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Old Colony rail work to finish a year early

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / September 19, 2011

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The MBTA is nearly a year ahead of schedule on a roughly $90 million project to replace 150,000 crumbling concrete ties on the Old Colony commuter rail lines, meaning full service on the three South Shore branches should be restored by December, T executives said.

To accommodate ripping out old ties and installing new wooden ones, the T canceled rail service on two branches between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. on weekdays - replacing those trains with buses - and on all three branches on weekends, without replacement buses.

The project was necessary after ties installed in the late 1990s failed, well short of the lifespan allegedly promised by manufacturer Rocla Concrete Tie Inc., whom the T has sued for negligent misrepresentation, unfair or deceptive trade practices, and breach of warranty.

“We are pleased that we’re able to complete this project ahead of schedule, and we also want to thank our customers for their understanding during this difficult but necessary situation,’’ Jonathan R. Davis, the T’s acting general manager, said in an interview Friday.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority anticipated a two-year timetable when it sought bidders last summer, expecting the contractor to employ two tie gangs of about 20 workers each. Instead, J.F. White Contracting Co. prevailed with a plan to use three teams and a winning bid of $34.9 million, slightly less than the T’s labor estimate.

That cost is fixed, as is the roughly equal materials investment. However, the faster timeline should bring some savings by eliminating the need for the private bus service and the overtime labor for flagging and other support for the tie crews on the tracks, according to the T’s project managers.

The crews replaced about 80,000 ties on the Plymouth/Kingston line, 64,000 on the Middleborough/Lakeville line, and 13,000 on the main line they share in and out of Boston’s South Station with the Greenbush line to Scituate.

With mostly weekend work remaining, the T restored full weekday service on the Middleborough/Lakeville line in June; full Plymouth/Kingston weekday service will resume today. While weekend service will still be curtailed, even that resumes soon: Plymouth/Kingston should be back by the end of October and Middleborough/Lakeville by mid-December. Both those lines will run at full service on Columbus Day weekend.

On the Greenbush, which has been closed only on weekends, full service begins again Oct. 1.

Ties, also known as crossties, hold the metal rails in place and maintain the appropriate gauge, or distance, between those rails. The MBTA, Amtrak, and other railroads purchased concrete ties from Rocla that were marketed as an economical, longer-lasting, and environmentally friendly alternative to treated wood - but they began to crumble well short of their expected life, forcing railroad speed restrictions and eventual replacement.

The T’s lawsuit, initially filed in Suffolk Superior Court, is now in federal court, where each side has been filing motions for over a year.

Rocla contests the suit while saying at most it should owe $9 million, the amount the T paid for the original ties.

“We’re going to pursue all avenues,’’ Davis said. “Time will tell as to what we would be able to get back.’’

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.