Starting nearly a decade ago, Massachusetts leaders made a promise that now appears to have been too good to be true: In exchange for more than $800 million, a Chinese company would build 404 new Red and Orange Line cars for the MBTA by 2023 in a brand-new Springfield factory, resurrecting the long-dormant railcar manufacturing industry in Western Massachusetts and creating hundreds of stable local jobs.
But nearly five years after the factory got up and running, only 90 of around 340 cars that were supposed to have been delivered by now are in the hands of the MBTA, and even fewer are carrying passengers. A battery explosion, derailment, loose brake bolts, and electrical arcing have forced the T to repeatedly pull the new cars out of service and rely on faulty old cars that were supposed to be retired decades ago.
To hear the manufacturing company, CRRC Corp. Ltd., tell it, delivery delays are largely the fault of supply chain issues created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Workers at the factory, the company says, are happy.
“Every day I come here and I have a blast,” the company’s website says, citing a testimonial from a “CRRC MA union production worker” named Kyle.
But interviews with several former workers at the facility describe a very different scene on the factory floor, showing a chaotic and often harrowing environment prone to mishaps and delays long before the pandemic began. Cars with missing parts are advanced along the assembly line without the correct paperwork and thus no way to track errors; employees bored to tears pretend to work and watch movies for months while waiting on parts to arrive as suppliers go unpaid; and workers mostly stay silent, fearing retaliation for raising concerns.
The dysfunction the former workers complain of seems to have finally caught the attention of the MBTA.
Last month, the MBTA’s deputy director of vehicle engineering, Mark DeVitto, sent a series of sternly worded letters to CRRC, according to correspondence obtained by the Globe, outlining the project’s many failures. Among the most concerning: CRRC appears to have been operating the factory without a crucial international quality certification until last year, and major companies supplying parts for the cars such as brakes and HVAC systems have at times pulled out of the project.
The letters don’t appear to have jolted CRRC into getting the project back on track, and it’s not clear at this point what options the MBTA has.
“This is an indictment of CRRC management, an absolute quality indictment,“ said Larry Salci, a former executive at railcar manufacturing companies and transit agency head. “Why has the MBTA let this go on for so long?”
The project’s stakes grow higher every day as the MBTA’s oldest Red and Orange Line cars continue to deteriorate while the T waits for their replacements.
The 54-year-old Red Line cars were supposed to be retired in 1994. A door on one of them malfunctioned in April, dragging a passenger to death. The 42-year-old Orange Line cars were supposed to be retired in 2006. A side panel on one fell off in July, touching the third rail and creating a fire that sent passengers scrambling to evacuate. The MBTA has been using only new Orange Line cars since reopening the line after a 30-day shutdown last year, but may put some old ones back in service as a “backup plan.”
The Legislature and the administration of Governor Deval Patrick decided almost a decade ago to require that the new trains be assembled in Massachusetts. The MBTA chose CRRC in 2014 to build 284 new Red and Orange Line cars for $567 million — nearly $200 million less than the minimum independent cost estimate for the project — and the company vowed to make Springfield its US headquarters, creating 250 new manufacturing and construction jobs. CRRC is among the largest rail manufacturers in the world but had never built a factory, trained a workforce, or assembled a train car in the United States. Despite the risks, in 2016, the MBTA ordered 120 more Red Line cars for $249 million from the company. The overall project is valued at $1 billion, according to the MBTA’s website.
The Globe spoke to several former workers at the Springfield factory who said they quit when their frustration with CRRC became unbearable. Others said they were let go after disagreements with other employees or supervisors. The Globe is not naming the former employees who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from CRRC.
One former production supervisor said he had implored his superiors for two weeks not to advance along the assembly line a car that was missing a part that the factory was still waiting on. Cars are supposed to advance to the next station only after all parts that correspond to their current station are installed, former employees said, creating an organized paper trail of what work has been completed and what is left to do.
The supervisor said he had been hired in mid-2020 to work a 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift with occasional Saturdays and the promise of a yearly raise. On his first day, he remembers having to stay until 6 p.m. Most Saturdays, he was asked to work, he said, and the raises never came.
After a day off last year, he said, he returned to the factory to find out that in his absence, a wall had been installed inside the car that he had told his superiors to hold back until work was done. The wall covered the place where a missing part was supposed to go. His team would have to disassemble the wall, causing delays and potential damage. In his 15 years of working in factory production, he’d never seen anything like it.
He quit on the spot.
“I took a day off and they built around it,” he said. “It’s a toxic environment.”
A former test engineer said that for seven months in 2019 and 2020, he and several other employees did not do any work because the company did not have the parts they were supposed to test. He said they would pretend to work inside the trains or hide in a training room and watch Netflix movies on their phones.
Sometimes, the former test engineer said, he would test cars that didn’t have all the parts they needed.
“They skip steps and they go back,” he said. “Everyone had to be a yes man no matter how ludicrous you thought something was.”
A former administrative employee said CRRC did not automatically upload supplier invoices to its accounts payable system, and insisted on first manually checking the parts that had arrived. This allowed bills to fall through the cracks and never get uploaded or paid, he said, leading suppliers to stop fulfilling orders.
The inventory system was equally disordered, the former employee said. If a worker broke or lost a part, they would grab a replacement without noting the reduction in inventory, he said.
“Whatever production schedule they’ve committed to there’s no way they can make it,” he said. “They allowed these problems to fester and they’ve only gotten worse.”
A spokesperson for CRRC did not dispute the Globe’s description of the former workers’ allegations.
The MBTA has inspectors at the Springfield factory, the former employees said. Even with those eyes and ears inside the factory, problems with the cars have persisted.
Spokesperson for the MBTA Joe Pesaturo said the agency has monitored the status of each car closely, conducted testing before each car is accepted, and recorded open items for CRRC to address before delivering the cars.
“The MBTA is aggressively managing the contract with CRRC and all new vehicles put into service by the MBTA have met the quality requirements of the Technical Specifications,” he said via e-mail.
A spokesperson for CRRC, Lydia Rivera, said via e-mail, “CRRC MA remains committed to delivering the Orange and Red line project and continues to work cooperatively with the MBTA project team to move this project forward.” CRRC and the MBTA alike identified the need to retrain workers to improve procedures, Rivera said, and the company is now auditing workers’ skills weekly by random inspection.
In a Dec. 14 letter to CRRC’s project manager obtained by the Globe, the MBTA’s DeVitto said Wabtec Corp., the company producing the cars’ brakes, HVAC systems, couplers, and doors, and Mitsubishi Electric Power Products Inc., which produces the propulsion systems, “are currently withdrawing their support due to commercial issues.” Notes from meetings held between CRRC and the MBTA last year obtained by the Globe said Wabtec reported “insufficient payment from CRRC.” A spokesperson from Wabtec did not respond to requests for comment, and spokespeople for Mitsubishi could not be reached.
Rivera said CRRC “works cooperatively with all its suppliers to ensure invoices are efficiently processed according to the contract.”
CRRC is supposed to be delivering four finished cars to the MBTA each month. Pesaturo said CRRC has not delivered any new cars since the T last updated its oversight board on the project in September.
In his Dec. 22 letter to CRRC’s project manager, DeVitto outlined 16 failures with the project, including incomplete inspections and reports of parts that are damaged or ill-fitting.
The list goes on: “Chronic workmanship quality issues.” “Repetitive deficiencies in submitted Car History Books” (books delivered with the cars that trace every part’s serial number and all work performed). “Failure to respond to many letters from MBTA.”
Also, International Standard Organization certification, a customary manufacturing quality assurance step, was only obtained last year, even though CRRC was required to have it since the start of the project, according to DeVitto’s letter.
CRRC “has completely abandoned its core responsibility and commitment to lead, monitor, mentor, and support quality management functions,” the letter said.
Rivera, the CRRC spokesperson, said that CRRC has been “managing and controlling in accordance with the ISO system” while the factory was getting certified. Incomplete inspections and other problems “are communicated, reviewed and approved with MBTA where they are all non-safety related and not affecting the major functionality,” she said.
Short of halting production or withholding payment to CRRC until the issues are addressed, the MBTA may not have any options. The liquidated damages provision for late delivery of vehicles of $500 per day could take a long time to sort out.
Meanwhile, Red and Orange Line riders will continue to endure sudden service cuts when the new cars have to be pulled from service and when the aging ones break down.
Chuck Wochele, a former vice president of industry and government relations at competing train car manufacturing company Alstom, which did not bid on the project, said he isn’t surprised by the chaos.
“Ugly is the best term for it, it’s gotten to be really ugly,” he said. “They went with a low bid, a promise of a facility, a company with no proven track record in the US. It was a political decision and when political decisions are made on complex equipment like this, it generally doesn’t go well.”
Taylor Dolven can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @taydolven.