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Get tougher on MTA vendors

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

Delay after delay. Excuse after excuse. Promise after promise.

Enough is enough.

In the latest example of contractor problems plaguing the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, a long-awaited fleet of new M9 train cars is delayed again as the Long Island Rail Road continues to test them.

No one wants cars rushed into service if they aren’t ready. But the problems that have plagued the M9 cars are unacceptable, and the LIRR — the nation’s largest commuter railroad — knows it.

In September 2013, Kawasaki Rail Car Inc. was awarded a $1.8 billion contract — and the first 92 cars were expected to be ready by September 2017 at a cost of $375 million.

But costs rose and delays occurred, thanks to a series of change orders and design issues, some of which were the LIRR’s fault, as well as mishaps, such as when cars were damaged in a yard derailment.

Now, the cars are still weeks away from operating on Long Island’s tracks — and the budget has risen to $402.9 million. Meanwhile, commuters continue to ride antiquated, crowded and sometimes short trains. And the MTA continues to deal with an awful financial situation, having to dip into its pot of cash to pay the added costs.

It’s important to note that much of the train car delay predated current LIRR President Phillip Eng’s tenure. But clearly, there’s more LIRR and MTA management can do to execute proper oversight, to hold contractors like Kawasaki accountable, and to keep projects, large and small, on time and on budget.

The train car issues come as MTA executives and board members continue to pound other contractors for delays and problems associated with the installation of safety technology called positive train control. The partnership of Siemens and Bombardier Transportation has a disastrous record. Most recently, the contractors had to recall key equipment, and then incorrectly soldered electrical components onto circuit boards instead of bolting them.

Only recently did MTA executives and board members take a louder, more active role in pressing the positive train control vendors to do better. On Wednesday, representatives from both companies promised to meet the federally mandated December 2020 deadline.

Perhaps the MTA should give Kawasaki the same treatment.

But even that’s not enough. The question now is whether the MTA can follow through, provide the necessary oversight to make sure the work is done well, and enforce penalties if it’s late and above cost. The authority’s track record on this is poor at best. And it doesn’t bode well that Lee Sander, a former MTA chief executive who didn’t always do a great job of holding costs down on big projects while at the authority, is now a key executive at Bombardier. It’s just one example of why the MTA also needs to examine its internal connections to and relationships with vendors.

The LIRR says its on-time performance on the rails is starting to improve. Yet here we are, talking about other types of costly delays.

Clearly, it’s time to switch tracks.  — The editorial board