Within a few weeks, riders on the Orange Line are expected to receive a long-awaited treat: the first of the line’s new subway cars will begin regular service.
For now, though, the cars resemble a rolling office for a tech startup in some old factory or garage. Blue plastic sheeting is taped around the interior to protect seats and finishes, the floor is covered with brown construction paper, and on a large table in the aisle, computers have wires running every which way.
This is a time for late-night test drives of the new cars. Just after 2 a.m. on a mid-December day, as the rest of the subway system was mostly quiet, two engineers sat hunched over the computers, analyzing data that track wheel alignment and stability at speed as a new train swept through a tunnel under the streets of Boston.
“The braking on this is a lot better. And the train has a lot more propulsion,” said Tony Whitley, a 20-year MBTA employee who piloted the overnight test run.
The new trains, he said, “should keep our system moving on a consistent basis.”
For riders, the new cars will be mostly familiar: the same basic interior layout with bench-style seating along the sides, a wide center aisle, and cross bars for support. The two-tone exterior finish, however, includes sleek stainless steel instead of the old white on the current cars.
Some key design changes may make a difference for riders. Perhaps the most significant will be much wider doors: 64 inches, compared to the current 48-inch model. This should ease one of the most frustrating parts of a subway ride: the chaotic tussle among exiting and boarding passengers at stops. With fewer delays waiting for the crowd to clear, the trains should spend less time at stations, speeding up the overall trip.
The cars Whitley and colleagues are testing are the vanguard of 152 cars that will replace the old fleet over the next four years. By 2023, another 252 new cars will have joined the Red Line, replacing a fleet that dates back to the 1960s.
But first, each train set has to run 500 miles on the Orange Line tracks during off-hours and undergo dozens of tests of all its functions and components. Some tests occur off the tracks, such as putting the cars into closed chambers that simulate New England weather to see if they can withstand different temperatures.
“We’re testing around the clock,” said Mark DeVitto, the MBTA project manager overseeing the introduction of the cars. “It’s a very complicated process.”
In mid-December, DeVitto estimated testing of the first train was 75 percent complete and it was on track to enter passenger service by the end of this month. “Presently, we’re still on target for that, and that’s our goal,” he said.
Officials expect to give an update on deployment of the first new train at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority board meeting Monday.
The first of the new Red Line cars will undergo testing later this year, and the first train is expected in service by 2020.
The T had previously promised the first Orange Line train would enter service before the end of 2018. But last fall, the T’s board of directors encouraged agency officials to be as thorough as possible in testing, pushing back the timeline.
Board members noted that the T had previously experienced problems with new vehicles, including Green Line cars in the 2000s that struggled with derailments, which required delaying their complete rollout.
The laborious testing has been all that stands in the way of what may be the most highly anticipated improvement to a transit system in need of many. Riders have been looking forward to the new cars since the T announced them more than four years ago, and each day of delay is another day their commute is slowed by aging infrastructure.
Wei Jin of Somerville said the Orange Line runs OK most days but is sometimes delayed and “always very crowded.”
“I hope the new trains can help,” she said. “I really want them now.”
Another rider, Jake Peverada, said he and colleagues at work often talk about the new cars. “You’d expect it’s a change for the best,” he said as he waited for a train at Assembly Square Station.
Riders should notice some upgrades as the new cars slowly enter service. For one, they should break down much less often than the old Orange Line cars, most of which are in their fourth decade. There will also be more cars, allowing the T to increase service on the Orange and Red lines, which face major crowding issues during rush hour.
The T’s goal is to eventually run Orange Line trains every 4.5 minutes and Red Line trains every 3 minutes during rush hours, compared to today’s often-unmet targets of 6 minutes on the Orange Line and 4.5 minutes on the Red.
But that will also require extensive upgrades to the T’s signal system, a $218 million project scheduled for completion in 2022.
Other design changes to the new cars include horizontal poles above the doors for additional balance points. Some seats fold up to make more room for people in wheelchairs or other riders. The bench seats will have a polycarbonite panel at the end by the doors, put there at the request of the MBTA Transit Police, DeVitto said, to prevent would-be thieves from grabbing a passenger’s bag or cellphone.
The new doors are also electrically operated, compared to today’s model, which use an air compression system. That should make them less susceptible to weather-related malfunctions.
Other new features are more high-tech: security cameras, and digital displays to show which stations are coming next. In the front cab, a new monitor will help train operators pinpoint the source of any mechanical issues.
The new cars are being built by the Chinese rail manufacturer CRRC at a factory that the company built in Springfield as part of its $840 million deal with the T.
With so much high-tech gadgetry aboard, the trains are essentially massive computers on wheels, and that has stoked concerns in some corners that they could become rolling surveillance tools of the Chinese government, which controls CRRC. State Representative Shawn Dooley worries that CRRC could design the vehicles to be hacked by state actors to spy or even sabotage the rail cars. Some federal lawmakers have also sought to block CRRC’s growth in the United States. MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said the trains will be safe because none of the software components is produced in China and the MBTA has followed Department of Defense cybersecurity standards in designing the cars.
While a test run in December was smooth, the train wasn’t exactly presenting well. Some wall panels were removed to let workers easily access electrical components being tested. The seats were wrapped in the type of blue plastic used to protect furniture in an old, dusty house.
DeVitto said the T is taking steps to protect the cars during testing to ensure the trains are bright and shiny when riders finally get to board.
“When the passengers go in there,” DeVitto said, “it will be the first time somebody’s sat in the seats and walked on the floors.”