STAMFORD -- As more M-8 rail cars are introduced on the New Haven Line, the state Department of Transportation continues to deal with glitches that reduce the new rail cars' maximum performance, rail council members were told last week.
Partly due to a design glitch with the pantograph arm, Metro-North Railroad saw the average mileage the M-8 cars traveled without performance problems fall below 100,000 miles in September, Gene Colonese, head of the DOT's rail division said at the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council meeting in Stamford last Wednesday. The pantograph draws power from overhead catenary wires.
In September, the average number of miles an M-8 traveled before repairs were needed was 85,219, a drop from 126,103 miles in August, according to Metro-North statistics. That was lower than the New Haven Line's M-2 cars, the state's oldest, which averaged 113,098 miles without problems, and the M-4 cars which averaged 128,273 miles.
"We had some issues with the catenary that we had to deal with," Colonese said Wednesday.
The design glitch and other M-8 equipment issues are being addressed with the manufacturer, Kawasaki Rail Car Corp., to ensure the cars achieve goals for durability and performance, Metro-North spokeswoman Marjorie Anders said; Kawasaki is responsible for related retrofitting costs.
The M-8 catenary problem stems from a component in the pantograph, a carbon strip that contacts the overhead wires, flexing too much, Anders said. The problem is to be resolved in all cars by the year's end through the application of a plastic stiffening agent to make the strip less yielding, she said.
In addition, Kawasaki and Metro-North have found a solution to another problem -- a banging noise originating from couplings linking the cars together.
Cars already in service will be retrofitted to correct the problem beginning in January, and new cars will have updated coupling equipment, Anders said. The issue does not raise safety issues for travelers, she said.
Kawasaki and Metro-North are also working on warranty modifications to assure modifications to the cars' auxiliary power system are made so the correct amount of voltage is supplied to run on-board lights, heating, cooling and other systems.
"MTA Metro-North Railroad has high expectations for the M-8s and we are confident that Kawasaki will meet these expectations," Anders said. "While we are not satisfied with their performance, we recognize that such a complex car will require a break-in period."
Anders said the period of tweaking the M-8s was anticipated, given the complexity of computerized technology used to operate the cars, partly driven by the need of New Haven Line trains to be able to operate on more than one electrical system.
"This is normal with a new rail car and is to be expected with the M-8, which is the most complicated car in the U.S., with three different electrical modes," she said.
Initially to debut in late 2010, the first M-8 cars were placed in service in Connecticut in March 2011, after software glitches and other problems scuttled the rollout.
Other production delays held back delivery of the first M-8s to the state until December 2009, nearly a year behind schedule, including a problem in 2008, when Kawasaki could not buy steel to build the cars.
In spring 2010, a delay installing diagnostic software aboard the first M-8 cars held up testing of mechanical and computer components controlling speed, braking, restrooms and doors.
Chairman Jim Cameron and other rail council members said they are pleased with the rate the new cars have been put into service and were not very concerned about the equipment fixes.
Cameron said with enough new cars now available to cover nearly half of weekday train runs, while also keeping a large number of M-8s in reserve, he believed they could be retrofitted without significantly affecting service.
"The engineering on these cars is amazingly complex, and I think with any new car there is a certain break-in period and I think the railroad and Kawasaki are working as fast as they can to make sure the cars are as reliable as they can possibly be," Cameron said.
Jeff Maron, a Stamford commuter on the council, said even the most nettlesome issues he has seen on the M-8s, such as glitches with on-board announcements and the occasional stuck door, pale compared to breakdowns on the older rail cars.
While some complain about the air-conditioning system on the new trains being too frigid, Maron said it is welcome compared to the lack of heating or cooling, and even lights, on older trains.
"We're very thankful to have the cars and appreciate that the air conditioning works, and we're now up to almost 100 percent of the number of cars we need being in use," Maron said. "There continues to be a shakedown period where we discover problems that can only be solved through use of the cars and production."
At the meeting, Cameron said customer complaints about the M-8 interiors, such as seat size and temperature, are more common than those about breakdowns or delays.
Westport commuters Susan Eaton and Christopher Wilson both said the M-8's ride is much smoother than older trains, but that the air conditioning is too powerful. Eaton said she often wears a scarf and hat on the train, even in warm months.
"I find the cars are extremely blowy and I wear a hat in the middle of the summer and I do try to find a seat that I think will be less cold," Eaton said. "The seats are also very tight, which can be uncomfortable."
Wilson said the cars are much quieter and cleaner, and will likely prove more reliable, but said they are made less comfortable than necessary by smaller seats and the strong air conditioning. The on-board lighting is also somewhat harsh, Wilson said, recommending a softer glowing bulb.
Six-seat sections -- with two groups of three passengers face-to-face -- are especially cramped, he said.
"As a result, this six-seat area effectively becomes a seating area for 3 people, not 6, as rarely will anyone ever sit directly across from another person," Wilson said.
Anders said Metro-North is working to resolve the temperature complaints by looking at ways of reducing the amount of air volume being used by the system.
After last Wednesday's meeting, Colonese said the September drop in problem-free miles for the new cars is part of a necessary adjustment process. He said he believes the fully vetted cars will eventually run 300,000 to 400,000 miles on average, similar to the M-7 car on Long Island Railroad and Metro-North's Hudson and Harlem lines, which is considered a precursor to the M-8.
The M-7, built by Canada's Bombardier Inc., includes many similar features as the M-8, including centralized computer control, on-board diagnostic systems, alternating current propulsion and single-leaf rather than double-leaf doors.
"We've experienced some issues with the M8s and there have been a lot of little tweaks and fixes we've had to make," Colonese said. "But there is no reason to believe they won't eventually perform at the level of the M-7 fleet on Long Island Railroad and the other lines."