The first four of the 75 long-awaited commuter rail coaches being built for the T by South Korean firm Hyundai Rotem are finally in the MBTA's possession. That does not mean customers will get to ride in the modern double-decker cars anytime soon, though they may spot them on test runs.
The four "pilot coaches" were delivered the morning after Election Day to the MBTA's Boston Engine Terminal. (That's the massive purple and blue commuter rail maintenance hangar visible from Interstate 93 in East Somerville.) The double-deckers are the first production vehicles that followed the prototypes, and they will be put through extensive testing before the rest are mass-produced.
Hyundai Rotem broke into the US market less than a decade ago by undercutting experienced competitors on price. The T could barely award the $190 million contract fast enough in 2008; the secretary of transportation at the time asked the board not to deliberate or delay voting too long because of the need to bolster the MBTA's decrepit commuter rail fleet, following a public relations disaster over air conditioning failures and other breakdowns.
But the South Korean company proceeded to miss a slew of deadlines. These pilot coaches were supposed to arrive by Oct. 2, 2010. As it became clear that wasn't going to happen, the company and the T signed a settlement providing 10 months of breathing room but raising to $19 million the total penalties the T could impose by withholding final payments. The company then missed that deadline, plus two more apocryphal delivery dates (April 27 and July 23) this year.
State transportation officials grilled Hyundai Rotem executives in Boston in June, and the T's acting general manager, Jonathan R. Davis, flew to Seoul in September to underscore the importance of delivering the vehicles.
Davis, who toured the newly arrived coaches with Secretary of Transportation Richard A. Davey last week, said the company got the message.
"My trip to Korea, I think, has gotten their focus and their attention and their commitment to adhering to the most recent revised schedule," he said.
The coaches will be put through "static and dynamic testing" — meaning at rest and while moving — and should be carrying commuters by March, said Davis, who was impressed with the caliber of the vehicle if not the timeliness.
"They are a very high quality commuter rail coach, which I believe our customers will be pleased with."
Blue Hill Ave. delays fixed
Drivers who take Boston's Blue Hill Avenue during rush hour can thank Paula Szuflad for regaining an hour or more of lost time a week. The Randolph reader e-mailed over the summer to say she had been commuting along the avenue since June and could not believe how slow it moves.
"The congestion both ways is staggering," she wrote, noting it often takes 20 minutes to travel the 1.1 miles between Morton Street and Mattapan Square. "The lights are just not coordinated. This is one of the worst stretches of road I have ever encountered in my 40-plus years of driving in and around Boston. I don't know how the residents and businesses in this area cope."
Szuflad was right about the lights. I forwarded her question to the Boston Transportation Department, which investigated the matter and discovered that the nine city-controlled lights along the route (Morton is a state light) had fallen out of synch.
That cost motorists as much as 10 minutes of delays on each trip, according to James Gillooly, Boston's deputy transportation commissioner.
Boston is wiring about 20 signals a year to its traffic management center at City Hall, meaning about 500 of the city's 850 traffic lights can be monitored from a control room. The Blue Hill lights are not among those but will be added in the next few years, Gillooly said. In the meantime, the only way to observe them is in the field.
"The wear and tear of life on city streets can cause any number of mishaps to the equipment," Gillooly said, and finding the frayed connection required an inspection down the line, like trying to find the bad bulb that could darken a whole strand of Christmas lights in the old days.
He asked motorists to report problems with other traffic signals to the mayor's 24-hour hotline, 617-635-4500.
A bit of T flood history
In a recent story examining Boston's susceptibility to severe storms, in the aftermath of the direct hit New York suffered with Sandy, MBTA officials said the T had experienced only one severe tunnel flood from a storm in the past century.
"We've gone over 100 years and not had an event except for Kenmore, and there's a policy in place for dealing with that now," said Ed Hunter, the T's assistant general manager for design and construction, referring to the October 1996 storm that sent at least 14 million gallons of water surging into the portal where the Green Line comes above ground between Kenmore and Fenway, knocking out service for weeks. The T now closes the tunnel with an emergency barricade whenever the nearby Muddy River surges to a certain height.
Alas, the T's institutional memory pales against the fail-safe archives of Bradley H. Clarke, transit historian and president of the Boston Street Railway Association . Discounting the many floodings that resulted from broken water mains — and above-ground cancellations of trains and trolleys from snow and other storms — Clarke noted the following additional flooding problems on the underground system:
■ Oct. 6, 1962: Severe rains caused the Muddy River to overflow, with water cascading down the Fenway Park ramp and swamping Kenmore Station. All lines through Kenmore were bused until Oct. 11. Clarke included a photo of unknown origin showing riders rescued by rowboat at Fenway station.
■ Jan. 26, 1978: Heavy rains flooded Central Square Station in Cambridge, causing buses to replace Red Line service between Harvard and Park Street that day.
■ July 25, 1988: Though Wollaston Station on the Red Line in Quincy is above ground, the station is situated below street level, and a 15-minute afternoon downpour flooded the station, forcing trains to run through without stopping and prompting the T to help evacuate 100 people from the station.
Still, not bad for 100 years.