Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2004 | 11:10 a.m.
Problems plaguing the Las Vegas Monorail could range from systemic flaws in the trains' design to poorly installed components.
Either way, they will most likely cost the company running the monorail millions and could take months to fix, an engineer from Jakes Associates Inc., a nationally recognized transportation consulting firm, said Tuesday.
The San Jose, Calif.-based company, which in 1995 helped implement the monorail that ran from the MGM Grand to Bally's, also helped open the Mandalay Bay Express project, which links the Excalibur hotel to the Mandalay Bay, in 1999. In its 16-year lifespan, the company has carved out a niche for itself as an authority in monorail and people-mover technology.
A people mover, such as the Mandalay Bay system and that connects the Monte Carlo to the Bellagio, operates like a monorail but rides on two rails instead of one.
Dean Hurst, a mechanical engineer who manages Jakes Associates' Las Vegas office, said "hiccups" are typical in any large-scale transportation project, but the problems the monorail faces are unusual.
"I haven't experienced large components of vehicles falling off the vehicles," Hurst said. "It seems a bit perplexing as to why that would happen."
Glitches that dog a newly constructed transit system vary, he said, but often arise from railway misalignment and problems within the control system software.
Jakes Associates is one of the consulting firms vying for a contract to investigate why a heavy-duty washer used to secure a train's drive shaft fell from a moving car Sept. 8, Hurst said. The malfunction occurred less than a day after the $650 million system reopened following a closure that started when a 60-pound wheel fell off the train Sept. 1, leaving the trains idle for the busy Labor Day weekend.
The system remained closed this morning, and monorail officials said the shutdown could last several weeks.
Todd Walker, a spokesman for the monorail, said the company has not yet determined which consulting firm will join the investigation.
"Until we have that group, it (the reopening) could be a long time away," he said.
Ron Lynn, the county building official overseeing the monorail, said it was premature to try to predict how long the investigation and subsequent repairs could take. The system is now in the first of a four-stage process to determine what went wrong and how to prevent similar glitches, he said.
This first step, a complete evaluation of the trains' undercarriage and drive system, could be the most time-consuming stage, Lynn said.
"The problem is you may have 99 percent that's OK and one part that's not," he said. "That's the problem."
Engineers so far have not ruled out any plausible theory regarding the failure, Lynn said.
As with the previous closure, the monorail company is responsible for all of the repair costs, including the $75 an hour the system is billed for each county engineer dispatched to inspect the repairs, he said. To reopen, monorail officials must prove to the Clark County Building Division, which oversees the system's safety, that the problems have been adequately repaired.
Transit System Management, the company that manages the monorail, said after last week's glitch it would bring in another consultant to look into the failure. Engineers from Bombardier Inc., the Canadian company contracted to build and operate the monorail, and McLean, Va.-based Booz Allen Hamilton were already brought in to investigate the incident.
Bombardier is considered a leader in people-mover technology, Hurst said. However, the Las Vegas system, which operates without a driver, is the first of its kind for the company.
Bombardier is still under a $10 million annual contract to maintain the monorail and its existing 4-mile route from the MGM Grand to the Sahara hotel. Plans for an extension to downtown Las Vegas were put on indefinite hold in light of the closure. A $233 million contract awarded Bombardier in October 2003 will expire at the end of this month, according to the monorail company.
"Obviously whenever things like this happen it puts a black eye on the relatively small monorail/people-mover segment," Hurst said. "But typically when startups of prototype systems take place, there are a few hiccups."
It is still too early to pinpoint how widespread the flaws may be, he said.
"You run into an issue when you try to point to one thing or another," Hurst said. "It could be a design issue; it could be an installation issue. It's probably going to be an expensive investigation that could take months."