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Rebuilt Metro Rail car is due next week; Contract dispute delayed delivery

More than 2 1/2 years behind schedule, the first of 27 Metro Rail vehicles rebuilt as part of a $40 million project will return to its home tracks in Buffalo next week.

It has proved a long odyssey for Car 114 after it was shipped in 2008 from Buffalo to a Schenectady County locomotive assembly plant that went bankrupt and then languished for months on the floor of a Hornell transit shop as part of a contractual spat between the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority and prime contractor AnsaldoBreda Inc.

But Kimberley A. Minkel, the new executive director of the NFTA, said Thursday that Car 114 will be shipped by flatbed trailer and finally unveiled Wednesday during a special ceremony at the NFTA Yard and Shop complex at the foot of Main Street.

"A lot of work has been done," Minkel said. "But I think we're back on track."

The return of Car 114 next week and the scheduled return of companion Car 123 in about two weeks has been no small feat. Though work was completed on both vehicles way back in July, they have remained stranded in the Hornell shops of subcontractor Gray Manufacturing Inc. because the NFTA and AnsaldoBreda could not agree on several key points that would have assured their safe operation.

But Minkel and Giancarlo Fantappie, head of AnsaldoBreda's North American operations, agreed to the last points of contention in negotiations that wrapped up this week. Now she expects the refurbished vehicles to undergo several months of testing before they return to Metro Rail tracks.

NFTA officials said the good news is that Wednesday they will unveil the first car of a completely refurbished Metro Rail fleet that will reflect one of the most modern transit fleets in the nation. Gray Manufacturing technicians have installed new seating, poles, electronic signs and audio systems that will be immediately noticed by the traveling public, said C. Douglas Hartmayer, NFTA director of public affairs.

They also have remounted car shells on refurbished trucks with new wheels, gear boxes and overhauled traction motors in a project aiming for a total rebuild.

"By the end of the summer the cars should be in service," Minkel said.

But even that delay is causing problems at the still-idle Gray Manufacturing facility on the grounds of Hornell's sprawling former Erie Railroad shops. Company President David Gray said that while he is happy the NFTA has reached an agreement with the prime contractor, 15 of his workers will remain on furlough until the new cars are commissioned.

Gray noted that the contract between the NFTA and AnsaldoBreda stipulates that the next set of cars to be refurbished will not be shipped to Hornell until the first two are accepted for service late in the summer.

"We're excited the first two cars are being shipped," he said late Thursday, "but we would like to know when the next will enter the line."

While some delayed payments that seriously hampered his firm will now be arriving in Hornell, Gray said he still cannot count on work resuming for several months.

Minkel also acknowledged that AnsaldoBreda may assume new aspects of the rebuild contract, though she said she did not have details. She added that a new performance bond between the authority and the prime contractor has been established.

The significant delays came to light several months ago after Hornell Mayor Shawn D. Hogan complained that even though the cars were completed last July, layoffs were under way at Gray Manufacturing because of the prolonged inability of the NFTA and AnsaldoBreda to agree on the safety checks. He also said the lapse of a previous performance bond had contributed to the delay.

He blasted both entities for what he called their intransigence, noting his city maintained a major stake in the situation because it extended economic development loans to Gray Manufacturing as part of continuing encouragement of Hornell's transit industry. The French company Alstom also has established itself as a major subway car builder in Hornell's former Erie shops.

Hogan said Thursday he also hopes for a return of all of Gray Manufacturing's work force for the balance of the NFTA contract but said he is happy that at least the current impasse has been resolved.

"I don't know if my public tirade may have played a role, but by shining some light on the situation, I think we helped bring the parties together," the mayor said. "What will make me more happy is if the 25 other cars are done by contractors who have proven they can do the job, and that's Gray Manufacturing."

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com