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Highlights

Rail transit offers society a number of benefits, including reduced congestion and pollution and increased mobility. However, rail systems and cars are costly: Transit agencies can pay more than $3 million per car, often using federal funds. As requested, this report describes (1) characteristics of the U.S. market for transit rail cars, (2) the federal government's role in funding and setting standards for transit rail cars, and (3) challenges transit agencies face when procuring rail cars. GAO analyzed U.S. and worldwide rail car market data for commuter, heavy, and light rail systems and interviewed Department of Transportation (DOT) officials and domestic and international industry stakeholders, including the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).

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Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Transportation 1. To ensure that federal funds are used efficiently when procuring transit rail cars, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of the Federal Transit Administration to, in conjunction with the American Public Transportation Association, develop a process to systematically identify and communicate opportunities for transit agencies with similar needs to participate in joint procurements of transit rail cars.
Closed - Not Implemented
FTA continues to work with APTA to develop a clearinghouse and other opportunities for joint transit vehicle procurements.
Department of Transportation 2. To ensure that federal funds are used efficiently when procuring transit rail cars, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of the Federal Transit Administration to, in conjunction with the American Public Transportation Association, identify additional opportunities for standardization, especially for new systems, such as light rail and streetcar systems.
Closed - Implemented
In June 2010, we found that the relatively small and erratic market for transit rail cars in the United States can hamper transit agencies as they purchase rail cars for commuter, heavy, and light rail transit systems, including streetcars. Design specifications that focus on custom designs suited for single-system use have increased the amount of work and related costs needed to design and test these cars resulting in increased cost and difficulty for transit agencies when procuring transit rail cars. Therefore, we recommended that the Secretary of Transportation direct the Administrator of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to, in conjunction with the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), identify additional opportunities for standardization, especially for new systems, such as light rail and streetcar systems. In 2013, APTA issued the Modern Streetcar Vehicle Guideline that provides guidelines to support specification and procurement of modern streetcar vehicles by identifying and describing important details and operating principles relating to their application. APTA, funded in part by FTA, also developed rail car standards for light rail vehicle procurement. Through these documents, transit agencies have a better understanding of the core technical and operational issues of designing a streetcar and are better able to navigate the process of specifying a vehicle and designing compatible infrastructure. By working with streetcar manufacturers that have designed a standard platform and selecting options from within a standard product range, transit agencies will be able to take advantage of standardization to reduce streetcar costs and delivery times.

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