What caused 4 streetcar vehicles to break down at once?

Posted at 2:32 PM, Dec 16, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-17 02:12:25-05

CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati streetcar was back up to normal service levels Friday morning, after four vehicles broke down Thursday night, according to transit officials.

Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority spokeswoman Sallie Hilvers said in a release late Friday morning that two streetcar vehicles began running at 6:30 a.m., with a third car entering the rotation at 11 a.m., as per the originally agreed upon service schedule. One of the four affected vehicles was re-deployed around 11 p.m. Thursday.

SORTA oversees streetcar operations of the Cincinnati Bell Connector.

Hilvers cited "manufacturing defects" that caused the service issues that resulted, at one point Thursday night, in all but one of the city's five streetcar vehicles being removed from city streets.

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The manufacturer -- Elmira, New York-based CAF USA -- deployed warranty teams Thursday night to begin addressing the issues, Hilvers said. Two vehicles remained out of operation as of early Friday afternoon: One contained a failed compressor causing the operator cab to have no heat, while the other contained a failed motor truck axle bearing and also a failed compressor.

"The basic issue, that we've seen with most of the cars, is related to something called the compressor and that's a component that's necessary for the braking, if it's icy," Hilvers told WCPO. "There's a number of things the compressor does, so it's a very critical component. So we cannot and would not run the streetcar if there is any issue with the compressor."

Hilvers did not comment on whether Thursday night's low temperatures had anything to do with the malfunctions, but City Manager Harry Black said the city and transit authority have been working to address the compressor issues for months, and attributed Thursday's simultaneous failures to "this week's frigid temperatures."

SORTA spokeswoman Brandy Jones said Thursday night that CAF is "working to rectify the problems here and in other cities where their streetcars have had similar faults."

"It's expected that four of the five vehicles will be operational and available through the weekend," Black said in a statement Friday afternoon.

Hilvers later confirmed Friday afternoon that Kansas City's new streetcar system -- the only other in the country to use this vehicle model -- has seen similar issues, although KC Streetcar spokeswoman Donna Mandelbaum declined to comment on the specific nature of technical issues seen in their streetcar vehicles.

"We are continuing our regular work to maintain our fleet and work proactively with our manufacturer on continued improvements to our vehicles as needed," Mandelbaum said in an email Friday.

IN DEPTH: What streetcar ridership, revenue data actually tell us

Here in Cincinnati, Thursday's breakdowns were not the first speed bump the city and the transit authority have encountered with CAF.

Most notably, it became clear as early as summer 2015 that CAF would be late in delivering all of the vehicles and their components by the end of that calendar year, as originally agreed.

The late delivery resulted in Black informing the manufacturer the city would withhold at least $500,000 in liquidated damages.

Thursday's breakdowns were just the latest in a string of technical issues the streetcar has faced in the weeks following its launch in September, including inaccurate arrival time displays and problems with the ticket-vending machines located at each of the streetcar's 18 stops.

The transit authority announced late last month that most of the ticket-vending machine issues had been resolved.

Despite those early hiccups, overall streetcar ridership and fare revenue have exceeded initial projections, although November saw a drop in ridership compared to September and October.

WCPO has reached out to CAF USA and is awaiting a response.