The MBTA’s new Orange and Red Line cars were falling behind schedule before the outbreak of COVID-19. But the pandemic certainly didn’t help.
During a meeting Monday afternoon, MBTA officials said the delivery of both new fleets will be completed at least a year later than originally planned, meaning that riders and employees alike will have to bear with the existing, aging trains for that much longer.
“We are obviously not happy about the schedule,” Jeff Gonneville, the MBTA’s deputy general manager, said during the meeting. “We are not happy about the delays and the impact that it has for our customers, but also the impact that it has to our employees themselves. We are and will have to continue to maintain our fleet for longer than we were obviously anticipating having to do as a result of this.”
According to the new schedule, the last of the expanded, new 152-car fleet of Orange Line trains will arrive in April 2023 — 15 months later than the January 2022 date to which Chinese manufacturer CRRC had agreed under its $843 million contract with the MBTA. The fleet of 252 new Red Line cars is also now scheduled to be fully in service by September 2024, a year later than the original September 2023 completion date.
Gonneville said that “the heart of the issue” has been “production output” from CRRC’s Springfield facility, where the shells of the cars are put together, outfitted, and wired. According to Gonneville, CRRC had to essentially create a process from scratch for the final assembly of the cars, which was initially slow going.
Then the pandemic resulted in CRRC’s operations in China shutting down for several weeks in February. The company’s Springfield plant was subsequently closed due to COVID-19 from mid-March until late-May. Even when it reopened, they had to operate at reduced capacity under the Massachusetts reopening plan.
“The more recent delays from the pandemic have only compounded some earlier issues that CRRC was experiencing in pre-pandemic times,” Gonneville said.
The delayed timeline doesn’t only mean that MBTA riders will have to wait longer to see more bigger, sleeker cars with upgraded features (not to mention the riddance of the old cars’ cloth seats). It also pushes back the agency’s plans to increase service on the two lines — plans which have already been complicated by looming service cuts due to the financial impacts of the pandemic.
The MBTA had planned for the new expanded fleets to allow them to decrease the frequency between trains during the morning and evening commutes to four-and-a-half minutes on the Orange Line and three minutes on the Red Line. Under the new schedule, that won’t happen until the summer of 2023 for the Orange Line and the winter of 2024 on the Red Line (though the old cars will be fully phased out at least a year earlier).
We share in the disappointment of our riders, and are working diligently to bring these vehicles into service alongside the 3 new Orange Line trains. Our senior leadership continues to actively monitor & provide guidance to lessen the delay. pic.twitter.com/j91zbMqN3V
— MBTA (@MBTA) October 5, 2020
There are no new Red Line trains currently in service. Gonneville said Monday that pilot car testing is still underway and “progressing positively,” though there had been some issues. He added that Red Line riders will hopefully see the first set of new cars on the tracks “later this year.”
Under the terms of the MBTA’s contract, the agency is owed $500 from CRRC per car for every day of delay (a sum that could easily run into the millions, if not tens of millions, based on the current math). Gonneville said MBTA officials “can — and certainly do intend to — assess” the total damages at the end of the contract.
“We will evaluate the delays that we do feel are under CRRC’s responsibility and once those those delays are ultimately determined, we will move forward and assess those with with CRRC,” Gonneville said, stressing that, in the near term, officials are doing their best to collaborate with the manufacturer to potentially recover lost time.
Given the circumstances, Joe Aiello, the chair of the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board, said during the meeting that he appreciated the collaborative approach.
“We are in very unusual times,” Aiello said. “I’m less concerned about the day you get the last car. I’m more concerned about making sure that the cars get here, they’re exactly what we need at the T, and that they will stand the test of time.”
However, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack emphasized that it was still important to “hold CRRC to the contractual commitments that they have made.”
“The vehicles we own are well past their useful life, and every extra month is an extra month where we’re running older vehicles,” Pollack said. “We need to get that fleet replaced so that we can improve reliability for our customers.”
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