Metro

MBTA approves $150m of upgrades to commuter rail

The MBTA board agreed Wednesday to spend more than $150 million to purchase seven new locomotives and rebuild 74 coaches, upgrading part of the outdated commuter rail fleet.

The new engines and railcar upgrades, which will largely be covered by federal dollars, should mean fewer breakdowns as well as a more comfortable ride for the thousands of customers carried in and out of Boston daily by these trains, officials said.

But the equipment involved still represents less than one-fifth of a commuter rail fleet that riders know is showing its age.

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“Locomotives are key to reliable service and on-time performance. [That is] what we’re dealing with most on a day to day to basis, to keep very old equipment running,” MBTA acting general manager Jonathan R. Davis said. “We also need to reinvest in some of our older coaches in order to upgrade those . . . for our customers’ comfort.”

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The T leans heavily on its 81 locomotives and 410 coaches, running each roughly 100,000 miles a year, on a system that hauls 65,000 commuters in and out of Boston daily from as far as Newburyport, Worcester, and Middleborough. Most of the equipment is at least 20 years old; some dates to the 1970s or earlier.

Older locomotives mean poor fuel economy, more emissions, and more frequent breakdowns, with mechanical failures accounting for roughly half of all delays. For coaches, age equates to bumpy rides, uncomfortable seats, inaudible announcements, and unpredictable heating and cooling.

Passenger rail locomotives and coaches are designed to last 25 to 30 years with a midlife overhaul to replace or repair nearly all components — though the financially strapped MBTA often postpones those overhauls and pushes equipment past its manufactured life.

The board approved $115 million to perform that midlife overhaul on 74 double-decker coaches built in 1991, and $38 million to purchase seven locomotives. Eighty percent of that purchase will be reimbursed federally. The locomotives will be built by Idaho’s MotivePower Inc., the same company the T contracted with in 2010 to manufacture 20 locomotives for $115 million. Those engines are on schedule to arrive on a rolling basis throughout 2013. That contrasts with the badly delayed MBTA coach order from the South Korean firm Hyundai Rotem Inc.

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The seven authorized for purchase Wednesday will follow immediately after, said Steven Mudge, the T’s senior director for rail and ferry operations.

As with much involving the T, this order has a complicated history. Officials in 2007 said they intended to buy 38 locomotives to lend much-needed reliability to the fleet, but they reduced that to 28 while struggling under the weight of billions of dollars in debt. By late 2008, they were on the verge of awarding the contract to a ­European company that wanted to design them overseas but assemble most in Kentucky.

But MotivePower initiated a challenge over federal “Buy America” requirements, and the T eventually backed off and rebid the contract, choosing the Idaho company but slimming the order to 20, again for financial reasons. Now, seven more are being ordered.

The coaches, built by ­Kawasaki, will be refurbished by New York’s Alstom, which beat Kawasaki for the overhaul on technical merit in the ­MBTA’s review and offered to do the job for less than two-thirds of Kawasaki’s price, said Claudia Russell, the MBTA’s chief procurement officer.

The first of the rebuilt coaches should be back in service in about a year and a half, with the work continuing until 2017.

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That means customers could start seeing those coaches and engines before many or most of the Hyundai Rotem railcars ­arrive, even though the T placed that $190 million order in 2008. T officials summoned the CEO to Boston from South Korea last month to express displeasure and demand accelerated delivery. The company redrew the schedule; it now shows test coaches being delivered to the T at the end of this month, and the first production coaches arriving in January, nearly two years behind — but has not yet provided details for meeting that schedule, MBTA and state officials said.

“We will fire them if we are not satisfied,” state Transportation Secretary Richard A. Davey said, invoking a last resort that would mean an even longer timeline and a probable higher cost.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.