You know that Springfield factory where a company that never before assembled a rail car in the United States is under state contract to build a fleet of new Orange and Red line trains? It’s a hot mess — one that outgoing Governor Charlie Baker has left to incoming Governor Maura Healey to fix.
A Dec. 22 letter from MBTA Deputy Director Mark DeVitto to the project manager of CRRC MA — the Chinese company that’s producing the rail cars — presents a worrisome list of workmanship and inspection reporting lapses. “Given the breadth, number and age of chronic quality issues that have remained unresolved, it becomes abundantly clear that CRRC MA’s management has completely abandoned its core responsibilities and commitment to lead, monitor and support quality management,” wrote DeVitto. “This situation has already caused major disruptions, rework and delays in production and delivery of Orange and Red Line cars.”
Asked about the letter, the T was, as usual, less than forthcoming. “The MBTA continues to engage with CRRC MA on issues related to production and quality assurance and CRRC MA has informed the MBTA they will provide a response to the concerns raised in the letter this week,” T spokesman Joe Pesaturo said via e-mail. The MBTA, he added, “continues to assess all available remedies, including the liquidated damages clause of the CRRC MA contract,” which refers to financial penalties the T can assess under the contract.
A specific question as to whether any of the 16 concerns cited in the letter contributed to the T’s recent decision to quietly cut more Orange Line service was ignored. But Jim Aloisi, a former state transportation secretary, said that number five on the list — “chronic workmanship quality issues with electrical assembly work, wire crimping, wire terminations, etc.” — could have played a role. According to a statement issued last week by the T, those trains were pulled from service after the transit authority found a “failure in a power cable that may have created some electrical arcing with a nearby train axle.” Noted Aloisi: “The dots do seem to connect there.”
Other concerns include “chronic workmanship quality issues with mechanical assembly work, torque control,” which relates to making sure bolts are properly tightened; failure to document that all rail car components have been properly inspected; and a failure to properly handle and store “critical equipment” like gears. It all adds up to what Aloisi described as “a shambolic mess.”
What to do next is a dilemma for the incoming Healey administration, since the new cars are desperately needed and switching vendors would be challenging. “I think it’s very concerning at this stage,” said Tom Glynn, a former T general manager who also cochaired Healey’s transition committee on transportation. If this had happened at the beginning of the contract, added Glynn, “you could say, it’s a startup, there are bugs. But at this stage, there are significant delivery problems, which I think are concerning.”
The MassDOT board unanimously awarded a $566.6 million contract to deliver 284 new Red and Orange line cars to CNR MA (now CRRC MA) in October 2014 — near the end of the administration of Governor Deval Patrick. That made Massachusetts an entry point to the North American market for the Chinese company. At the time, rivals questioned the winning bid, which was nearly $200 million less than the minimum independent cost estimate for the job.
As reported then by State House News Service, one of those rival companies, Hyundai Rotem, also raised questions about the integrity of the process after Patrick acknowledged that he met with officials from the Chinese company during a trade mission that took place in the middle of the bidding process. Then state transportation secretary Richard Davey also attended that meeting. A spokesman for the Patrick administration said back then that the details of the procurement “were not discussed at the meeting” and Patrick played no role in deciding which company got the business. In 2016, the Baker administration expanded the contract, ordering 120 more Red Line cars from CRRC MA for another $277 million.
Committed to assemble the cars in Massachusetts, CRRC MA built a beautiful but badly managed factory. The first Orange Line cars did not enter service until August 2019. As of September, the T said the shells of 152 Orange Line cars had been produced and 78 were ready for use. As of that time, the T had received only 12 Red Line cars. The company blames production delays on COVID-19, but read the letter from the T and it’s clear these problems run deeper than a pandemic. They reflect what Glynn describes as “a culture of casualness” around American production standards. And with that culture comes contempt for the riding public — a contempt that’s shared by the MBTA, which, enabled by Baker, let the problems in Springfield fester without accountability.
Step one for the Healey administration: change that attitude. The mess at the factory can’t be fixed until that happens.