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Rookie Bids For $3B Toronto Light-Rail Contract

Britain's TRAM Power, which has just 100 employees and has never built an in-service streetcar, is one of two vying for a $3-billion contract to produce almost 600 light-rail vehicles.

TORONTO (CP) -- Britain's TRAM Power Ltd., which has just 100 employees and has never built an in-service streetcar, is one of two vying to eventually produce almost 600 light-rail vehicles for the city for a total cost of more than $3-billion.

TRAM Power's sole operational light-rail vehicle, a prototype for the English resort town of Blackpool, burst into flames in a public test run last year.

The other bidder, Bombardier Transportation, is already at work on Toronto's new subway trains and has streetcars on the road in dozens of major cities.

TRAM Power's technical director, Lewis Lesley, described himself Wednesday as "excited, though frightened of course" at the prospect of taking on one of the world's dominant rail manufacturers.

"You've got to start somehow," he added.

David Biggs, the managing director of TRAM Power's vehicle construction contractor, Northwest Group, said that while his company has never produced streetcars beyond the prototype phase, they are essentially similar to buses, with which it has much more experience.

Biggs said that "the only difference is that one runs on tires and has an electric engine," although he conceded trying to beat Bombardier "is a David and Goliath sort of situation."

It is unclear whether TRAM Power's bid will be in line with basic Toronto Transit Commission requirements, which call for a vehicle that is fully low-floor, or wheelchair-accessible.

Lesley said that the TRAM Power streetcar is "100 per cent low-floor for 70 per cent of its length."

Siemens AG, the German conglomerate widely expected to compete with Bombardier for the project, surprised many by failing to submit a bid before the Monday deadline.

Last year, Siemens argued that it could have provided new subway cars at lower cost than Bombardier, which has its rail assembly plant in Thunder Bay, Ont., partly by building them in China.

That contract was negotiated directly with Bombardier, without an open bidding process.

With its only competition for the streetcar contract such a small player, Bombardier seems poised to become a dominant force in Ontario transit.

In addition to Toronto's planned network expansion and replacement of existing streetcars, Hamilton, Mississauga, Kitchener-Waterloo and York Region are all planning light-rail systems.

"Whatever Toronto does is going to set the pattern for the rest of the province," said transit expert Steve Munro -- meaning that Bombardier would also become the supplier of choice for smaller cities looking to benefit from economies of scale.

The exact specifications and appearance of Bombardier's design aren't yet known, although whatever it has proposed likely resembles the "Flexity" streetcars currently plying the streets of Berlin, Brussels, and Stockholm.

The biggest question, however, is the vehicle's exact price, which will be revealed later this year.