It was a big week for Red and Orange Line passengers who are anxiously awaiting new cars.
On Tuesday, the T shared video of new Orange Line cars running along track in China. Also this week, the company building those trains — the Chinese state-owned firm CRRC — officially opened its factory in Springfield, where the trains will be built. Governor Charlie Baker, Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, and MBTA General Manager Luis Ramirez were among the many officials to tour the sparkling 204,000-square-foot facility Thursday.
The factory already employs nearly 115 people, and that number is expected to grow to 180 next year. State officials have sold it as a win for all of Massachusetts: New vehicles for Greater Boston, and new jobs around Springfield. Those workers will be busy even after completing 404 new railcars for the T, as CRRC also plans to build new vehicles for the Los Angeles and Philadelphia systems at the factory.
But all the excitement around the new trains, which will begin production next year, also highlights a less rosy point. More than two years after the Baker administration set out to reform the MBTA after a disastrous winter, riders still struggle with the system’s reliability on a day-to-day basis.
Recently released data from the Federal Transit Administration also emphasized that point, showing that in 2016, the T had the most breakdowns on the commuter rail of any system in the country.
T officials, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, and Baker himself have acknowledged in recent months that riders have yet to see serious improvement even after a new oversight board has spent 27 months working to improve MBTA management practices, get its finances under control, and increase infrastructure spending. Pollack also recently criticized Keolis Commuter Services, the company that operates the commuter rail, for inconsistent performance.
Meanwhile, potential Democratic candidates for governor in 2018 have been quick to criticize the T’s performance under Baker, a Republican who is widely expected to seek reelection. Jay Gonzalez and Setti Warren both shared news coverage of the commuter rail breakdowns on social media, and Gonzalez said he believes the T needs new revenue. Baker, by contrast, has typically argued that the T has historically failed to effectively spend existing resources.
On Thursday, Baker offered something of a defense, saying the T had been “horribly invested in for years,” that his administration is spending millions to improve commuter rail tracks and vehicles, and that he expects commuter rail “performance in ’17 will be better than it was in ’16, and in ’18 it will be better in ’17.”
And he offered what might be a preview of his pitch to agitated MBTA-conscious voters on the campaign trail: Things will get better, he said, even if they haven’t yet.
“You can’t fix this overnight. This is a long-term problem,” he said. “I believe we’re doing the things we need to do to turn it around.”
The governor said the new factory and incoming trains, being built under two contracts worth $843 million, are also a sign of progress that will one day reap fruit. The first of the new trains are scheduled for completion by late next year, and the last by 2024.
The new vehicles were originally ordered under then-governor Deval Patrick, but Baker administration officials increased the size of the order in 2016 to fully replace the Red Line fleet.