TriMet steps in to keep project going as Colorado Railcar stumbles

(news photo)

RUNNING LATE — TriMet crews continue to test the Westside Express Service commuter rail cars even though the schedule to begin operations has been pushed back until February 2009.

Jaime Valdez / The Times

TriMet announced on Wednesday that the WES commuter rail will not begin operations until Feb. 2, 2009.

The Westside Express Service has been brought to a screeching delay because of a financially stressed railcar company and the need for safety testing to avoid an occurrence like the commuter rail crash in Los Angeles.

TriMet has admitted that Colorado Railcar Manufacturing LLC, the company providing the three self-propelled Diesel Multiple Units for WES, has been in financial distress since January.

Since then TriMet has stepped in and spent about $3 million over the budgeted amount for the railcars in order to ensure that the cars would be completed.

According to TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch, TriMet was going through CRM’s financial records in January when officials realized the railcar company was not paying its suppliers.

TriMet stepped in and began paying suppliers directly and then sent TriMet staff to the manufacturing plant in Fort Lupton, Colo., to ensure that the DMUs were being constructed.

The last of the three DMUs for WES were delivered in Wilsonville in September. But the DMU still needs parts – both software and hardware – before it can start undergoing safety testing, Fetsch said.

TriMet is paying for five engineers from CRM and an engineering consultant to oversee the final manufacturing of the DMU.

TriMet had budgeted $17.8 million for the DMUs – $4 million for each DMU, $3 million for a trailer to be pulled by one DMU and the cost to the cars operation with safety testing.

But according to Fetsch, estimates show that by stepping in to ensure that the cars would be completed, TriMet has spent about $3 million over budget for the DMUs.

The purchase of the railcars from CRM was based on two things: first CRM is the only U.S. firm that builds the DMUs that meet federal safety standards and second the purchase complied with the Buy America requirement. CRM is reportedly six months behind schedule and, according to Fetsch, another transportation agency – Alaska Railroad Corporation – has plans to follow TriMet’s lead in taking on supervision of the railcars to ensure a timely completion.

According to Fetsch, TriMet paid suppliers directly for railcar parts and took on overseeing the manufacturing to ensure that it would get the cars.

In July, TriMet officials said the start date for WES would be sometime in November. That came even as officials were expecting a delay in the delivery of the last two railcars from CRM. At the time, TriMet said CRM was having trouble recapitalizing after trouble with supplies that slowed the entire production process.

TriMet has also focused news of the WES delay on the need to test for safety of the new train cars and signal systems.

“TriMet stepped in to make sure we received the cars needed for service and now we are focusing on getting them fully tested and certified to ensure safe operations,” said TriMet General Manager Fred Hansen in Wednesday’s press release. “We are also working with P&W to reach a greater level of confidence in their operating these two modes safely together.”

WES was estimated to be a $117.3 million commuter rail project that has been in the making for 10 years. It will serve the cities of Beaverton, Tigard, Tualatin and Wilsonville operating on a 14.7-mile railroad track owned by Portland & Western Railroad.

TriMet purchased a state-of-the-art signal system for WES that is being fully integrated with P&W’s freight service. All 35 P&W freight locomotives that will operate in the corridor, as well as the WES vehicles, will include cab signals that are part of an overall signal system that will prevent train-to-train collisions similar to what occurred in Los Angeles in September.

According to TriMet, the new software system is being fine-tuned and staff are implementing an extensive training and testing program.

“We want to take time to ensure we have a solid system,” Fetsch said.

As word of the commuter rail delay began to trickle down to affected cities on Tuesday and Wednesday, most officials seemed understanding.

“Safety is a compelling reason to be patient,” said Beaverton Mayor Rob Drake.

Tualatin Mayor Lou Ogden reasoned that with the commuter rail being a first of its kind in Oregon, the need for more time for safety testing was something to be expected.

And in Tualatin, officials almost welcomed the news, which ultimately gives them more time to research how to handle the issue of train horn noise that could affect its neighborhoods.

Tigard mayor Craig Dirksen said that officials are disappointed by news of the delay, but added “the mayor of Wilsonville really said it best: ‘We’ve been waiting for this and anticipating this for 16 years, and a couple more months doesn’t matter that much.’”

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