Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority officials say a $104 million project to refurbish 86 Green Line trolley cars will take at least a year longer than planned and will cost $11.5 million more because of the time-consuming process of removing asbestos and fixing other mechanical complications.
Last year, T officials proudly announced the first of their refurbished Green Line trolleys had hit the tracks, and said the rest of the 86 would be operational by the end of 2016.
Since then, the MBTA has quietly extended its timeline for the project: Late last year, officials said all of the trolleys, which date to the 1980s, would be in service by “early 2017.” Now, MBTA officials say riders may have to wait until the end of 2017 to see all the cars refurbished and back in service.
Work on the trolleys began in late 2012, and an average of 12 cars are out of service at a time as the project continues. Right now, only 30 of 86 are back on the tracks, and another three are going through testing before being put into service, according to officials.
Joe Pesaturo, a T spokesman, said in an e-mail that it was “disappointing” not to have more of the cars in service, but he said the agency and its customers have been pleased by those already finished — particularly their cleanliness. Officials were eager to do extensive repairs on the trolleys, which had sustained water damage and corrosion from years of use, to provide more reliable service on the Green Line, the nation’s oldest subway line.
The delay is the latest in a series of MBTA contracts that have resulted in postponed deliveries and problems with crucial pieces of infrastructure, including new commuter rail coaches from South Korea’s Hyundai Rotem and new locomotives from the Idaho-based Motive Power Inc. The continued delays for the trolleys come as T officials struggle to convince riders that they can improve performance and make the transit system more efficient and reliable.
The MBTA blames the Green Line project delays on asbestos abatement and problems with the trolleys’ gear boxes. But union workers accuse Alstom, the contractor tapped to complete the rehabilitation work, of shoddy work. So far, Alstom has paid about $313,000 to have T employees complete work under warranty for the company, according to T officials.
“These cars are getting back in very bad shape,” said James O’Brien, president of the Boston Carmen’s Union. “They’re way behind on receiving the trolleys back ... and they come back and they’re still asking our repairers to do the work.”
Pesaturo said the agency plans to seek damages from the company for the delays under its contract, but officials had no estimate of how much that would cost.
A representative from Alstom, a French multinational company with a rolling stock facility in Hornell, N.Y., did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but Pesaturo said the company is “standing behind their work” and has already made improvements to its process.
In 2012, the MBTA awarded Alstom a contract to overhaul the brake systems, operator control screens, exterior, propulsion systems, and several other aspects of the fleet. The first cars were supposed to come back to Boston in late 2013.
But T officials said the contractor discovered several problems early in the process: When Alstom workers first inspected the cars in New York in December 2012, they noticed that the gear boxes — similar to the transmission of an automobile — were in much worse shape than they had expected and required an entire replacement.
While working on the first few vehicles, Alstom also discovered asbestos tucked into the floor covering and some other areas within the cars, according to Pesaturo.
Pesaturo said the use of asbestos in production was common in the 1980s, and the MBTA hadn’t realized the problem before contractors did the overhaul. He said riders were never in danger when riding the Green Line because the asbestos was not airborne.
But problems also occurred after Alstom started delivering the trolleys back to the MBTA. One of the cars had to be sent back to the factory, Pesaturo said. Right now, several cars are being tested by the T’s vehicle engineering staff at a facility near the Riverside station, where Pesaturo said “issues can be discovered or failures can occur.”
Union workers have blasted Alstom’s work. O’Brien called the Alstom project “disastrous” — noting that the MBTA was now relying on its own employees to get the cars in working order while still intending to outsource union jobs to private companies.
He said MBTA workers have been reinstalling the trolleys’ slewing bearings, which help the cars turn on the tracks.
T officials confirmed that the bearing replacements were completed on half of the 30 cars delivered by Alstom. But Pesaturo insisted it was normal to find such issues, and characterized the slewing bearing replacements as “precautionary.”
“These are decades-old cars with more than a million miles on each of them,” Pesaturo wrote, adding that T workers continue to discover “hidden damage” such as “broken brackets and “missing modules.”
Officials also note that the MBTA has been reimbursed by Alstom. “Due to the nature of some repairs, Alstom and the MBTA have decided to perform repairs at the MBTA Green Line facility using MBTA resources,” Pesaturo wrote.
But some riders wish the T could have been more forthcoming about delays for such a crucial project. Stefan Wuensch, a member of the MBTA’s Rider Oversight Committee meant to advocate for customers, said he follows such projects closely, and didn’t know the repairs could now take about five years.
“We’re in support of the MBTA if they have to delay something because they have constraints, but the transparency is what makes the difference,” he said.