Transportation experts agree that their industry is being disrupted and transformed.
So, are we entering an era of more congestion and gridlock? Or will new technologies and new transportation modes make it cheap, easy and fast to get where you want to go?
One Utah company is betting that an exciting new age of mobility is rapidly coming. And they intend to be in the center of it.
Most Utahns probably don’t know that the world’s 4th largest manufacturer of passenger trains has located its U.S. headquarters and manufacturing facility in Salt Lake City.
Stadler US, Inc., is one of Utah’s best-kept secrets. It’s soon going to be well-known, however, because the Swiss firm is moving into a new 250,000 square-foot manufacturing facility near the airport in Salt Lake City’s Northwest Quadrant. It is growing rapidly, and expects to employ some 1,000 skilled workers within a decade. After getting settled, Stadler will hold an open house at the new facility.
Stadler, with 8,860 employees, has offices and facilities in Switzerland, Poland, Algeria, Germany, Belarus, Spain, Hungary, the Czech Republic – and Salt Lake City. In Utah, it is making trains for public transit systems in California and Texas and has more big orders in the pipeline.
In the coming era of autonomous and connected vehicles, Uber, Lyft, electric scooters and bikes, and even flying drone taxis, some transportation watchers have questioned the future of public transit. Stadler US President & CEO Martin Ritter is having none of that.
Ritter is confident that all the innovations in transportation will make public transit more important than ever, with new mobility modes helping solve the “first mile/last mile” problem — getting to and from a transit station.
Mike Allegra, former CEO of Utah Transit Authority and now an executive advisor to Stadler, points out that a four-car passenger train can move 800 people all at once, taking hundreds of vehicles off the highways. A highway lane can carry 2,000 vehicles an hour, but a train can carry 10,000 passengers per hour. “With population growth and more mobility and cars on the roads, including autonomous vehicles, we must have robust public transit or the transportation system will collapse,” said Allegra.
The marketplace is bearing out that assertion. Stadler US expects business to quadruple over the next several years. Orders are coming in from all over the United States. Allegra said some $300 billion in
Is transit funding has been authorized around the country, mostly by local referendum.
“Communities want rail transit, and they’re willing to pay,” he said. Transit is being expanded all across the country, and big systems in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and the District of Columbia, are overloaded and need major upgrading.
I recently visited Stadler’s manufacturing facility in the Warm Springs area of Salt Lake City, where the firm leases space in an unused part of a former Union Pacific locomotive shop.
Some 150 skilled employees are working there now, building rail cars for CalTrain and TexRail (a $100 million contract). Train parts come from suppliers mostly in the United States, and a big challenge is the logistics of ordering thousands of parts and getting them delivered on-time, so the assembly process proceeds on schedule.
I was struck at the precision required in the labor-intensive assembly process. It’s nothing like an automobile assembly line that produces thousands of the same vehicle. Ritter said each train order is unique, so rail cars must be customized. A fully automated, robotized assembly line process doesn’t work for passenger rail cars.
Stadler is producing trains that are lighter, faster, use dramatically less fuel, and are much cleaner than older trains. And you won’t find a locomotive on a Stadler train. Instead, Stadler installs an innovative “power pack” car right in the middle of the train. The power pack has the flexibility to use any form of energy to power the train – and power components can be swapped in and out, depending on the need.
The train can be powered by electrical batteries, overhead electricity, hydrogen fuel cells, diesel engines, or a hybrid system. These trains are clean and fuel-efficient. Even the diesel engines are the latest “clean diesel” that are efficient and produce dramatically fewer emissions – nothing like the gigantic locomotive diesel engines that we’re used to.
Allegra pointed out that the old locomotives, like those currently used on FrontRunner trains, were built to haul freight. The new power systems are dramatically lighter and more flexible, reducing emissions and tripling fuel economy.
In Europe, about 90 percent of trains being ordered are electric. The United States hasn’t yet reached that level, but the Stadler “power packs” can easily be retrofitted for electrification.
So how did Stadler end up coming to Utah? That’s an interesting story. It started when Utah officials took a trip to Europe and Switzerland to look at rail systems, best practices, and mountain transportation. (Stadler actually got its start years ago building specialized mountain trains.) Europe is far more advanced than the United States in passenger rail transportation.
The Utah delegation visited Stadler and developed a relationship with Peter Spuhler, owner and executive chairman of Stadler. The firm had been discussing putting an office and manufacturing facility in the United States and, in 2016, decided to look for the best location. Utah leaders told Spuhler he should consider Utah, and they notified Utah economic development officials that Stadler was looking.
“Utah was sort of the end of the world for someone from Switzerland,” said Ritter. But while investigating California, Texas, Georgia and other locations, Stadler also looked seriously at Utah. “We already knew the Utah people because they had come to Europe to learn about our trains,” said Ritter. “We also wanted to lease a facility for a period of time while we built our own manufacturing plant.”
It turned out that Utah Transit Authority had available space for lease in its Warms Springs maintenance facility. Stadler needed a lot of space, crane pits, and direct access to rail services. Its new trains obviously have to be delivered to California and Texas on railroad tracks.
“Utah was very convincing,” said Ritter. “State leaders and economic development officials were very well organized and made a great pitch about Utah’s benefits. Utah was small enough to be really prepared and focus on us and our needs.”
Ritter said the West Coast is a big market for Stadler trains, and “Utah is the first state east of the West Coast with a strong enough economy and great workforce to make it work for us. Utah also provides great access to markets in the east and all across the country.”
Utah had to recompete to win Stadler’s permanent 250,000 square-foot manufacturing facility. The company again looked at other states to build the permanent plant, with its 2/3-mile electrified test track.
Stadler is now starting to move into the new facility, and by the end of the year will be out of the Warm Springs shop. A celebratory open house will be held in the first quarter of next year.
Ritter said Stadler expects the U.S. passenger train market to quadruple over the next several years. Another 100 to 150 employees will be hired and trained in the next year, and 350 more in the next few years. Employment is projected to reach 1,000 within 10 years.
Stadler considers itself ready for the coming transformation in transportation. It expects to see the electrification of all transportation modes. It expects to see autonomous vehicles, more ride-sharing, “mobility-on-demand,” and eventually an integrated transportation system with a variety of choices for travelers.
Stadler expects that eventually all transportation vehicles will be connected via sensors and GPS so that a mobile app can be developed integrating schedules, prices, locations, etc. Just punch in where you want to go and the app will tell you to grab an electric scooter here, or an Uber, which will take you to a bus or TRAX station, and then take an electric bike at the other end to get to your final destination.
Using a billion points of data, including traffic congestion information, the app will tell you the fastest way to get from here to there – bus, train, bike, scooter, Uber. It will look at all the schedules, and where vehicles are in real time, schedule your rides and trip, and you will pay for it all with a touch of your finger.
The integration of all transportation modes will be a game-changer for mobility. Stadler expects that its trains will be the biggest people-movers of all.