Thursday, April 25, 2024

Don’t Buy American?

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“Talking Transportation”

By Jim Cameron

I’ll never be President of the United States.  Not that I would want to be… I just can’t be.  You see, I wasn’t born in this country.  I’m an immigrant.  And though I’m very proud of my Canadian roots, I’ve been a US citizen for over 45 years:  an American by choice, not chance.

While this country has always impressed me as a meritocracy, on Labor Day weekend something strikes me as odd:   why do mass transit agencies in the US do all they can to bypass the Buy America laws governing spending of Federal funds on things like new trains.  Not very patriotic, eh?

Why would they pass up millions in Federal money to procure American steel and components needed to build new rail cars?

Why is CDOT’s new $315 million contract with Alstom (a French company) to bring us 30 new rail cars seeing them built in Mexico instead of their US plant in Hormel NY?

One reason is, since the closing of the Budd Company’s railcar plant in Red Lion PA in 1987, the US has not had a large-scale domestic railcar manufacturing facility.  I toured that Budd plant in 1980 as they were finishing their last orders. Amfleet coaches (still in use), Metro-North’s original M2 cars and subway cars for Chicago.  But, as demand for new railcars dried up, so did the mighty Budd Company.

Now that many cities are in the market for new subways, trolleys and commuter trains, there are only overseas firms to turn to, such as Alstom and Siemens.  Not that they build bad cars just that they are not American.

As with the solar energy market there’s interest in Washington at re-establishing a domestic railcar industry to keep our spending on-shore, so far with mixed results.

Look no farther than the MBTA in Boston for an example of how this can go terribly wrong.  When “the T” wanted to order 284 new subway cars they saw the chance to kick-start domestic train manufacturing, albeit with a foreign partner, China’s state-owned CRRC, the world’s largest manufacturer of rolling stock.

CRRC acquired the old Westinghouse Electric factory in Springfield MA, hired 150 workers and started building in 2015.  The initial subway cars were to start delivery in 2018.

Now, five years later, only 100 of the cars in the $870 million order have been delivered and those cars are not working properly.  Some are missing parts, others breaking down in service. Doors fly open as the train in running.  Pretty serious stuff.

The MBTA says CRRC has “completely abandoned” its responsibilities because they seriously underbid the contract and realize they are losing money.  And, when the MBTA order is finished, the plant has no new orders.

The Springfield plant was described by the Boston Globe as “chaotic and dysfunctional”, moving cars down the assembly line lacking important components, just trying to keep up deliveries.  CRRC blames the pandemic and supply chain problems.  Others say it’s a clash of cultures.

The bottom line:  Buy America isn’t cause for much celebration this Labor Day ’23.

Jim Cameron is founder of the Commuter Action Group and advocates for Connecticut rail riders. His weekly column “Talking Transportation” is archived here.  You can contact Jim at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com.”

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