Sprinter rotors
One of the SPRINTER's non-compliant brake rotors | Photo: Nicholas McVicker
One of the SPRINTER brake discs worn past compliance. Photo | Nicholas McVicker

On the heels of last week’s unexpected shutdown of North County Transit District’s popular SPRINTER rail line between Oceanside and Escondido, emails and interviews with former district employees offer a better understanding of what went wrong and who knew about the problem of accelerated wear to the train’s rotors years prior to the agency’s official discovery of the issue early this month.

North County Transit decided to sideline the 12 German-manufactured light rail vehicles that make up its SPRINTER service on midnight, March 9, in order to await replacement brake discs that could take as long as four months to deliver and install. The trains transport an average of 7,800 people a day.

Former district employees who would only speak if they were not quoted by name, along with emails from the engineer who was once in charge of the SPRINTER, say the brake wear was noticed as far back as 2009 — just one year after the SPRINTER began operations. The engineer called the present situation an “overreaction to an otherwise manageable problem.”

The engineer, Richard Berk, resigned March 1 as the rail maintenance officer in charge of SPRINTER oversight.

Money, Power and Transit

Before service began in March 2008, SPRINTER-manufacturer Siemens added additional brakes on the vehicles to make them compliant with the California Public Utilities Commission’s standards for light rail vehicle brake rates. These specially-made brakes are unique to California and are not found on any of the approximately 600 other similar models running in Europe. Once mechanics and engineers saw the “unusual wear pattern” on the discs about a year after the SPRINTER began service, they started planning for their eventual replacement — “when the time came,” according to Berk’s email on March 10, 2013.

In the email obtained by inewsource, Berk wrote that the response from Faiveley, the potential new “split-disc” brake manufacturer, took nearly three years and arrived in the summer of 2012.

Faiveley said it would take “44 weeks” to have the new discs manufactured and delivered.

“Since then,” Burke wrote, North County’s contractor Bombardier “has worked to develop a realistic supply source.”

“But the timing missed,” he added, “by probably 90-120 days.”

After a state inspection in early March 2013, the California Public Utilities Commission requested the replacement of all non-compliant brake rotors in a letter to North County’s Chief Executive Officer Matthew Tucker.

“Any service use,” it said, “of any of your light-rail vehicles with brake rotors that are not within the manufacturer’s wear limits may be deemed a violation” of California law.

Tucker and North County Chairman Bill Horn both told inewsource the decision to remove the vehicles was made primarily for safety reasons, and that the Commission has no authority to shut down operations.

“I know it’s inconvenient for the public,” Horn said, “but we really didn’t have a choice.”

In his email, Berk wrote, “I am quite confident that the present condition, although not comfortable, does not pose an unmanageable risk that can’t be handled…”

“This situation should be managed with stepped up inspections,” he wrote, “and testing that would allow a rational assessment of the risk and enable a prudent reaction period if an obvious problem becomes apparent..”

When contacted, Richard Berk confirmed his statements in the email.

A UT San Diego article found the recently-implemented bus service to be an unexpected cost-saving alternative to the SPRINTER operation.

Brad Racino was the assistant editor and senior investigative reporter at inewsource. He's a big fan of transparency, whistleblowers and government agencies forgetting to redact key information from FOIA requests. Brad received his master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri in...