A recent investigation into Massachusetts’ New Red and Orange Line cars made by a Chinese rail company found “something acting abnormally” within their truck frames. It was the fourth time since August 2019 that a malfunction was identified in the new cars.
Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s new Red and Orange Line cars are assembled in Springfield by the Chinese state-owned company CRRC. The company is under contract to deliver 252 Red Line cars and 152 Orange Line cars to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) over the next few years. The first fleet of six new Orange Line cars went into service in August 2019.
On March 16, all new trains were pulled from service after an Orange Line train derailed at the Wellington Station. About 100 passengers were on board when the accident happened. No injuries were reported.
MBTA Deputy General Manager Jeff Gonneville said in a May 10 board meeting that tests conducted on the new cars determined that as the mileage of the vehicles increases, there is a greater resistance on the truck frames. Investigators found that the trains would grip more as the side bearer pads wear down and create more friction than expected.
Gonneville compared the issue to the brake pads on an automobile, though he emphasized that no braking issue was found on the subway trains.
“As you’re driving your car, and as your pads are wearing over time, the way you’re operating, and the way your brakes feel, and the way your car performs as you’re stopping remain the same. It doesn’t change. Using this same analogy, what would be happening is your car would be gripping harder or stopping faster every time as the pads are wearing, which is not how it is designed to do,” he said.
According to Gonneville, the trains will remain out of service until engineers from CRRC, MBTA, and component suppliers determine the root cause and come up with a solution. He promised to give more updates about the investigation in June.
A Problematic History
The new trains manufactured by CRRC have malfunctioned and been pulled from service four times since they debuted in 2019.
On Sept. 20, 2019, a door on a new Orange Line car suddenly opened while the train was in motion. According to MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo, an investigation determined that a component called a bump stop did not perform as it should.
Two months later, a new train derailed while it ran slowly back to the Wellington Rail Yard maintenance facility. Investigators found “unusual noise” under the train, which was caused by a faulty wear pad.
Then on March 3, 2020, “a fault with the bolsters” again caused MBTA to temporarily take the new trains out of service.
Shawn Dooley, a Republican state representative, warned about the trains’ potential quality issues in 2019. At the time, rollout of the new Orange Line cars was delayed twice due to a software issue identified during early independent testing.
“It is frustrating that there were so many signs that this was a horrible idea and every warning has been ignored,” Dooley said.
In July 2019, he introduced a bill to prohibit future transportation contracts with agents of “non-market economy countries.” He worried that a company controlled by the Chinese regime may hide special devices in the trains or create backdoors in the system, so as to control security cameras or other equipment for surveillance, or even destructive purposes.
In May 2019, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) asked the federal government to investigate if subway cars designed by a Chinese state-owned firm could pose a threat to national security.
“China has ramped up its spying apparatus and has become more aggressive throughout the world,” Dooley said.
Besides MBTA, CRRC also won contracts to build railcars for Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. Trains made by CRRC Sifang America began in-service testing in Chicago this April.
But Dooley suggested American cities stay away from the Chinese state-owned manufacturer. “No one is under the delusion that communist China is our ally. Their motives are always China First, and they have made no secret of their plans for a one-China economy,” he said, “Putting our citizens at risk for a few dollars—especially from a hostile foreign government, is mind-blowing.”