The delivery of hundreds of new MBTA Red and Orange line trains is years behind schedule. Former workers describe the Springfield factory where the rail cars are being produced by CRRC MA, the Quincy-based subsidiary of a Chinese rail company, as “toxic” and dysfunctional. An MBTA inspector has called out the company for “chronic quality issues” and management that has “completely abandoned its core responsibilities.”
But this troubled company still has the confidence of one very important person: Representative Richard Neal, whose position on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee gives him extra clout in Washington and Massachusetts.
“While we recognize that there have been challenges in recent years relative to supply chain issues, we expect and anticipate CRRC to fulfill their obligations to the state per their contractual agreement,” Neal said via a statement from his office that blithely ignores problems that go far beyond supply chain issues. In the statement, Neal also said that he has spoken to Governor Maura Healey about the factory and she is working with members of her administration “to formulate a solution to this problem, one that the governor and I both view as solvable.”
Neal, who declined a request for an interview, has been the company’s chief cheerleader and savior. Because of his efforts, CRRC MA escaped a 2019 federal ban that stopped mass transit companies from using federal funds for the purchase of rail cars and buses from Chinese-owned companies. When I visited the factory in June, a big banner thanking him was still hanging on the wall.
It makes you wonder how much Neal’s support for CRRC MA is tamping down what should be a cascade of official outrage over what one member of the Massachusetts delegation calls a “f-ing disaster” — not for attribution, of course. When it comes to calling out the company, reticence is the word of the day. In October, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey grilled then-MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak on multiple safety and service problems at the transit agency. But when I asked their offices if either had anything to say about CRRC MA — they didn’t.
Another member of the delegation, Representative Seth Moulton, was at least willing to call the deal with CRRC MA “a flawed contract from the beginning” that has been “clearly mismanaged over the years.” However, Moulton, a champion of expanded public transit in Massachusetts, said it’s unfair to blame Neal for what is “fundamentally the responsibility of the MBTA.” Added Moulton: “I don’t think it’s Congressman Neal’s fault. It’s not his contract. The issue is a symptom of successive administrations that just trust what the T tells them.”
But this is not a matter of blaming Neal for the contract. The issue is whether CRRC MA is getting a pass when it comes to delivering on that contract because of Neal’s advocacy.
The Chinese rail company was the low bidder when it first won a contract with Massachusetts in 2014, under the administration of Governor Deval Patrick. In 2017, the Springfield facility opened and the contract was extended under Governor Charlie Baker. Ever since the delivery of the first new Orange Line cars in 2019 there have been problems, with trains pulled from service because of a strange noise eventually linked to “wear pads” between the car’s body and its undercarriage, improperly installed bolts, malfunctioning doors, and battery failures.
In January, Jeff Gonneville, the T’s interim general manager, reported that only 78 of 152 Orange Line trains and 12 of 252 Red Line cars had been delivered. Merely delivering a new rail car to the T is challenging. Just last week, a new Orange Line car en route from Springfield to the T separated from the trailer truck that was carrying it, causing major traffic delays in Chelmsford. (Apart from any Massachusetts-related issues, the federal Department of Transportation’s Inspector General’s office just announced it is launching an audit of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority’s contract with CRRC.)
Healey now owns this CRRC MA mess. Under her watch, the T hired a new group of consultants to identify ways to expedite delivery of the cars, which are now years behind schedule. To signal their commitment to address longstanding problems, Healey and Lieutenant Governor Kim Driscoll recently took a ride on the T and visited T headquarters. “This is about rebuilding the public’s confidence and trust in the transit system,” Healey said at the time. Meanwhile, Transportation Secretary Gina Fiandaca took a tour of the Springfield factory to get a firsthand look at the operations.
What should happen now? Moulton said he believes the MBTA should have more options on the table to deal with the CRRC MA problem, “including having another company come in and take over the Springfield factory.”
Neal, meanwhile, insists the problems at the factory are “solvable.” But how long will it take to solve them, and at what expense to Massachusetts and the riding public?