MBTA officials , after a year of minimizing the problem, have confirmed it will cost more than $90 million to replace the 147,000 defective concrete ties on the Old Colony Commuter Rail lines and will shut down the service and strand riders completely on weekends.
In addition, in a letter to legislators from the cities and towns south of Boston affected by the disruption, new T General Manager Rich Davey said 59 grade crossings will be ripped up and replaced in 19 communities, with much of the work taking place on weekend nights. But nowhere in the letter does Davey say where the debt-ridden system will come up with the money and his letter makes no mention of the state of negotiations with the Denver-based tie manufacturer, Rocla Concrete Ties, which has threatened bankruptcy if state transportation officials force it to honor its warranty.
“That’s a good question,” says one legislative aide, when asked if lawmakers were apprised of the funding source. “We’d ask them if we were able to get the (Board of Directors) in front of a committee.”
T officials had initially said they will close down service on the affected lines during nonpeak hours and bus commuters between stations. But the letter sent last week to lawmakers is the first time they have said no weekend service will be available in any form.
“On weekends it is anticipated that crews will work 2 shifts from 7:00 AM to 11:00PM,” Davey wrote. “No weekend train service on either the Middleborough or the Plymouth/Kingston will be provided for the duration of this project and no alternative bus transportation on weekends will be provided.”
The problems with the defective ties and Rocla’s refusal to stand behind its guarantee were first reported as part of a CommonWealth investigation in last summer’s issue. The ties were used on the two MBTA’s Old Colony Commuter Rail lines running from Middleboro and Kingston. The Greenbush line running from Scituate to South Station used concrete ties made at a later date but that line will be disrupted when workers replace crumbling concrete ties on the Braintree-to-Boston stretch.
The concrete ties – which cost nearly twice what wooden ties cost but were touted to last 50 years, twice the lifespan of timber – began exhibiting defects after less than a decade of use. The ties purchased by the T were part of a batch of nearly 600,000 made in the mid- to late-90s by Rocla’s Delaware plant and sold to other lines in the Northeast, including Amtrak and the Long Island Railroad.
Rocla, whose officials have not returned numerous calls for comment, sold the ties to with a 25-year warranty. But the concrete ties used in the northeast cold weather climates began falling apart and posing potential safety risks for passenger trains traveling 60 to 70 miles per hour.
According to a presentation for legislators by the MBTA, inspectors first began seeing tie failures in the spring of 2007, just 10 years after the Old Colony line opened for commuter service, and saw a rise in the number of failures during the following winter. T officials began meeting with Rocla representatives but came to no agreement while speed restrictions and service interruptions began taking place.
Since last spring, T officials have minimized the extent of the problem in emails and interviews with CommonWealth but the briefing for legislators shows officials were fully aware of the breadth of the problem for some time. The presentation to legislators says during the winter of 2008-09 there were “rapid increases in failures resulting in operations impacts.” But at the time, T officials had not alerted riders until CommonWealth began making inquiries.
“Our customers haven’t asked about it,” T spokesman Joe Pesaturo said at the time.
Davey did not return a call for comment and Pesaturo wrote in an email the T had no immediate response.
According to the legislative briefing, the T estimates the cost to include:
· $35 million for materials;
· $38 million for construction;
· $17 million for engineering fees, inspection, contingency and so-called force account work, which are miscellaneous lump sum payments.
The work along the 61 miles of track, which is expected to begin in August, will last for six months on the Middleborough line, then seven months on the Plymouth line then six months on the Braintree-to-Boston stretch with winter shutdowns scheduled this year and next. During the work on the Braintree to Boston segment, both Old Colony lines as well as the Greenbush line will be disrupted. As many as three “tie gangs” with 25 to 30 workers in each gang will be utilized to replace the crumbling concrete ties in a much more cost-intensive manner than completely shutting down the lines and replace all the ties at once. The T expects to replace about 5,000 ties a week and replace up to five grade crossings a week.
Jack Sullivan is Senior Investigative Reporter for CommonWealth magazine. He can be reached at 617-224-1623 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.