The MBTA’s newest Red and Orange line cars will remain out of service for several more weeks as officials continue to investigate problems that likely contributed to a March derailment, the latest in a series of setbacks for the high-profile rail project.
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s $1 billion replacement of the decades-old fleets on the two subway lines has encountered a number of issues since the first new train went into service in 2019, from glitches that forced cars out of service to new vehicles arriving far more slowly than expected. So far, only four six-car Orange Line trains and one Red Line train have entered service, while the MBTA has ordered more than 400 subway cars.
The current issue stems from trouble with a component located between the undersides of the vehicles, known as the trucks, and their bodies, where passengers sit and stand.
At a meeting of the MBTA’s governing board Monday, deputy general manager Jeff Gonneville said it is becoming more difficult for the truck frames to turn, which could present a challenge as trains go through curves.
“As the miles of the vehicles are increasing, there is a greater resistance to turning of the truck frames themselves,” he said. Because pads that are meant to “regulate” the turning are wearing down, it creates more friction than anticipated, he added.
The cars have been off the tracks since one of the new trains derailed on the Orange Line in mid-March just outside Wellington Station in Medford, on a stretch that was undergoing track work and near an old switch that has since been replaced. In April, Gonneville said the MBTA had yet to identify anything with the trains to suggest they played a role in the derailment, but was keeping the vehicles out of service as a precaution while officials investigated. However, the issue with the vehicles has now “been identified as a key contributing factor” to the derailment, MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said.
No one was injured in the derailment.
The MBTA had previously pulled Orange Line cars out of service for several weeks in late 2019, citing a strange noise emanating from the same part of the vehicles that is causing the current problem. Despite the seeming similarities, Gonneville said on Monday that the incidents were not related.
The MBTA is now trying to determine the root cause of the issue, an intensive process that includes a “microscopic materials analysis,” Gonneville said. He said he expects to provide an update in early June.
Officials will plan to put the cars back in service “once it is safe to do so,” he said.
The new trains are being built by CRRC, a Chinese rail manufacturer that completes assembly of the cars at a factory in Springfield. CRRC was the low bidder on the project, awarded in 2014 under then-Governor Deval Patrick and expanded in 2016 by Governor Charlie Baker.
The arrangement was celebrated at the time as a major economic win for the state, because it would bring manufacturing jobs to Western Massachusetts while improving the Boston area’s transit system.
But it has run into a multitude of problems, including long delays for vehicles to enter service and slow manufacturing times that predated — but were compounded by — the COVID-19 pandemic.
In early 2020, minutes from a meeting between the MBTA and CRRC revealed the transit agency said its “confidence in CRRC has been reduced due to past failures,” the Globe reported last year. The agency has also indicated it will seek to fine CRRC for the delays, though CRRC has suggested it will contest those efforts.
This is far from the MBTA’s first struggle with new subway cars. More than 20 years ago, new Green Line cars were prone to derailment and ultimately took years to be fully introduced. The MBTA was also sharply critical in the mid-2000s of the contractor Siemens because of manufacturing delays with the current roster of Blue Line cars.