June 29, 2011

The Secret M8 Papers

They lied to us.  And now we have the proof.  

Last winter when Metro-North was in full melt-down (or freeze-up), commuters asked over and over again, “Where are the new M8 cars?”  The constant reply from the railroad and CDOT was “the testing continues apace… be patient.”  But The Commuter Council had heard otherwise.  Whistleblowers were calling and e-mailing us saying there were serious problems with the M8s.
So, for the CT Rail Commuter Council’s February 2011 meeting, we asked Metro-North and CDOT to bring representatives from the M8’s designer and manufacturer, Kawasaki, and engineers from LTK, the consulting firm being paid $27 million to test the cars.  We wanted to ask them what was going on.  But CDOT refused.  Appeals to newly elected Governor Malloy fell on deaf ears.  At the Council’s meeting the then-interim CDOT Commissioner said we were not smart enough to understand what the engineers would explain.  Oh, really?

Now, thanks to an FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) filing by WABC-TV’s Jim Hoffer, we have seen a treasure trove of e-mails and letters between Kawasaki, LTK and Metro-North detailing countless problems and delays during this period.

For perspective, remember this timeline:  the first M8 car arrived in New Haven 12/24/09 but the first M8 train didn’t go into service until 3/1/11.  What happened over those intervening 15 months?  Testing, a lot of delays and excuses.

The “M8 Papers” show letter after letter from Kawasaki appealing for delays in testing.  Excuses range from sub-contractor bankruptcies to 20 days needed to load and unload dummy weights from test trains.  Kawasaki’s Project Manager even blamed the weather for testing delays in the final weeks before the M8’s finally saw service.

Metro-North responded, “Why does snow stop the tests?  It was not that much (snow) and we expect to operate in all weather conditions short of hurricanes and over 2 ft of snow.  An aside, anything less than 6 inches (of snow) is a frost.”

In January of this year, CDOT told the Commuter Council that computer problems had been found during testing.  A day before that meeting, LTK wrote in an e-mail “Kawasaki has yet to accumulate a trouble free mile” in testing.

This mantra of “software problems” would be the ongoing excuse whenever anyone asked about the M8 delays.  But the problems were far greater than just software.
A January 24, 2011 four-page e-mail from LTK says testing turned up over 150 problems ranging from the doors to air compressors, from the brakes to the ‘dead man’ switch.  Even the hand-dryer in the bathroom malfunctioned.  Pantographs wouldn’t go down enroute to GCT.  Emergency brakes applied without notice.  The M8s horns even got frozen.
Kawasaki kept asking for more time, presumably to avoid costly fines for ever-increasing delays in getting the M8’s in service.  January 3rd of this year Metro-North had to cancel a planned nighttime test because Kawasaki personnel didn’t show up. “It would have been nice to know this before we had an extra train crew and special duty engineer show up for work,” wrote Metro-North.

Today there are three M8 train sets in service.  So far they’ve encountered few problems.  But production delays in Japan and Nebraska mean we’ll only have 60 cars in service by year end.
But how could such a trouble-plagued prototype suddenly become the darling of the fleet?
For that question, we still don’t have the answer.  You see, “The Secret M8 Papers” are not complete.  Even though it took WABC-TV’s “Investigative Unit” four months to unearth hundreds of e-mails and letters, Metro-North has yet to release the final documents from the crucial February 2011 testing.

One wonders what they will show.

June 13, 2011

Travel Rage

I’m a big guy.  Not self-important, but large.  So when I’m riding Metro-North at rush hour and the only available seats are those dreaded middle seats in the three-seat rows, I’d rather stand.  Why inflict my girth on two fellow passengers and make three of us uncomfortable instead of just one (me)?
Taking public transportation is a compromise.  We all must give a little and share the same space, sometimes in much closer proximity than we’d like.  Sometimes this can lead to conflict.
Consider the following cases, all true and all from just the past few weeks:
First, the recent video of a “loud woman” being kicked off a Metro-North train for cursing and causing a scene when the conductor asked her to stop.  This video, shot on a cell phone by another passenger, had a half-million hits within 24 hours, turning a minor incident into a huge embarrassment.
Or how about this?  On an eight-hour flight from the UK to the Barbados, a fist-fight erupted involving a dozen passengers.  Half way across the Atlantic, a group of passengers celebrating “something special” got into a fight with another passenger who complained that they had cursed in front of her child.  The verbal attacks quickly turned physical with fists flying.  It took other passengers and crew a half-hour to quell the melee.  Barbados police arrested the trouble-makers on landing.
Or consider this episode:
A United Airlines jumbo jet bound from Washington’s Dulles airport to Ghana (Africa) had to turn back when passengers got into a slap-fest over leg-room.  One passenger reclined his seat.  His neighbor behind him protested, but the reclining passenger did nothing.  So, the suddenly-cramped passenger smacked his selfish neighbor.  Other passengers tried to intercede, but the crew decided to turn back to DC after dumping 16,700 gallons of fuel and requiring an escort (at taxpayer expense) by two F-16 fighter jets.
Or on the domestic front, how about the recent Jet Blue flight from Florida to Boston where a man, having trouble stowing his luggage under his seat, literally slapped a flight attendant?  He was arrested.
Or on the rails, how about the woman sitting in an Amtrak “Quiet Car” who yapped on her cell phone for 16 hours, refusing to observe the rules or move to another car?  She was arrested, later complaining that she felt “disrespected” by the incident.
Alas, it’s hard to find out what ultimately happened to these folks, though I think that a little jail time, a hefty fine and life-time inclusion on the “no flight list” would seem appropriate.  Publicizing their punishment might go a long way toward deterring someone else from similar boneheaded behavior.
In the words of Rodney King… “Can’t we all just get along?”
It’s unlikely that the airlines will ever give us more legroom.  And the stress of travel will never go away.  Short of slipping everyone a Xanax before the flight, can’t we all just chill out this summer and get to our destination?
For those of you who can summon a private jet, enjoy!  For the rest of us suffering in coach, let’s just learn to be civil.


Enjoying the heatwave this summer?  The electric utilities sure are.  And just wait ‘til you get your next bill.   They’ve been warning us...