On Tuesday morning, I was taking a ride in a spiffy new Orange Line train on a test track in Springfield, where CRRC MA is under contract to deliver several hundred subway cars to the MBTA. The factory theme is “Rolling with Confidence,” Christopher D. Diener, director of quality assurance, proudly told me as we boarded.
By the time I got back to Boston, the latest news about the new Orange Line cars already in use inspired anything but confidence. The MBTA announced it was pulling all of them out of service after a “battery failure.” Asked about it, Lydia Rivera, the spokeswoman for CRRC who had arranged the factory tour, would only say: “This is under investigation.”
And so it goes with CRRC MA — a subsidiary of CRRC, a state-owned Chinese rail manufacturer. New subway cars have been pulled out of service before, after brake issues, strange noises, a derailment, and a door that stayed open. As the T struggles to address a variety of system-wide safety issues identified by a federal audit, the cars coming out of the Springfield factory are critical to modernizing an ancient public transportation system. Yet no one on Beacon Hill seems to be asking the tough questions that need to be asked: Why is it taking so long to produce these subway cars? And why are there so many issues with the ones already delivered?
The company first won its bid with the MBTA in 2014, when Deval Patrick was governor. The original $566 million contract was expanded to nearly $1 billion under Governor Charlie Baker, and the company is now slated to deliver 152 Orange Line cars and 252 Red Line cars to the T. So far, it has produced 74 Orange Line cars and 12 Red Line cars, company officials said.
On the surface, this factory looks impressive. It’s light, bright, airy, and clean. According to Rivera, the production workforce, which is union, is currently at 225, and the company is currently looking to hire about 10 more workers. All the work is “human touch.” No automation or robotics is involved. There are 10 work stations. On Tuesday, all were filled with cars that looked to be destined for the Orange Line, although the factory also produces cars for the Los Angeles system.
The first work station features the subway car shell that is shipped from China. The last one is a fully equipped car, which is ready for testing on “a 2,240-square-foot dynamic test track,” as described in a company fact sheet. After it passes field tests at the facility, the new car is delivered to T workers, who test it for another 500 miles before allowing passengers on board.
According to CRRC officials, it takes 60 days from start to finish to produce one car. They attribute production delays to factory shutdowns due to COVID-19 and supply chain issues. Yet the original contract dates back eight years. According to Rivera, it took about a year and a half to build the factory, and the first new Orange Line cars were delivered in 2018. Since then, the delivery dates keep getting pushed back.
On Tuesday, Billy Jim, the project manager, said the balance of new Orange Line cars would be delivered in 2023, with the balance of Red Line cars delivered in 2025. No mention of the about-to-be announced battery problem was made during this tour, which also included Alex Kamyshin, the deputy production manager. Instead, there was talk of the new car smell of the train on the test track and the state-of-the-art production facility.
This factory brings jobs to Springfield, and that’s a good thing. But CRRC has never been pressed in any public forum by T executives, Governor Charlie Baker, or Beacon Hill lawmakers to answer for production delays and quality issues. Yet upgrading the T is not a vanity project. It’s essential to the future of the state’s economy. Massachusetts thrives because its core businesses change with the times. Yet a workforce that puts heart and brain power into cutting-edge industry is still stuck on primitive public transit. Why should the T-riding public be confident that will improve?
It’s time for someone on Beacon Hill to find out.