Sour taste: With higher rate of problems than expected, are Metro-North's new cars lemons?
Published 12:17 pm, Sunday, February 2, 2014
That new-car smell on the state's next-generation fleet of M8 rail cars has barely worn off and they're breaking down nearly a third more than their New York counterparts, raising the question of whether transportation officials may have bought a lemon.
As temperatures dropped and more than 10 inches of snow fell in December, the cars' reliability plummeted 30 percent off their stated goal of 240,000 miles between breakdowns.
With fewer cars in service and ridership increasing, more commuters have been forced to stand for an hour or more on their rides to and from work.
"I don't even think it has been a severe winter yet and all these M8s are out of commission," said Brian Colburn, a commuter out of Wilton. "If the trains are going down now when there hasn't been a huge issue with a tremendous amount of snow yet, who knows what will happen with a few weeks of snow and ice and winter?"
The crowded conditions on the trains are just the latest in a series of calamities that have shaken commuter confidence in the railroad.
Whenever there are more than 46 M8 cars out of service, the railroad is forced to run shortened trains. From Dec. 1 through last week, there were 20 weekdays on which more than 46 M8 cars have been sidelined by the cold, with most of them crippled when their fan motors suck in snow and short out.
Metro-North spokeswoman Marjorie Anders said the auxiliary power system on the M8 provides electricity to drive the interior car lights, opening and shutting doors, and heat.
As a result, on many days, more than 20 trains have been short one or two cars, Anders said.
On Wednesday of last week, 74 M8 cars were in the shop being repaired, 40 of which being fixed under warranty for problems, including the fan motors.
The earlier generations of Metro-North rail cars were also plagued by cold-weather problems, and when state Department of Transportation officials placed their initial order for 200 cars from Kawasaki Rail Car Co. in 2006, they were promised the new cars would be more resilient, with sensitive electrical equipment placed inside the cars.
Kawasaki continues to replace the failed fan motors under warranty, and is working to create a permanent fix to the design flaw with the manufacturer of the part, Anders said.
"There is no timetable, but soon," Anders said. "Metro-North is disappointed by this apparent design flaw."
Attempts to reach Laura Alemzadeh, the general counsel for the Yonkers, N.Y.-based Kawasaki Rail Car Co., were unsuccessful.
This year, Metro-North has made concerted efforts with Kawasaki to boost a lower-than-projected mileage for the M-8s between breakdowns, yielding mixed results.
In December, the average number of miles traveled by the cars between breakdowns was 175,000 miles, according to the railroad, a drop from 253,500 miles in November, and well below the target mileage of 240,000 miles without mechanical problems.
From January through August 2013, the cars ran 197,955 miles between problems, below the 240,000 mile goal.
Metro-North officials have said the setbacks are part of a breaking-in process of integrating the cars and fine tuning systems as problems present themselves. In the long term, the railroad projects the cars will run 300,000 miles or more without problems once all the necessary software upgrades and other tweaks are made. That would place them on par with the M7 cars manufactured by Bombardier that the Long Island Rail Road has, and on Metro-North's Hudson and Harlem lines.
"As commuters, we can definitely feel it," Connecticut Rail Commuter Council Chairman Terri Cronin said of the car shortage. "The trains are shorter cars, and there always seems to be a problem with the number of seats."
In the past two winters, the arrival of M8 cars had helped offset the difficulty of the railroad keeping the New Haven Line's aging fleet of railcars on the tracks and enough seats for riders as the cars were knocked out of service by harsh winter weather.
Most recently, in the winter of 2010-11, before the debut of the M8s, between a third to half of the New Haven Line's more than 300 M2, M4 and M6 cars were out of commission continually due to snow-related breakdowns.
During the harshest period of weather in January 2011, the average number of customers across the New Haven Line left standing during their trip because of car shortages jumped to 447 a day, and to 1,111 each weekday during February.
In December 2012, the daily average number of riders without seats was 9, according to the railroad, and in December 2013, the last month for which figures are available the number was 80.
Connecticut Rail Commuter Council Vice Chairman John Hartwell said that the emerging problem with ingesting snow in the cars is vexing, given the extra emphasis made during the M8 design that critical components would be shielded from the elements.
"It's hard to believe that we're back where we were before the M8s began arriving with winter snow causing so many cars to go down," Hartwell said. "We live in New England, and every winter there's snow. Why this wasn't understood and taken care of in the design phase is beyond me."
The first M8 cars made their debut in March 2011, more than a year behind schedule due to computer glitches and other hurdles integrating systems that controlled on-board diagnostics and other functions.
During that testing phase, one source of software problems was the auxiliary power supply system, a problem that the railroad continued to work on last winter to assure the correct amount of voltage was being supplied to power the onboard functions.
That software glitch was resolved, and all newly delivered M8 cars have been modified to correct the voltage problem.
Anders said crowding caused by short trains is intensified because of delays on the railroad as fewer cars are available to make into complete train sets.
Jeff Holbrook, a New Canaan commuter, said that in addition to trains arriving persistently late and slow travel times, overcrowding has become an issue sporadically.
"In a nutshell, Metro-North isn't able to provide reliable service on the New Haven Line, period," Holbrook said. "It is a disaster."
Thomas Orofino, a Westport commuter and insurance executive, said the lack of available seats and car problems are a major disappointment, following more than a half year of pervasive delays and unreliable scheduling that has New Haven Line riders fed up.
The cars were expected to be a long-awaited panacea to winter-related mechanical problems of the older fleet, he said.
Orofino said he experienced another unpleasant Metro-North experience late last month when he had to unexpectedly stay in the city with his son-in-law and daughter after the railroad lost power to the centralized computer system that controls the signal system halting all three lines.
"My daughter and son-in-law both make plenty of money, but they look at the New Haven Line and say, `Why would I ride that thing?' " Orofino said. "They're going to stay in Manhattan. It just has a huge ripple effect."