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Long before pandemic, problems mounted for new Red and Orange line cars

Newly released public records indicate the factory in Springfield was beset by missteps and poor oversight

Three years after CRRA’s Springfield factory opened, only three new train sets are serving passengers. Above, new Orange Line cars in December 2018.
Three years after CRRA’s Springfield factory opened, only three new train sets are serving passengers. Above, new Orange Line cars in December 2018.Lane Turner

Long before the pandemic upended nearly every aspect of business life, the Springfield factory building hundreds of new Red and Orange line cars was having a bad year, with issues from the seemingly mundane to the confounding.

Supplies for Red Line cars went missing for weeks; parts were mistakenly sent off-site; materials to finish seats were late to arrive; unfinished Orange Line cars stalled on the assembly line.

And when the company, the Chinese national rail manufacturer known as CRRC, was able to deliver finished cars, two full train sets had to be taken out of service to diagnose a loud rubbing noise near the carriages. Moreover, there was a problem with the first set of replacement parts that further set the fix back, an “unacceptable” development that fuming Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority officials said was an “example of CRRC’s poor-quality management.”

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Then the pandemic hit, disrupting CRRC’s supply chain and shuttering the Springfield plant for several weeks, compounding a cascade of problems that explain why — three years after the factory opened — only three new train sets are serving passengers.

The issues culminated with the announcement by the MBTA in October that the nearly $1 billion contract to produce some 404 cars for Greater Boston’s two busiest subway lines would be a year late. The last set of trains will now not arrive until late 2024 — a full decade after the company, CRRC, was chosen for the project.

Public records obtained by the Globe reveal the extent of the problems at the Springfield plant, from difficulty managing inventory to longer-than-expected processes to install doors or complete important vehicle tests.

CRRC argued that “the major contributor" to the delays were the effects of the coronavirus.

The “pandemic was outside of CRRC’s reasonable control and prevented the rail car manufacturer from performing its obligations under the existing contract,” spokeswoman Lydia Rivera said.

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But she acknowledged there were “various reasons” for the delay, including “production efficiency challenges” and “supplier issues" and getting workers familiar with building trains.

“We are challenged with meeting the minimum requirements for support of our manufacturing line,” Rivera said. “That coupled with the fact that this is basically a new industry in the region, the resources that we do bring on are not familiar with this type of work and require additional training and time to become competent and efficient.”

Steven Spear, a senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who focuses on manufacturing, said efficient companies ensure employees are properly trained, supply chains are in place, and the workforce is the right size ahead of production.

“To succeed, we first have to build in time and resources to learn and otherwise build competency,” said Spear, who added that he was not familiar with the specific circumstances in Springfield.

The goal at the factory, opened in 2017, was to complete the replacement and expansion of the entire Orange Line fleet in mid-2022, and the Red Line for fall 2023.

But CRRC met just half its production target for 2019. And in June, CRRC acknowledged to the MBTA that it took an average of nine months to complete a pair of subway cars — more than twice as long as its current goal, according to the records.

MBTA officials were so disappointed with the work that, in January, they said “their confidence in CRRC has been reduced due to past failures,” according to the minutes of meetings between officials and the contractor.

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Until the pandemic, MBTA officials had often said that despite the slow introduction of new trains, the overall project remained on schedule. But the disruptions from the coronavirus further hampered CRRC’s ability to get back on track.

The MBTA now says CRRC has made progress stabilizing the production process.

“The T believes CRRC has identified the issues related to production and has a plan in place to implement corrective actions,” MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said.

Under pressure from the T, CRRC has fired a subcontractor charged with managing supplies after a series of inventory mishaps and has built a new warehouse at the factory site to keep materials close, records show. The MBTA has also brought back a former general manager, Dan Grabauskas, to help oversee the contract.

But CRRC is still short of hitting several key targets.

For example, company officials told the MBTA months ago that its goal was to cycle trains through work stations along the assembly line every five days; in the interim, it would target eight days. But as of now, CRRC takes about 12 days, Pesaturo said.

And in January, CRRC promised to soon begin delivering four new Orange Line cars per month, and four Red Line cars a month by September — a target it was supposed to have already met. But since June, the T has received just two cars each month for the Orange line — except for September, when it didn’t get any, Pesaturo said.

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The first new Red Line train, originally expected in service months ago, is now projected to hit the rails before the end of the year.

CRRC faces penalties of up to $500 a day per car for each delay caused by the company. But Rivera indicated the company will argue it should not be penalized for all the delays because the virus was unforeseen.

The documents provided by the MBTA suggest the virus disrupted CRRC’s supply chain and communications with its parent company in China. The factory shutdown limited both production and engineering work. Once it reopened, workers were regularly sidelined by child-care needs and long waits for virus tests to return. Suppliers were not allowed to enter the site without first testing negative.

Augustine Ubaldi, a rail industry expert with the consulting firm Robson Forensic, said a one-year delay doesn’t sound severe, especially considering the scale of the pandemic.

“One of the laws of project management is that no project will be completely on time or within budget,” he said. “If you’re only a year out . . . that’s not too shabby.”

Celebrated as a statewide economic victory, the CRRC project promised both a major improvement to the beleaguered transit system and new manufacturing jobs in Western Massachusetts. CRRC has also won contracts to build trains for the Philadelphia and Los Angeles transit systems at the site.

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But building a $95 million, 200,000-square-foot factory took time and required training a workforce that had not previously built trains, said Paul Gour, business agent for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 7.

“I think they got off to a slow start,” said Gour, whose union represents technical workers on the project. “They were getting a lot of people, a whole new workforce, who weren’t familiar with it in the beginning. But now they’re picking up steam.”

Rivera said CRRC now has 258 employees in Springfield, including 177 working on car production, and is still hiring. In June, CRRC told the MBTA that new training materials could help expedite processes that slowed production.

In October, MBTA chairman Joseph Aiello said the T must prioritize the quality of the new cars.

“I’m less concerned about the day you get the last car," Aiello said at a meeting of the agency’s oversight board. “I’m more concerned about making sure that as the cars get here they’re exactly what we need at the T, and that they will stand the test of time.”



Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.