Commuters around the world rarely get excited about taking rapid transit to work.
But in Paris in 2009, the transportation subsidiary of Canadian-controlled Bombardier Inc. drew plenty of attention when it unveiled the most colourful suburban train in the city's history.
With its sleek interior and artistic touches, the Francilien was unlike anything seen before.
And its existence indicates how far Bombardier Transportation will go to win contracts in France.
The Francilien's stylish and bright cantilever seats come in pink, pastel green, burgundy, and other contemporary hues.
The company's Paris-based spokesperson, Anne Froger, described it as a "train boa".
That's because cars are connected with a barrier-free open passageway, making the train appear from the inside like it's snaking around curves.
"There's big windows so you see where people are seated or standing, so you can choose where you're going to come in," Froger said. "If there's very few people in the train, you can also choose your neighbours."
The seats have a very hard surface underneath, preventing them from being destroyed by vandals. There's also a film strip on the windows so even if someone tags them with graffiti, it's easily removed.
French conceptual artist and lighting expert Yann Kersalé was commissioned to make riders' experience more appealing.
His design included random LED spotlights on the ceiling, which change colours after doors close and the train accelerates.
The lights change again as the Francilien slows down at the next stop.
Meanwhile, blue beams are visible from below the legless seats.
The trains are being built at Bombardier Transportation's 32-hectare manufacturing facility in Crespen, France, which is near the border with Belgium.
During a March 18 tour of the site, Froger told the Straight that Kersalé's design creates an impression that the Francilien is "floating into a blue cloud".
"We want to really demystify the old habits of what public transport is," she said. "And we want to offer an interior, which is as close as people's own living room and living space. Because this is a living space. You spend one hour going to work, and you live one hour onboard."
Bombardier's price was competitive
But Froger also pointed out that Bombardier won the contract because its bid was 10 percent below its nearest competitor.
"This is the name of the game," she emphasized. "When you're part of a tender, in the end it's the figures that count."
The Straight was at the Crespen facility along with reporters from the Vancouver Sun and the Quebec business publication Les Affaires.
It was part of a French government-financed program giving Canadian journalists a chance to study urban-transportation systems in that country.
Over a company lunch in one of the buildings, Bombardier Transportation executives reflected on the corporation's knack for winning major public tenders in France in recent years.
These victories have sometimes came against Alstom, a French conglomerate with passenger-rail trains in 41 large cities.
Quebec culture influences French executives
There was one native of Quebec among the Bombardier team at the lunch: production-control manager Sophie Plouffe.
She recalled when her employer bought Germany-based Adtranz in 2001.
With that purchase, Bombardier's transportation subsidiary moved its head office to Berlin and later became a major force in the European train market, taking on giants like Alstom and Siemens.
Bombardier Transportation is now the largest passenger-rail company in the world with 38,500 employees.
There are also 63 production and engineering facilities in 26 countries.
"I think we do have really nice products, and especially in France," Plouffe said.
However, she added that this was not where Bombardier initially stood out from the crowd.
"Where we were the most competitive was the Bombardier manufacturing system," Plouffe said "We had quite a good reputation in Bombardier to deliver on-time quality products."
She also mentioned that the chairman and former CEO, Laurent Beaudoin, "was always putting the customer first".
Beaudoin's father-in-law, snowmobile manufacturer Joseph-Armand Bombardier, incorporated the company in Quebec's Eastern Townships in 1942. It's now a major player in the aerospace sector in addition to its transportation division.
When there were difficulties with the Francilien commuter train, Beaudoin urged managers to do whatever it took to finish the job. According to Plouffe, Beaudoin said he would make staff available from elsewhere in the company if that was necessary.
She added that his successor as CEO, son Pierre Beaudoin, continues in that tradition.
Plouffe also said that Bombardier understands how tough this industry has become.
"More and more, the transit authorities don't have the money," she commented. "So they invest at the last minute and they want the train tomorrow. The expectations are getting bigger."
For his part, Bombardier Transportation business-unit leader David Delcourt said he's been impressed by the "entrepreneurial spirit" during his 12 years with the company. He called Bombardier a "go getter".
"We'll never give up," Delcourt declared. "That spirit, in fact, is quite unique."
When the executives were asked if this will to win came from Canada, Froger immediately answered "yes".
Then Delcourt piped up: "Yes, I'm convinced."
Just-in-time sourcing preferred
To contain costs and strengthen ties with contractors, Bombardier has brought numerous suppliers onto the Crespen site so the corporation can do just-in-time manufacturing. In this respect, it's no different than an auto-systems maker like Magna International having facilities close to Ford Motor Company or General Motors.
During a tour of the plant, Plouffe pointed to the "sub assembly" of a cab for the Regio 2N double-deck train.
It came from one of the nearby companies contracted by Bombardier to deliver components.
"It's a new trend in the industry," Plouffe said. "And that's why we have a need for less space. More and more, we want to buy sub elements."
Bombardier integrates the suppliers' products into trains, working with designers to ensure components are "designed the way we want it".
Plouffe added these parts must be tested before they arrive in the Bombardier factory.
In another part of the plant, workers on four assembly lines are making four different train models, including the Francilien. Plouffe said that the first phase involves installing several kilometres of cables per car. Water tests ensure they don't leak.
These cars aren't cheap. Plouffe estimated that a Francilien train averages $1.55 milion per vehicle [one million euros converted to Canadian currency], including the more expensive cab cars. That means a seven-car train would be more than $10 million.
But business remains brisk.
Just before Christmas, Bombardier Transportation announced that SNCF, a French government-owned transit-service operator, had exercised an option to purchase 30 Regio 2N double-deck trains in three regions.
The terminology used in the news release was "electric-multiple units", and they're part of a 2010 contract with Bombardier for up to 860 trains. The first 129 trains have already been delivered, according to a company officials.
Bombardier was also part of a consortium with Alstom that won a $1.5-billion contract in 2012 to provide 210 double-deck rail cars for the Paris commuter network.
And in 2006, Bombardier Transportation surprised many by winning a tender to provide 372 commuter trains to a French transport authority, STIF, and SNCF.
So far, 172 Francilien trains have been ordered under this contract, according to the company.
That's the largest project at the Crespen plant since 21 French regions ordered 700 Autorail Grande Capacité regional trains from Bombardier.
Froger said those trains are "hybrids", which can be powered by electrified rails or by diesel.
One of Bombardier's business rivals offered some revealing insights to the Straight about why the company has secured major deals.
Michel Antonelli, the tender leader for Paris for Alstom, discussed this over lunch in a small restaurant on the south side of the city.
Through translator George Tsaklidis, Antonelli characterized Bombardier as being "contract-focused".
By that, he said that Bombardier does a lot of "upstream lobbying".
"We never did in the past," Antonelli stated. "And now we're starting to actually prepare the terrain, because Bombardier was very present in a lot of cities and a lot of countries....Alstom has a lot of difficulty actually entering the German market because Bombardier's lobbying is quite powerful. The same thing in Canada."
Antonelli added that Bombardier has been very good at lining up influential people in communities to support its proposals in advance of a tender being awarded.
He said that another major rival in providing rapid-transit vehicles, Siemens, has a more selective approach.
"When they make their bids, they pretty much target their market," Antonelli claimed. "When they make a bid, they're pretty much sure they're going to win."
To illustrate his point, he cited Alstom's tram service on the south side of Paris.
"Siemens didn't bother to make a bid," Antonelli said.
Bombardier grew through takeovers
Bombardier joined the railway business with the 1970 takeover of Austrian tram and snowmobile-engine manufacturer Lohner-Ronax. Over the next three decades, it purchased other transportation companies, including the Ontario government's financially troubled Urban Transit Development Corporation.
UTDC developed Vancouver's SkyTrain rapid-transit project for the 1986 World's Fair.
Meanwhile in Vancouver, Bombardier has come under criticism in the past for its contracts with TransLink and the provincial government.
Critics contend that TransLink was saddled with outrageous costs because SkyTrain cars were too expensive for the relatively small number of passengers they carried.
This meant huge sums were being taken out of the operating budget to pay down debt when that money may have been better spent expanding service and lowering fares.
In 1999 after the last NDP government had approved the Millennium Line, consultant Alan Greer wrote a scathing report for the B.C. government.
In it, he declared that "the most relevant information advanced in support of the SkyTrain option was misleading, incomplete or unsubstantiated".
Greer's report also claimed that the Rapid Transit Project Office high-balled the cost of street-level light rail by tripling the estimated price of a maintenance yard to $110 million,
The company that prepared this estimate, Montreal-based SNC-Lavalin, had been Bombardier's partner on SkyTrain systems.
Back in 1999, a graduate student named Tamim Raad cowrote a paper with one of his professors, Peter Boothroyd, highlighting costs differentials between street-level light rail and SkyTrain. Raad is now director of strategic policy and planning at TransLink.
Depending on the assumptions, Raad and Boothroyd concluded that the gap was between 34 percent and 133 percent.
This meant that in their eyes at the time, the SkyTrain network was $700 million to $1.6 billion more than a light-rail system would have cost.
Perhaps most damning was a Light Rail for Vancouver Committee analysis, which concluded that an order for SkyTrain cars cost $42,000 per passenger space. That was more than double the cost per passenger space for light rail in Denver.
In 2006, TransLink agreed to a $113.2-million contract for 34 SkyTrain cars from Bombardier. That worked out to $3.3 million per car.
However, Bombardier did not supply cars for the Canada Line.
A South Korean company, Hyundai Rotem, provided the longer and wider rail vehicles as part of a public-private partnership with SNC-Lavalin. The transit cars on the Canada Line have fewer seats and are incompatible with the rest of the system, which means it's not a seamless transition at Waterfront Station.
(In a separate matter, SNC-Lavalin has since come under fire from the World Bank for alleged corruption in Bangladesh.)
Meanwhile, Bombardier signed a deal last year with the B.C. government and TransLink for 28 new SkyTrain cars.
They will be deployed on the yet-to-open Evergreen Line as well as the Expo and Millennium lines. The vehicles cost $90.7 million, or $3.24 million per car.
At the same time, Bombardier has been contracted to take over rail operations on the West Coast Express commuter service on a five-year contract worth $17 million.
Bombardier can exercise options to continue for three additional five-year periods, according to a company news release.
The suburban commuter-rail service has a fleet of 44 Bombardier vehicles.
Driving trumps transit with public
After more than $3 billion was spent on the Canada Line and the Millennium Line, the percentage of trips via private automobile didn't budge in the region.
The 2012 Metro Vancouver Regional Trip Diary Survey concluded that 57 percent of travel was done by car in 2011. That's exactly the same percentage as in 1999.
The survey examined demand for transportation over a 24-hour period in the fall of 2011.
The percentage of trips made by transit was up to 14 percent from 10 percent in 1999. And transit ridership rose sharply in the region after the Canada Line was completed before the 2010 Olympics.
Will SkyTrain cars be available?
Few Lower Mainland transit users realize that the rapid-transit system's future may hinge on Bombardier's willingness to make SkyTrain cars available at an affordable price over the long term.
Because it was proprietary technology when it came out, it's debatable whether anyone else could legally manufacture cars for the Expo and Millennium lines.
SkyTrain's high capital costs coupled with relatively low capacity meant that few cities bought this technology.
It's expensive to build a separate guideway and add tunnels for an intermediate-capacity system like SkyTrain because it's hard to recover much of that investment through the farebox.
From a capital-cost perspective, it's far cheaper for cities to go with street-level light rail, as is being proposed by Surrey council, even if operating costs may be slightly higher.
SkyTrain-like systems were built in Mississauga, Kuala Lumpur, and at the John F. Kennedy Airport in New York.
The vehicles are powered by linear-induction motors, which draw electricity from rails and braking. But nobody in Europe ever purchased this technology, though there are other systems in the world with linear-induction motors.
While dining with Bombardier executives at the Crespen facility, the Straight inquired whether the company could build SkyTrain cars inside the plant.
Delcourt responded that he didn't know if Bombardier could continue providing cars. But he quickly added that the company is producing "permanent-magnetic motors" in France.
"I would need to check the compatibility," Delcourt said, "But I mean for sure, it's going to take an upgrade. But then, it's a different technology. But this type of technology, in fact, is the future in terms of energy saving."
The Straight then asked if other transportation companies could provide rail vehicles on the Expo and Millennium lines should Bombardier choose not to make SkyTrain cars.
Froger, the director of communications, interjected by saying "it's beyond what we know."
She had noted more than once that day that she didn't feel qualified to comment on what's happening in Canada because she worked for Bombardier's division in France.
But Delcourt still tried to answer whether the Lower Mainland's regional transportation authority could continue buying SkyTrain cars into the future, even if they were to come from another supplier.
He conceded that Bombardier's French officials in the room didn't know about the technology. Delcourt also noted that a study would be necessary to determine the feasibility.
"But I mean, nothing is impossible," he said in an optimistic tone.
Not long afterward, the lunch ended.
Later that afternoon, Froger gave the journalists a tour onboard the Francilien.
It looked a lot prettier and roomier than those cramped 30-year-old SkyTrain cars still in use on the Expo line.