Transit Evolution

Whether it’s snowmobiles, airplanes or locomotives, Bombardier is a testament to how a company can change over time. Even in this down economy, with its aerospace division underperforming, Bombardier’s transportation division has stepped up to the plate and shown its mettle. Recently the transit heavyweight signed a $1.2 billion deal with the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) to supply more than 200 light rail vehicles.

But despite having its rail products in transit systems worldwide, Bombardier sees its future not just in supplying agencies with rolling stock, but in servicing those products and soon operating them as well. I had a chance to speak with Mike Hardt, Bombardier’s vice president, services, about the company, its new service initiatives, what the future holds for it and what it has to teach agencies.

Lifecycle Services
Hardt has been with Bombardier twice, returning to the company in 1997 after a previous stint to help start up its new services division. In the last 12 years this division has gone from a startup to 20 contracts with 17 customers in 16 locations.

Hardt says services sprouted from Bombardier’s manufacturing division and a cradle-to-grave or lifecycle concept. “If we built the vehicle, could we operate the vehicle? Could we maintain the vehicle? Could we provide parts for the vehicle? Could we overhaul that vehicle when the time came? Could we provide other technology solutions?”

From this concept, Bombardier’s services division evolved. As Hardt explained to me, the company now offers a variety of services beyond just rolling stock creation, including parts supplies, maintenance, signaling, infrastructure and its most recent endeavor, operations. Starting in June, Bombardier will take over operations on five of the six GO Transit rail lines.

I asked Hardt if this was the beginning of a design, build, operate, maintain (DBOM) operation from Bombardier and he told me the value was in bundling work. “Train operation along with train maintenance along with parts supply agreements, they fit nicely together. Along with the technologies we have for training, globalizing the supply network and all of those things,” Hardt says.

Hardt says the GO Transit operations opportunity is basically an extension of this idea and the relationship the company built with GO through the last three decades supplying equipment and a dozen years providing parts.

Hardt says this opportunity has allowed them to expand the knowledge base for their employees, greatly expanding their capabilities. Case in point will be the train engineers who Hardt says are now being given some maintenance training.

“We are training them about the equipment so they don’t just drive,” Hardt says. “So if something goes wrong, can they do a reset, can they do an isolate, can they make the train get to the end stop on time?

“And when they get to return the train back to the shop, we have a better hand-off process because they’re all one family, in being able to communicate any symptoms or problems that may have occurred to allow us to better troubleshoot.”

Hardt says this training allows them to improve on-time performance and is all a part of a greater company synergy.

With a company as large as Bombardier, it isn’t unheard of to have a disconnect between the corporation and its employees, but Hardt says it’s not the case.

“Certainly in the services business, the key to success is our people,” Hardt says.

“Not just who we originally hire, but how we support them and what backing we give them in innovation, in technology, in training and all kinds of things.”

Hardt also points to the way the company has structured itself in the agencies it services. Each contract is effectively a standalone operation making its own decisions for that specific customer. Hardt says this allows them to be more agile in their decisions because they are making them right at the site level.

“The key here is in your synergy,” Hardt says.

“Those sites are well empowered to make the decisions that they need to be agile, and the more elements that you get to control — the parts flow, the operators, the maintainers, the train movement — the better that we believe that you can capitalize on the assets that the customers have.

“Our workforce at the site level [are] able to benefit from all of our global knowledge, experience and innovations that we can bring to support them and yet allow them to run as a standalone, agile, flexible business in concert with our customers.

“Keep in mind, we’re guests, we’re tenants in their properties,” Hardt says.

“We are frequently entrusted with their brand and certainly with their capital assets, so it’s important that the business gets to interface with the customer quickly there and the more holistic that we can respond the better.”

I asked Hardt if all this synergy would allow Bombardier to run a transit system and he replied without a beat, “Yeah, from stem to stern, absolutely. Yes.”

Hardt says it’s all a part of the company’s continued evolution. “As Jack Welch once said, I think an organization’s ability to learn and to translate that learning into action rapidly is the ultimate competitive advantage. With the baby boomer issue now that’s facing transit agencies, we’re so well poised to add value here.”

With the recent investments in rail in the United States by the current administration, is the “climate right for trains” as Bombardier’s recent tag line claimed? Hardt thinks so.

“I think by and large the rail industry needs to continue to evolve in order to be able to compete against roads and air, because we just can’t keep building roads as you know,” Hardt says.
“So the vehicles and the systems today I think are more competitive in many ways. They are competitive from an environmental standalone position. I think Bombardier and other companies obviously are building vehicles where not just by having transportation are you helping the environment, but the actual design in the transit vehicle supports the environment.

“So, there’s that evolution that’s taking place. There’s the evolution in cross network adaptability, in other words whether a streetcar runs with an overhead pantograph or doesn’t. Whether it runs, such as in New Jersey, locomotive in dual mode, electric and diesel. Whether there’s evolution in creature comfort. In suspension. In passsenger comfort. There’s all kinds of interior enhancements. There’s a great deal of safety evolution that takes place. Right down to one of our last Metro orders in TTC where they now have Metro trains, subway trains, which are straight walkthrough, all six cars, not just for capacity, but for safety.”

Best Practices
Hardt was dismissive about what agencies could learn from Bombardier saying with a laugh the real best practice is what they could benefit from learning from each other.

“Today I really do think that transit agencies are facing a huge issue on training people and replacing people and bringing people up to speed on complicated equipment,” Hardt says.

“Today’s equipment has far more technology in it. It’s like today’s car. Your service technician on your automobile today is far different than the service technician who worked on the carburetor and push rods of two decades ago.”

In the end, Hardt says best practices boil down to not what’s best for the supplier or the agency, but what is best for the riders.

“I don’t think it is so much what a transit agency can learn from us; I think it is what we can do together to be able to hold costs, bring costs down, move quickly and give a better product to the riding public,” Hardt says.

“I see so much innovation that we’re bringing to the equation to help do that and that’s how we got this far. We were there, we were listening and hopefully responding and together we worked out many of these solutions.

“We are learning together and together finding solutions for what tomorrow’s needs are."