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Stringer Blasts MTA, Subway Car Maker Over ‘Lemon’ Trains

Comptroller Scott Stringer and Deputy Comptroller for Audit Marjorie Landa announce results of investigation into MTA contractor Bombardier, on Dec. 9, 2019.
Comptroller Scott Stringer and Deputy Comptroller for Audit Marjorie Landa announce results of investigation into MTA contractor Bombardier, on Dec. 9, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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The MTA spent $600 million on a “lemon”-ridden fleet of new subway cars, City Comptroller Scott Stringer charged Monday.

An audit by the financial watchdog slams the transit agency and Canadian railcar manufacturer Bombardier for a string of defects — including welding cracks and testing failures that have snagged commuters since the first cars were introduced in 2017.

Problems with the 300-car order have forced the MTA to spend an extra $35 million on maintenance to keep the oldest trains in the system — in service since the mid-1960s — from being retired.

“It’s the convoluted story of warning signs, abysmal project management, missed deadlines, technical breakdowns, delay after delay,” Stringer said. “It is a case study in what not to do.”

‘It’s Called a Lemon’

THE CITY last month reported on the woes that have hampered Bombardier’s new R179 subway cars since the trains began test runs on the J line two years ago. The subway’s newest railcars have been breaking down more frequently than some in service since the 1980s.

“What do you call a new car that needs repairs as soon as you buy it?” Stringer asked. “It’s called a lemon.”

A new model A train (R179) pulls into Penn Station, Nov. 20, 2019.
A new model A train (R179) pulls into Penn Station, Nov. 20, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

All 300 cars from the November 2012 order were supposed to be in service by January 2017, but Bombardier delivered less than 10% of the cars by the target date. As part of a settlement with the MTA, the company agreed to add 18 cars at a discounted rate.

“Bombardier let the MTA down, Bombardier let New Yorkers down,” said Andy Byford, president of New York City Transit. “That’s why we held them to account.”

Some 15 of the 318 cars have yet to be delivered to the MTA, a Bombardier spokesperson told THE CITY, adding that many are running on the A/C and J/Z lines, while others are “in various phases of the delivery and commissioning process.”

“We remain focused on completing delivery of the remaining cars by the end of this month,” said the spokesperson, Maryanne Roberts.

In the audit, the MTA’s New York City Transit division countered some of Stringer’s findings, saying the report fails to “recognize the complexity of the typical rail vehicle design and manufacturing process and the valid reasons for delays that occurred.”

Those delays have extended the service life — and increased the cost of upkeep — for the R32 subway cars that have been in use for more than half a century. According to the MTA’s online Subway Performance Dashboard, those cars in October encountered mechanical failures every 29,715 miles — the worst in the subway system.

Getting Better, Slowly

The new subway cars have shown increasing signs of reliability, according to MTA figures, though they still break down more often than some older models.

In October, the R179 cars failed every 156,962 miles, on average. That’s a major improvement from March, when the cars encountered problems every 91,179 miles, MTA data shows.

Bombardier is contractually required to maintain a 150,000 mile average or higher breakdown rate.

“They’re getting the quality right, as you would expect toward the end of the production,” Byford said.

One sanction that was considered, but ultimately rejected by the MTA, was declaring default on Bombardier’s contract with the transit agency.

“To me, it made much more sense to push on and get the new cars that New Yorkers wanted,” Byford said. “But at the same time, to leverage and penalize Bombardier to the fullest.”

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