SFMTA Board Approves $32 Million Contract to Repair LRV ‘Piles of Rubble’

The interior of one of the damaged LRVs that will be rebuilt.
The interior of one of the damaged LRVs that will be rebuilt.

The SFMTA Board last week approved a $32 million, six-year contract (PDF) with AnseldoBreda to repair and rebuild seven damaged light-rail vehicles, including four LRVs described as “piles of rubble.” At least one board director, however, Malcolm Heinicke, wanted to know if the agency would be better off buying new LRVs, instead of spending all that money to repair damaged cars.

“The additional thing that concerns me about this is six years. That’s six years or up to six years with seven of our…LRVs that it could take to repair versus buying them new. I realize you don’t just go down to Cal Worthington’s LRV lot and drive seven home,” said Heinicke.

Carter Rohan, the director of SFMTA’s capital program and construction projects, responded by saying a new LRV might cost about $4 million, but only if it were part of a bigger deal. Minneapolis, he pointed out, recently approved a $153 million contract with Siemens to build 41 LRVs at its light-rail manufacturing plant in Sacramento. SFMTA Chief Nat Ford said purchasing only seven LRVs wouldn’t make much sense, and might even cost more and take longer, considering the RFP process, the design and the engineering.

“You really don’t get the economies of scales on these rail cars until you get to the 40, 50 and above number. So, we’re in a very difficult situation here as it relates to these seven cars,” said Ford, who added that he also wanted to make sure the agency had enough vehicles in time for the 2018 opening of the Central Subway.

The LRVs sent in for restoration include two vehicles involved in last year’s West Portal crash that injured dozens of passengers, one damaged in a June 15, 2008 collision at 4th and King streets than sent 12 people to the hospital, an M-line LRV involved in a crash with a garbage truck on April 20, 2006, two LRVs that collided on the M-line on June 3, 2004, a J train involved in a September 23, 2003 crash, and two LRVs that collided at St. Francis Circle in 2002.

Rohan said three of the LRVs will be repaired for $2 million each and should return to service “within 20 months.” The remaining four vehicles could take up to six years to rebuild. At least two of them will get new propulsion systems.

“The main reason is the propulsion system in the old generation of cars is no longer made. Parts are no longer available. That makes it extremely difficult to restore something and put it back when you know that a product is no longer in line or being tooled out,” said Rohan.

Added Director Cameron Beach: “These seven cars have to still be able to couple and train-line with the existing fleet. You couldn’t do that with new cars at any kind of an economical spot. As you know, I’ve always opposed sole-source contracts. In this case, I think this is the best way to go with this.”

The board later approved the contract in a unanimous vote. Since the contract is over $10 million, it will require further approval by the Board of Supervisors and the Civil Service Commission.

Last year, the SFMTA Board approved another contract with Breda to upgrade 143 LRVs at its Pittsburg facility in the East Bay.  Ford said at any given time eight to ten LRVs are out of service getting their doors, steps, couplers and other components overhauled. One year ago, the agency also approved $217,000 in funding to repair two other damaged LRVs.

“We’re also not rebuilding in-kind. We’re going to take this as an opportunity to look at new technologies for the next fleet of vehicles for this system. There’s also that piece of this program, which is to look at what the new design is in terms of piloting these cars for the future,” said Ford.

Muni’s current fleet of 151 LRVs has a life span that doesn’t end until 2020, which means the agency cannot use state or federal money to purchase new cars until then. Muni has had a troubled history with Breda, whose cars were too heavy and too wide for the system.  Advocates like Tom Radulovich of Livable City have been encouraging the SFMTA for years to consider what its next fleet might look like.

“It’s our understanding that these Breda cars may not be good through 2020. At the rate that they are aging and breaking down, we could need to replace them sooner,” said Radulovich. “I think that makes it all the more urgent to be thinking about what the next generation of rail cars look like.”

  • Alex

    IOW, they specc’d them so poorly the first time around that they’d have to start from scratch if they were to order new LRVs?

  • Nick

    LRV’s are special. I don’t think the average citizen appreciates them as much as they should. I wish people wouldn’t tag or trash them.

  • Did Muni ever think of just replacing some of its outlying service with nice new, accessible, reliable buses for a fraction of the cost? I don’t see what benefit they think they’re getting running these cars out in the sunset on narrow, shared streets.

  • jim d

    The LRVs have far more capacity than any diesel bus in Muni’s fleet. It takes one operator for two LRV with the capacity of about 3 articulated coaches with three operators.

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    I am spending the summer in Zurich where I have come to the depressing conclusion that Muni’s LRVs are roughly 30 years behind European standards. The VBZ “Tram 2000” is a high-floor vehicle from the 70s which is much more comfortable, much quieter, much lighter, and far easier to board than Muni’s Breda vehicles. Those are the old ones. They are expected to has a service life of 40 years and won’t be phased out until 2016. VBZ also operates hundreds of new Bombardier-Alstom “Cobra” trams. These are 100% low floor vehicles with no axles. I haven’t seen a single broken door on any VBZ vehicle in months of riding.

    Muni’s Breda LRV are 1) crap, and 2) will begin phasing out after only 24 years. It’s embarrassing. If there are any people at the MTA who were responsible for the Breda debacle, they should all be forced into retirement well before 2020. Perhaps now would be a good time to start?

  • Roderick Llewellyn

    If Minneapolis can buy 41 railcars for $153 million, the answer is simple. We should combine our order with Minneapolis, piggy-backing on their order. Back in the old days, the PCC (President’s Conference Car) streetcar was designed by urban railways in order to have a single standard, making combining orders an easy way of saving money. Hey, but people were smarter then, before TV, MBAs, and “cost-benefit analysis”.

  • Jeremy W

    The part of the contract about combining the undamaged halves of 4 LRVs to make 2 good ones is cost-effective enough. But the part about rebuilding 4 heavily wrecked/cannabalized LRVs that have sat out of service for years at $5+ million/car (!) is totally not worth the cost. The Bredas were bought at an average of $3 million/car, so these 4 LRVs are totaled. Muni should just disassemble them for spare parts, then use the saved $20+ million to further upgrade the other 147 LRVs to increase their reliability and life span. If Muni’s going to run perhaps the most expensive LRVs on the planet, they better milk all that they can out of them before retiring them.

  • @jim If two $4M rail cars save $150,000 a year on one operator, it will take over 50 years to recoup the $8M investment, which is far beyond the life of the vehicle when Muni operates it. This is also assuming that Muni can’t buy larger, BRT style buses that have even larger capacity than the Bredas

  • Thomas

    If only the Breda LRV’s weren’t pieces of crap MUNI could of sent the entire fleet for a top to bottom overhaul like BART did to the rail car fleet in the late 90’s to early 2000’s to extend lifespans.

  • Alex

    @jim Not so much, no. MUNI operates a bevy of one car ‘trains’ on every LRV route but the N. This means an equivalent victim to driver ratio to the articulated buses. The 38 carries more riders, at faster average speeds than any LRV route. Let’s not forget the mean distance between failure (or even distance between malfunction). I don’t think I’ve ever been on a coach that’s broken down, but I go maybe two to three weeks between experiencing major failure on an LRV.

    Piggybacking onto the Minneapolis order would be great if we weren’t so reliant on bastardized streetcars/subway cars that really take the worst of both worlds and combine them into shoddily assembled vehicles. The Minneapolis cars probably wouldn’t work in our subway, and may not work too well on the portions of the LRV routes that require 90 degree turns.

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    I’ve certainly been on failed coaches, including a trolley that caught on fire while grinding up Sacramento with a crush load.

  • jim d

    I’ve been on a #24 or #22 electric bus when one of the wheels fell off the and bus felt like it was going to tip over. There were only about 10 people on board at the time.

  • Joel

    MUNI should’ve just ordered some new cars, and not from Breda. I was looking at Houston’s LRVs, which are very nice:
    (http://www.livingdowntowndesmoines.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/houston-light-rail.jpg)

    Hope MUNI starts looking to the future with it’s new fleets and doesn’t ballon their budget unnecessairly when purchasing them.

  • Alex

    @Jeff and Jim: that’s not to say that only the LRVs break down, it’s to say that I’ve only experienced LRVs breaking down… even when I was more reliant on the buses than LRVs, I remember watching them back up from 46th to 19th Ave because of some mechanical problem. I’ve probably been on 10 LRVs that have decided to break down and hinder service in the past five years. If that number doesn’t seem too high (and I suppose it’s not very high), keep in mind it doesn’t take into account infrastructure problems or other more minor problems that simply delay service and don’t require a maintenance tech to come out (like door problems or spontaneous emergency applications in the subway).

    The LRVs and their associated infrastructure are crap and wholly incapable of meeting service demand. See also: Rachel Gordon’s blog entry about the major subway problems *every day this week*.