Kawasaki Rail Car's work on Connecticut's new M-8 rail car equipment was brought to a halt for nearly a month in late March because of a manufacturing error, resulting in a slow buildup of production efforts that will only reach full tilt in late May, Metro-North Railroad officials said.

Kawasaki Rail Car laid off 115 workers in late March who were working on Connecticut's $866 million investment in a new fleet of 380 rail cars, Metro-North Railroad spokeswoman Marjorie Anders said. Work was stopped from late March to late April because the metal weld of the U-shaped brackets used to secure equipment to the undercarriage of the cars together was found to be undersized, she said.

The flaw would result in premature maintenance problems if not corrected, Anders said.

The production holdup is expected to affect Kawasaki's ability to deliver the expected 60 to 80 railcars in service by the end of the year, Anders said.

M-8 railcars already running should be retrofitted with the correct-sized welds during normal out-of-service periods, Anders said, preventing additional time out of revenue service.

"Production is starting back up, but it is a serious delay that will impact how many cars we hope to get into service by the end of the year," Anders said. "They have to replace them all (the metal pieces)."

In March, acting Department of Transportation Commissioner James Redeker predicted the first of the 342 rail cars to built in Lincoln, Neb., should roll off the production line in May.

Call to move aggressively

Jim Cameron, chairman of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council, a state-appointed watchdog group, said the new delay in car delivery heightens concerns about the railroad's ability to maintain service next winter after the train's antiquated and worn-out fleet of cars was knocked out of commission by a series of large snowstorms between December and mid-February.

Cameron said he hopes the Department of Transportation and Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Metro-North's parent agency, will move aggressively on a program to set up a refurbishment program to overhaul one or both of the state's fleet of M-4 and M-6 rolling stock.

DOT spokesman Judd Everhart said a decision on whether an overhaul of the cars will go forward has not been made.

A similar overhaul effort in 2005 rehabilitated 146 of the state's 235 M-2 railcars, improving their reliability and increasing the distance they traveled between significant breakdowns by nearly double.

"I would just say it is very disappointing given the delays we've had already, and it just puts more pressure on us for the winter knowing there will be fewer M-8 cars in service," Cameron said.

"If we have more of these setbacks, we need to plan for the winters to come when we won't have the number of M-8s that we hope for."

Winter worries

Over the winter months between late December and February between one-third and one-half of Metro-North's rail fleet was out of service because of damage caused by blowing snow and harsh weather conditions.

Laura Alemzadeh, general counsel for Kawasaki, said that work on the M-8 cars has resumed at the Lincoln, plant, with production to gradually reach full capacity by the end of May. The supplier who fabricated the undersized metal pieces has begun to deliver a corrected version of the component, Alemzadeh said.

"We're working on the cars and the parts are available," Alemzadeh said. "We're working through this to make sure we can get the cars built and delivered to our customers as soon as possible."

Everhart, the DOT spokesman, said some setbacks can be expected near the start of production of complicated rail cars like the M-8, which Kawasaki engineers have said is the most complex rail car ever built for use in North America.

"While the bracket issue per se could not have been anticipated, it is not at all unusual that some kind of issue crops up that warrants immediate attention -- even if it means a temporary halt of production," Everhart said. "As we have said, this is not a process to be rushed."

As work continues, Metro-North has sent inspectors from Louis T. Klauder and Associates -- a Pennsylvania-based firm hired by the MTA to carry on inspections of the cars on the production line -- to both the Kobe, Japan, and the Lincoln plants to monitor the manufacturing process and identify necessary adjustments and changes needed to ensure the cars are built properly, Anders said.

"Every setback is a big setback and nobody wants these cars more than we do," Anders said. "But we're going to get them right and not going to accept them unless they are correct."

After an intended late 2010 debut of the first set of M-8 cars was scrapped because of software glitches, the first of the state's M-8 rail cars made their inaugural run on March 1 with a run from Stamford to Grand Central Terminal.

Late last year, the MTA approved a $12.25 million, seven-month contract extension for Klauder to resolve the software problems, including an issue with the cars' central diagnostic system, that produced false codes identifying problems on the car during some tests.