Metro-North Railroad's newest cars are breaking down far more than the commuter railroad anticipated, forcing the manufacturer to upgrade faulty components and tweak sophisticated computer software.
The M8 rail cars entered service in 2011 and have consistently fallen well short of the railroad's mileage goals between breakdowns.
In 2012, they were 40 percent off their goal of 200,000 miles before breaking down and in the first nine months of 2013, they were nearly 20 percent short of their 240,000 mile goal.
Metro-North spokeswoman Marjorie Anders said the lower-than-expected mileage is part of the process of breaking in the new cars and the number of trouble free miles and durability of the cars will surge as software upgrades and necessary upgrades to car components are made.
At the same time, some of the oldest cars in Metro-North's fleet are outperforming their goals as they are slowly being removed from service. The state is in the process of taking delivery on more than 400 of the new M8 railcars at a cost of $1.1 billion.
An effort with Kawasaki Rail Car Co., the manufacturer of the cars, to make software upgrades has improved the mean distance between failures in September to 294,000 miles and in October to 425,000 miles between problems in those months, Anders said.
"In the development of a new rail car, from conception to completion, changes are to be expected," Anders said. "Naturally we try to minimize changes."
Similar to the M7 railcars that went into service in New York in 2002 and are considered a prototype to the M8, the cars continue to undergo many adjustments as they rack up miles, Anders said, ranging from retrofits when pieces of equipment are found to be not up to specifications to software revisions and updates to improve performance.
Since going into service in March 2011, the M8 cars have undergone 550 "field modification instructions," to address problems, significantly fewer than the 1,000 that have been made on the longer serving M7s, she said.
One issue which resulted in the immediate removal of M8 cars from service were software warnings about the cab signaling system not working, Anders said. The system is designed to alert engineers when to slow down to avoid any potential collisions with other trains that are close by, and the alert resulted in the cars automatically slowing down, Anders said.
"It is important to note that in important vehicle systems such as brakes and Automatic Train Control cab signals, a defective condition is not necessarily an unsafe condition because of failsafe systems," Anders said.
An analysis done on the circuit relays found that the alerts were caused by dust on the relay switches that caused them to issue a warning, Anders said. The railroad expects the replacement circuit boards to be available by February 2014 to resolve the glitch, Anders said.
"The issue with the automatic train control cab signaling system involves quality control at the factory where the relay circuit boards are manufactured," Anders said. "They believe they have found the cause and have taken appropriate action at the factory."
Another computer problem that has sidelined M8 cars is an issue with cars automatically braking due to a component inaccurately measuring the amount of available pressure in the brakes, according to the railroad.
Anders said the components which are located throughout the M8 railcars are being replaced.
As more M8s have come into service the state has reduced the overall number of older M2, M4, and M6 cars in service from 320 down to 184.
In the first eight months of 2013, the oldest of the state's fleet of rail cars, the M2s, which were introduced between 1972 and 1977, outperformed their target number of trouble-free miles, averaging 84,000 miles between breakdowns against a goal of 80,000. That performance is in large part due to improvements made to the cars through Metro-North's $150 million Critical Systems Replacement program, which began in 2003 as a stopgap prior to the purchase of the new M8s. In 2004, those cars averaged 49,452 miles between failures, according to the railroad.
Jim Cameron, a rail advocate and longtime chairman of the former Connecticut Metro-North Rail Commuter Council, said that whether the cars are meeting the mileage goal is less important than the railroad being thorough in fixing problems.
"I'm going to kind of cut them some slack, because if you look at the M7, it also took a couple of years to break them in and identify the problems," Cameron said. "The good news seems to be that it seems to just be software issues rather than the structure of the cars or their design themselves."
Cameron said that the railroad should be candid with commuters publicly about flaws and necessary tweaks that are impacting the cars, especially if they result in lower performance or discomfort.
"It is a very complex machine and it will have teething problems, but all I want is the railroad to be honest with us as to what those problem are and the timeline for addressing them is," Cameron said. "They should also make sure Kawasaki is held to the standard of reliability of service either promised in the contract or certainly implied."
Stamford commuter Jeffrey McGovern said while he was unaware of any trains being taken from service, it appears over the nearly three years since the M8's arrived much of the distinguishably smoother ride the new Kawasaki cars provided has deteriorated.
"When the initial trains came into service, putting the other problems aside, the ride was similar to a smooth cruise ship," McGovern said. "Within the past two years, the ride is bumpy, jolting, and noisy."
Anders said the M8 is perhaps the most technologically advanced rail car in North America because of the requirement on the New Haven Line that the cars be able to run both on overhead alternating current and third-rail current systems.
"The M8 is a great car," Anders said. "This is a typical process that will subside as more cars enter the fleet and modifications are implemented."