VTA pays more for parts on its light rail vehicles than any other transit agency in the country, but the agency’s problems in this area appear to run deeper.
VTA officials blame the high price tag on a variety of issues, including difficulties locating parts, supply chain problems exacerbated by COVID-19 and contracts that lapsed after the mass shooting last year, forcing VTA to temporarily shut down its light rail service. VTA is in the process of securing new agreements.
Workers at VTA say they don’t know why parts are so costly, but they claim the agency has struggled for years with providing parts for all kinds of vehicles.
“These issues consistently come up, and although there was a lot of big talk, nothing has changed,” Amalgamated Transit Union Local 265 president and business agent John Courtney told thecupertinodigest.com. “It’s just frustrating.”
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VTA workers who spoke with thecupertinodigest.com said shortage of parts has been a problem for years, but it’s grown worse during the pandemic. According to Courtney, the agency was recently out of gear oil and antifreeze. The shortage of certain parts could mean a reduction in services for a transit agency facing serious budget problems.
VTA officials acknowledge the concerns but say their trains are old and the parts are challenging to source.
Zac Bodle, an assistant business agent with ATU who worked as a transit mechanic, said the agency had a shortage of wiper blades for the light rail trains and also pantographs—the apparatus on top of a bus or train that takes electric power through an overhead line. According to Bodle, shortages have been bad enough in the past that VTA workers will go to auto parts stores to buy equipment.
“We couldn’t get brake cleaner for a long time, so guys were going to auto parts stores and buying their own,” Bodle told thecupertinodigest.com. “They got into trouble because it’s supposed to go through environmental health and safety, but they were just trying to do their job.”
Workers said when parts or materials aren’t available VTA sometimes has to pull vehicles out of service. One worker told thecupertinodigest.com the agency’s response to missing parts is sometimes to do nothing. They said light rail trains use a piece of equipment known as a fault monitoring system, which warns the operator when other parts on the train break down. The worker claims the company that makes this equipment is no longer around, and VTA doesn’t replace the system when it breaks down.
“It’s considered an accessory, so if it’s out, it’s out—we don’t fix it,” said the worker, who didn’t want to gave his name for fear of retaliation. “It’s like putting a piece of duct tape over your check engine light.”
VTA spokesperson Stacey Hendler Ross told thecupertinodigest.com the agency doesn’t operate vehicles if parts are missing or they’re not working properly.
“Safety is paramount–we’re not going to put a train into service that’s not working properly,” Ross said.
Aging cars need parts
According to a recent presentation to VTA’s board of directors, the agency pays the highest cost per revenue car hour for parts and materials in the nation—more than twice the national average—for its trains.
VTA officials told thecupertinodigest.com light rail vehicles are on average 20 years old and the parts are no longer made by the original manufacturers. This forces the agency to procure materials from different sources around the world.
“This makes for a more complex procurement challenge than getting parts from one manufacturer,” officials said.
A data table on VTA’s parts and materials presented during a recent workshop. Courtesy of VTA.
Due to the supply chain challenge, VTA has resorted to ordering parts on a short-term basis, which is more expensive, officials said. The agency is preparing a progress report on parts procurement for the general manager and board of directors this summer.
Several workers said the parts shortage is so bad that mechanics have resorted to cannibalizing parts from buses and trains to keep other ones running. Workers said there’s pressure to keep vehicles running, so mechanics will sometimes put “Band-aid” fixes on vehicles that aren’t effective long term.
VTA and ATU are trying to address this problem with a joint committee that’s examining issues with parts. Bodle, who is the only union representative on the committee, said ATU has recommended VTA hire more clerks to respond to requests for parts. ATU also recommended putting parts under the purview of the operations division. Bodle claims VTA hasn’t followed through with either recommendation.
Bodle said this chronic problem is frustrating for VTA workers.
“They take pride in what they do, and they want to provide good service to the public,” Bodle said. “And (VTA) just kind of ties their hands.”
Contact Eli Wolfe at email@example.com or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.
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