Explainer: Putting the Brakes on the Sprinter - Voice of San Diego

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Explainer: Putting the Brakes on the Sprinter

North County’s light-rail commuter train is shut down indefinitely. Here’s why.

 

The Sprinter, the light-rail line that runs from Oceanside to Escondido, will remain closed at least through May.

District representatives announced Thursday that by then, they’ll have a better sense of when the commuter train can resume operation. The North County Transit District shut down the Sprinter earlier this month because the brakes were wearing down too quickly.

The district has placed small orders for two different sets of replacement brake rotors from two different companies. It hopes to get them by late April.

Officials think testing and installing the two models will take another month. Then the district will need to decide which model represents a better long-term solution, and place a larger order.

Representatives said they couldn’t divulge how much the test-sized orders cost until they make a decision on the overall purchase.

But the story behind the shutdown began before inspectors happened across the troubled brake rotors on March 1.

Here’s what we know so far.

One of a Kind

In 2004, the transit district agreed to purchase multiple diesel-power light rail cars from Siemens Transportation Systems to be used for the Sprinter.

The Sprinter marked the first time the cars, hundreds of which are used on different lines in Europe, would be used in North America. The Sprinter is still the only North American line using the cars.

Though roughly 600 cars of the same model operate in Europe, the Sprinter’s 12-car line was functionally unique, in order to comply with state and federal standards.

Specifically, the Sprinter is the only train to use the now-malfunctioning brake rotors.

The Sprinter runs along old freight tracks. Because of those old tracks, the California Public Utilities Commission mandated before the line opened that its trains be equipped with larger brake rotors than the ones used in Europe.

A project engineer even bragged to the Union Tribune in 2006, just before the Sprinter began operating, of the Sprinter-specific brake rotors and their superior stopping power:

Wolfgang Husemann, a supervisor for train car manufacturer Siemens who has been overseeing the cars’ setup for the transit district, showed no signs of concern and smiled broadly at the sound.

He explained the brakes will make that noise until they’re broken in.

“They’re big brakes, better than (in) Germany,” said Husemann, noting the train’s stopping power.

Bullock said the brawny brakes were installed to satisfy a California Public Utilities Commission requirement.

It was those loud, brawny brakes that earlier this month were found to be wearing down far ahead of schedule.

The California Public Utilities Commission intervened again, suggesting the line be taken out of service until the brakes could be replaced.

The district says it’s currently investigating why the brakes wore down roughly a year ahead of their scheduled replacement date. On Thursday a spokesperson said the district was close to an answer, but wouldn’t say anything publicly until the investigation wraps.

Finding replacement parts proved challenging.

Thursday’s hearing provided the first word the district had located manufacturers capable of providing the needed parts.

It placed test orders for two different types of brake rotors from two different companies.

Both braking systems can be implemented without removing the vehicle’s wheel, unlike the current system.

One set is like those installed on the rest of the specific Siemens model vehicles in the world; the other is like the larger ones the Sprinter’s used for the last five years, except for the difference in maintenance.

The district could opt to use the same brakes the rest of the world uses on this type of vehicle after state regulators forced them to use specialized brakes six years ago because the track has since been upgraded.

The Problem

The $477 million Sprinter transports roughly 10,000 riders per day among North County’s largest cities.

On March 8, just as the district was preparing to celebrate the track’s five-year anniversary, CEO Matthew Tucker announced that some of the brakes had fallen out of compliance with the manufacturer’s standards, though the cars were still safe. The district opted to shut down the service out of “an abundance of caution.”

U-T San Diego’s Chris Nichols later reported a subcontractor and an engineer with the district knew about the problem, but didn’t pass the information to superiors. The engineer subsequently resigned.

Investigative Newsource’s Brad Racino uncovered emails from the engineer, Richard Berk, that claimed the wear on the breaks had been recognized just a year after the Sprinter began operating, and that mechanics and engineers began prepping to replace them.

Berk said the district’s contractor, Bombadier, took nearly three years to locate a manufacturer that could supply the replacements, and that in summer 2012, the French company, Faiveley, said it would take another 44 weeks to provide the parts.

The district confirmed Thursday that Faiveley is the manufacturer providing the more common model of brakes. Another company, Kovis, is providing the brakes that are closer to the Sprinter’s specialized rotors.

Berk told the U-T that he had reported the issue to each of his supervisors, but never treated it as a crisis because he didn’t believe it was one.

But the issue progressed quickly after March 1, when inspectors discovered the problem for themselves while following up on an unrelated issue. Investigators missed the problem with the brake rotors over 50 inspections that took place during the 18 months after Berk said he found the issue, according to an investigation by the U-T’s Aaron Burgin.

That’s when they recommended the district shut down the service. A week later, the district did just that.

I’m Andrew Keatts, a reporter for Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you’d like at andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0529 and follow me on Twitter:

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