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STATE RAILROAD CARS PLAGUED WITH DEFECTS.

Byline: Associated Press

California's newest one-of-a-kind passenger railroad cars are riddled with sagging floor panels and doors that jam shut - but state transportation officials kept quiet about the problems, a newspaper reported Sunday.

Instead of demanding improvements by the car manufacturer, a high-ranking official with the state Department of Transportation cut a deal allowing warranties for the $160 million cars to expire in late 1999, the Contra Costa Times said.

Taxpayers own the custom-built cars, and could be liable for future repairs. The double-decker cars, operating only in California, were launched in early 1995, with the last ones arriving over the summer.

They have been a hit with riders, who take the deluxe cars on Amtrak routes from the San Francisco Bay Area to Sacramento, from the East Bay to the Central Valley, and in the San Diego area.

But in some cars, doors jam shut or won't open, floor panels sag in spots and the suspension system is ``highly suspect and potentially unstable,'' according to documents the newspaper obtained under the California Public Records Act.

In a 10-month period, doors failed 147 times per 1 million miles traveled, compared with 8.5 failures for cars in the Metrolink commuter rail system in Southern California and 14.5 failures for rail cars at a Boston agency, an internal report said.

The defects are troubling for cars considered brand new. Train cars typically are expected to operate 20 years before requiring renovations.

``It's disappointing to hear this, and it needs to be examined,'' said BART Director Dan Richard, who serves on the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Board, a government agency negotiating to take over the San Jose-Sacramento rail service. He said BART officials knew about door problems, but not about the other malfunctions.

``They should not saddle us with cars that have defects,'' Richard said.

But state officials insist the cars are fundamentally sound - despite some Caltrans staff members' and consultants' warnings that the cars didn't live up to their cost.

Andrew Poat, chief deputy director of Caltrans, signed a settlement with the manufacturer March 17.

``What California decided to do was innovate and design an entirely new car,'' he said. ``Although the production process has not been a terribly successful one, for all the reasons we're aware of, the product is actually a good one.''

The car maker, Chicago-based Amerail, agreed to make some repairs, but the deal stopped far short of recommendations from Poat's own staff and consultants. For instance, the consulting firm Booz-Allen & Hamilton Inc. recommended extending warranties on floor panels for five years - but Poat agreed to warranty coverage only through August 1999.

Poat said the settlement was the best deal available. Amerail, unable to find other manufacturing jobs, is going out of business - so getting an extended warranty would be fruitless, he said.

``The fact of the matter is extending warranties at this point is not a business reality. . .'' he said. ``In the end we had to make a business deal.''

Amerail refused to discuss the settlement but said any malfunctions were minor.

``The California car is a state-of-the-art vehicle. We stand behind it,'' said Larry Salci, Amerail's president and chief executive officer.
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Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

 
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 13, 1998
Words:527
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