Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Car Builder's Closing Leaves Commuter Lines in Lurch

Colorado Railcar Manufacturing has closed its doors due to a liquidity crisis, but the biggest loser may by Tri-Met, the Portland, OR, transit agency, and its planned Westside Express commuter rail line, which is scheduled to open in February.

The Portland Oregonian reports that over the past year Tri-Met had supported Colorado Railcar to the tune of $5 million in public money. Tri-Met planned to use DMU (diesel multiple unit) vehicles to operate the new service, which will run from Beaverton to Wilsonville.

"They've got everything they need to operate," said Larry Salci, the former president of Colorado Railcar. His company and Tri-Met were engaged in messy litigation over the contract to build the railcars.
"The agency in October tried to cash in a letter of credit put up by investors to guarantee delivery of the railcars. The investors obtained a federal court injunction blocking the payoff, contending the cars had been delivered and that TriMet had defrauded them.

TriMet denies the claims, and Tuesday pressed again to have the investors' case dismissed.

The commuter railcars were finished only after TrIMet seized control of the private company earlier this year. Agency officials said they took the unprecedented action after discovering that contract payments meant for TriMet's cars had been diverted. Suppliers had stopped delivering parts, and the company had run out of cash.

TriMet officials said they had no choice but to fund the company's operations long enough to finish the four railcars."
Colorado Railcar had had a spotty history marked by the failure to complete a $70 million luxury train intended to be used for promotional purposes by the Philip Morris tobacco company. When Tri-Met entered into its contract with Colorado Railcar, agency officials were aware of the company's financial difficulties. However, Tri-Met board members say they were kept in the dark.

So why did Tri-Met continue with the contract knowing of Colorado Railcar's problems? A Tri-Met spokesman said it had no choice: no other vehicle on the market could meet federal regulatory requirements.

Colorado Railcar began operations in as Rader Railcar, named for founder Tom Rader. Initially it concentrated on building luxury dome cars, converted from bilevel commuter coaches, for rail tour operators. Its cars were deployed by American Orient Express, Holland America, Princess Tours, Alaska Railroad, Royal Caribbean and Rocky Mountaineer Railtours.

It's DMU vehicles, offered in single-level and bilevel versions, were intended as niche offering for start-up commuter rail lines that could not justify the investment in longer trains hauled by locomotives. Tri-Rail has been operating the bilevel version in regular service between Miami and West Palm Beach since 2006. Tri-Met has four of the single-level cars.

In June, the state of Vermont canceled plans to purchase five of the single-level DMUs. Vermont planned to put the cars into on its state-funded Vermonter train. The Vermonter currently runs from St. Albans, VT, to Washington, but with the new equipment it would have run only to New Haven, where passengers would change for service to New York, Washington and Boston.

I am not in a position to comment on the legal woes of Tri-Met and Colorado Railcar nor do I know enough about their DMU product. Nevertheless the timing of their closing seems in opportune, in light of the prospects for increased support for rail under an Obama administration. Other start-ups that were looking at using DMUs may have to look elsewhere for rolling stock. However, DMUs are in use on other lines, notably the Sprinter, which runs from Oceanside to Escondido, CA, and NJ Transit's River Line, which operates between Trenton and Camden.

Brian Bundridge has more on the impact Colorado Railcar's departure from the market will have on transit agencies on the Seattle Transit Blog.

1 comment:

  1. The intricacies of letters of credit do not cease to amaze me. That's why I set up Letter of Credit Forum where smarter people than I am answer any questions one might have.

    Investors claiming "fraud" ? The independence principle of letters of credit (as eg stipulated for in Article 4 of the UCP 600) clearly states that the payment obligation and the underlying contract are independent of each other.
    Let's hope for an update on the facts...