HARTFORD – Connecticut’s announcement earlier this month that it is buying 60 new rail cars expected to arrive in 2026 touted spacious two-by-two seats, foldable tables, reliable Wi-Fi, and charging ports.
The new rail cars for the Hartford Line and New Haven Line branches, if you ask the Connecticut Department of Transportation, are delivering the amenities that customers want.
But if you ask Alon Levy what stood out about the deal, it was the price tag: $315 million for 60 un-powered coach cars built by Alstom. The well-known transit writer and author of the blog Pedestrian Observations has been a frequent critic of American approaches to rail investment.
At a cost of $5.25 million per 25-meter car, the un-powered coaches are about twice the cost of electric powered cars in Europe, said Levy.
Alstom, Levy points out, sells a powered model called Coradia Stream at a fraction of the price.
In December, Alstom announced that it was selling 49 trains to Spain for $400 million for the Renfe rail system. At a cost of $86,900 per meter, the price tag is dwarfed by the $210,000 per meter the company is charging for Connecticut’s cars.
Other Alstom sales in Europe are slightly more expensive than the trains headed to Spain, Levy acknowledges, but are still about half the price Connecticut is paying.
Asked by CT Examiner to respond to six specific questions based on Levy’s analysis, CTDOT instead provided a general written statement and did not address the concerns.
CTDOT Spokesman Josh Morgan said in the statement that the purchase from Alstom followed the state’s standard procurement process, and that Alstom’s bid was selected as the best fit based on price and delivery schedule.
“It’s important to remember that there are economies of scale when purchasing rail cars, so a per car cost will be different at 50 cars compared to 500,” Morgan said. “Costs are also likely higher today due to significant inflation which continues impacting transportation sector projects.”
Morgan said the cars also took into account recommendations from a customer advisory panel, and were custom-built for the Hartford Line and New Haven branches.
Levy, who started following and comparing the costs of trains and rail projects in 2009, said that in the past 10 years, New York and Connecticut have started paying a premium price for rail cars compared to European buyers.
Part of the problem, according Levy, is that restrictions in the U.S. for buying trains have become more onerous. But in the case of Connecticut’s recent purchase, the cars were not subject to a “Buy America” requirement because they were not purchased with federal grant money. The coaches will be manufactured in Mexico.
But federal safety requirements, particularly for the weight of cars, mean that U.S. transit agencies can’t buy the cheaper models the companies, including Alstom, make for the European market, Levy explained.
Levy likened the problem to a large company buying a large amount of company phones, and preferring an out of date model – a 2011 BlackBerry instead of the latest iPhone.
An individual customer could probably find that old BlackBerry for cheap, said Levy. But if a corporation went to BlackBerry and asked them to outfit the company with old technology, it would be much more expensive because the company would have to start producing something that it hadn’t made in over a decade.
“It’s not double the price for better quality, it’s double for your nostalgia for a flip phone,” said Levy.
The way most manufacturers work now is they have a standard, modular stock that they produce that can be altered to fit the specs of whoever is buying them. But the problem with American train car purchasing, including MTA and Connecticut, is that they don’t buy the standard stock. Instead they buy what is effectively a more expensive bespoke model designed for Paris transit, and then made more expensive as it’s modified to make the front and back cars heavier to withstand more force, Levy said.
“American trains are considerably heavier than European counterparts,” Levy said. “This leads to worse performance. If you want equivalent performance, you need bigger motors that take more space and cost more money.”
Years ago, the federal government realized something was wrong with the way the U.S. procures rail cars, and the regulations were changed in 2018 to allow U.S. transit agencies to essentially buy those standard European trains with “trivial” modifications like a different window glaze, Levy said.
“Nobody in the United States has taken advantage of the new rules,” Levy said.
Asked by CT Examiner whether Connecticut had applied for or considered such a waiver, CTDOT did not respond. Instead, the department’s spokesperson replied that passenger rail in the U.S. has high standards for safety, and that Connecticut ensured the cars “meet and exceed Federal Railroad Administration standards,” and could operate on a system with other operators, including Amtrak, Metro-North and freight carriers.
“We’re excited to bring these new rail cars into service beginning in 2026 as we continue to enhance the customer experience and improve public transportation in Connecticut,” Morgan said.
But according to Levy, the cars purchased by Connecticut are substandard for another reason – they are coaches rather than self-propelled cars. The rail cars sold to Europe, Levy pointed out, are self-propelled and should be more expensive.
In Europe, most powered cars are electric, and Connecticut is buying coaches for the Hartford Line, which isn’t electrified. But Levy said that the state still could have ordered diesel-powered cars, which would have been cheaper and more efficient until they electrify the line.
“It’s supposed to be easier to build an unpowered coach than an [electric multiple unit], but the price actually increased,” Levy said.
The changes needed to run on New York and Connecticut tracks are well within the range of what manufacturers can do with their standard modular cars, Levy to CT Examiner.
Buying coaches is uncommon globally, said Levy. The heavier trains are slower to accelerate, they said, and harder to timetable, causing even more slowdowns.
But the solution, according to Levy, is as simple as taking advantage of the waiver that has been offered by the federal government since 2018 to buy standard, cheaper and efficient cars like the ones made for European markets.Then the state only needs to specify the required specs and the manufacturers can modify their cars to fit.
“I don’t think they understand, because they think of it as public procurement and they’re used to the costs of other things always going up,” Levy said.