VRE advances plan to buy new rail cars

January 20, 2012

A Tokyo-based multinational company should receive a more than $20 million contract for eight new Virginia Railway Express passenger cars, the railroad’s Operations Board recommended Friday.

Under the deal, a New York-based subsidiary of Sumitomo Corp. would build the cars for an amount not to exceed $23.1 million. The rail cars would replace equipment that is more than 40 years old.

VRE has already approved a plan to replace 20 of its aging cars at a price of $36 million over the next four fiscal years. The bulk of the bill would be paid through state and federal funds; VRE would pay $2.5 million.

The contract is $2 million above the maximum VRE wanted to pay. According to agency documents, the company was the sole bidder.

VRE chief executive Dale Zehner asked board members to approve the recommendation, which would deplete the agency’s capital reserve fund of $1.5 million to pay the higher price.

The contract requires the approval of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission and the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission.

Zehner said that VRE officials hoped to find a company that could handle the entire process within the United States but that there were no takers on what was considered a relatively small order. The weakness of the American dollar compared with the Japanese yen was one factor that forced the cost up, he said.

Although the cars will be built in the United States, much of the engineering work will be done in Japan, he said.

Board member Chris Zimmerman, an Arlington County supervisor, questioned the increase in price and whether VRE officials tried to “piggyback” on larger orders from others around the world.

Zehner said that VRE could not find another company that made trains to the agency’s specifications and whose timeline coincided with VRE’s desire to have the cars delivered by February 2014.

Board member Paul Milde, a Stafford County supervisor, said the cost overrun is problematic because of VRE’s looming “800-pound gorilla” in meeting increasing demand.

“Our bigger problem here is accommodating increased ridership . . . and adding capacity to the new system,” Milde said.

The railway’s average ridership was up 10 percent over December 2010 to 18,379, new statistics show.

Milde also directed Zehner to again look into having WiFi on trains, an amenity more riders have come to expect. Zehner said in a Web chat this month: “While I was optimistic for WiFi in 2011, in 2012, the priority for WiFi is dropping. During our last survey, most riders said they wouldn’t use it if it wasn’t free. Also, I am not convinced that we can provide uninterrupted service at this time.”

Zehner said Friday that he’s still not convinced. “Is it really necessary?” he asked. He said that WiFi comes with a high price tag and that more devices, such as tablets, connect by cellular phone signal. Milde said, however, that Stafford County residents often can’t connect in the more-rural area.

Zehner said he would look at options and give the board a more detailed plan in the next few months.

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