Metro’s troubled new rail cars, for which production and delivery have been delayed by design flaws, are back on schedule, transit agency officials said.
The high-tech 7000-series cars have had a host of issues, including malfunctioning air-
conditioning units, shoddily assembled vinyl seats and door defects. But for the past four months, the manufacturer, Kawasaki, has delivered 16 of the cars per month from the assembly plant in Nebraska — a pace that meets the upper end of Metro’s stated delivery goal, officials said.
Although it’s been clear since last year that Kawasaki would blow its original October 2017 deadline for completing the delivery of the first batch of 428 cars, Metro said the manufacturer is expected to complete the delivery by early 2018.
In a season when so much has gone wrong for Metro — a derailment, a series of scathing federal reports, red-light overruns — it seems that, at least for now, the procurement of the new rail cars is starting to go right.
“It feels good that there’s at least one part of the new Metro that’s moving along — belatedly, but now back on schedule,” said Metro board member Michael Goldman.
And for a system that has largely abandoned notions of expansion in the near future, it’s one of the few shiny new things that passengers will be enjoying over the next few years.
“It’s a vision of what a new-and-improved Metro will look like,” Goldman added. “We can sort of see where we’re going.”
In total, 192 of the cars have been delivered and 176 are in service — enough for 22 eight-car trains that are spread throughout each line on the system. The 7000s are so technologically advanced that they cannot be coupled with older cars and must operate as separate eight-car trains.
Metro is using eight of the new cars to train operators. The remaining eight are in the process of being commissioned and prepared to be placed into service.
Speeding up the delivery of the rail cars from Kawasaki’s plant in Nebraska and cutting down on initial defects was one of the first goals set by General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld when he took over last fall. At one point, he threatened to make a trip to Nebraska to “grab people by the lapels.”
Ultimately, it was inspectors from Metro who went to Nebraska and laid out their concerns about the cars, instructing Kawasaki inspectors on the kinds of problems they wanted scrutinized before the cars were approved for delivery. Since that meeting, Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said, officials at Metro and Kawasaki have been doing a better job of communicating with one another.
“Kawasaki has implemented systems to provide continuous improvement and feedback that have dramatically reduced the number of problems found,” Ly said.
Wiedefeld has assured the board that things are picking up and that Kawasaki has taken significant steps toward eliminating problems.
“We’re getting them as fast as we can,” board Chairman Jack Evans said. “There were a couple glitches . . . but we seem to have gotten those fixed.”
As for how those existing defects were being handled, Evans didn’t have answers.
“No idea,” Evans said. “If it’s not a problem, I don’t look into it.”
According to Wiedefeld’s most recent customer accountability report, the first order of 64 rail cars delivered to Metro have so far been meeting their minimum standard for performance and reliability, as outlined in Metro’s contract with Kawasaki.
According to the contract, once those cars have logged 10,000 miles of travel, they start “phase one” of the reliability standards: For six months, they must average 25,000 miles between problems that cause delays.
After that first phase and as the glitches in the cars are sorted out, the requirement will increase to 50,000 miles of average distance between delays, and eventually 200,000 miles.
Kawasaki did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The new rail cars had long been expected to be the answer to Metro’s reliability and safety issues, allowing the agency to scrap its 1970s-era 1000-series cars — deemed un-crashworthy by the National Transportation Safety Board after the 2009 Red Line crash that killed nine people. Once all those cars are gone, Metro plans to replace the 4000-series cars, which historically have been problematic.
But the 7000s have turned out to be far from perfect.
Last year, it became known that Kawasaki was having trouble sticking to a timeline on assembling and shipping the cars from Nebraska to Metro’s maintenance yards; in November, Metro officials acknowledged that the delivery of the cars was months behind schedule, and that the bolts on the doors were defective and that the quality of the blue vinyl seats was sub-par — issues that prompted a production slowdown as workers tested and perfected new methods to improve assembly.
At that time, Kawasaki was delivering eight cars a month — well below the company’s promises of 12 to 16 monthly.
The problem became so serious that earlier this year members of the region’s congressional delegation met with representatives of Kawasaki and pressured them to find ways of speeding up the delivery process. In a statement released following the meeting, they wrote that “we wanted to stress the urgency of resuming full production and delivery. . . . Further delays will not be acceptable.”
Although Kawasaki upped the delivery pace, physical problems with the cars persist.
Over the summer, the rail cars experienced problems with air-conditioning systems that frequently shut off in the middle of service — problems that have frustrated passengers, who are accustomed to stifling temperatures on haggard 1000-series cars but are shocked to encounter them on brand-new vehicles.
Those problems required a software update to the temperature regulation system; according to Metro, all of the 7000-
series cars in operation have been updated.
And those finicky vinyl seats? Still a problem, as pointed out by one Metro rider via Twitter.
The rider tweeted a picture of one of the car’s signature dark periwinkle seats, the edges of the upholstery already largely unglued from the frame. But even so, he couldn’t quite contain his enthusiasm for the gleaming stainless-steel vehicles.
“I love them,” the tweet said. “But Kawasaki needs to fix a major flaw.”