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LIRR says new trains delayed again, undergoing 'operational testing'

The newest fleet of LIRR trains, the M9s,

The newest fleet of LIRR trains, the M9s, are parked at the Kawasaki Rail facility in Yonkers on May 7. Credit: Bruce Gilbert

The first of the LIRR’s newest fleet of train cars, which officials said would debut this month, will be delayed several weeks as the manufacturer works through "a variety of issues" that have come up in testing, a railroad spokesman said Tuesday.

LIRR spokesman Aaron Donovan said the "M9" train cars, manufactured by Kawasaki Rail Car Inc., will not be ready and that the railroad is "disappointed [in] Kawasaki’s failure to do this work in a timely manner and will hold them accountable to their contractual obligations." LIRR president Phillip Eng hinted at the latest delay during a Metropolitan Transportation Authority railroad committee meeting in Manhattan on Monday.

Railroad officials did not provide a new target date to roll out the electric cars, but said they expected it would be in several weeks. Earlier this month, the LIRR said rollout of the cars remained on schedule — following multiple delays, including from damage caused in a derailment last year of some of the earliest cars to be manufactured.

Kawasaki did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

Sen. James Gaughran (D-Northport) said Tuesday he was not surprised that "once again this LIRR administration has bungled the rollout of what should be a straightforward purchase." He questioned the LIRR's quality control over the project.

"Riders deserve safety, and taxpayers deserve answers," Gaughran said.

Eng said the first 16 cars manufactured by Kawasaki are still undergoing “operational testing” by the LIRR. The cars must operate for 4,000 miles in test runs without a problem before they can enter into regular service.

“While we’re very excited to provide new cars to our riders and add more capacity to a growing system, we need to make sure that we address reliability and safety,” Eng said. “We will not place those cars in revenue service until the operational testing is completed to our satisfaction.”

The LIRR had said the first batch of M9 trains — 92 of them — would be put into service gradually from May until January of next year. The railroad has exercised an option to buy an additional 110 cars.

The railroad said the new fleet of 202 cars, priced at $734 million, is needed to address booming ridership, which is expected to grow even more when the LIRR opens a second Manhattan station at Grand Central Terminal in 2022 — and to replace some of its antiquated M3 trains from the 1980s.

Donovan said LIRR representatives are meeting daily with Kawasaki, as the railroad is "as eager as our customers to provide increased capacity with these new railcars."

"But we must ensure each car is upheld to the most rigorous safety and compatibility testing before we put them into service," Donovan added.

The M9 cars will include several new amenities, including electrical outlets at every row of seats, automatic pocket doors in between train cars that open with the press of a button, and digital displays that tell riders which car they’re in (e.g.: “Car 2 of 6”). Another digital display on the exterior of the front car of the train will tell passengers waiting on platforms the train's destination.

Other new features will include “no-touch” hand dryers, toilets, soap dispensers and faucets in bathrooms, increased window tint to reduce sun glare, four 32-inch multimedia screens in each car, and slightly wider seats, the LIRR has said.

In recent months, some riders have caught glimpses, and shared photos and videos, of the trains — recognizable by their blue-and-yellow striped exterior — as they have crisscrossed the LIRR system while being tested.

Gary Farkash, a regular LIRR rider and secretary for the Oyster Bay Railroad museum, said commuters and rail historians alike are eagerly awaiting the new cars. But Farkash cautioned against rushing the trains into service before the kinks are ironed out. He noted that the last time the LIRR introduced a new electric fleet in 2002, the armrests on the M7 trains ripped several customers' pants pockets. The M9 trains were designed with "closed loop armrests" to avoid clothing snags.

Farkash recommended running several test trains with commuter focus groups, getting their feedback, and making any necessary changes before putting the trains into regular service — even if it takes several more months.

“We want these cars badly. But at the same time, if you get these cars into service and something goes wrong, they’re going to yank these cars out of service. What useful purpose was served?” said Farkash, of Baldwin, said. “Do it right . . . You only have one chance to make a good first impression.”

Timeline for new M9 trains

September 2013: The MTA Board awards a $1.8 billion contract to Kawasaki Rail Car Inc. for the design and manufacture of new M9 electric train cars for the LIRR and Metro-North. The first 92 cars, budgeted at $375 million, are slated to begin rolling out in September 2017.

June 2015: The LIRR makes some changes in the specifications of the trains to include additional onboard cameras and to improve crash-worthiness. Many more “change orders” would follow in the coming months and years.

July 2015: Another change to the design of the new cars is required when the LIRR realizes it did not set aside enough space to fit federally mandated crash-prevention equipment.

November 2015: The LIRR pushes back its targeted rollout date for the trains to January 2018, and raises the cost of the first 92 cars to $377 million, from the original $375 million.

June 2016: The LIRR again pushes back the M9 rollout to November 2018, citing the need to "amicably resolve a number of open issues that have arisen during the design phase of the project." The LIRR also releases the first images of a “mock-up” M9 train.

December 2016: The LIRR raises the estimated cost of the first 92 cars to $381 million.

October 2017: The LIRR raises the estimated cost of the first 92 cars to $382.4 million

May 2018: Some of the first M9 cars are spotted in New York, being hauled by a freight train.

October 2018: The LIRR pushes back its M9 rollout to May 2019 after eight of the first cars to be manufactured are damaged in a yard derailment before they can be delivered to New York. The budget for the first 92 cars climbs to $402.9 million.

May 2019: Early in the month, LIRR says it remains on schedule to roll out the cars by the end of May. On May 21, LIRR president Phillip Eng says the cars are still being tested and that they won’t be put in service until the testing is complete.

SOURCES: LIRR, Newsday reporting

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