What’s really happening at the Springfield factory where the Chinese-owned company CRRC MA is under contract to deliver several hundred subway cars to the MBTA? If I were convening a congressional hearing, as Senator Elizabeth Warren is doing, that’s what I would want to find out.
At a recent meeting with the T’s board of directors, state Transportation Secretary Jamey Tesler reported that the company, which has fallen behind its scheduled deadlines from the start, needs even more time to produce subway cars for the Red and Orange lines. At that meeting, MBTA Deputy General Manager Jeff Gonneville also said T officials have been auditing each production station for quality and efficiency.
Would you like to know more? So would I.
But when it comes to delivering details, the T moves slowly, just like the Orange Line. Last week, when I heard that a T contingent was on-site in Springfield, I sent Joe Pesaturo, the T’s director of communications, an email asking about an audit or other investigation or review. This was his (unedited) response: “sorry Joan — I don’t know what you are talking about. Who is supposedly conducting this audit/investigation/review?” A few emails later, Pesaturo did know what I was talking about, and told me, “the audit taking place now is the one Jeff described last week: auditing each stage of production to CRRC to evaluate it and identify areas for improving the process.” Why not say that from the start? It’s not the T’s way.
It’s good news that T management is finally interested in what’s happening — or not — in Springfield. Why it has taken so long is an enigma. Or maybe not. The plant has the blessing of US Representative Richard Neal, the powerful House Ways and Means committee chairman, who supports it as a way to bring jobs to Springfield. In 2019, Neal took credit for inserting compromise language into a Pentagon spending bill that allowed the factory to compete for contracts making rail cars for American transit agencies, and not fall under a federal ban meant to stifle such business. When I just visited the factory in June, a huge banner that proclaimed, “Thank You Congressman Neal for your support” hung from the wall. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as the company keeps up its end of the bargain. But, it’s not.
CRRC MA first won a $566 million contract in 2014 when Deval Patrick was governor. The contract was expanded to $880 million under Governor Charlie Baker. As reported by CommonWealth Magazine, the CRRC MA was originally slated to deliver 152 Orange Line cars by January 2022 and 252 Red Line cars by September 2023. Two years ago, those target completion dates were changed to April 2023 for the Orange Line and September 2024 for the Red Line. Now, the Orange Line completion date has been pushed to the summer of 2023, and the Red Line cars won’t be ready until the summer of 2025. Also according to CommonWealth Magazine, shells for all 152 Orange Line cars have been produced and 78 are in the Wellington car house or on the rails. Only 32 of the 252 Red Line car shells have been produced, 12 of which are complete.
Supply chain issues relating to the pandemic and worker retention issues are being blamed for the delays. If there are other problems, the public should know that, too. Meanwhile, the T is supposedly considering whether to enforce contract language that requires the company to pay $500 per day for each car that is delivered late. But it has considered that before and never followed through.
Jim Aloisi, a former state transportation secretary and transportation consultant who writes frequently about the T, said the CRRC MA contract screams out for a “forensic examination.” If that happens, it will fall to the next governor. In her transportation plan, Maura Healey, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, notes the delays in delivering the Orange and Red Line cars, and says she will “order a review of project delivery for all existing projects in the pipeline.” Her Republican opponent, Geoff Diehl, has no detailed transportation plan on his campaign website, but has said he would call for an independent audit of the T. That’s not the same as promising to look into what’s really happening with the CRRC MA contract.
For now, it’s a mystery. Does anyone besides this Orange Line rider want to solve it?
Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.