Full delivery of MARC cars still uncertain

Construction problems cause three-year delay

June 16, 1999|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

Three years behind schedule, the $81 million worth of double-decker train cars once trumpeted as a turning point in Maryland rail commuting have become so mired in construction problems that it is uncertain when they might roll.

Kawasaki Rail Car Co. of Yonkers, N.Y., won the state contract to build the cars five years ago, promising to deliver the first coaches in ready-to-run condition in January 1997.

But a string of troubles has affected the project. State Mass Transit Administration officials sought the removal of Kawasaki's project manager, have threatened to exact millions of dollars from the company in penalties and are preparing for a possible lawsuit.

"This has been a less than pleasant experience," said Ron Freeland, the agency's administrator. "We're not happy with the delays. Obviously we've had some difficulties. But I'm confident that when we've worked all the kinks out, we'll have excellent cars."

The first cars arrived in March only to fail speed tests. The cars must run smoothly at 120 mph, while these experienced vibrations at 113 mph. The next tests won't be conducted until fall. MTA officials say the cars won't be running until the end of the year at the earliest.

The MTA, which oversees the Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) system, has refused to formally accept any of the cars until they run properly.

In a telephone interview yesterday, John Lehman, who took over managing the project for Kawasaki a year ago, said: "We'd rather not make any statement at this time."

Other Kawasaki officials did not return phone messages.

The contract for the double-decker cars represented the largest expansion of the MARC fleet when it was approved in 1994.

Each of MARC's 100 coaches seats 80 to 100 people. The 50 new bilevel cars will seat about 132 each and feature more amenities, such as reclining seats, bigger windows and carpeting.

The ability to carry so many more passengers without adding cars or engines or extending station platforms was viewed as a significant and potentially cost-saving benefit as officials eyed the expected growth in mass transit riders.

Kawasaki-built trains of this sort have run flawlessly in Boston.

According to state documents and interviews with state officials, the snags in the Maryland job emerged early and haven't stopped: material shortages, design and quality problems and allegations of poor management at Kawasaki.

"It occurred week by week," said MARC project manager Jack Griffin. "I don't recall any single element. It was always just a delay in production, in materials, or problems with quality."

At first, MTA officials said, they tried to be flexible.

"Most rail projects run a year or two late," Freeland said. "Producing and manufacturing rail cars is a very complex process requiring the integration of steel, plastics, computers, car bodies. As these come together, there is slippage in the schedule."

Repeatedly, he said, MTA worked out project schedules with Kawasaki, only to have the company fail to meet the deadlines.

By Sept. 15, 1997, nine months after the first cars were to be delivered, not one was close to delivery.

The MTA asked that Kawasaki replace Shin Ohta, its project manager, according to state documents.

"MTA has lost confidence in his ability to complete the project," the agency's director of transit operations wrote the company. A few days later, Kawasaki responded that it had confidence in Ohta, and no changes would be made.

But the schedule continued to slip. Ohta promised a "recovery" plan to handle unexpected emergencies, but never wrote one, documents show. The next April, MARC manager Kathryn Waters again wrote Kawasaki to convey her displeasure.

"The inability of [Kawasaki] to maintain the project schedule as agreed is once again a concern," she wrote. "In simplest terms, Kawasaki needs a manager who will make things happen."

MTA officials said they have sought advice from the state attorney general's office to prepare for a possible lawsuit against the company and commissioned an engineering firm to analyze Kawasaki's progress. They will not release that analysis, however, saying it is not a public document.

Ohta was replaced about a year ago. Some progress has been made since then, but Kawasaki's problems have continued. And not just in Maryland. The company also is under fire in New York, where it holds a contract to manufacture 134 similar bilevel cars for the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR).

Kawasaki has failed to meet the schedule of that project, which was expected to be finished last summer. Full delivery is expected this fall. But an independent engineering consultant advised New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority recently not to count on anything.

"Kawasaki has continually fallen short of their constantly changing delivery projections for the LIRR bi-level coach project," according to a report by Day & Zimmerman International of New York. "Until Kawasaki can regain its focus on [the project], any delivery commitments made by Kawasaki are suspect."

The LIRR imposed a $4.2 million penalty on Kawasaki because of the problems and has also withheld $11 million.

The Kawasaki management change has not turned around the Maryland project. This year, state officials have challenged the company for installing older brake hoses of questionable durability and for the quality of friction plates in the cars' vestibules.

As recently as April, Kawasaki's progress trailed considerably behind the agreed-on schedule, according to MTA officials. They are withholding $4.5 million in payments from the company and could assess penalties in excess of $4 million.

Of the 50 cars ordered by Maryland, 14 have been delivered.

The MTA's Freeland is hopeful about the rest.

"They have come up with a revised production plan," he said. "I'm reasonably confident they'll be here by the end of the year. I would not have said that six months ago."

Pub Date: 6/16/99

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