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January 23, 2011

Where Are The New M8 Cars?

Almost daily, on train platforms and in town, a commuter stops me to ask, “So, where are the new M8 rail cars?”  I wish I knew!
It has been six years since then-Governor Jodi Rell announced that the state would finally be replacing its broken-down rail fleet… six years!  It’s taken that long for their design, bidding, construction and delivery.  The first car arrived Christmas Eve 2009, already a year late due to builder Kawasaki’s construction problems.
For 13 months those cars have undergone testing. But today we seem no closer to riding the M8s despite promises that they would be in service by now, and the testing process has been cloaked in mystery. (Ironically, there are dozens of videos of the M8s undergoing testing on YouTube, but that’s the closest I’ve been to seeing them running.)
Throughout 2010, we were told that prototype testing was going well.  But by November, we wondered why a date hadn’t been announced for the trains to go into service.  After all, even Governor Rell had been promised that the M8s would run before she left office at the end of December 2010.
So, in November the Commuter Council asked CDOT to bring us someone from Kawasaki to talk about the testing.  They refused.
Then, six weeks ago, there was a glitch:  an electromagnetic pulse from the cars was affecting the signal system.  This was a deal-breaker.  Testing was stopped.
But rather than advise legislators or the Commuter Council about this problem, CDOT and Metro-North gave the bad news “exclusive” to two reporters, who had to pledge they would not speak with any stakeholders with oversight. 
Those are questionable journalistic ethics and hardly “transparent”.  Since when do government agencies get away with spin-control on such bad news?
This past week, the Commuter Council asked CDOT for updates on the testing.  We received the same vague generalities as we’d been given for a year: “The testing is going along as planned.”  But this time, something new and disconcerting was added.
A senior CDOT official told us “We take out the M8s every night and run them, and every night a new issue comes up.”  A new issue?
Yup… every night of testing a new problem is found.  Among them, problems with the auxiliary power system, the automatic train control and the diagnostic computer monitoring.  And until they are all fixed, the final crucial test, 4,000 error-free miles, can’t begin.
And testing of the M8s on Shore Line East, under Amtrak’s power system and signaling, hasn’t even begun.  Until the M8s can run on Shore Line East there will be no equipment to run on the long-promised New Haven to Springfield commuter rail line.
But wait… there’s more.  It seems that Metro-North itself hasn’t been overseeing Kawasaki’s testing of the M8’s, but a consultant.  LTK Assoc. of Pennsylvania has been paid $15 million to monitor the tests.  And this week their contract will be extended seven months for another $12 million.
None of these details were shared with the legislature’s Transportation Committee or Commuter Council, despite our interest in this crucial testing stage.  It came out in a newspaper article.
If Metro-North feels it needs multi-million dollar consultants for another seven months after we’ve already had a year of testing, that sure sounds like they don’t believe the M8s will be in service anytime soon.
Nobody wants to rush these cars onto the tracks, however badly they are needed.  But given the $866 million cost of the project and the six years we’ve already waited, why can’t Metro-North and CDOT be open and honest about what’s going on?
The Commuter Council has been asking the questions but the answers have been curt and condescending.   Perhaps it’s time for the legislature’s Transportation Committee to get to the bottom of this story.  Commuters (and taxpayers) deserve an answer.