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Four new diesel rail cars Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit planned to put on the tracks in December to close a hole in its nightly weekday schedule arrived here from Japan damaged, delaying any schedule changes on the commuter rail line until at least the middle of next year.

SMART officials had hoped to incorporate the pair of two-train sets into its existing fleet of 14 cars to help address what it recognizes are shortcomings in existing service.

“We made good guesses what the schedule should look like,” Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager, told the agency’s 12-member board earlier this month. “A year later, (we’re) getting great feedback from members of the public. We were all gunning to do all of this. Now we don’t have the vehicles.”

The new cars cost $11 million and were a separate purchase from an original $46 million order SMART placed with Nippon Sharyo in 2010. The company previously assembled the trains in Illinois, but the new cars were built at its factory in Toyokawa, Japan, before boating them to a port in Savannah, Georgia. From there, the 149-ton rail cars were shipped across the country aboard Union Pacific’s freight line.

Somewhere in transit, the cars were damaged when they arrived last month to the North Bay’s public rail agency — one set more than the other.

“Either in the railyard or on Union Pacific Railroad, something happened,” said Husani Longstreet, SMART’s superintendent of vehicle maintenance. “We don’t know. There has been an investigation; however, nothing from Union Pacific at this time.”

Nippon Sharyo flew out a team of engineers to inspect the damage and order new parts to replace those that can’t be fixed. The Japanese manufacturer will cover the cost of new parts and repairs, and SMART officials were told one set of rail cars will now be ready in the spring, while the other set won’t be available until the summer.

“It really was an incredible bummer,” SMART board member Jake Mackenzie said. “It was damage to the extent that instead of putting them in operation, being certified and ready to go next month, all of a sudden it’s next spring and next summer to add them to service and make improvements to schedules. Just incredible.”

After SMART eventually accepts the four additional cars, which door to door take about two and a half years to deliver once an order is confirmed, the agency will quickly look to get them out on the tracks. Officials see the deployment of new trains as part of a grander plan to expand schedule options as it prepares for the new Larkspur extension and downtown Novato station offering service starting in late 2019.

To reposition trains down the line and reduce the lengthy 90-minute evening gap, SMART is considering cutting the lightly traveled first weekday train south, which departs Sonoma County Airport at 4:19 a.m. Under the current schedule, that would make the first train a 4:49 a.m. trip that arrives to San Rafael just before 6 a.m.

“If you miss the 5:29 train, there is no train till 7 o’clock,” Mansourian said of the northbound evening trip. “If we cannot close the 90-minute gap, then can we make it 60 minutes? Again, the whole goal is to close partially or the entire gap in the afternoon, and add some (service) in the morning.”

Based on ridership, SMART is also reviewing dropping the last weekday train north, which departs from San Rafael at 8:35 p.m. and gets to the Sonoma County Airport at 9:42 p.m. That would make the last northbound departure a 7:59 p.m. train reaching its airport terminus just after 9 p.m.

The year-old North Bay commuter rail line is presently collaborating with other regional transit agencies to align schedules and lengthen transfer times by a few minutes between train and bus connection services — another consistent complaint of riders. Adding an earlier train on the weekends is a top priority moving forward, too.

Over the next two months, SMART also will conduct a travel time and reliability study to review how best to integrate both the Larkspur and downtown Novato stations, as well as the planned extension to Windsor and second stop in Petaluma. The future Healdsburg and Cloverdale stations also will be part of that analysis to ensure timing is considered across the line.

“While we think we can do this, does this actually work?” Mansourian said. “In other words, can we add a train or two and still be able to function on a single track? We’re getting there, hopefully. We keep getting dealt with these issues here and there, but we’re working on it.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to correct where the damaged train cars were built, and how they were shipped. The manufacturer’s United States plant closed in August.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or at kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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