After years of debate and an upcoming two-train R211 pilot program, the MTA is set to embrace open gangway subway cars in a big way next week when the MTA Board votes to begin the procurement process for contract R-34262. More commonly known as the R262 contract, this order of over 1360 new subway cars for the A division will replace the R62 and R62A cars currently in use on the 1, 3 and 6 lines and the 42nd St. Shuttle, and the entire order will feature open gangways, connecting five-car sets and increasing capacity on each train by around 8-10 percent.
The open gangways aren’t the only part of the R262 cars that look toward a future with more capacity. The R262s will also be fully equipped with CBTC capabilities, a key element of the plans to resignal the subways and increase throughput on, notably, the Lexington Ave. line. As the MTA Board summary notes, the R262s will replace 1139 R62 and R62A cars, and if the MTA opts to exercise both options for all 1364 of the 51-foot-long cars, the A Division fleet will grow by 225 cars or up to 22 more trains.
It’s far too early to know how the MTA plans to deploy these cars. After all, delivery on the first of the R262s isn’t expected until 2024, and the successful CBTC build-out is years as well. For now, the Board materials simply state that the increased fleet size will “support ridership growth as well as other operational needs.”
In fact, the issue under review by the Board isn’t yet the actual contract to build the R262s. The MTA is instead seeking permission to bypass the standard competitive bidding process and instead issue a competitive RFP. How “competitive” the bidding can really be one way or another is an open question I’ll return to shortly. As the staff summary prepared for the MTA Board said, normal competitive bidding isn’t appropriate for rail car procurement.
“Utilizing the RFP process will allow NYC Transit to select the proposal that offers the best overall value through negotiations and evaluation based on criteria that reflect the critical needs of NYC Transit,” read the staff summary. “More specifically, NYC Transit will be able to consider factors including: (1) the technical proposal, overall technical qualifications including the quality of product, experience of proposer, delivery schedule; (2) overall project cost and financial benefit to NYC Transit; and (3) other relevant matters.”
The Board had originally intended to vote on the request for an RFP last month, but the decision to embrace an all-open gangway design came as a surprise. Although the MTA Board has been a loud voice in the push for the agency to move to a standard open gangway design, MTA Board members told me that they were not aware of the shift in philosophy until handed the materials. They wanted more time to study the proposal and understand the move to open gangways, and they plan to vote on proposal next week.
Getting the MTA to follow a path forward on open gangways has been a near-Herculean effort spanning the better part of a decade. The agency’s 20-year assessment issued in 2013 identified articulated trains as a clear need, but over the next few years, a debate emerged as to whether NYC could handle open gangways both technically and practically. It always reeked of New York exceptionalism to me. Other cities that use open gangways have train routes that curve and buskers and beggars alike that roam the subways. The problems were of a fear of change and lack of creativity.
When Gov. Cuomo finally grew interested in the subways in mid-2016s, he embraced open gangways. By then, the agency had already indicated the R211s would include an open gangway prototype and an option to add around 700 open gangway cars, but Cuomo’s push and behind-the-scenes work by his Board appointees has led to an all-open gangway R262 order. It is years too late, and the delay essentially means that the NYC subways can’t feature 100% open gangways until the mid-2070s at the earliest. But it’s a positive step nonetheless.
Those R211 test cars, meanwhile, are inching ever closer to becoming a reality. The MTA unveiled new photographs of Kawasaki’s test cars under construction, and delivery is still scheduled for May of 2021.
But with that future in sight, who will be around to build it? Alstom dropped a bombshell on the rolling stock industry this weekend as it announced a purchase of Bombardier Transportation, manufacturers of the problem-plagued R179s (and various other problem-plagued cars around the world). It’s not clear yet the extent of the penalties MTA intends to levy against Bombardier, but the new debarment regulations could disqualify Alstom, as Bombardier’s new owner, if Bombardier faces debarment.
Even without debarment, the Alstom takeover of Bombardier leaves Alstom and Kawasaki as the two remaining players in the New York City rolling stock world. Siemens could try to enter the market, and CRRC wants in, despite political concerns over Chinese government involvement in rail car manufacturing. Stadler has an increasingly presence in the U.S. as well, but whether they’re interested in New York remains to be seen.
No matter how it plays out, though, open gangways are finally on the horizon this time around as New York finally looks to catch up with the rest of the world.