving the last one in a few days if things work out.

Comment by anonymouse
2008-12-30 05:34:44

The FRA safety standards were basically pulled out of someone’s rear in the 20s or so, and derive from the need to keep cars from breaking when they have a “hard coupling” in a hump yard. The passenger safety standards were really developed for the safety of postal workers in mail cars. Anyway, to some extent there really are good reasons why the US has different standards (in various respects) from the EU: the US runs much longer and heavier freight trains over much longer distances and much more sparsely populated territory. At the same time, there are some really bad reasons: for example, US trains have to go slower around curves because of a single test done in the 30s on a car with a soft suspension resulted in some spilled coffee.

Comment by Chris Stefan
2009-01-02 14:11:42

I’d love to see North America (from what I understand the Canadian and Mexican rules are very similar to the FRA ones) adopt sensible performance based standards. However I don’t see that happening any time soon. The best bet at the moment other than FRA compliant vehicles is to adopt ATCS/PTC for everything running on a given line. I believe the NJT River Line using the Stadler vehicles is able to do semi-mixed operation (rather than a strict time separation) due to ATCS.

The big question is if vehicles like the Stadler cars would be allowed by the FRA in mixed operation on a busy mainline even if every train has ATCS/PTC and the line signaling has been upgraded to take advantage of it.

Comment by Colorado Railfan
2009-01-05 18:48:07

As a Coloradan, I feel sorry to see such an inovative company dissapear from our area. In fact, my uncle who works for CRM, got laid off in December, and he’s not the only one. Also, it is wrong of the Denver transit agency, RTD, to not pucrchase the locally-made DMU. Considering the economy, it was a bad move. Unfortunantly, just one DMU costs one million dollars, and that doesn’t include shipping and handling. However, RTD would have bought them if they were electric. But last, people should have been buying these for their cities years ago.

Comment by CRM employee
2009-02-10 07:54:50

As a former employee of CRM, I can tell you this company had many problems. The product we produced was of good quality and serviced a unique market, but unfortunately, the company was severely undercapitalized and with the recent downturn of the economy, several municipalities that had pending orders with CRM placed them on hold, thus, the company was doomed. Other problems were poor organizational structure and a dyfunctional engineering department. There was a incredible amount of time lost in regard to awaiting a resolution to simple problems from the engineering department as well as workers waisting time walking long distances from their stations to the railcars just to perform a simply task. In essence, this was not a modern factory by any stretch. This all added up to cost overruns and time delays on orders.

If the company had the proper capitol investment, they may have had a chance to right the ship, but it was not to be.

Comment by Jan van Eck
2009-02-10 10:03:24

One rather obvious solution to the conundrum of CRM is for the USDOT to simply take over the assets by eminent domain. The lender is paid for the value of the assets as determined by their declarations on the local property tax rolls. the money available from the economic stimulus act is used to make certain that we do not forfeit a domestic railcar manufacturing capability. the USDOT then issues an Order for 1,200 trainsets. Production begins apace.

Comment by Chris Stefan
2009-02-10 12:52:40

I doubt that would be done, Budd and Pullman Standard weren’t rescued by the USDOT, I hardly expect CRM to be rescued.

Far more likely at this point would be for Tri-Met to give the CRM IP they own along with a construction/maintenance contract to Oregon Iron Works.

Tri-Met is going to need a source of parts and new cars, Oregon Iron Works has shown an interest in diversifying into the rail vehicle market. Oregon Iron Works is also in a much better financial position than CRM ever was and has lots of experience in doing low-volume fabrication/manufacturing profitably.

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