METRORail's north line expansion faces more delays

February 6, 2013 8:01:35 AM PST
We're learning about more slowdowns for a METRO light rail project. But there are questions about why METRO entrusted a company halfway around with world with a contract worth tens of millions of dollars.

We've heard about the delays for months, and on Tuesday, METRO called in execs from the Spanish company building the new light rail cars to explain why and we wanted to know why the questions weren't asked earlier.

Sid Alejandro owns an auto repair shop on Houston's north side. He's right on the North Line METRORail and one day hopes it'll help his business. But for now, it's nearly killing it.

Construction sometimes makes it hard for customers to get in. Still, he keeps going, knowing he has to keep his word to fix customers' cars on time.

"I have to deliver at a certain time. If not, I have to either give them a discount or make arrangements to make it convenient for them to come pick up their because I've put them out," Alejandro said.

It is the same problem, but on a far larger scale at METRO headquarters, where their $155 million contract to build new cars for the new train lines is facing delays for the second time.

"Any delay causes a problem because it's unacceptable," METRO Interim CEO Tom Lambert said.

On Tuesday, METRO called in the company's leadership to explain why.

"I expect them to deliver cars by the schedule they committed to deliver to," Lambert said.

METRO gave the giant contract to CAF, a Spanish company. The Spanish factory shut down for three weeks late last year due to a national strike in Spain. And when it was over, the three-week strike translated to a 2.5-month delay.

In Tuesday's meeting, the company admits it's now a 90-day delay for the Houston cars.

The company still has months to get it back on track, and while METRO seems surprised and frustrated by the delay, there were warning signs the timeline could be a big problem.

Months before the contract was signed, METRO's team appeared concerned about CAF's ability to build the cars on time, pointing out that CAF's factory "has not had significant work since 2008."

On top of that, the Spanish company's timeline seems aggressive. In two other American cities, it took the Spanish company 3.5 and 4.5 years to deliver the first train car. Houston is asking for the first car in just two years.

"I am not aware of that," Lambert said.

With millions of dollars tied to a very specific timetable, and nine months until the first car should arrive, all METRO can do is hope that a Spanish company with a history of taking its time comes in on time.

We asked CAF for some comment. Even though they were here in town, they didn't return our calls.