Saturday, January 07, 2006

Rail Rivals Roll Past U.S. As Market Booms for New High-Speed Trains

Speaking of trains, John Tagliabue has the following:
Unless they have traveled abroad, most Americans have had little first-hand experience with high-speed trains, and the problems with the Acela service on Amtrak have left its customers with a slightly bad taste. Hence, as countries including Italy and Spain -- and emerging markets like China and Russia -- open their pocketbooks for huge high-speed railway development, the United States remains on the sidelines, vulnerable to losing out on new technologies for propulsion and vehicle control.

For those who thought railroads were basically 19th-century technology, think again. Thanks to miniaturization, newer trains have motors built into the axles of every second rail car, rather than concentrating the pulling power in the locomotive, as was done in traditional pull-push trains.

… American industry is largely sitting this one out. While some American companies, like the electro-motive division of General Motors and the MotivePower Industries division of the Wabtec Corporation, are doing brisk business with Chinese rail operators, their business is mainly freight, while the market for high-speed passenger trains is limited to a small group that has shrunk in recent years through a wave of mergers and acquisitions.

… Within Europe, the three leaders are vying to grab market share with snazzier and ever faster models.

Siemens introduced distributed power, meaning that electric motors pulling the train are distributed through the train's cars; that technology was used in trains for a high-speed line from Frankfurt to Cologne and will be used in trains on the Barcelona-Madrid connection.

Alstom will introduce similar technology on the new Paris-to-Strasbourg TGV line. …

In Europe, to be sure, the growth of the market is not without its obstacles. Some argue that the cost of high-speed rail is excessive, compared with the operation of no-frills airlines, and that it only indulges a European penchant to go first class whenever possible; others say the environmental damage is too great.… Marco Ponti, a transportation expert at Milan's Polytechnic Institute … likened [one] project to the English Channel rail tunnel, whose construction cost was almost double the original estimates. ''The Channel tunnel went bankrupt not once, but twice,'' he said.

Mr. Ponti, a former World Bank consultant, acknowledged, however, that ''there is a place for high-speed trains for medium distances and in very densely populated areas.''

Still, the governments in Rome and Paris are throwing their full weight behind high-speed rail. West of Turin, engineers are blasting a tunnel through the craggy Alps, and this fallItaly took tenders on 30 very high-speed trains and says it wants to acquire 100 in all. Its master plan foresees building high-speed lines in the shape of a T, from Milan in the north to Naples in the south, and from Turin in the west to Venice in the east.

In Asia, too, the European train builders face challenges. For one, there is competition from the fabled Shinkansen of Japan, the first high-speed train to go into service. That design was chosen by Taiwan for a 210-mile-per-hour train inaugurated last year from Taipei to the southern port of Kaoshiung. And while Asian contracts are lucrative, most countries insist on technology transfers including the assembly of most of the trains in local factories. Such requirements put pressure on the Europeans to continuously upgrade their technology or risk being overtaken by their own customers.

''The key is new technology,'' said Mr. Lacôte of Alstom. ''The Chinese market is very interesting,'' he said. ''They have the culture; they want to acquire the technology.''

Of course, not all of the Chinese acquisitions will be very high speed. Bombardier, which has a strong presence in China thanks to its Adtranz acquisition, does a brisk business in light rail and subway car construction. This year, Bombardier signed a long-range agreement to supply trains to China with cruising speeds of 120 miles per hour.

The Siemens contract for China calls for it to supply 60 trains with a cruising speed of 180 miles an hour to link Beijing to the coastal city of Tianjin.

And the United States? Despite the debacle of the Acela, European rail executives say that heavy population concentrations on the East and West Coasts and in the Midwest around Chicago make high-speed trains a natural. Mr. Moller of Siemens said, ''When the skies and the roads are full, they will turn to trains.''

Mr. Lacôte of Alstom said three conditions had to be fulfilled for a country to turn to high-speed rail: the political will, large population concentrations, and a level of economic prosperity adequate to pay for a rail system.

''In the United States you have the second two,'' he said. ''I am not sure that you have the first.''

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