In a nearly unprecedented move, the New York City Transit Authority pulled all of their new R179 cars out of service on Wednesday morning amidst safety concerns related to the new subway cars’ doors. Transit President Andy Byford revealed on Thursday that a door on a C train popped open mid-route and that Bombardier, the trouble-plagued manufacturer, found the incident to be “representative of a more systemic problem,” as Byford said. For Bombardier and the R179s, this move is the culmination of years of problems across the manufacture, testing and performance of these cars, and the $600 million, 318-car R179 order, awarded in 2012 and delivered three years behind schedule, looks more and more like a set of lemons with each passing problem.
The news first broke via a Subchat thread shortly after midnight on Wednesday, and as rush hour dawned, the R42s, which had been retired just last month, were back in service. The MTA had to increase headways on the J/Z on Wednesday by about two minutes but was able to run a full rush hour service Thursday using older rolling stock. Meanwhile, the finger-pointing began in earnest nearly immediately.
“Bombardier Transportation alerted the MTA [on Tuesday] that its analysis of two recent incidents, in which all passengers were safe, raised questions about the reliable operation of a door mechanism on their newly-delivered R179 cars. Out of an abundance of caution, NYCT removed all R179 train cars from service overnight for thorough inspection and re-deployed other spare cars to continue service for this morning’s rush and ensure minimal impacts to customers,” Byford said in an initial statement. “NYCT has brought on expert LTK Engineering Services for an independent third-party review of inspections of the cars…As documented, the MTA has identified repeated issues with Bombardier’s performance and finds this latest development unacceptable. We intend to hold the company fully accountable.
Bombardier put out its own statement a few hours later, blaming one of its own suppliers for the issues. “Recently, two doors on cars in the R179 fleet at New York City Transit failed to function as intended. Our investigation shows that the doors were not properly calibrated by Kangni, the door operator supplier. We are now inspecting all of the R179 cars and, where necessary, making adjustments to ensure the safe and reliable performance of the doors for the entire fleet,” Maryanne Roberts, a spokesperson for Bombardier Transportation, said.
On Thursday, in lengthy comments to the press, Byford expanded on the problems. One occurred on December 24 when a door indicator issue brought the train to a halt. That was the incident in which a door popped open while the train was en route. A January 3rd incident caused Bombardier to identify the “more systemic problem” with the reliability of the doors (among other things). “Upon learning this,” Byford said, “we took immediate careful, but immediate, action to ground the fleet. And as I said earlier, that action was consistent our overriding priority and philosophy, namely that our customers’ safety is the number one priority and always will be.” On Friday, The City’s Jose Martinez reported that the R179s had been flagged with 16 incidents between December 1 and the day they were pulled out of the service.
With the fleet on the shelf, Bombardier and the MTA, along with Kangni and LTK, are all inspecting each car. Byford explained the process:
Bombardier originally informed us that they believed the complete full inspections of every 179 car, all 298 of them, could be completed within a matter of days. At this point, LTK, Bombardier and Kangni have been inspecting the cars since Tuesday evening and they have performed initial inspections on 3 trains for a total of 24 cars. So clearly this is taking longer, much longer in fact than Bombardier initially expected and to be frank, that NYC Transit would like. We have directed Bombardier to dedicate all possible resources to these inspections and we still want to see more from them. But, and this is a key point, we will not rush any cars back into service until we are wholly satisfied that it is safe to do so. So it will take as long as it safely takes because we want to ensure this process is completed as quickly and safely as possible. But we are also looking at the systemic and procedural issues revealed in this process and Bombardier has agreed on our direction to a software upgrade to provide an additional level of assurance to the door condition on all R-179s. So that’s additional work, and that explains why the process is taking longer than we initially thought it would.
For Byford and the MTA, this grounding sounds like it will be the last straw in a problem-plagued relationship. Bombardier has not yet been subject to the MTA’s new (and draconian) debarment rules, though the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA called for just that outcome on Thursday. Meanwhile, the agency is going to try to wrest something out of the rail car manufacturer. “The MTA finds Bombardier’s latest and repeated failures with these cars to be wholly unacceptable. We intend to hold Bombardier fully accountable for this issue, and for the other issues we have experienced over the course of this contract,” Byford said, later adding, “We are evaluating all legal options against Bombardier, including the best way to recover costs incurred as a result of this matter.”
Scott Stringer’s R179 Report: A Preview of Problems to Come
Byford’s promise must be music to Scott Stringer’s ears as the New York City Comptroller recently published a scathing report about the MTA’s experiences with Bombardier and the R179 order. I didn’t have an opportunity to write up Stringer’s report before the R179s were yanked from service, but the potential 2021 mayoral hopeful had recently issued a scathing indictment of both Bombardier’s performance and the MTA’s lax oversight with regards to the R179 order. You can read his report right here as a PDF.
The gist of the report was unsurprising to rail fans and MTA watchdogs, and Stringer summarized at a high level:
The audit found that throughout the seven-year extended contract term Bombardier consistently failed to timely meet project milestones, comply with technical requirements, produce acceptable work, and promptly correct serious defects in critical structural components of the subway cars. In addition, the Comptroller’s audit shows that the MTA failed to adequately oversee Bombardier’s contract performance and timeliness and failed to complete required annual contractual evaluations to hold Bombardier accountable.
According to Stringer’s analysis, Bombardier missed 19 milestones (or essentially all of them), including well-documented problems relating to welding and failure to meet testing obligations. Since delivery, the cars have constantly broken down at higher rates than any other new MTA rolling stock, and Stringer did not spare the agency either. Stringer felt the agency should have explored terminating the contract and must institute harsher penalties for late and sub-par performance in the future. In that regard, we’ll see what legal options the MTA pursues over the next few weeks and months.
Stringer took both the MTA and Bombardier to task this week. “The New York City subway riders who foot the bill for the MTA’s $600 million contract with Bombardier were promised new, state-of-the-art train cars to help modernize our ailing transit system. Now, all the cars that were delivered so far have been pulled from service due to critical defects. It is completely unacceptable,” he said, citing his December audit. “Bombardier sold us lemons. Straphangers need the MTA to manage these contracts from the beginning — before the trains go off the rails.”
What Comes Next
The MTA and Bombardier are going to work to get these new cars in order, and eventually, the two parties will head toward some sort of dispute resolution process. With so much attention on the faulty nature of these cars, Bombardier will be under public pressure to provide some compensation. Interestingly, working out a compromise will fall to a familiar face as one-time MTA Executive Director Lee Sander was tabbed to head up Bombardier Transportation’s floundering Americas operation in late 2018. He’s been in charge of dealing with delivery and performance issues in Toronto, and he’ll have to clean up this mess in New York as well.
During comments this week, the MTA has repeatedly stressed the “preliminary” nature of all the publicly available information, and as internal investigations continue, the agency almost seems to be expecting more problems to surface. For now, the old Budd-built cars will roll for a few more miles as the MTA and Bombardier try to make lemonade out of the R179 lemons.