October 31, 2009

New M8 Rail Cars A Year Late In Delivery

It’s the question I am asked almost every day: “When are the new rail cars coming?” The answer: “Later than we’d thought”.

Yes, the new M8 rail cars, which lawmakers authorized in 2005 and we hoped would be in service late this year, won’t be in service until late 2010… a year later than planned.

We on the CT Rail Commuter Council (a state-appointed watchdog group) have been tracking the progress of the M8’s from engineering design to focus groups on the interiors to initial “crush tests” (which they failed). Every month we ask if there are any delays, and CDOT says “no, we’re right on track”.

Initially the plan was to have a set of prototype “pilot” cars delivered by “late 2008”. (Look it up. It’s still on the CDOT website!) Those cars would then undergo testing for four to six months while production continued on the “revenue” cars, which would be held out of service until the tests were complete. That probably meant we’d be able to ride in the new M8’s by April or May of 2010, about 16 or 17 months later than planned.

But the timeline is now slipping further.

At our September Commuter Council meeting, CDOT Commissioner said that the M8’s manufacturer, Kawasaki, had been having problems with suppliers delivering steel later than planned. And their sub-contractors (who account for 60% of the cars) were also delayed.

Commissioner Marie also said that the planned delivery schedule of ten cars per month was extremely ambitious as railcar makers have a “deplorable record” of keeping their production promises. Marie should know, having worked for Bombardier in years past.

But wait… it gets even worse. By the time the Commuter Council met in October, this time with Metro-North President Howard Permut, the delays had been stretched. Permut said it would be months before even the test cars arrive, meaning the four to six months of testing would delay putting the cars in service until “late 2010”.

And that assumes that everything goes well and no serious problems are found during the testing!

Those tests are crucial as we’re spending $713 million on the first 300 cars. These cars should last 30 years, if they live up to their warranty. That’s why the first prototypes have to be run into the ground until something breaks.
And if some component does fail, Kawasaki will have to go back to retrofit a “fix” onto all the cars in production, both in Kobe Japan and Lincoln Nebraska.

Mind you, there is some good news in all of this mess…

First, Kawasaki is paying millions of dollars in penalties for the delays. And second, the plans for a fare hike to pay for the new cars is also delayed.

We commuters are a patient bunch. We’ve waited a decade beyond when our old fleet should have been retired, and I guess we can wait a few more months.

But what we cannot wait for any longer is candor and honesty from CDOT, an agency whose credibility is in tatters.

The long needed New Haven Railyard facility morphed from a $300 million project in 2005 to $1.2 billion in 2008. Governor Rell was incredulous and ordered a $630,000 study of the ballooning costs.

A rework of the plan brought the cost down to $850 million. But just opened bids for Phase One of the project, expected to cost $261 million, came in at $125 million!

It’s a long way from $300 million to $1.3 billion and from $261 million to $125 million. And along the way people start wondering if anyone has a clue about estimating costs.

All we need are honest answers, not excuses. Get the new M8 prototypes, start testing them and please, be honest about any further delays.


Unknown said...

If you really want to understand the issues of accountability and transparency that's constantly thrown around as the core problems with MTA, you really had to be at the meeting when Jim asked Mr. Permut for the revised target date for the delivery of the cars.

Mr. Permut responded that he didn't want to give out an actual date, because "if they missed it everyone would complain".


neroden@gmail said...

Construction project costs are famously hard to estimate. Partly because you don't know what you'll find until you dig -- partly because they're largely dependent on oil prices (to run construction equipment -- partly because they're largely dependent on how many other construction projects are ongoing at the same time.

Basically you have to make a choice whether to estimate high or low. But being off by factors of 2 on the railyard estimates is actually a lot less worrisome than you would think, given the wild fluctuations in the economy and the price of oil, and the long history of industrial uses at the area.

The M-8 business is really poor. Multiple units running on both catenary and third rail are not new technology, London uses lots of them, and the manufacturer really has no excuse for the problems with them.


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