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MBTA halts purchase of Green Line 'lemons'

A quarter-billion dollar effort to provide sleek new trolleys for the century-old Green Line has collapsed in a tangle of breakdowns and recriminations, with the MBTA halting all payments to the manufacturer and refusing to take delivery on 53 of 100 of the vehicles ordered nearly a decade ago.

The T's 47 Italian-made Breda cars, even after a derailment problem was fixed, are breaking down at three times the normal rate for subway vehicles, MBTA officials say. The braking, propulsion and electrical systems don't always work. The air conditioning units leak. The doors sometimes don't close all the way, or the on-board computer thinks the doors haven't closed, keeping the brakes on.

''We bought a lemon," said T General Manager Michael H. Mulhern.

The T has already paid $140 million of the $225 million contract with Breda and spent $9.5 million modifying Green Line tracks and altering the wheels of the cars so they won't derail. Mulhern said last week he will take Breda to court to recoup the millions of dollars that continue to be spent on fixes.

Regardless, Mulhern said he may be forced to order new trolleys from a different manufacturer to avert a crisis for the 200,000 weekday riders on the Green Line, the system's busiest. Without new cars to replenish the fleet, aging trolleys made by Boeing three decades ago will also continue to break down, possibly leading to extensive delays for riders.

Those delays will spoil the T's effort to attract riders with reliable service, a major goal after January's subway fare hike from $1 to $1.25 The system has not attracted many new riders despite widespread frustration with traffic, and Mulhern earlier this month indicated that the T's ailing finances might require cuts in service.

Seth Kaplan, a staff lawyer at the Conservation Law Foundation who has closely monitored the Breda purchase, said that car shortages and breakdowns in the aging fleet ''means more times when you're on your way home to Newton and you find yourself standing outside at Copley in line for a bus. And the lack of reliability of the system drives people away from transit, and into cars and taxis."

The T says it still hopes to fix the problems on the 47 Breda cars it has, about half of which are in service, but has bypassed the Italian manufacturer and turned to subcontractors.

''My approach has been, fix the problems first, and then have the legal fight later," Mulhern said in an interview Thursday. ''But I am very discouraged. Despite my best efforts to get their attention, Breda has not allocated the resources to fix the problems. They are losing money, and when your business partner is losing money, they lose the profit motive and the level of effort that's required here."

''It's not a good situation," he said.

A spokesman for the company, which assembles the cars at a plant in Littleton, Mass., did not respond after requesting questions in writing.

Depending on how things go in the next several months, Mulhern said he may propose using the $85 million withheld from Breda to pay another manufacturer, possibly the Japanese company Kinki-Sharyo, which finished second in the 1995 bidding that Breda won, to furnish trolleys as quickly as possible.

Those vehicles may or may not be so-called low-floor vehicles, he said. The T initially sought to buy new trolleys that would help the Green Line comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act by making it easier for wheelchairs to roll from station platforms onto the cars.

The experience with the Breda cars ranks as one of the worst purchases in the history of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

Braking problems emerged shortly after the first Breda cars were deployed in 1999. The first derailment was in 2000, and the T pulled the cars out of service from the summer of that year to the spring of 2003, during which time the T refurbished 13 miles of track and reshaped the Breda cars' wheels to improve traction.

After a total of nine derailments -- including one last year and one this year -- the T gradually returned the Breda cars to the B (Boston College) and C (Cleveland Circle) branches, though they were kept to a speed limit of 25 miles per hour. MBTA officials are unsure whether the cars can ever be used on the D (Riverside) branch, where speeds of 40 miles per hour are allowed.

But while the derailment problem was managed, the other problems persisted. These stubborn glitches trigger warning lights in the driver's cabin, or keep the trolleys stuck at stations, and have resulted in 329 failures in service -- three times the norm for subway cars, Mulhern said.

The T is asking several subcontractors to fix all those problems on 10 cars, Mulhern said. If they succeed, the 37 remaining Breda cars in the fleet will be retrofitted. But Mulhern said he almost certainly won't accept the remaining 53 cars on order.

To make up for the lack of new cars, the T might keep some of the 86 Kinki-Sharyo cars -- about 18 years old -- in service longer. But the 34 Boeing cars, he acknowledged, are closer to 30 years old and will have to be retired soon.

The Breda purchase -- and its long-term implications for the Green Line fleet -- is a source of deep dismay among top managers at the T. Mulhern said one lesson learned is that future major purchases will not be based solely on the low bid, as was the case with Breda. If the agency were buying new cars today, Mulhern said it would also consider the overall financial health of the bidder, and the company's level of technical expertise and quality assurance.

But some say the agency could have caught the problems sooner.

Michael Garvey, a former T employee who worked on the Breda car program for two years as a warranty administrator, said there was never adequate oversight during the manufacturing process. Garvey said he warned top officials at the T about myriad problems with the cars, which he said included leaky air conditioning and shoddy construction.

''The initial blame I would lay with Breda. The way it's been handled, I would lay with the T," Garvey said, who suggests that the T should have withheld payments to Breda as soon as the problems first emerged.

There are mixed reviews for Breda at other transit agencies.

San Francisco has had problems with some Breda streetcars, but officials there say the issues are being addressed. The Washington Metro system relies on Breda for much of its fleet, but those are heavy rail cars, not light rail cars like those on the Green Line. Officials at Dallas Area Rapid Transit say they have had good experience with Kinki-Sharyo light rail cars -- purchased at about the same time the T went with Breda.

The T is now also acquiring new cars for the Blue and Orange lines. The Blue Line cars, manufactured by Siemens, are over a year late, due to a major supplier going out of business. The Orange Line cars are on hold after the T spent $1 million determining that old Blue Line cars couldn't be retrofitted to run on the Orange Line.

Procuring new vehicles for older systems is a challenge, and ''retrofitting systems becomes more of a challenge the older the system is, whether it's Boston, New York or Chicago," said Greg Hull, director of operations and safety and security programs for American Public Transit Association.

But the Conservation Law Foundation says the T should devote more energy to its major purchases. ''The T is mostly focused on delivering service day in and day out, but that's a different mentality than the procurement culture that's needed," said Kaplan.

Anthony Flint can be reached at flint@globe.com. 

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