May 11, 2018: Back to the Basics

At the March 2012 MTA board meeting, Richard Downer did something unusual. A representative for Alstom, a major MTA contractor on subway car equipment, Downer addressed the board during the public speaker period, which is usually the time when transit activists, advocates, enthusiasts, or downright kooks give their two cents. He urged them to delay voting on a $600 million subway car order that his company bid on but didn’t get. The MTA was recommending Bombardier get the contract instead.

The MTA claimed they would save money with Bombardier, but Downer rejected that assertion, arguing Bombardier’s proposal would require more maintenance and long-term costs. He cited Kawasaki/Alstom’s “proven technical superiority”; they had, in fact, just completed orders for 1,662 R160s in 2010, which would indeed prove technically superior and reliable. In sum, he called for a delay in the purchase order until the MTA was more transparent about how, exactly, Bombardier would be cheaper over the subway cars’ lifespan.

Chairman Joe Lhota and the board did not agree. They voted unanimously for the Bombardier contract.

Fast forward to today. That subway order, dubbed the R179, is yet another MTA project that has gone awry. The order was supposed to be completed by January 2017, but as of today there are only four or five R179 trains in passenger service. Production has finally picked up—I’m told the agency is getting four to six cars a week now—but is still years behind schedule. (Credit to the Daily News’s Dan Rivoli for being on top of the R179 fiasco.) In fact, The R179s are being delivered after an even later order for the R188s from a different company, Kawasaki.

The R179s are supposed to replace some of the oldest rolling stock in operation anywhere in the world, the R32s and R42s, that date back to the 1960s and are failing every 30,000-45,000 miles. The R160s, for example can get almost 250,000 miles in before a failure.

When the Daily News first wrote about the issues last year, Lhota said, “What's important now is not rehashing the past and instead focusing on getting these cars delivered and on the rails for our riders.”

The problem with always looking towards the future is you never learn from the past. The R179s are definitely a story about Bombardier’s failures to build working trains, but it’s also a story of how the MTA’s bidding process prevents them from adequately punishing contractors who have failed, removing a key source of leverage when negotiating and awarding billion-dollar contracts.

We saw this play out during the next big car order after the magnitude of the delays became clear, the R211s. In mid-2016, NYCT put out a request for proposals for this new car order. They got back two bids: one from Kawasaki and another from a joint venture between Bombardier and CCRC. Just those two bids, for a project worth somewhere in the neighborhood of a billion and a half dollars.

During the evaluation period, NYCT eliminated the Bombardier/CCRC bid both because it didn’t meet the bid’s technical requirements and because of the continued R179 delays (at that point, none were in passenger service despite the fact that the order was originally scheduled to be completed months prior). This left just one bid that met the agency’s requirements: Kawasaki’s.

But Kawasaki had done a good job on previous orders. No problem, right? Perhaps not so much. One board member, Charles Moerdler, expressed concern about taking Kawasaki’s bid because they were already behind schedule on the LIRR’s M9 fleet. He wondered if it was prudent to reward a company with a $1.44 billion contract when they are already behind schedule on another, existing contract. But the board essentially ignored this concern and voted unanimously for the Kawasaki bid. After all, it was the only bid.

This is not exactly how it works elsewhere. For example, Transport for London is about to open bidding for new rolling stock on the Piccadilly line. Five rolling stock manufacturers initially expressed interest in the project, although that group has since been whittled down to three: Alstom, Bombardier/Hitachi JV and Siemens. This may not sound like a big difference, but it only takes two bidders to make an auction.

When the Times ran an article this week about how the MTA can’t finish “the basics” on time, including the R179 order, MTA spokesman Jon Weinstein described Bombardier’s role in the delay as “unacceptable.”

Jon Weinstein@jonweinstein

Without absolving the MTA's role here...the MTA"s contractors Thales and Bombardier have struggled to deliver here and that's unacceptable in every respect. And that's not a small point.

May 7, 2018
But there are more fundamental questions here. Why could only one bidder meet NYCT’s technical requirements? And why did both of the bidders have a recent history of delayed projects with NYCT? In order to “punish” one manufacturer that hadn’t delivered, the MTA had to reward another manufacturer guilty of similar delays.

If the MTA is demanding very complicated designs from manufacturers—who, by the way, factor in that complexity into their cost estimates which is perhaps why train cars cost so much more here than anywhere else in the world—at what point does this stop being a manufacturer issue and start being an MTA issue?

To be fair, Weinstein did acknowledge this in a subsequent tweet:

Jon Weinstein@jonweinstein

On the second rather inflammatory headline, what's the answer? The answer is the complete revamp of New York City Transit and the MTA under new management. What we can do is completely change the way we do business, it's what Andy has said and what we're committed to.

May 7, 2018
While long-time readers of Signal Problems will already know I hold Andy Byford in high regard, I don’t know how much he can impact capital procurement procedures. Those are a set a level above him by the Office of the Chairman (the Subway Knowledge Base has a rough overview of the MTA structure towards the bottom, if you’re curious). The MTA Board does have a working group looking into totally revamping that process, but so far nothing concrete has been announced.

In the meantime, a good start would be to do something Downer, the public speaker at the 2012 MTA Board meeting, suggested: add more transparency to these large bids. The most information I can find on these bids are the short summaries offered up to the Board which just say who did or didn’t meet technical requirements, not what those requirements are. There may be more information on the bids buried somewhere, but I haven’t found it.

As for the cost savings the MTA was supposed to achieve by contracting Bombardier over the Alsom/Kawasaki bid for the R179s: because of the manufacturing issues and delays, the cost of the project rose by $135 million to almost $740 million. With the overruns, the cars are costing somewhere in the neighborhood of $2.5 million per car, or roughly $1 million more than what London paid for their most recent rolling stock order (and about the same price as the far more technically advanced R211s). In another oversight, Bombardier is not on the hook for those overruns. That’s coming out of your fare dollars. Hindsight is 20/20, but Downer was right. His bid was way cheaper.

News You Probably Can't Use, But About Which You Can Certainly Brood

In Which I Make An Educated Guess About When Things Will Get Better

This week's estimate: 2030

The big adjustment will likely occur this month when Byford releases his Corporate Plan. I’m hearing very juicy rumors about this. It may have front-page news material. The next board meeting is the week of the 21st, so stay tuned.

Your Upcoming Service Advisories, Provided by Lance from Subway Weekender

Note: the service advisories reflect the most disruptive changes. Be sure to check the maps or the MTA website for a full list of service changes.


  • 1 - No service between 137 St-City College and 242 Street

  • 2 5 - Manhattan-bound service is express-only between E 180 Street and 3 Avenue

  • 4 - multiple diversions

    • All service is local-only in Manhattan

    • No service between Utica Av and New Lots Av

  • 7 - No service between Queensboro Plaza and 34 St-Hudson Yards

  • C - multiple diversions

    • No service between 145 Street and 168 Street

    • Downtown service is express-only in Manhattan

  • D - Coney Island-bound service runs via N line between 36 St/4 Av and Stillwell Av

  • F - multiple diversions

    • No service between Church Av and Coney Island

    • Brooklyn-bound service runs via E and C lines between Roosevelt Av and Jay St

  • J - No service between Chambers St and Broad St

Full-resolution map here.

Late Nights

  • 2 - No service between Chambers St and Atlantic Av

  • 4 - No service between Utica Av and New Lots Av

  • 7 - No service between Queensboro Plaza and 34 St-Hudson Yards (Tue. only)

  • A - No service between 59 St-Columbus Circle and 207 Street

  • D - No service between 161 St-Yankee Stadium and 59 St-Columbus Circle

  • E - Manhattan-bound service is express-only in Queens

  • F - multiple diversions

    • Jamaica-bound service is local-only in Queens

    • Queens-bound service runs via E line between 5 Av-53 St and Roosevelt Av

  • R - multiple diversions

    • No service between Atlantic Av and Whitehall St

    • All service is express-only between Atlantic Av and 36 St/4 Av

Full-resolution map here.

MTA Mention of the Week

Dog in a Bag

Have a dog in a bag photo? Reading this on the subway and see a dog in a bag? Take a picture and send it to

Photo credit: reader Fitzy

This has been another edition of Signal Problems, a weekly newsletter helping you figure out what is going on with the subway, made every week by Aaron Gordon, transit reporter for the Village Voice.

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As always, send any feedback, subway questions, or Dog in a Bag photos to I’d love to hear from you. As someone on a stalled Q train once told me, we’re all in this together.