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MTA Board votes to hold Kawasaki 'accountable' for delivering M9 train cars

The MTA in 2013 awarded a contract to

The MTA in 2013 awarded a contract to Kawasaki Rail Car Inc. to design and build the new fleet of M9 rail cars for the Long Island Rail Road. Photo Credit: MTA

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is calling on top leaders of another contractor to appear before the board next month and answer for the ongoing delays in the manufacturing of the LIRR’s next fleet of train cars.

At a Manhattan meeting of the board’s railroad committee Monday, board members approved a motion to send a letter to the heads of Kawasaki Rail Car Inc. requesting them to attend their next meeting in July to discuss problems with the delivery of the Long Island Rail Road’s next generation of electric train cars, known as M9s.

In September 2013, the railroad awarded a $1.8 billion contract to Kawasaki to design and manufacture the cars, which are expected to address the LIRR's booming ridership and replace the aging 1980s-era M3 electric cars. LIRR ridership is expected to grow further once the railroad links to Grand Central Terminal by 2022.

The first 92 cars — priced at about $403 million — originally were supposed to roll out in September 2017, but their manufacturing has been besieged by setbacks, including from design problems and a derailment last year of several of the cars before they could be delivered. The LIRR expected to debut the trains in May, but railroad president Phillip Eng said some new issues that arose in testing again pushed back the rollout.

The railroad has exercised an option to buy an additional 110 cars, bringing the cost of the fleet of 202 to $734 million.

Eng said Monday that about 75 percent of the issues since have been resolved, and that no new problems have come up in testing. But, he added, Kawasaki has informed the LIRR that “the remaining fixes do need additional time to address properly.” He did not give an updated time frame for when customers would be able to ride the trains.

Eng said LIRR officials “are holding Kawasaki accountable” for the delays, and will withhold scheduled payments of $1.4 million per train car until the trains are ready. Additionally, Kawasaki is on the hook for liquidated damages of $500 per train car for every day the delivery is delayed, beginning in July.

Kawasaki, which is based in Japan but has a production facility in Yonkers, did not respond to a request for comment.

Some fed-up board members said action was required to show Kawasaki that the MTA is serious. Committee Chairman Kevin Law suggested the agency take the same measure as when it “threatened” another underperforming contractor, Siemens, with banning them from future contracts.

Siemens was responsible for several blunders in the installation of federally required crash prevention technology on the LIRR and Metro-North Railroad trains, known as positive train control. The heightened pressure from the MTA on Siemens led to the company sending its top executives to answer questions from the board, and offer assurances that it will do “whatever it takes” to complete the project on time.

“This sounds like Siemens all over again, where we have this big multibillion international company, where deadlines and budgets don’t seem to matter,” Law said. “I think the appetite for change is in the air.”

Echoing the need to “demonstrate that deeds are better than words,” MTA Board member Neal Zuckerman proposed sending the letter to Kawasaki. The committee quickly approved his proposal, which Eng suggested he had anticipated.

“I have made it clear to [Kawasaki officials] that it’s only a matter of time, if they continue down this path, that we will bring them in and we will ask them to speak to the board members,” said Eng, who emphasized the potential benefits of the new fleet. "We've seen in the past, when you get new cars and they're reliable, what they can do for service."

Even without the cars, Eng said the railroad's recent efforts to improve service are "making a difference," and added the numbers back that up. In May, nine of the LIRR's 11 branches surpassed their on-time performance goals of 94 percent. Through May, the number of canceled trains — 354 — and the average length of delays — 11.4 minutes — are both the lowest in 23 years, Eng said.

Still, Eng acknowledged the railroad has "faced some challenges in June," including from disruptions caused by infrastructure modernization and maintenance projects. Eng said the "unprecedented amount of work" will continue through the summer.

The railroad's latest June mishap occurred Sunday night, when two cars of a 12-car train derailed inside the LIRR's West Side Yard near Penn Station. There were no passengers in the train and nobody was injured in the derailment, the railroad's third in a 30-day span and sixth since December. 

LIRR spokesman Aaron Donovan said crews were working to put the derailed cars back on the tracks Monday. There was no impact on service, and none was expected, Donovan added.

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