“It costs money for us and time and many times the engineering costs were not ... well the costs probably were not worth what we were doing, but we had made a conscientious effort to not just make the changes, but we wanted to make sure the customer was satisfied on the other side. We felt like we had an obligation to our company so it was done right. So just try to understand how many times in almost every bid somebody wanted something different.”
While agencies are still looking for specific customization for their needs, Gilliam says that he feels the transit industry is embracing standards more, but not always.
“We have the manufacturers coming back to us as individuals saying, hey this specification here, to really get my bus you need to have this widget in there. And so some of that occurs,” Gilliam says.
“I mean its reality, but that salesperson is doing their job. Now from the users’ standpoint, shame on us.”
Gilliam says he understands getting the bus you want, but making changes like this runs up not only bus costs, but also increases your inventory and employee training time.
“So we have a responsibility to make sure that as we are looking at these things that we take those things into consideration and make sure that we don’t buy a vehicle that does not meet our needs.
“But I think that sometimes we are guilty, not always, but sometimes we let some things slip through the crack and don’t realize it until it’s too late.
“Now it’s not ... not to say it’s a manufacturer’s fault as much as it’s the system’s fault for not doing their due diligence.”
So could an agency ever purchase an ‘off-the-rack’ bus? According to Gilliam, in a word — maybe.
“Is it feasible? Yes. Are they doing it that way? No,” Gilliam says.
“I personally don’t have one problem with having a one-page sheet that said what our performance criteria would be and allowing the manufacturer to choose whatever they think, with the understanding that they’ve got to support it.
“And I believe that’s where we need to get to.”
Gilliam says that the agencies aren’t without blame when it comes to the process, however. “We’re choosing engines, we’re choosing the transmission, we’re choosing the differential. Many times we’re choosing the windshield wiper motor. We’re choosing the seats. We’re choosing the destination signs and we can just go on and on.”
But how about the rail side of procurement? Is there as much variation being put into the vehicles on that side?
“I think there’s probably more standardization in the rail side than there [is] on the bus side,” Gilliam says. “But understand that the rail vehicles are primarily influenced more by outside the United States.
“The vehicles we bought were from Switzerland, European design, made in Japan. There is a lot of standardization from that standpoint.
“The manufacturer that we dealt with so far, they have a sort of a standard design, so there are certain things that you can get improvements on. We were able to get stanchions and bicycle racks that we wanted; those kinds of things. And doors the way we wanted them because they had different designs that you could use that were built particular to the car.
“It’s been a challenge from … it’s probably … scope creep has been probably as high as any project I’ve ever been involved in,” Gilliam says.
“Just trying to keep it down because every person we brought in knew … had a different opinion about what we should be doing and wanted more widgets, which in turn creates a budget creep. So to manage that has been a challenge because then that in turn, each time you start changing or whatever also has an effect on the timing.”
For a public transit agency with a rail component to have to share the tracks with freight rail vehicles, it isn’t uncommon. There are agencies that contract out their commuter rail service to those same freight agencies. But for a public transit agency to run a freight line of its own is a little different. Capital Metro has been running its own freight line — another contracted service, this time to Veolia Transportation — since 1998.
Up until recently the track hasn’t been profitable. And up until recently it hasn’t had commuter rail on it. But that is all about to change as Capital Metro is starting up a commuter rail service through downtown Austin. So who makes the final call on when the two services are on the tracks?