Although the plan was begun well before he took office, Governor Dannel Malloy has signaled interest in completing the purchase of 380 new, state-of-the-art Metro-North rail cars.
According to the agenda for a Connecticut State Bond Commission meeting scheduled for Feb. 2, Malloy hopes to move forward with former Governor M. Jodi Rell’s plan to borrow $81.6 million for the purchase of the remaining 38 Kawasaki M-8 rail cars. The new cars will replace outdated ones on the Metro-North and Shore Line East commuter rail lines.
Kevin Nursick, spokesman of the Department of Transportation, explained the significance of the upgrades, noting that the old cars, known as M-2s, have been in service for over 30 years.
“The technology in the cars has changed significantly, and the reliability has changed significantly,” Nursick said. “The comparison from the old M-2s to the new M-8s is kind of like comparing a Pinto to a Mercedes.”
The 342 Japanese-manufactured cars already purchased by the state cost approximately $900 million. Since the state signed a contract to purchase the first batch in 2006, the entire process has been plagued with delays. Only 24 of the cars, which cost over $2 million apiece, have been received. Of these, none has been put into revenue service are not carrying paying passengers.
Nursick explained that the cars must undergo an extensive testing period before they are fully operational. The last step of the period includes a trial in which the cars must run flawlessly for 4,000 miles.
Despite the length of time it has taken for the cars to arrive and be prepared for revenue service, Nursick explained that there have been “no major setbacks.” He added that he was unwilling to speculate about when the cars will be put into regular service.
“We knew going into this that we’d be taking a new, modern, state-of-the-art rail car with multiple system manufacturers and trying to meet that to a decades-and-decades-old infrastructure,” Nursick said.
The purchase of the final rail cars became surrounded by controversy when, last December, two Democratic lawmakers on the Bond Commission blocked the project funding request to borrow the $81.6 million necessary to complete the purchase. Because of the loss of those two votes, as well as the absence of other members from the meeting, the request was not approved. Rell had hoped to complete the purchase before she left office.
Former Rep. Cameron Staples, D-New Haven, was one of the two lawmakers on the commission who decided to block the request. He thought it was appropriate for the commission to wait until Malloy took office and allow him to make the decision.
“My feeling was that with the very challenging budget that he would be working on as soon as he took office, he would want to do an overall look at the state’s indebtedness,” Staples said. “This $81 million purchase could be deferred until he had a chance to do that.”
Sen. Andrew Roraback, who had a spot on the commission last term and maintains that position this term, was in support of the request in December and remains in support of it with Malloy as governor.
“I thought it was unwise of us not to move forward,” Roraback said.
The importance of updated rail cars has been made clear over the past few weeks, as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has faced operating difficulties with the New Haven Line. Cars have been taken out of service because of the extreme cold and large amounts of snow, with the length of time they will be inoperative varying from car to car.
A statement released earlier last week by Metro-North said, “The extreme weather causes the electronic and air systems on our 40-year-old-plus New Haven Line fleet to fail.”
Railroad riders may, however, experience far fewer similar problems in the near future if the fleet continues to be updated with new M-8s.
With Malloy’s support for completing the purchase and Nursick’s belief that the rail cars already received are nearing their final testing stages, that possibility does not seem entirely unlikely.
The ten-member Bond Commission meets monthly to decide whether it is in the state’s best interest to approve funding requests submitted by the governor.