Software glitch derails delivery of new Metro-North cars
The promised December debut of the new New Haven Line M-8 rail cars has been pushed back to February, as Kawasaki Rail Corp. works out software glitches that caused the cars to disrupt railway signal systems in recent tests, officials said Tuesday.
Metro-North Railroad President Howard Permut and state Department of Transportation Commissioner Jeffrey Parker said the problem appeared in November during test runs and involves electromagnetic interference from the cars' propulsion system throwing off track-side signal equipment.
That problem should be solved in a week, allowing Kawasaki three to four weeks of simulated passenger runs along the New Haven line, during which the first eight pilot cars must log a minimum of 4,000 track miles without a failure. Parker said the DOT and Gov. M Jodi Rell expected to resolve any issues and make the announced debut that Rell and he in November promised during a news conference and inaugural ride for members of the press.
"At that time, we had every expectation of being able to make that debut," Parker said. "I assure you, the governor is very disappointed." Kawasaki, the manufacturer of the cars, has already fixed a separate problem involving the cab signalling system which informs engineers when to safely depart and maximum speeds allowable, which also contributed to the delay.
Permut and Parker both said it was preferable to push back the start date than rush an effort to address problems central to safety and reliability of the 342-car fleet, an $866 million investment by Connecticut and Metro-North Railroad.
"This is a critical procurement for the New Haven line," Permut said. "These are the most complicated railcars in North America, the only cars that run on both AC and DC current ... It is a very complicated car but we think it will be an excellent performer." The DOT initially planned to have the 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.
Rich Harris, a Rell spokesman, said the outgoing governor, who ordered the cars in 2005, had hoped to be in office to see the cars in public service.
"This is something she had worked toward for a very long time and was very hopeful that they would be ready to go this month," Harris said. "But it is obviously important that the cars be as safe as they possibly can be to serve Connecticut commuters." Colleen Flanagan, transit director for Gov.-elect Dannel Malloy said his administration would address possibly delaying the next of an annual series of legislatively enacted percent rail fare hikes if delays in introducing the cars persist.
Tim McCarthy, senior vice president of Metropolitan Transportation Authority capital programs, said any significant failure during the upcoming test runs would require Kawasaki to revamp any faults and begin the 4,000 mile test again.
After the first eight cars meet that standard, subsequent cars arriving from Kawasaki factories in Kobe, Japan and Lincoln, Neb., would need to operate for 1,000 track miles error free before taking on paying customers.
"Kawasaki would be responsible for the costs of any additional testing and also has contractual obligations to deliver the cars," McCarthy said.
On Tuesday afternoon at Grand Central Terminal, passengers waiting to board the 5:03 p.m. local train to Stamford and Fairfield said they could accept an additional delay to fine-tune the cars but complained of dirty rest rooms, heating and air conditioning breakdowns, and scarce seating on the M-2 cars.
Howell Lunn, a 31-year-old equity trader who lives in Fairfield said finding a seat aboard Connecticut's M-2 trains was a constant scramble.
"By the time this train leaves, every seat will be taken and you'll have six people standing in the vestibules," Lunn said. "I'm wondering what the new cars will do, because from what I know they have fewer seats." Drew Brotherton, a 32-year-old Fairfield man, said power outages aboard a packed train car on summer afternoons happened periodically and were unpleasant.
Brotherton said he would not want to pay a fare increase until new cars arrive.
"I haven't dealt so much with a cold car but a hot car with 50 people on it and no windows is terrible," Brotherton said.
Lael Shapiro, a 30-year-old Stamford resident, said that working out safety and reliability problems with the cars is preferable if it would curtail glitches before they went into service.
"You've really got to get that right," Shapiro said. "But I've had some real problems with the bathrooms."