Alstom’s Montreal Milestone – The Age of the Railway
Alstom recently completed the delivery of a large order of rapid transit railcars for the Société de Transport de Montréal (STM), which, like the RATP in Paris and the Sistema de Transporte Colectivo (STC) in Mexico City, uses vehicles on tires. The 639 MPM-10 cars, configured in carsets of nine and christened “AZUR” (“Sky Blue”) by the public in 2012, were ordered from Bombardier and completed by Alstom. They entered service in 2016 and completely replaced the original MR-63 model. They feature an open walkway design similar to the Toronto Transit Commission’s Rocket cars, also built by Bombardier.
An unusual feature of the MPM-10 is its wooden brake shoes, used in conjunction with electromagnetic brakes. The shoes, or “blocks”, are made of yellow birch injected with peanut oil. Two sets are applied against the treads of the inner steel wheels of the vehicle for friction braking. Hard braking produces a characteristic smell of burnt popcorn. “A good braking system helps to avoid premature wheel wear and to achieve squeal-free braking,” Alstom explained to The age of the railroad. “Wood can meet these requirements. Unlike a composite shoe, a wooden shoe does not produce wheel wear. Peanut oil best tolerates the high temperatures seen during braking. This is the reason why a smell of wood and peanuts is released when a train has to stop suddenly.
The age of the railway spoke with Michael Keroullé, President of Alstom Americas, about the finalization of the STM order and the integration of Bombardier by Alstom.
AR: The MPM-10 cars represent a major achievement of Alstom?
Michel Keroulle: It’s a program that makes a lot of sense to us, because it was actually cooperative from the start between Alstom (40%) and Bombardier (60%), a consortium. It remained a cooperation between Alstom and Bombardier until we brought these two companies together. It is therefore more than 10 years of good cooperation, including one with very particular technological specificities around metros on tires. Bombardier’s strengths, being the local party, have helped Alstom position itself here in Quebec. We built a plant for the program in Sorel-Tracy. Alstom produced the bogie, which was actually an evolution of the Paris metro. Bombardier did the final assembly of the cars at La Pocatière, which is the plant closest to Quebec. Customer feedback here in Montreal has been very positive. They are satisfied with the level of comfort in the cars. They also added eco-friendly technologies, like wooden brake pads. It really is a beautiful train. The open walkway gives a feeling of freedom of movement, and riders can find space. There is a large walkway where you can walk around freely.
AR: The La Pocatière plant has been around for a very long time.
Michel Keroulle: Yes. It’s a very old factory that was built, I think, in the early 1900s. It’s over 100 years old. It was Bombardier’s largest plant, and we are modernizing it. We have launched a major automation program to upgrade it and improve its competitiveness in the market. So we’re basically rejuvenating this factory, and we see that as a good base for several types of production. Currently, we manufacture body shells for New Jersey Transit there. Going forward, we see this plant as a hub plant for us, a footprint for us, in the region. Obviously, with Buy America, there are fewer opportunities to use factories in Quebec to supply the American market. But there is a lot of potential for the Canadian market, where we can take advantage of this plant.
AR: And Alstom has several facilities in the province of Ontario.
Michel Keroulle: Currently we have three plants, Thunder Bay, Brampton and Kingston. Kingston is where we have our test track, where we build VLRs. In Brampton, we also build VLRs for programs in Ontario. At the moment, all these factories are quite busy. Thunder Bay is where we do LRVs for Toronto and bi-level overhauls for GO Transit.
AR: Ontario is such a huge market for public transit with all the lines that are under construction or planned – Eglinton Crosstown, Hurontario, replacing Scarborough Rapid Transit with an extension of the TTC subway, the proposed TTC Ontario Line.
Michel Keroulle: There is a lot of potential and a lot of work for us. Ontario is an important territory for us. It is a very important province for us industrially, but also in terms of customers. Metrolinx is one of our biggest, very important customers. And Quebec still has several important projects. We are in the process of transferring production from Sorel-Tracy to La Pocatiere, now that the MPM-10 program is complete. Some of the employees are transferring over, so it’s a good move with a lot of momentum, in terms of leveraging the strength of this new business, specifically for the region, and leveraging it. We are recruiting quite massively. We have approximately 500 positions currently open, with more to come. This will bring us to the right level of expertise for large investments in the United States, Ontario and Quebec in a few years. Our industry is heavy industry. It takes time to prepare, to ramp up. We do all of this while running a large backlog. It’s bittersweet to see a program like the STM’s come to an end, but it’s part of the life of our industry. You take the program, you finish it, you’re happy when the customer is happy, then you move on to the next one.
AR: Those 500 vacancies: what are your prospects for filling them? You’re obviously looking for qualified people, or people you can train in certain skills. There are many different trades involved.
Michel Keroulle: We really look at it in different ways. Vocational training, for example. We have actually established welding schools, both in Canada and the United States, to be able to attract, train and develop the right welding skills. Our body shells are welded, so we have to be good at it. We hire software engineers, but there’s a bit of an industry issue, in terms of competition with other software industries. Currently, the IT industry is growing very rapidly and companies are exploiting all the software skills they can find. Our industry has suffered from the poaching of our good software engineers by other IT sectors, more than we have, in fact, been able to attract. So we are trying to change that and make this sector more attractive for IT. And try to promote the good impact we have on the world.
AR: Today’s vehicles are microprocessor oriented, with a lot of software on board. Do you have problems with obtaining microchips, microprocessors, like the automotive industry?
Michel Keroulle: We are. It’s a very big challenge right now. Microchips, as you said, are all over our trains now, and they’re very hard to come by right now. This affects a number of programs. We try to mitigate that. We are in daily conversation with microchip and card vendors to mitigate any impact. This is, unfortunately, something that will take a few months to resolve.
AR: The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has produced a significant increase in funding available for public transit. What does this mean for the market, for Alstom, in the United States?
Michel Keroulle: We know that the allocation is still in progress, how these funds will be made available to agencies. We’re talking about $100 billion that will go to rail and transit. This is a big development for the industry, absolutely necessary to be able to plan for the long term. We believe this will give agencies the ability to plan, which was really lacking in the past. After talking with Amtrak and several agencies, that’s really how they see it now. They will be able to present their plans and the funding line in front of this, which gives more certainty about what can be invested and when. Our industry has always suffered from a lack of planning, not because customers didn’t want it, but because they couldn’t. I’m optimistic about the ability to start conversations with customers about how we can work better together. We are able, essentially, to plan our own investments, in terms of resources and capacity, to be able to offer solutions that will meet the needs of customers. Everything will line up better. When you look at all the money that’s going to be flowing in the next five years, will we need to build our industry’s capacity and its supply chain? It is extremely important.
AR: Do you see the nature of the contracts changing a little from a basic contract with options, depending on the availability of financing? With a more certain, longer-term flow of funding, you may see agencies, if they are able to plan their needs over five to 10 years, say, “Okay, instead of ordering X number of cars and then having options for number X in the future let’s order a bigger piece. Do you see this happening?
Michel Keroulle: Not for the moment. I hope we will get there. There is going to be competition for supply and more demand than supply capacity. So, options are always a good way to balance things out. What we really need now is good coordination between agencies and the supply chain to really understand how we are growing. The supply chain in the United States, especially when you think of Buy America, is not yet up to the challenge of meeting all the needs that will arise over the next 10 years. It requires investments, and investments need visibility. And so, it all comes down to, “How are we going to develop our suppliers, so that we can deliver what our customers need?” I am very optimistic about this element.
AR: No matter who you are or what industry you work in, I think we all need a healthy dose of optimism after the struggles of the past two years in the face of this terrible pandemic.
Michel Keroulle: In conversations with many agencies, I find them to be very open to new ways of operating and thinking, because they’ve been constrained in the past, and they’ve passed that constraint on to the industry, to some degree. It’s really about how we reinvent how we operate, aligning needs with capacity.