Metro-North hopes new RR cars finally hit tracks next month
Published 11:35 pm, Thursday, December 30, 2010
If state transportation and Metro-North Railroad expectations hold, the first of Connecticut's new fleet of trains will hit the rails by the end of next month, some of the coldest and most difficult conditions of the year.
The most accurate predictor of their performance could be that of New York's fleet of M-7 trains that were put in service five years ago on Metro-North's Harlem and Hudson lines and were the prototype for Connecticut's M-8 trains.
New York's trains are far more weather resilient than the 30- to 40-year-old trains they replaced, but they're not perfect since snow and ice can still interfere with connections to the third rail that powers the electric motors.
Metro-North service was brought to a halt for four hours Monday morning when two M-7 trains were unable to connect to the third-rail system because of heavy snow.
"It will still face problems with the third rail during extreme weather but will be much less vulnerable," said Metro-North President Howard Permut.
Permut said Connecticut's new fleet of 342 M-8 cars features a more modern design that will shield vital components of railcars from winter weather-related breakdowns that can affect the older M-2s, most of which were built in the 1970s.
Gaskets, circuit boards and other vital components of the M-8 cars are designed to withstand temperatures of 40-below zero, while other vital electronic equipment and wiring are shielded from the elements inside the M-8 cars, Permut said.
Aboard the M-2 cars, some critical electrical wiring and circuits are contained in plastic boxes located beneath the trains, where they are susceptible to drifting snow and water damage.
One-third of the entire New Haven Line fleet was crippled in 2004 by icy conditions.
"It will be a totally different system and it won't be vulnerable to the same problems because the systems won't be exposed," Permut said.
Like its forerunner the M-7, the M-8 cars, which will operate on both overhead catenary and third-rail power, would still face potential breakdowns if snow drifts prevent the cars from connecting to third- rail power on the section of track west of New Rochelle, N.Y., Permut said.
The state Department of Transportation initially planned to have the first of the state's nearly $900 million order of M-8 cars delivered, tested and in service by early 2010, but a range of delays pushed back the debut more than a year.
During 2008, the anticipated production of the cars was stalled when Kawasaki Rail Corp. was unable to obtain the type of agreed-upon steel to build the equipment.
In late 2009, a delay in installing diagnostic software aboard the first cars delivered, halted the start of a battery of tests of mechanical and computer components controlling propulsion, braking, lights, rest rooms, and door systems on the cars.
In early 2010, former DOT Commissioner Joseph Marie predicted that delay could be made up, enabling a late-year debut.
As Metro-North scrambled to maintain service in the wake of the blizzard Sunday and Monday, railroad and Kawasaki engineers halted track testing of the long-awaited M-8 rail cars to allow maintenance crews to handle the crisis, Permut said.
Permut said the railroad and Kawasaki are still aiming to fix the software code problems that included electromagnetic interference that caused cars to disrupt railway signal systems and garbled on-board public address announcements in time to get some of the new cars in service by the end of January.
"That's still the goal," Permut said. "We're still hoping to get the testing done."
Earlier this month, Permut and DOT Commissioner Jeffrey Parker acknowledged the software problems would prevent Metro-North and the DOT from keeping the planned debut of the M-8 cars in December, a goal DOT officials and Gov. M. Jodi Rell restated as recently as late November during a press conference and initial test run of the cars.
Permut said he doesn't believe the blizzard will affect the timeline to introduce the cars.
"Because of the storm we have not been able to get the cars out for those two nights," Permut said. "The storm and its aftermath will impact the timing of the testing, but we're still aiming to get them in service sometime in mid to late January."
DOT spokesman Judd Everhart said the department is optimistic Kawasaki engineers will fix the software problems and begin simulated passenger runs as soon as this weekend.
Under the state's contract with Kawasaki, the first eight pilot cars must log at least 4,000 track miles without a failure before they go into public service, Everhart said.
Subsequent M-8 cars will need to operate for 1,000 miles error free to be put into public service.
"Once all the issues are resolved we will begin the 4,000-mile test," Everhart said. "We are still several weeks from getting them into service."
Drew Todd, a Connecticut Rail Commuter Council member from South Norwalk, and Terri Cronin, a vice chairman of the group who commutes from East Norwalk, said they were disappointed, but not surprised, to hear software issues were still being fixed despite being told by Metro-North two weeks ago they were almost done.
"I remember they said it would be a few days before the computer problem would be fixed," Todd said. "I would be very surprised if they were here by late January. I would predict they'd be in service by March and hope I'm wrong."
Cronin said she has stopped telling commuters when to expect the new cars, after being told that a December debut of the cars would be very likely.
"I think the railroad and DOT are trying to keep their predictions very loose because they're not really sure of what's going on," Cronin said. "I really want the cars to get here but I'm not as optimistic as I used to be."