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More than half of Metro rail delays last year were caused by problems with train cars, audit finds

Last year, more than 75% of the delays on Metro light-rail lines -- and more than half of delays overall -- were caused by problems with rail cars, a new audit has found.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

More than half of the delays on the Los Angeles County passenger rail network last year were connected to problems with Metropolitan Transportation Authority train cars, a new audit has found.

Of the 2,585 reported delays on Metro trains last year, 55% were caused by malfunctions of the rolling stock, including problems with brakes, doors and speed-monitoring systems, according to an audit prepared by the Wathen Group, a consulting firm. Mechanical delays were particularly prevalent on Metro’s four light-rail lines.

Many of Metro’s light-rail cars are at least two decades old and have not received the intensive overhauls that are recommended after 15 years of service. The agency’s decision to skip those overhauls has created more problems now, officials said Thursday.

“It’s not the fact that we’re not maintaining the cars well,” said Conan Cheung, a deputy executive officer, at an agency committee meeting. “We’re trying to catch up, due to ... decisions made in the past.”

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The 89-page audit, released by Metro’s Office of the Inspector General, comes as transportation officials prepare to embark on the most dramatic expansion of the rail system in modern history. The audit notes that expansion is important, but “cannot take place at the expense of maintaining the current system.”

The Blue Line, which connects Long Beach to Los Angeles, had the most rail car-related delays, at 456. About 70% of the line’s cars come from two fleets that have been in service since 1989 and 1995.

The oldest cars on the Red and Purple line subways are 24 years old and have not been rebuilt, but remain the most reliable fleet in the system, auditors wrote. Those cars will stay in use until at least 2021, when the China Railway Rolling Stock Corp. is expected to deliver the first of 64 new subway cars on order.

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Auditors said they did not analyze the performance of the newest stock in the light-rail fleet, made by Kinkisharyo International, because the cars are still under warranty and some are not even in service yet.

Fire and police activity caused 441 delays last year, the second-leading cause after rail car issues, auditors said. Those incidents were not analyzed in depth in the audit, because passenger medical emergencies and criminal investigations are outside Metro’s control, Inspector General Karen Gorman said.

“But aren’t there policies and procedures in place so that the policing doesn’t interfere with service delays?” asked Yvette Lopez-Ledesma, a board member on Metro’s customer experience committee.

About 12% of delays were linked to the agency’s rail operations practices, auditors found. About 30% of those 330 incidents were caused by operators were not available because of restroom breaks, late arrivals, absences and other circumstances, the audit said.

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While some delays cannot be helped, auditors said, Metro could address systemic problems by keeping better records.

Reports on delays were often not specific enough to identify any root cause. Operators frequently attributed vehicle delays to “propulsion problems,” which can describe a stuck door, a jammed brake and a flawed catenary wire, among other issues.

Metro also needs to improve communication with passengers who face delays, rider Burman Timberlake told the board Thursday. Too often, he said, conductors and employees say nothing, or say something vague.

“This is what we call, in the military, the mushroom theory of communication,” Timberlake said. “Keep them in the dark, and feed them fertilizer.”

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laura.nelson@latimes.com

For more transportation news, follow @laura_nelson on Twitter.

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