Major countries investing in railway systems, such as Japan, France, China and Germany, employ a minimum of 500,000 people to manufacture parts for trains each year. In 2010, there were approximately 249 manufacturers in the U.S., mainly small companies with fewer than 20 employees, dedicated to manufacturing parts for trains. Hexcel Corporation, Nida Core and Fiberline are a few of the large companies involved in composite train manufacturing. “One industry fallacy is that U.S. manufacturers don’t have the technology to manufacture train components. The technology is here and I’m certain composites could play a huge role in today’s ultimate rail technology,” says Busel.
The California HSR project and a new HSR line connecting Albany to Schenectady in New York may start as early as this spring. Kunz believes that a HSR network connecting the entire U.S. could be implemented as early as 2030 if projects were given support. “There are a number of independent factors that are pushing for HSR to happen, including the mobility crisis in America, especially in the north east corridor, and rising gas prices. We feel that support for HSR is getting close to the tipping point,” says Kunz. The antiquated U.S. railway may be the perfect potential market for adapting lighter rail components—and according to internationally renowned train designer Cesar Vergara in New York City—the new trains should use more composite parts than previous heavy train designs.
“I expect that the North American market will see a resurgence of light rail and street rail cars instead of heavy rail,” says Vergara. Globally the market for light rail is anticipated to reach $7.5 billion by 2015; there are 30 light rail systems in North America today. In 2007, over 50 percent of U.S. rail vehicles were dedicated to metropolitan light rail. According to Vergara, the light cars are more popular because they generate jobs locally and enable people to go to work and school on fast public transportation. “A lot of the talk is centered on high speed rail, which is an exciting prospect. In reality, the majority of current sales are in commuter, light rail and now an increasing number of streetcars. Subsystem vendors like Kustom Seating Unlimited in Bellwood, Ill., enjoy high demand given that more small and medium size projects are funded and get built.”
HSR: Sitting on the tracks
The HSR market is as fast and complicated as the scenes from a train window. At this stage, the impact a HSR system would have on the composites industry depends on the number of projects implemented, the amount of federal support, the project managers, engineers and other governing bodies managing the projects. “We’re not at a state to push for the use of specific materials to build train components, but we’re getting there. Right now we need to push people to stand up in government for high-speed rail,” says Kunz.