In 2019, the first M9 train made its debut trip. The...

In 2019, the first M9 train made its debut trip. The last of the trains were delivered to the LIRR last month. Credit: Barry Sloan

The Long Island Rail Road’s entire fleet of new electric train cars has finally arrived, LIRR officials said Monday, about five years later than originally scheduled.

LIRR officials confirmed that the last of the 202 cars purchased from Kawasaki Rail Car for about $730 million was delivered to the railroad last month in time to meet the LIRR's latest target completion date of May 2024.

“The LIRR has had all of the M9 cars since April 3,” LIRR President Robert Free said in a statement. 

The delivery marks the culmination of a long and arduous journey for the M9s, which the Metropolitan Transportation Authority hired Kawasaki to manufacture in 2013.

Almost from the outset, the procurement was plagued with blunders and bad luck that led to cascading delays. In 2015, LIRR officials acknowledged that when designing the cars, they failed to include enough space to fit new federally mandated crash prevention equipment, forcing a redesign. In 2018, the first eight cars to be manufactured by Kawasaki were damaged in a derailment before they could be delivered to the LIRR.

Once the cars did start arriving, other issues surfaced, including many defects and malfunctions that the MTA blamed on poor workmanship on the part of Kawasaki. The problems included faulty wiring, incorrect installation of vestibule flooring and problems with bathroom doors, according to the MTA. Kawasaki officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Although the LIRR once anticipated having its new fleet entirely in place by 2019, the first cars didn't roll out until September of that year. Over the next four years, more electric train cars joined the LIRR's fleet in a slow trickle, with delays compounded by supply chain problems that arose during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The anticipated date for completion of the LIRR's order was pushed from May 2019 to March 2021 to April 2022 to September 2023 and, finally, to May 2024. By the end of 2023 they were about two dozen cars short of completing the order.

The relative scarcity of the M9s among the LIRR's fleet of about 1,100 train cars led to some riders dubbing them the “unicorns.”

Having a unicorn pull up at your home station remains a rare and welcome treat among some commuters, including Gail Reiser, who gleefully shared a video on social media of the first time she rode an M9 in March of 2020. “Is this the unicorn? Pretty,” she said. “I think this is the unicorn!”

Reiser, who commutes from Northport on the LIRR about twice a month, hasn't been on one since. She said it's more common to board an 1980s-era “M3" train — identifiable by its faux wood paneled walls and red-and-blue seats often held together by duct tape.

“We pay a lot of money for these tickets … When we actually see the tangible evidence of what's happening with our fares, it's so satisfying and wonderful,” said Reiser, who hopes the completion of the railroad's order means it won't be so rare to catch an M9. “Getting on a train like that, where it doesn't smell, it's not ripped, it's not taped together … it just makes your commute that much sweeter.”

Riders have praised the M9s amenities, though some have complained...

Riders have praised the M9s amenities, though some have complained the lighting is too bright. Credit: Charles Eckert

Many commuters lucky enough to catch an M9 have praised some of its new amenities, including electrical outlets on every row, push-button doors between cars, and closed-loop armrests that are less likely to snag on clothes than the LIRR's previous generation of trains, the M7s. 

One common complaint about the M9s: LED interior lights that could be too bright for some drowsy morning commuters. 

One less-obvious feature of the M9 trains, LIRR officials have said, is its reliability. Last year, the cars averaged an “exceptional” 402,589 miles between breakdowns, according to Free — better than any other model in the railroad's fleet.

Even before the last of the M9s arrived, the LIRR had already fallen behind on its next fleet of train cars, known as the M9A. When it first announced plans for the cars in 2016, the railroad said it expected to have them in place for the opening of Grand Central Madison — then predicted to happen in 2021. The station opened in February of last year.

But the LIRR has yet to award the contract for the new cars, which railroad officials have said would allow them to finally retire the M3s. In February, transit officials included the procurement among a list of capital projects being put on hold because of uncertainty over the MTA's congestion pricing plan, which is being relied on to generate the revenue needed to fund infrastructure investments, including new trains.

“That seems to be the big hold up … Once they're comfortable with the congestion pricing money flowing, that's the first thing I'd like to see. Sit down and negotiate the contract to get the M9As going,” said LIRR Commuter Council chairman Gerard Bringmann, who called the arrival of the last of the M9s “long overdue.”

Bringmann said he hopes the MTA learns some lessons from the M9 experience, including the importance of a “realistic production schedule.” But, Bringmann noted, the MTA's leverage could be hamstrung by a shortage of viable train manufacturers, as it was with the M9s.

“It's not like if you need to go buy a pickup truck, and if you're not happy with Ford you go to Chevy or any number of other dealers. You can't do that with railroad cars,” Bringmann said. “You're very limited. When you've got two or three vendors, it's hard to play one against the other.”

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