Production of new railcars to be further delayed

STAMFORD--Kawasaki Rail Car's work on Connecticut's new M-8 trains was brought to a halt for nearly a month in late March due to a manufacturing error, resulting in a slow build up of production efforts that will only reach full tilt in late May, Metro-North Railroad officials said.

Kawasaki Rail Car laid off 115 workers in late March who were working on Connecticut's $866 million investment in a new fleet of 380 rail cars, Metro-North Railroad spokeswoman Marjorie Anders said. Work was stopped from late March to late April because the metal weld of the U-shaped brackets used to secure equipment to the undercarriage of the cars were found to be undersized, she said.

The flaw would result in premature maintenance problems if not corrected, Anders said.

The production hold up is expected to affect Kawasaki's ability to deliver the expected 60 to 80 railcars in service by the end of the year, Anders said. The manufacturing error is the latest issue to delay the rollout of the new trains, which are more than a year behind schedule.

M-8 railcars already running should be retrofitted with the correct sized welds during normal out-of-service periods, Anders said, preventing additional time out of revenue service.

"Production is starting back up, but it is a serious delay that will impact how many cars we hope to get into service by the end of the year," Anders said. "They have to replace them all."

In March, acting Department of Transportation Commissioner James Redeker predicted the first of the 342 rail cars to be built in Lincoln, Neb., were expected to roll off the production line in May.

Jim Cameron, chairman of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council, said the new delay in car delivery heightens concerns about the railroad's ability to maintain service next winter after the train's antiquated and worn out fleet of cars was knocked out of commission by a series of large snowstorms between last December and mid-February.

Cameron said he hopes the DOT and Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Metro-North's parent agency, will move aggressively on a program to set up a refurbishment program to overhaul one or both of the state's fleet of M-4 and M-6 rolling stock.

DOT spokesman Judd Everhart said a decision on whether an overhaul of the cars will go forward has not been made.

A similar overhaul effort in 2005 rehabilitated 146 of the state's 235 M-2 railcars, improving their reliability and increasing the distance they travelled between significant breakdowns by nearly double.

"I would just say it is very disappointing given the delays we've had already and it just puts more pressure on us for the winter knowing there will be fewer M-8 cars in service," Cameron said. "If we have more of these setbacks we need to plan for the winters to come when we won't have the number of M-8's that we hope for."

Over the winter months between late December and February between one-third and half of Metro-North's rail fleet was out of service due to repairs of damage caused by blowing snow and harsh weather conditions.

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Laura Alemzadeh, general counsel for Kawasaki, said that work on the M-8 cars has resumed at the Lincoln plant, with production to gradually reach full capacity by the end of May.

The supplier who fabricated the undersized metal pieces has begun to deliver a corrected version of the component, Alemzadeh said.

"We're working on the cars and the parts are available," Alemzadeh said. "We're working through this to make sure we can get the cars built and delivered to our customers as soon as possible."

Everhart said some unanticipated setbacks can be expected near the start of production of complicated rail cars like the M-8, which Kawasaki engineers have said is the most complex rail car ever built for use in North America.

"While the bracket issue per se could not have been anticipated, it is not at all unusual that some kind of issue crops up that warrants immediate attention -- even if it means a temporary halt of production," Everhart said. "As we have said this is not a process to be rushed."

As work continues, Metro-North has sent inspectors from Louis T Klauder & Associates, a Pennsylvania-based firm hired by the MTA to carry out inspections of the cars on the production line to both Kobe, Japan and the Lincoln plant to monitor the manufacturing process and identify necessary adjustments and changes needed to ensure the cars are built properly, Anders said.

"Every setback is a big setback and nobody wants these cars more than we do," Anders said. " But we're going to get them right and not going to accept them unless they are correct."