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BART ‘Fleet of the Future’ Hits Software, Reliability Roadblock

The $2.6 billion efforts to replace the California transit agency’s aging train cars stalled after it refused to take delivery of new cars until the Canadian firm Bombardier resolves software glitches and other problems.

by Nico Savidge, Mercury News / January 25, 2021
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(TNS) — BART's $2.6 billion project to replace its aging train cars with a new "Fleet of the Future" is supposed to herald a sleek new era for the transit system.

But the future is off to a rocky start. The replacement effort had already fallen well behind schedule before it ground to a halt this month, when BART stopped accepting new cars until their manufacturer, the Canadian transportation firm Bombardier, resolves software glitches and problems with the trains' wheels that have caused breakdowns nearly three times more frequently than the older fleet.

BART and Bombardier once promised they would have more than 600 new cars in service by the end of 2020, with the full fleet of 775 zipping around the Bay Area a year later.

Instead, BART has only received 286 cars, and estimates the full order won't arrive until spring 2023. And that could slip further depending on how long the reliability problems take to fix — BART has estimated it won't accept new trains for three to six months.

Agency officials insist the new cars' troubled debut does not foreshadow longer-term problems.

"Everything we're experiencing is expected in a car project of this complexity," said Dave Hardt, who as BART's chief mechanical officer for rolling stock is overseeing the arrival of the new cars.

Still, Hardt said BART is pressing Bombardier to address the reliability problems.

"They have not made the improvements as quickly as we would like," Hardt said of Bombardier, "and I think they would tell you the same thing."

Bombardier did not make any company officials available for an interview, and responded to a list of emailed questions with a written statement.

"As with all new rolling stock, the Fleet of the Future cars have required some adjustments during their break-in period," Bombardier spokeswoman Maryanne Roberts wrote. "We have developed a comprehensive plan that identifies solutions that will lead to the fleet meeting the reliability levels expected by BART and the traveling public."

Now that the new cars are a more common sight in the system, the days when BART riders would snap photos of their first ride on one, or marvel at their video maps showing the train's location in the system, appear to be over. But even as their novelty wears off, riders' impressions seem to remain positive, with compliments for the fleet's smoother and quieter ride, easier-to-clean upholstery and more modern feel.

"A lot of the other trains are so old that they're pretty beat up," Oakland rider Matt Enpaz said. The new cars, Enpaz said, "are a lot better as far as cleanliness."

The differences are more than just aesthetic. The new cars also have fewer seats, meaning they can hold more riders, especially during peak commute times, and passengers can get on and off trains more quickly because they have three doors, rather than two.

The Bombardier fleet is one of BART's "Big Three" projects — along with a new train control system that will allow for more frequent service and an expanded maintenance yard in Hayward — that when completed will expand the system's capacity by nearly 50 percent. While cheek-to-jowl rush hour crowds have disappeared during the coronavirus era, those projects look ahead to a post-pandemic future when a growing Bay Area adds to the strain on the BART system.

But the new fleet's January 2018 debut came several months late, delayed at one point by a failed safety inspection. Before that, a low-speed crash during a 2016 test run led to embarrassing images of a shining new car beached in a sandy berm.

Hardt attributed the slow pace of delivery to the complexity of BART's car design, which is wider than those in other subways while also being lightweight. More recently, Hardt said Bombardier "really had gotten the production to where it needed to be," meeting BART's target of 16 to 20 new cars per month.

But Bombardier hasn't been able to resolve the reliability problems. Fleet of the Future trains caused delays of at least 5 — and often more — minutes in the BART system 101 times during the second half of 2020. While older so-called legacy cars accounted for more than two-and-a-half times as many service hours as their new counterparts, they were only responsible for 89 delays.

Delays on the new trains are often the result of problems with automatic train control software. Trains will stop and refuse to move until their operators reboot the system, creating delays of 5 to 10 minutes, and often the glitch repeats several times in a day. BART and Bombardier spent months trying to find a fix last year, but their efforts failed.

Roberts, the Bombardier spokeswoman, said the company is developing a software revision for the trains that will be delivered "in the coming weeks."

During wet and rainy conditions, the new train cars also develop flat spots on their wheels more frequently than the legacy cars, requiring a trip to BART's maintenance yard. Overall, Fleet of the Future trains need maintenance every 132 hours, compared to 224 hours for the older fleet.

Hardt compared the new cars' troubles to problems BART experienced when it refurbished the legacy fleet in the late-1990s — those cars also needed repairs more frequently at first, he said, but proved far more reliable after they got over that initial hump.

BART officials said the delays and reliability problems haven't added to the new fleet's price tag. And they pointed to provisions in BART's contract with Bombardier that tie $25 million in payments to the cars' ability to hit reliability goals.

"We are holding the car builder accountable to build a more reliable car," Hardt said. In the future, he said, "We expect the performance to improve dramatically."

©2021 the San Jose Mercury News, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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