State's railcar plan hits snag
By Mark Ginocchio
September 19, 2004
The state is proceeding with its plan to add railcars to Metro-North Railroad sometime this winter, but the new fleet stands to be smaller than initially estimated by the state and some of those cars could be delayed an additional nine months because of repairs.
Twenty-six used railcars from Virginia Railway Express should be in the state's possession by the end of next month, down from the spring estimate of 38, said Harry Harris, chief of the Department of Transportation's Bureau of Public Transportation. Virginia Railway, which provides commuter rail service in the Washington, D.C., area, wanted to keep five of the cars for a special project and then recently asked Connecticut DOT officials if they could lease an additional seven cars back through July 2006.
Harris said the state would not pay Virginia Railway for the seven leased cars until they are shipped to Connecticut two years from now.
Once the Virginia Railway cars are in the state's hands they need to take contract bids to replace the seats, fix the windows and remove the "VRE" emblem from the side of the cars. Those cars will be on the rails by February, Harris said.
There could be a delay if the wheels, or "trucks," on any of the 12-year-old cars need maintenance.
"We can't tell what condition they're in," Harris said. "The normal process is we replace the trucks every 15 years with Metro-North and that's because we pound them."
DOT officials estimated truck repairs would take at least another nine months, but Harris said he assumes only 20 percent of the new fleet will need it.
"It could even be 10 percent, it could be even more," Harris said. "I have to assume because this stuff wasn't pounded to death that we're not going to find many surprises. We're fairly comfortable that the trucks were well-maintained."
The Virginia Railway acquisition, which will cost the state $14 million for the acquisition of the 33 railcars, is part of DOT's larger plan of adding more seating to the Metro-North and Shore Line East commuter railroad fleets. The DOT hopes it will ease the burden on the state's outdated 30-year-old cars until new state-of-the-art ones can be implemented in 2010.
The Virginia Railway cars, which are diesel engines, will be placed on Shore Line East, and those cars will in turn be transplanted to Metro-North. At 120 seats per car, Harris said even with the reduced number, the Virginia Railway acquisition will still help the state reach its goal of adding 2,000 seats.
Legislators and commuter advocates are not pleased with the possible delays and dwindling numbers.
"This is really disappointing news," said state Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, who was unaware there was the potential for a holdup. "This really reflects another example of heightened expectations and diminished productivity."
McDonald said the strategies to repair the rail fleet have been "haphazard and disorganized." He said he was upset the DOT had not made more of an effort to alert legislators of the delays, no matter how small they might turn out to be .
"This is a critical issue and I haven't heard of any of these developments," he said.
Jim Cameron, vice chairman of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council, said he remains doubtful the state will have enough cars in time for the winter.
"We need as many cars we can get and the timeline is certainly slipping," Cameron said. "We initially heard that these cars would be on (state) property by July or August."
Harris said these cars are not the solution to the problems that have plagued the state's rail system. When the next generation of rail cars arrive, the Virginia Railway cars would be expendable, but for the interim, they should at least be of some help, he said.
"They will take the burden off our current fleet," Harris said. "And the diesel engines are less prone to be affected by the winter weather . . . We're not going into this blind. We're pretty confident."
Copyright © 2004, Southern Connecticut Newspapers, Inc.
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