What happens if the MTA spends $600 million on 300 new subway cars and they don’t work? It’s a crazy question but, in this topsy turvy world of 2017, one with which the MTA is currently grappling as Bombardier’s R179s are not passing their field tests. The MTA has 26 cars on hand for testing, and they just don’t work.
It’s been a while, thanks to my sparse posting schedule, since we’ve checked in on the R179 order, but we are no stranger to the R179’s issues. This order are supposed to replace the R42s and R32s, some of the MTA’s oldest rolling stock, and provide new cars for the J, Z and C lines. But the contract was plagued with problems from the start. Bombardier underbid other companies by nearly $60 million, but a joint venture between Alstom and Kawasaki warned the MTA against relying on Bombardier’s bid. They were right, and in 2015, we learned that delays in delivery due to mysterious production issues would cost the MTA at least $50 million.
The problem has gotten worse since then, as Dan Rivoli in the Daily News details in his latest on R179 testing issues.
The new car failed its first major test carrying passengers on the J line in Brooklyn and Queens. In fact, eight-car test trains were pulled from the tracks three times in less than two weeks since its Nov. 19 debut — dumping riders onto station platforms along the way. The third mishap for the model forced the MTA to suspend the 30-day passenger test cycle for nearly a week, threatening to further delay the delivery of train cars from Bombardier that is already two years behind schedule.
While MTA officials at the time believed it was a solid choice to award Montreal-based Bombardier a $600 million, 300-car contract in March 2012, it has proven to be a manufacturing mess from the beginning. Instead of wrapping up the contract by January 2017, it is now set to be complete by December 2018. Bombardier is now barred from bidding on a $3 billion contract for a future model set to be delivered by 2023. “These cars aren’t doing real well and we have a problem,” MTA board member Andrew Albert said.
Here’s what sidelined the R179 test train, a model destined for the lettered lines:
- Nov. 19 — The train operator’s console erroneously indicated a door was open, when it was actually closed. Earlier that day, the emergency brakes kicked in when a bucket fell onto the tracks from the 121st St. station platform in Richmond Hill, Queens.
- Nov. 27 — The test train leaving the Sutphin Blvd. station in Jamaica, Queens, lost motor power as it trudged uphill at half speed over a standard gap between train equipment and the third rail.
- Nov. 30 — A red light indicating a problem with a door lit up in yet another train car, though the door was closed on Gates Ave. in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
The tests, Rivoli reports, were resumed this past week, and MTA officials hedged on short-term success. It’s not quite what you want to hear when it comes to rolling stock that’s supposed to be around for another 40 or 50 years. “The issues that have been identified are rectifiable and they have been, which is why the testing has resumed,” Phil Eng, NYC Transit’s interim president, said. “We are cautiously optimistic.”
It’s impossible to read this as anything other than indictment of the MTA’s low-bid standards. The agency is forced to accept the lowest qualified bid, and although Bombardier’s bid lost to the Alstom/Kawasaki JV on technical merit, it was deemed good enough at the time. “Good enough at the time” it seems isn’t good enough now, and the MTA has already disqualified Bombardier from even submitting a bid for the upcoming R211s (more on those and open gangways soon). Will the MTA have an internal reckoning with respect to its bidding process? Can we count on these new cars to provide a better ride for passengers used to daily trips on the C line’s own version of the Nostalgia Train?
Bouncing Bombardier from the pool of eligible contractors if a good start, but MTA officials are mum on anything else. Joe Lhota, who was in charge of the MTA when Bomardier on the contract, just wanted to look forward. “What’s important now is not rehashing the past,” he said to The Daily News, “and instead focusing on getting these cars delivered and on the rails for our riders.” For a beleaguered MTA, the R179s have been a worst-case scenario so far as the bad news grows worse.