Train seat additions may be delayed

Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell may be unable to keep her promise to add 2,000 seats to the state’s rail system by the end of the year, due to delays in the refurbishment of 14 recently purchased rail cars.

Connecticut’s Department of Transportation spent $14 million to purchase 26 cars from Virginia Railway Express last year in an effort to alleviate crowding on Metro-North’s New Haven line, but only 12 of those cars are currently in use, state DOT spokesman Chris Cooper said. The remaining 14 cars need to be refurbished, and delays in finding a contractor qualified to perform the required exterior cosmetic changes and minor mechanical work have prevented their integration into the rail fleet, he said.

Last Thursday, Rell wrote a letter to the Connecticut DOT demanding that the department reopen the search for a qualified contractor by the end of this week, Rell spokesman Judd Everhart said.

“Governor Rell was angry that she did not know [about the delay], and that it’s been roughly six or seven months since the DOT learned there were no qualified bidders,” Everhart said. “Her office had not been notified until last week.”

Cooper said that although the delays are unfortunate, 1,200 seats have already been added to the system. The difficulties in choosing a contractor were caused by inadequate specification guidelines, which may have prevented contractors from committing to the project, he said. Engineers have been working to produce a revised specification document, and the search for a new contractor will restart by the end of the week, he said. Cooper said a contract should be signed by February, and the integration of the refurbished trains into the general fleet is slated for March or April.

Metro-North/Shoreline East Rail Commuter Council Vice Chairman Jim Cameron said the delays are unfortunate, especially given the recent increase in ridership and the problems that the old rail cars may face as weather conditions worsen.

The used Virginia Railway cars were acquired to serve temporarily while the Connecticut DOT prepares to purchase new cars, which are slated for purchase in the winter of 2008, Cooper said.

“[The VREs] have a lot of life left in them,” Cooper said. “They would give us the luxury to have some surplus equipment. Although the VRE cars are a temporary measure to get more seats on the New Haven line, they won’t go into the graveyard after the new cars are here.”

More permanent solutions are currently being implemented as part of the effort to solve problems with aging equipment, Cameron said. One of the most noteworthy improvements, he said, is a five-year program to replace critical electronic equipment on the Metro-North fleet, which is more than 30 years old.

But Cameron said the VREs are crucial for increasing capacity, as they will take the place of old cars on many Connecticut branch lines, freeing up more cars for the New Haven line. The VRE cars will not be used on the New Haven line because they are not self-propelled and are therefore incompatible with the electric rail line.

Regardless of whether capacity issues will be solved by the introduction of the VRE trains, Cooper said winter will pose further problems for the aging Metro-North fleet, especially on the New Haven line.

In the winter of 2003, one-third of Metro-North cars on the New Haven line were shut down because snow got into engine compartments, freezing them solid. Though last winter was more harsh than that of 2003, he said cars escaped damage because the snow was wet and packed as opposed to the dry, powdery snow that is worse for railcars. Depending on the snow’s consistency, Yale students travelling to New York may once again be delayed, Cameron said.

But Cooper said new technologies, such as canvas covers to prevent snow from freezing engines, have been used on Metro-North cars to fight the winter weather conditions. He said he thought the new measures, and not the lighter snow consistency, prevented the cars from freezing last winter, and should be expected to prevent significant problems from occurring this year as well.

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