posted on 28th Dec 2022 08:47
On 14 December 2022, RegioJet received its newest TRAXX3 MS locomotives, in this case the last three, 388.216 - 218, of the present batch.
At the beginning of November 2022, Radim Jančura, the RegioJet owner, stated that he had started negotiations with CRRC about possible deliveries of new locomotives, because "We have ordered the locomotives, but we are struggling with the unsolidity of Alstom. (...) For the time being, it looks like we will order and design a new locomotive in cooperation with the Chinese manufacturer".
One can certainly understand Mr. Jančura's frustration at the delay in deliveries, but the situation is not entirely black and white. In this case, we are talking about locomotives 388.216 - 218, which have been in Kassel since the end of 2021. These are the last examples of an 18-strong batch, of which 15 TRAXXes, 388.201 - 215, were ordered in September 2019 and delivered between December 2020 and October 2021, and a further three were backordered in summer 2021.
These three locomotives, 388.216 - 218, have long time waited for handing over due to unclear delivery conditions. They were registered in Austria at RJ's request, which was not foreseen in the original contract, so the contractual terms of delivery were still pending, which included the issue of the failure to meet the contractual technical parameters (especially the functionality of the on-board ETCS).
It is also possible to relativise somewhat the statement about the "unsolidity" of Alstom (or originally Bombardier Transportation, BT) in relation to the delay in deliveries, since, for example, ČD Cargo received one locomotive free of charge, 388.011, as a compensation for delay, under the August 2018 contract for ten TRAXX3 MS machines.
Likewise, saying that "we don't see the will to change anything" is a bit far-fetched, because the manufacturer is certainly interested in finishing the whole contract as soon as possible (although let's not be under any illusions about the flexibility of this company). However, the truth is that "Alstombardier" is facing considerable problems with the TRAXX3 MS type approval.
A Bit Of History
This failure to introduce a new product to the market since 2018, when locomotive 188 001 was introduced, is mainly due to the problem with the OBU ETCS approval for operation in Europe, since otherwise technically the TRAXX3, as the successor of the TRAXX2, is without particular difficulties, so it is approved in various countries, but only just without the ETCS.
This problem, of course, has its roots in the BT days when the Rail Control Solutions (RCS) division could not handle the approval of the EbiCab on-board ETCS, which affected not only TRAXXes but also other vehicle types, the most glaring example being the Talent 3 EMUs for ÖBB, whose order was cancelled by the opertor in 2021. The reasons for this can be found in the undersizing of the RCS and the lack of funding to operate it under Bombardier Transportatio (and of course the excessive complexity of approving anything on European railways).
However, slowly but surely Bombardier has been making progress with the EbiCab approval and after the second upgrade, completed in 2022, a third upgrade is in the progress, to be fully approved during 2024, to enable already full international deployment of EbiCab for the entire TRAXX3 family. However, with the takeover of BT by Alstom in January 2021, the situation has changed significantly. Alstom, observing the problems with the EbiCab systems (manufactured at the Mannheim and Katowice plants), decided to replace it with its Atlas product (manufactured at the Charleroi site) from 2025.
At first glance, this seems like a sensible solution (apart from the internal business objective of fitting all ex-Bombardier Transportation vehicles with Atlas for image reasons), but unfortunately there are several pitfalls. The first is that replacing OBU ETCS with another one is not just replacing "some box", as integrating ETCS into a vehicle is a very complex (and expensive) affair. It will therefore be interesting to see whether the approval of Atlas for TRAXX3 locomotives will be achieved by the announced 2025, while on the other hand EbiCab is finally due to be fully approved in 2024.
Apart from the fact that Alstom is spending two amounts of money on the same thing - one to integrate the new Atlas OBU ETCS for TRAXX3 and the other to complete the approval of the existing EbiCab OBU ETCS, in which considerable resources have already been invested, there is a second and even more negative effect, namely that Alstom is now not showing much willingness to accept new orders for TRAXX3s with the existing EbiCab, but is trying to offer new locomotives with Atlas only and with delivery from 2025.
The consequence of this strategy is the risk of under-utilisation of the capacity of the Kassel works until the expected start of production of TRAXXes with the Atlas. Until then, the Kassel plant has only a few smaller contracts, so that the number of locomotives is expected to drop from the previous up to 120 annually to around 50. All this in a factory that years ago had to fit a third line between the two original assembly lines to cope with the customer requirements.
This decline will of course also have an impact on the sites such as Wrocław (bodyshells), Siegen (bogies), etc. And although the workers in Kassel have already been warning of the risk of a fall in production during demonstrations, the managers in far-away Paris are unlikely to hear their whistles. And so one cannot help feeling that Alstom, whose acquisition of BT was also aimed at acquiring a "golden egg" TRAXX as a replacement for its long-failing Prima product, may now, through its management decisions, also bury this Kassel family, which has so far successfully competed with locomotives from Münchens. All this to the no small joy of Siemens, whose customers are literally being chased away by Alstom, and to the small joy of the operators, who are struggling to find new locomotives.
Bisons For RegioJet?
This brings us back to RegioJet. It can be assumed that Mr. Jančura does not know in detail all the „Alstombardier“ internal problems described above (and he may not even be interested in them). However, it is good news for this manufacturer that Jančura wants to order a significant number of additional locomotives from Alstom (figures of around 100 have been quoted) and that he does not want to do so with Siemens. Radim Jančura says: "We have switched to TRAXX3 MS machines because we have very good experience with them and in some respects we see them as more modern than Vectrons, e. g. the auxiliary drive converters are integrated into the traction converters (which is more convenient for maintenance) and so on".
On the other hand, it is bad news for Alstom that Jančura is indeed prepared to turn to CRRC if Alstom is not sufficiently confident of meeting the required delivery dates. Our argument that even if he orders new locomotives from China that meet his needs today, he still won't get them approved until four or five years from now doesn't take into account the same negative experience Leo Express had with Sirius EMUs. His main vision is to "get competition into Europe to get domestic manufacturers moving". The RJ owner is considering the Bison, which the CRRC is currently approving for Rail Cargo Hungaria. Although it is a freight version for 140 km/h only, Jančura is looking at a top design speed of 230 km/h, although he has no intention of buying locomotives for 200 km/h at the moment.
And last but not least, the advantageous financing of the purchase (which of course Leo Express also thought in 2016 with Siriuses...) may play a role in the inclination towards CRRC, as the Chinese side is able to offer conditions like no other European manufacturer or bank. In fact, CRRC doesn't care in principle how much "some" operator will pay it, as it's small amount in the Chinese state expansion strategy - the main goal is to penetrate the European market.
From Radim Jančura's point of view, neither a return to Siemens nor an orientation towards other manufacturers such as Newag, which is still preparing a multi-system version of Griffin with a top speed of 200 km/h, is out of the question, although he has no problem with purchases in Poland. With the dice rolled like this, we can only conclude that further developments now depend on Alstom...