Can the city of Seattle receive compensation from Czech manufacturer Inekon for the loss of First Hill Streetcar service, which remains down since March 1? City Councilmember Rob Johnson sure wants to know.
The 405 First Hill Streetcar — the gold one — experienced an electromechanical failure around 6 a.m. last Wednesday, causing the vehicle to lose power. Two passengers and the streetcar operator were uninjured when the parking brake engaged, but did not stop the vehicle from sliding 2 1/2 blocks down Broadway Avenue, from Boren to Yesler Way.
“The parking brake did engage, but it’s not the full track-grabbing brake,” explained Michael James, the city’s rail and transit corridor manager, during a status update Tuesday before the Sustainability and Transportation Committee.
The 405 streetcar was towed to Occidental Station about 15 minutes after it lost power last Wednesday. From there, the streetcar was able to travel on its own to SDOT’s Charles Street maintenance facility.
James said the city transportation staff still believe the malfunction was an isolated incident, but “an abundance of caution” caused the entire First Hill Streetcar fleet — plus the 407 from the South Lake Union line that was purchased through the same order from Inekon — to be taken offline several hours after the 405 broke down.
SDOT spokesman Norm Mah told the Capitol Hill Times last Friday the cause of the malfunction was the contactor, which is similar to a circuit breaker, and connects a low-volt battery to the operations system. This is separate from the propulsion system, Mah said, which is powered by rooftop battery packs.
There is still no indication when the First Hill Streetcar will go back into service. Replacing the streetcar in the interim has been a “bus bridge,” providing service along the route during peak morning and evening hours.
James told councilmembers Tuesday the city must first demonstrate to the State Safety Oversight Committee that it has identified the problem and come up with an acceptable solution before the streetcar can resume operation.
“We’ve identified different approaches that we want to do on the vehicles, as well as additional testing,” James said. “That’s where we are, kind of developing the next step. We don’t have a path forward yet, but we’re developing that.”
The First Hill Streetcar had been slated to start in summer 2015, but was delayed to January 2016. The city charged Czech manufacturer Inekon $1.5 million in penalties for its inability to meet its initial Oct. 7, 2014 completion date, then a revised June 2015 start.
Inekon and King County Metro, which operates the streetcar for the city, have been involved in work to restore service.
James said when the 405 lost power the track brakes couldn’t be deployed, nor could sand for friction. Finding a way to engage the track brake during a power outage is being explored, he said.
“These are new cars,” Johnson said. “What sort of warranty do we have? What sort of working relationship do we have with Inekon? If in fact we do find out it was some kind of manufacturer error, what sort of recourse do we have for asking them to compensate the city for this loss of service?”
James said the streetcars are still under warranty, but did not know Tuesday what compensation the city could possibly seek from Inekon.
Not only is the city covering the cost of a bus bridge, Johnson said, it is absorbing the cost from the loss of mobility for the times when the streetcar would normally be running.
Councilmember Mike O’Brien told the committee to expect an answer on compensation in two weeks, as well as more information about the streetcar malfunction.