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OpinionEditorial

Crack down on MTA contractors

Make Siemens pay for shoddy work.

An eastbound Long Island Rail Road train on

An eastbound Long Island Rail Road train on Aug. 5, 2015. Photo Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

In their latest abysmal display of utter incompetence, the highly-paid contractors tasked with instituting all-important safety technology on the Long Island Rail Road seem not to understand the difference between soldering and bolting.

Just more than a month ago, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board was told about critical mistakes made by Siemens Rail Automation and Bombardier Transportation, the joint partnership hired by the MTA to install positive train control braking and crash prevention systems on the Long Island and Metro-North railroads.

Stunningly, the situation has gotten worse. The latest problem: Workers soldered electrical components onto circuit boards rather than bolting them. Heat from the soldering made the equipment defective. Yet, Siemens and Bombardier refuse to be accountable and seem unconvinced they must respond to this shoddy work with urgency.

This must end.

Siemens, a German multinational firm that generated $93 billion in annual revenue last year, holds hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts with the MTA, everything from subway and LIRR signals to bus cameras. Its sheer size and specialties mean it lacks significant competition, so the giant has been able to do the positive train control job badly and get away with it.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo pushed for MTA reform, and the new state budget includes the ability to prevent bad vendors from receiving MTA contracts, a process known as debarment. But the MTA has to determine whether there’s a way to debar, or otherwise significantly penalize, Siemens, while not adversely affecting ongoing work and large projects like positive train control. A 2020 federal deadline to install positive train control means immediate debarment may not be realistic. And the MTA has yet to establish procedures on how debarment would work.

Even if the MTA chooses not to immediately undo its contractual relationships with the firm, it must consider the potential for future debarment. In the meantime, the authority must find and enforce every potential penalty, from public shaming to financial repercussions. The MTA board’s newfound voice of outrage and increased oversight are welcome first steps, and the plan to monitor Siemens’ every move at the vendor’s expense is important. Last Wednesday, the board demanded that Siemens chief executive Joe Kaeser come to its May meeting and answer for the company’s horrible performance. There’s little he can say but much he can do to make this situation better.

Even if Siemens completes the safety project, its history and future relationship with the MTA must be reassessed. The MTA must make public all connections between Siemens and the MTA bureaucracy to expose any coziness between contracting officials and the vendor. And the MTA should start seeking alternatives to break Siemens’ near-monopoly. Some federal scrutiny on possible antitrust violations wouldn’t hurt.

But for now, it’s up to the state and the MTA to do whatever it takes to hold Siemens accountable, and make clear that such conduct from any contractor is unacceptable and will have consequences.

 — The editorial board

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