A new M9 train pull into the Huntington LIRR station...

A new M9 train pull into the Huntington LIRR station for its debut trip to Hunterspoint Avenue in September 2019. Credit: Barry Sloan

For years, beleaguered Long Island Rail Road commuters have been waiting to ride in the railroad's newest train cars.

But three years after the M9 cars were supposed to be in service, riders are still waiting to catch a train with the car they call a "unicorn" because it's so rare. More than a third of the cars — which feature wider seats, digital screens, better displays and armrests, more electrical outlets, brighter lighting and automatic sliding doors — still haven't been delivered. What's more, the train car manufacturer, Kawaski Rail Car Inc., owes the LIRR millions of dollars in damages for the delays. 

According to a troubling audit by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, the LIRR is partly to blame: The railroad accepted cars that were defective, failed to collect funds it was owed, and did not comply with key guidelines.

Sadly, none of this is new. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the LIRR have long had problems with Kawasaki, which received the contract to manufacture the M9 cars in 2013. Nearly three years ago, as delays and problems persisted, LIRR leadership vowed to hold Kawasaki "accountable" and Kawasaki executives, in a grilling by the MTA board, promised "to recover as much time as possible." 

But little has changed.

The audit noted that as of August 2020, the LIRR had accepted 62 cars that contained 9,230 defects or deficiencies. Some problematic cars accepted in 2019 didn't get fixes until a year later, the comptroller said. LIRR officials pushed back against the audit's findings, noting in some cases that they were following provisions in the contract, or industry best practices, and in others that they already had done what the comptroller requested.

Nonetheless, there's more for the railroad — and the MTA — to do.

The LIRR unfortunately has limited options when it comes to choosing a manufacturer who can build the cars it needs. So, the solution isn't as simple as switching vendors.

But it's clear that the railroad's oversight was and continues to be insufficient. Knowing the company has been problematic, the LIRR should be shining a constant spotlight inside Kawasaki's facilities, so it's acutely aware of delivery schedules and potential defects. The LIRR has to improve its testing, its assessment of problems, and its ability to correct them. And the railroad has to collect the money it's owed — a figure that could approach $12 million by the time the contract is completed. Going forward, the LIRR also must develop tougher contracts with more severe penalties to force companies like Kawasaki to do better.

It's easy to blame Kawasaki. But ultimately, the LIRR and the MTA are responsible. Officials must be willing to make the necessary changes to improve accountability, develop better controls, and make sure vendors do the work without error and on time.

Perhaps then these cars — and other future improvements — will no longer be unicorns.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.