The past year was a monumental one for rail transportation in the United States. The Federal Government displayed an unprecedented level of support for the development of our nation’s rail transportation systems. The most celebrated example of this support was the allocation of $8 billion in stimulus money to advance a new vision for high speed and intercity rail in America. But what does it mean as we move into 2010?
In one word — focus. Federal support will spur the rail transportation industry to focus on how and where the investment of stimulus funding will yield the greatest returns. Projects must be carefully evaluated to ensure that funding awards are not spread too thinly, which could result in poor returns on investment.
The funding will create both immediate and long-term effects that will go a long way toward bringing the United States up to speed with technologies used in transit systems around the world.
In the short term, transit agencies will push project schedules to take advantage of stimulus funding. These projects include upgrades, extensions and new starts. Much of the stimulus funding is aimed at upgrading transit systems’ existing equipment to newer technologies that improve safety and efficiency and allow trains to travel at higher speeds using current infrastructure.
Maintenance staffs will be stretched over more track as transit systems add extensions. This will require technology upgrades, such as remote monitoring, to assist staffs and ensure that systems run at optimum efficiency and safety levels.
The demands of large projects, such as new starts, may require the use of complete transportation solutions providers, or system integrators, as we move into 2010. These providers supply complete solutions, including the design, build, operation and maintenance of systems. Increased momentum behind the High-Speed Rail Initiative in the United States will serve as a catalyst for the trend toward complete transportation solutions.
Transportation solutions providers will also be tasked with the development of a plan to link new high speed rail systems to existing mass transit infrastructure to allow travelers to connect seamlessly between systems and easily reach their final destinations.
Although high speed rail is a long-term initiative that includes the Federal Railroad Administration awarding the initial grants, the completion of environmental impact studies and a lengthy bidding process, the award of the first high speed rail contract in the United States will mark the beginning of a new era in our nation’s mass transit systems.
However, the existing stimulus funding for high speed rail will not go far unless it is backed by continued federal support. Public private partnerships must supplement federal support, which will create significant investment opportunities moving forward.
One specific area that requires investment is the development of U.S. standards for rail systems that allow travel at speeds over 150 miles per hour. Suppliers must tackle this challenge and create new technologies that support the new standards as well as existing mandated positive train control standards. A possible stepping stone to address this challenge involves adapting existing ERTMS (European Railway Traffic Management System) standards to meet the US market’s needs. Regardless of which technical standard is ultimately adopted, the technical challenge alone will present new opportunities for engineering resources to enter the transportation industry.
The stimulus funding creates opportunity across the industry, however with so much going on, it is important to stay focused and on track. This is America’s chance to level the global mass transit playing field and establish ourselves as a country with an innovative outlook and a bright future in transit.
Raymond C. Tasch is vice president business development and sales for Ansaldo STS USA. He provides strong leadership and strategic vision gained through more than 30 years experience in various industries. Tasch received his BA in accounting from Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., and his MBA in finance/business administration from Keller Graduate School of Management in Chicago, Ill.