In October of 2014 we alerted Supply Chain Matters readers to a noteworthy milestone development, namely Chinese designed and branded railway cars appearing in a U.S. subway system. Since that time, much as occurred, and this week, there is yet another development, one that perhaps has implications for the upcoming administration of President- Elect Donald Trump.

The headline back in 2014 was that the State of Massachusetts Department of Transportation selected China’s state-owned CNR Corp. for the replacement and delivery of 284 modern subway cars for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), also locally known as the “T’.

This was the first Chinese manufacturer to win a U.S. based major transit system equipment replacement contract. The further significance was twofold. First, the awarded contract cost, namely $566 million, was a rather affordable sum for this amount of modern rail equipment, far underbidding other railcar manufacturers. According to local news reports, CNR aggressively courted the Massachusetts transit system to gain a foothold in the U.S. rail equipment market. A further significance was that the contract called for the railcars to be assembled at a new final assembly manufacturing facility at a former closed Westinghouse factory site located in Springfield, a central city in Massachusetts. Assembly operations would therefore be U.S. based, with the expectation that other U.S. equipment supply contracts could follow. Major components however, would be produced in China and transported to the U.S. for final assembly of railcars.

Since that time, there have been other developments.

China’s government facilitated the merger of China’s two major state-owned rail manufacturers which included CNR. The combined China Railroad Rolling Stock Corp. then created a local U.S. subsidiary to administer contract delivery needs involving the U.S. including the MBTA contract.

The state-owned China U.S. subsidiary has since landed a major equipment replacement deal with the Chicago Transit Authority, described as a monumental overhaul of the transit authority rail car equipment, amounting to a $1.3 billion contract to replace 846 rail cars, about half of the existing subway car fleet — the biggest car purchase in that agency’s history. The described new generation of railcars also called for localized final assembly to be performed at a new final assembly manufacturing facility to be located on the Southeast Side of Chicago. This assembly facility is expected to be in operation for a total of 10 years with railcar prototypes coming out in 2019, and initial cars being delivered into operational service  in 2020. The CSR Sifang America bid came in $226 million lower than that of Bombardier Railcar Equipment, the most recent manufacturer of Chicago’s railcar fleet. Since that time, competing bidder Bombardier filed a protest with the agency, saying that the bidding process was rigged in favor of a Chinese firm that promised to bring manufacturing jobs to Chicago.

This week, the Massachusetts based MBTA control board voted to authorize as much as $277 million to acquire an additional 134 Red Line railcars as an extension of the existing contract with the China based railcar producer. This amended change to the existing contract bypassed standard bidding procedures because the agency indicated that it was seeking to standardize its entire network-wide fleet of both Orange and Red Line cars. The MBTA considered rebuilding the 184 existing Red Line cars not scheduled to be replaced in the initial contract, but a financial analysis had indicated that brand new cars would cost as much as $310,000 less than overhauling the existing ones. The added Red Line cars are expected to replace the entire existing fleet by the end of 2023.

Specifics of the amended agreement were reportedly revealed publicly for the first time on Monday of this week.  Board members were asked to approve the deal that same day, to supposedly avoid a price increase and to secure local manufacturing capacity.

Supply Chain Matters brought initial attention to China’s state-owned railway efforts to make a more sustained equipment presence within the U.S. because it included both global and domestic supply chain implications.  The plans calling for many of the major train components to be produced in China and shipped to the U.S. for final assembly within local U.S. final facilities insured some local jobs, which was an obvious big deal for local governments. That theme has more current resonance with the discourse that came out of the recently completed U.S. Presidential election. Voters opted for the candidate they perceived to have a more aggressive protectionist stance on jobs and who would take on China as a perceived currency manipulator and in the consequent outsourcing of jobs to that country.

However, from our lens, the real question will come as the new Trump administration begins to unfold its trade protectionist policies.

Current speculation is that the incoming administration will not be shy in slapping increased tariffs on Chinese parts and components imported into the United States. Some plans call for a revised tax code that would feature a form of a value-added-tax or tariff on imported goods. If that comes to fruition, then the economics related to the existing U.S. subway equipment replacement contracts could well be impacted. The question is how much and whether local final assembly turns into something quite different, or whether new subway cars can indeed be delivered at such attractive pricing.

This is an area worthy of observation over the coming months. On the one hand, U.S. taxpayers are saving money and supposedly gaining use of very modern, technology-laden passenger railcars for urban transportation needs. They also gain some local manufacturing jobs.

On the other hand, China’s existing lower direct labor costs, overcapacity situation in steel production, and needs to insure continuous employment among state-owned manufacturers make the landed cost more attractive for local transportation agencies. It is a delicate balance that may well be subject to change, especially if the expected costs of landed components increase substantially.

Stay tuned.

Bob Ferrari

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