Officials at the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit District said Friday every engine on 14 new rail cars — which, combined, cost nearly $50 million — are potentially at risk of failing and must be replaced. The stunning development will further contribute to delays in delivering passenger service promised nearly a decade ago under a taxpayer-funded rail initiative.
SMART had been aiming to launch passenger service by the end of the year, but Friday revised that plan and is now targeting late spring of 2017 to finally bring paying customers on board.
However, Farhad Mansourian, the agency’s general manager, conceded that even the new launch date may not be realistic, depending on resolution of the engine problems and progress made on safety testing.
“We’re giving ourselves a target, and at this point, the target looks good,” Mansourian said. “On a monthly basis, I’ll provide the public and (SMART’s) board with an update.”
Besides frustrating potential riders, the delays carry financial implications for the rail agency, which among other things loses out on fare revenue each day that passenger service isn’t being offered.
There were signs prior to Friday that SMART was going to have trouble meeting its self-imposed deadline to start service in 2016. The agency has ramped up safety testing on the green-and-gray trains and at crossings, but is still months away from simulating fare service and getting final approvals from federal railroad authorities to begin fare operations.
The news that the rail agency also is dealing with a potential major problem related to train engines came more than three months after Mansourian and other SMART officials first were notified that a nearly identical rail car in Toronto had experienced a catastrophic engine failure with passengers on board. No injuries were reported.
The rail car was operating on a new line serving Toronto’s airport when a piston-rod penetrated the engine block and caused the train to lose power, Lisa Cobb, a paid SMART consultant, wrote in a letter attached to Mansourian’s staff report to the rail agency’s board of directors.
The car, operated by Metrolinx, is functionally identical to those used by SMART, and was purchased through an option on SMART’s procurement contract with Sumitomo Corp. of America.
The Diesel Multiple Units, as they are called, were developed at the Nippon Sharyo factory in Toyokawa, Japan and assembled at Sumitomo’s plant in Rochelle, Illinois, to comply with SMART’s federal funding requirement to manufacture and assemble the cars in the United States. The engines were built by Cummins, Inc.
According to Cobb, Sumitomo notified SMART officials about the Toronto engine failure on July 6. Two months later, on Sept. 7, the company alerted SMART that the underlying problem was a design flaw in the engine’s crankshaft.
The parties agreed at a Sept. 14 meeting at a Cummins facility in Indiana that the engines would need to be rebuilt.
Several SMART directors said Friday they were not notified about the engine problems until recently.
Judy Arnold, a Marin County supervisor and chairwoman of SMART’s board, said she was apprised of the problems about two weeks ago. She defended the timing of the notification on the grounds that SMART staff needed time to diagnose the problem and to figure out what steps to take to remedy it.