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OPINION

Are new rail cars win-win for China and Massachusetts? Not yet.

So far, the benefit ledger favors China.

MBTA officials inspect the March 16 derailment of one of the new Orange Line trains just outside of the Wellington station.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

At a 2018 ceremony to celebrate delivery of the first two MBTA trains completed at a Springfield factory that’s operated by a Chinese company, China’s consul general from New York told distinguished guests — including Governor Charlie Baker — that the partnership showcased “China-US win-win cooperation and will benefit everyone’s life.”

So far, the benefit ledger favors China. The state-owned Chinese rail manufacturer CRRC has a nearly $1 billion contract with the MBTA to build 404 cars to replace the entire fleet of aging Red and Orange line trains. The local benefit sounds good: a $95 million factory underwritten by CRRC MA — a subsidiary of CRRC — and the jobs that go with it. But the project is behind schedule. Only a fraction of the 404 cars have been produced, and technical problems have forced them out of service.

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When the contract was awarded in 2014, during the administration of former governor Deval Patrick, the state gave up federal funding so it could require rail car assembly to take place in Massachusetts. Breaking ground in Springfield “was a really big deal,” said Patrick this week on Bloomberg Radio. But even Patrick now seems unsure about whether a big deal was also a good deal. The commitment to local jobs “doesn’t mean that the people of Massachusetts should settle for shoddy work,” he told radio hosts Tom Moroney and Joe Shortsleeve. Patrick said he’s frustrated by recent reports of mechanical problems, but “someone else is responsible today for chasing down who is responsible.”

That would be Baker, whose administration expanded the contract in 2017. “I have a feeling this is going to become a really significant flagship for manufacturing and assembly of rail cars here in the US,” Baker said during a tour of the facility back in 2017. That could be. But in Massachusetts, T engineers are currently grappling with a malfunction tied to a pad, described by the Globe’s Adam Vaccaro as “a thin strip of synthetic resin-like material, about a foot long and five inches wide, wedged between the heavy machinery of the vehicles’ trucks, which carry the wheels and the bolsters, which connect the trucks to the cars’ bodies.” The problem was discovered after an Orange Line train derailed last March. A CRRC MA spokeswoman told the Globe the company believes other factors contributed to the malfunction.

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The company has another big booster in US Representative Richard Neal. In 2019, Neal got credit for adding language to a Pentagon spending bill that protected CRRC MA from efforts by the Trump administration and some congressional Democrats to shut it down. Because the company is owned by the Chinese government, critics suggested devices to track or eavesdrop on riders could be planted, creating “spy trains.” The other objection was that once China starts supplying America’s trains, they’ll have access to America’s infrastructure.

Forget about spy trains riding America’s rails. The more serious concern is whether CRRC can deliver a fleet of new, safe, dependable trains — before the old trains break down. The company significantly under-bid other competitors and, while it supplied rail cars around the world, this was its first foray into North America. Controversy also kicked up around the fact that Patrick met with company officials on a trade mission to China before the final selection. Critics also questioned the contract because of China’s troubling record on worker and human rights.

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But putting people to work, especially in western Massachusetts, drove the deal. CRRC MA recently said it has 320 employees in the state, including 258 in Springfield. The 200,000-square-foot facility on Page Boulevard was previously the site of an old Westinghouse manufacturing plant.

“The CRRC plant sparked hopes for a manufacturing renaissance. And for many in our region, harkened back to Springfield’s history as an industrial powerhouse,” said state Senator Eric Lesser of Longmeadow, whose district includes Springfield. If those hopes backfire? “It will feel for many of us that, yet again, promises made to Springfield don’t get fulfilled and taxpayers statewide will be left footing the bill,” said Lesser.

In the end, everyone may benefit. But for now, the Chinese company got what it wanted — a base of operations for infrastructure investment in North America — while Massachusetts got new rail cars it currently can’t use.


Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.