Arrival of key equipment in tackling subway trash fires is way behind schedule

Monday, February 05, 2018 05:49PM
7 On Your Side's Jim Hoffer finds out why the MTA is behind on cleaning up subway garbage.


NEW YORK - Last summer's subway trash fire in Harlem ignited a frightening, chaotic rush hour commute for thousands of New Yorkers.

In its wake, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo promised to clean up the garbage.

"Track fires are dangerous, and we're taking it very seriously," Cuomo announced at a subway news conference.

During last September's launch of the governor's "Keep It Clean Initiative," his news release detailed how portable vacuums are being deployed to suck up the trash. It also mentioned that three newly designed vacuum trains will be able to remove tons of trash daily.

Cuomo's office touted how one of the new vacuum trains was currently operating, with two more on the way. But several sources inside the MTA have confirmed to 7 On Your Side that no new vacuum trains have been delivered to the MTA.

"Well this is what's so outrageous to me and a little disheartening," New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer said.

In 2015, Stringer released an audit that partially blamed the 700 annual subway track fires on the frequent breakdown of the old vacuum trains acquired in the late 1990s.

Documents we've obtained show that in March 2015, the French Company NEU International Railways beat out a competitor for the $23 million contract, in part because they promised an "accelerated delivery schedule."

That schedule promised that the first two vacuum trains would be delivered in 2017; the third one, in February of this year.

"If, in fact, these trains are not here right now, well this is very problematic," a surprised Stringer responded after hearing about our findings.

He now plans to press the MTA for answers as to what is holding up delivery of the vacuum trains.

The major delay may explain why our own checks of dozens of subway stations found mounting evidence that the trains are needed now more than ever.

We observed trash piling up on the tracks from subway stations from the Bronx to Lower Manhattan and from Times Square to Flushing, Queens. We found plenty of garbage on the tracks.

Even once the new trains arrive, a key question remains: Will they do a better job sucking up all the garbage?

NEU, which is building the new trains, is the same company that made the old problem-plagued ones. Records we obtained reveal the MTA's own Procurement Selection Committee recommended buying NEU's vacuum trains, claiming they were "technically superior."

"It's unfortunately an MTA procurement screw-up," said Richard Brodsky, a former state lawmaker who headed the Authorities Committee that investigated the MTA."They didn't tell the board that the same provider had provided inadequate and defective equipment in the past."

Brodsky wants the MTA to explain why the board did not know about the previous mechanical failures.

"And why in God's name is the equipment so late," he said.

Meanwhile, the trash piles up. Among the worst we observed in our survey were the R and W lines in Midtown. At three different stations, trash clogged drains, creating a soupy mix of mud and water, which can wreak havoc on a subway's electrical systems.

The C train on the Upper West Side had what appeared to be weeks' worth of debris covering the tracks.

"Here, we are at a moment when we have to do big bold things in the MTA, " Stringer said. "They can't even give us clean subway tracks, and that's very disturbing."

It took more than two weeks, but finally the MTA admitted to 7 On Your Side Investigates that the new vacuum trains are almost a year behind schedule.

"They are not happy about that and are pursuing late delivery penalties against manufacturer," said Shams Tarek, an MTA spokesperson.

The MTA also released a statement: "We're deploying new technology that's showing impressive, tangible, meaningful results in reducing track fires and enhancing our ability to clear debris from the tracks. Subway track fires are down system-wide year after year because debris removal is at record-high levels."

Here are the numbers: There were 690 track fires last year, down from 707 in 2016.

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