The subway cars of the future are running with delays.
A pandemic-driven supply-chain slowdown will keep the MTA from receiving the first of hundreds of new redesigned subway cars until next year, THE CITY has learned.
Delivery of an initial batch of test cars from a $1.4 billion purchase of 535 subway and Staten Island Railway cars had been targeted for 2020, but an MTA spokesperson confirmed the new trains are now not expected to begin arriving until the first quarter of next year.
The purchase from Kawasaki Rail Car Inc. includes 20 cars with the so-called open gangway design, which replaces the doors at the ends of train cars with accordion-like connectors that increase capacity and passenger mobility, allowing more room for social distancing.
“It’s another example of riders being terribly affected by the pandemic,” said Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA. “This delay in improving our system and its rolling stock will be felt for years.”
Options in the MTA’s 2018 contract to buy up to 1,077 more of the R211 subway cars from Kawasaki — including 640 more of the open-gangway variety — are jeopardized by the agency’s financial crisis.
The MTA has, for months, been pressing the federal government for $12 billion in emergency relief to plug massive deficits created by a collapse in ridership and revenue due to the pandemic.
The fallout extends to the MTA’s plans to improve the transit system, with the agency’s proposed $51 billion five-year capital program put on hold over the summer.
“Any decision about whether to purchase additional cars as part of this contract is entirely dependent on whether or not the federal government helps us secure the fiscal aid we desperately need to keep our system afloat,” said Andrei Berman, an MTA spokesperson. “That is true of virtually all major capital projects at this time.”
The new cars are assembled and tried out at Kawasaki plants in Lincoln, Neb., and Yonkers before being put to the test in the subway system. But temporary shutdowns at the plants because of the pandemic have contributed to delays, along with COVID-related production issues with the manufacturing giant’s suppliers.
Kawasaki did not respond to requests for comment from THE CITY.
‘A Big Deal’
MTA data shows that Kawasaki’s most recent additions to the MTA fleet, which began running on the No. 7 line in 2013, are among the most reliable of the dozen different car classes in the subway. Newer subway cars from another manufacturer, meanwhile, were twice temporarily taken out of service this year by the MTA over safety concerns.
In 2017, the MTA put an R211 prototype on the sprawling mezzanine level of the 34th Street-Hudson Yards station, inviting commuters to check out the new look.
The cars include security cameras and expanded doorways that widen entrances from 50 to 58 inches, a feature designed to cut into the amount of time trains spend at stops. While most of the new cars will run on the lettered lines, 75 of them are supposed to eventually replace the decades-old fleet on the Staten Island Railway.
The delays in getting the first of the R211 cars into the subway system for testing came as a disappointment to subway aficionados who have been awaiting their arrival.
“It’s a big deal to be getting a brand-new order of subway cars, especially ones with a significant design change,” said Jeremy Zorek, 18, of the Upper West Side.
Some riders worry that the MTA’s pandemic-driven financial crisis could translate into trouble for eventual efforts to modernize the subway fleet with even more open-ended trains.
“I’m very worried about how the pandemic could affect future subway car orders,” said Cameron Glover, 41, of Co-Op City in The Bronx. “I was a kid in the ‘80s when the subway was breaking down all the time and I don’t want to see a repeat of that.”
But an MTA board member said delays to subway projects are, in many cases, unavoidable because of the pandemic. The transit agency is already contending with COVID-related slips in schedule for awarding contracts on 26 major capital projects, as THE CITY reported earlier this month.
“In this age of COVID, all kinds of delays have, unfortunately, become common,” said Andrew Albert, who represents the New York City Transit Riders Council on the MTA board.