Jan. 08--The company building 39 new Metro railcars has yet to deliver an acceptable vehicle almost six months after the original due date, potentially delaying full service for rail lines scheduled to open later this year.
The first car hasn't passed a required water leak test and exceeds the maximum weight specified in the builder's contract with the Metropolitan Transit Authority. In a Dec. 30 letter to CAF USA, the American subsidiary of the Spanish train-building giant, interim Metro CEO Tom Lambert demanded that the company explain how it will deliver all the cars by the Sept. 25 deadline.
"It is imperative that CAF demonstrate to Metro that it is seriously willing and able to meet its obligations," Lambert wrote. Metro is withholding a $12.8 million payment until an acceptable railcar is delivered, he wrote.
In a reply, CAF's worldwide CEO, Jose Maria Baztarrica, assured Lambert that U.S. representatives of the company would come to Houston to "fix all the various issues."
Continued delay would leave Metro officials with options for opening the lines on time, but possibly not on a full schedule. Fewer railcars ready to hit the street could mean that trains operated less frequently or failed to cover the entire route.
"We can work through it, and we will," Metro board chairman Gilbert Garcia said, stressing the important factor is that CAF deliver high-quality vehicles. "We have to be prepared that the cars are delayed and now we need to have a plan going forward of what we're going to do."
Metro's board is scheduled to hold a special meeting Jan. 15 to discuss options for how to open the rail lines, potentially with fewer cars. Lambert and Garcia said they hope to meet with CAF representatives later this week.
If none of the CAF cars are ready, Metro has 37 vehicles with which to run the three lines. The Main Street Line operated for the past decade with 18 vehicles, so Metro has some vehicles ready to handle some routes, but not enough to operate all the lines at their current or planned pace.
A troubled history
The delays and quality problems add to Metro's troubled history with CAF.
In 2010, as officials geared up for the new rail lines, Metro nearly lost $900 million in federal funding when the CAF contract was deemed in violation of the Federal Transit Administration's Buy America program. Changes were made to focus more manufacturing at CAF's Elmira, N.Y., plant. The project was rebid and Metro got the federal money.
The new problem with CAF comes after a month of celebration for Metro, which opened its first new light rail line in a decade on Dec. 21. The 5.3-mile northern extension of the Red Line is one of three new routes scheduled to open by the end of the year.
The East Line will run from downtown to Altic Street, and eventually to the Magnolia Park Transit Center. The Southeast Line will run from downtown to the Palm Center Transit Center near Griggs and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
So far, the one CAF car to come to Houston has been a dud. It arrived last month after a series of delays. In his letter, Lambert said CAF assured Metro the car passed its water pressure test, intended to assess potential leaks that could damage equipment or let rain into passenger areas, but it failed to do so when reassembled in Houston.
"Thus, we head into January 2014 without having a received an acceptable vehicle," Lambert wrote.
Potentially more troubling is the weight problem. The delivered car weighs more than 100,300 pounds, the maximum weight specified in the contract. Lambert blamed an engineering failure.
The additional weight affects performance and operating costs, since a heavier railcar requires more power. The cars will weigh 9,600 pounds more than specified, Metro spokesman Jerome Gray said.
Reducing the weight is probably the more serious and time-consuming of the problems to fix, said Michael Weinman, managing director of PTSI Transportation, a New Jersey-based rail consulting firm. "It is not a catastrophe, but it can be if it keeps going and you can't fix it," he said.