Friday, July 12, 2024

A red line train mockup unveiled in August 2018 at Boston City Hall Plaza. (Photo: Josephine Pettigrew via HorizonMass)

There was supposed to be a fleet of new MBTA red line cars by now. But as the company charged with making those cars continues to fall behind in production, Massachusetts’ transit agency looks to extend the life of its already-30-year-old cars by another 15 years.

T officials have said they need to “reset” the contract for new red line cars, sidestepping the question of whether the number of expected trains has changed. Transit advocates say they think the T will eventually get its new cars, but that the rehabilitations and latest setbacks show the need for agency reforms.

“We need to fundamentally change the way the T procures services,” said Stacy Thompson, executive director of the LivableStreets Alliance. “We need competitive processes, and they need to be transparent.”

The delay of several dozen red line cars due in 2023 came as the MBTA released its Capital Needs Assessment and Inventory in mid-November after months of secrecy, admitting it would need $24.5 billion to bring everything in its domain up to a “state of good repair.”

About $2.4 billion of that is needed for “rolling stock” – its rail cars; half of the vehicles on the T’s four lines are not in good repair.

Reggie Ramos, executive director of Transportation for Massachusetts, said the ongoing delay of new red line cars, the rehabilitation of existing cars and the T’s underinvestment in capital needs over the past decade are all connected: “There’s a cumulative effect in the volume of inefficiencies the public has to face. The delay in delivery impacts the rate of deterioration of cars, which will impact operations, which will ultimately impact the rider. You see the cascade of effects of underinvestment.”

If the new red line cars were scheduled with the intention of arriving in time to keep the system in good repair but are delayed, “the inevitable question is, ‘What is the impact?’” Ramos said. “The MBTA needs to quantify that.”

A 15-year extension

Two bids released in the fall show the T looking to do significant work on red line cars that went into service in 1993. One calls for replacing interior and exterior incandescent or fluorescent  lights on 83 cars with LED lighting. “The intent is to preserve the life of the current cars for an additional 10 years,” one bid reads.

The other looks for the overhaul of 64 vehicle air conditioning units and 90 of their controllers. “The overhauled equipment should safely operate in the MBTA red line environment for an additional 15 years from the completion of the overhaul without requiring any additional work beyond routine maintenance,” it reads.

Ramos said the 30-year-old cars may not have seen as much wear and tear during reduced pandemic service and shutdowns. Still, she said T officials need to keep their age in mind as they extend their track time.

“We have to make sure it’s done in a way that doesn’t compromise safety,” Ramos said. 

Thompson said the T would likely not need those cars to last the full 15 years, but that officials were using “best practices” to be safe – and needed to rehab the cars because a nearly decade-old replacement plan has failed.

Sole source

Officials unveil a red line train mockup in August 2018 at Boston City Hall Plaza. (Photo: Josephine Pettigrew via HorizonMass)

The T initially contracted with China Railroad Rolling Stock in 2014, ordering 284 orange and red line cars for $566 million – the low bid by more than $150 million, and nearly $200 million below what the project was estimated to cost. “There were a lot of questions at the time of how that happened,” Thompson said. 

Then the Charlie Baker administration “did a really bad job of managing the contract … When you underinvest in operations, don’t create a team to manage contracts like this, you end up spending a lot more money to fix the problem,” Thompson said.

Patrick required the new trains to be assembled in Massachusetts, and though the company had never built a train car in the United States, it agreed to open a factory in Springfield to finalize assembly of equipment partially built in China.

More of what seemed at first like good news: At the end of 2016, the T ordered another 134 red line cars from CRRC, planning to replace the entire red line rolling stock by 2023. The Boston Globe noted that T officials originally wanted to overhaul old cars, but instead decided to order new ones. “There is no question that these vehicles right now are due for some form of a major overhaul or replacements,” then-COO and current agency deputy general manager Jeffrey Gonneville said at the time.

Secret process

The Chinese company got its first order for orange and red line trains in 2014 through a competitive bidding process, but the MBTA awarded the 2016 contract to it directly – without competition. After a secret negotiation, the agency’s Fiscal Management and Control Board unanimously approved the $280 million contract on the same day it was publicly presented.

CRRC’s name wasn’t even on the agenda for the meeting at which the contract was approved, according to follow-up reporting by the Globe. Board members told reporters that they were allowed to negotiate with the company behind closed doors through a public meeting law exemption that allows discussion of litigation strategy. That exemption is allowed even if no lawsuit has been filed.

“The litigation risk is that another manufacturer says, ‘Hey, you should have done a regular procurement,’” then-MassDOT secretary Stephanie Pollack told the Globe, while admitting “we’re not aware of anyone who is saying that they are going to sue.” 

Critics raised concerns about the private meetings and lack of open bidding, but officials said they wanted to order the new trains quickly before CRRC committed to contracts for other agencies.

“The MBTA determined that a competitive procurement would be futile and did not contact other potential sources or advertise,” said William Wolfgang, the agency’s director of vehicle engineering, and Gerald Polcari, its chief procurement officer, in an internal document quoted by the Globe. 

More delays

Besides transparency concerns, Thompson said, the noncompetitive bidding process and subsequent lack of oversight show the T needs to reform its procurement methods.

“Sole-source procurement is not working for the T, it’s costing a lot of money and problems beyond the red line,” Thompson said. “I think we need to make sure to get some money back – there should have been checks and balances in the original [agreement] in getting financial compensation if CRRC didn’t meet deadlines.”

While other manufacturers did not sue, the T itself has faced repeated delays from CRRC and problems with the trains that have been delivered, including derailments and a battery explosion. The company was originally required to deliver eight new cars a month, with all 152 orange line cars supplied by January 2022 and all 252 red line cars by September – some four months ago. So far, the company has sent 98 Orange Line cars and 14 red line cars.

While officials have blamed the Covid pandemic and supply chain issues as part of the reason for delays, Gonneville told the Globe nearly a year ago that the MBTA would reexamine its contract. “The T needs to really take a step back and take a fresh look at this contract and really begin evaluating different strategies that we can be employing and using to continue to ensure that the T gets safe and reliable cars both on the orange line and on the red line here as quickly as possible,” the deputy general manager said.

“Spirit of partnership”

Under the supervision of new MBTA General Manager Philip Eng, officials are still evaluating and the wait is only getting longer. Red line cars are now set for delivery in September 2026, with officials saying those dates are still subject to change, according to WBUR.

At an October meeting of the agency’s board of directors in which members discussed the delays, Eng said the latest CRRC vehicles are exceeding standards and that the company is “committed” to delivering the cars it is being paid nearly a billion dollars to supply. A spokesperson said the contract requires that new cars go 90,000 miles between failures and the actual performance has been more than 132,000 miles between failures. Furthermore, the T expects two “married” pairs of red line cars to be delivered every month.

“They have committed to delivering this, and I believe that what we’re seeing is a spirit of partnership,” Eng told MBTA board members.

“The MBTA is committed to working closely with the contractor to accelerate the delivery of these new orange and red line cars and ensuring they are of the highest quality in order to provide riders with the service they expect and deserve,” MBTA spokesperson Lisa Battiston said in a statement.

A chance to do better

Thompson said she is happy to see Gonneville dig into the contract, and hopes the cars will be delivered by 2026. The T also needs to bring its tracks up to par and hire more workers during that time for the system to function at its best, she said – and it should revamp how it oversees contracts.

“The next piece is making sure we have the right people and the right expertise to draft contracts and manage them,” Thompson said. “I don’t think we can underestimate that. You have to think of how you manage the contract, how to manage the company you hired. … There are some positive signs, and some glaring evidence of poor management in previous administrations.”

Ramos agreed: “More than anything, this delay has to have us looking to reexamine the process of procurement.”

version of this story appeared originally on HorizonMass.