SEPTA’s Newest “Rolling Equipment Problem”

Sure, the Silverliner Vs are running just fine—for now.

Those shiny new SEPTA Regional Rail cars sure look great, don’t they?

They took long enough to get here: the Silverliner V car order was plagued by delays and production problems of all kinds. SEPTA formally took delivery of the last of the 120 cars in March, three years behind schedule.

My advice to you? Enjoy the ride while the cars last. Given SEPTA’s recent track record with railcar orders, I’m willing to wager they may not make it to age 39, when the Silverliner IIs these cars replaced were finally retired.

This particular order is the third of three problem-plagued railcar orders SEPTA has placed since the last reliable railcars it owns came on line in the early 1980s. And the problems seem to stem from SEPTA’s procurement process, which seems to me to be plagued by political interference that hinders the agency’s ability to order the best equipment for the job.

That argument, in fact, was made by the second-lowest bidder for the contract when it was first awarded in 2004. Kawasaki Rail Car—the builder of the last truly reliable rail cars now in service on SEPTA, the city and suburban trolleys known among railfans as “K-cars” and the B-IV Broad Street Line fleet, now being overhauled—claimed in a lawsuit it filed after the first contract was awarded to United Transit Systems (now Hyundai Rotem) that the bid specifications were changed while the bids were being reviewed to favor the Korean firm, which up to that time had never built a single rail car for the United States market. (Thanks to federal strength and safety requirements, rail cars that would be acceptable just about anywhere else in the world can’t run on American mainline railroads.)

In addition, Kawasaki pointed out at the time, SEPTA’s own technical staff gave UTS/Hyundai Rotem the lowest rating of all four manufacturers who submitted bids that first time around. And as the suit noted, SEPTA’s rules require that contracts be awarded not to the lowest bidder, but the lowest responsible bidder. And UTS/Hyundai Rotem had no grounds for being judged responsible, Kawasaki said.

To avoid legal and financial headaches, SEPTA canceled the contract and put it out for rebid. Two firms submitted bids: Kawasaki and UTS. Two years later, the contract went to UTS again.

Kawasaki decided it wasn’t worth the hassle to challenge the result again. Given what happened after that, I for one wish they had.

It seems the main point in UTS/Hyundai Rotem’s favor was where final car assembly would take place—right here in Philadelphia, in a facility near the Delaware in South Philly. The problems began not long after the first shells arrived for completion at the Weccacoe Avenue plant. The Korean managers and the American workforce didn’t understand each other, and from that misunderstanding, mistrust emerged.

As a result, the cars were plagued by quality control problems. Knowledgeable observers could spot poor welds on prototypes that were put on display in 2011. Rumors also circulated that the cars were equipped with seriously inadequate motors that could not propel them up the steep grade at the eastern portal of the Commuter Tunnel. And there were numerous design issues that had to be corrected on the fly.

In short, these cars proved to be a huge training exercise and suffered more than the usual amount of teething pains—and they’ve set a pattern for subsequent work.

Hyundai Rotem did manage to leverage other work for its Philly plant from the SEPTA order—and the stories from Boston, where the company is building commuter rail cars for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, sound eerily similar to those that circulated here as production stumbled along: Issues with quality control, technical problems, delays in assembly. The “T” got its prototypes in the fall of 2012, two years late, and that December, the MBTA even threatened to cancel its contract, citing the firm’s “seeming lack of commitment to improve its chronically unsatisfactory performance.”

That two-by-four apparently woke up the folks at Hyundai Rotem; when MBTA officials visited Weccacoe Avenue earlier this year, they reported a dramatic improvement in attention to quality at the plant.

Unfortunately for us, by then, the work on the Silverliner Vs was complete. And if the trouble-prone M-4 Market-Frankford car fleet—another order where politics injected itself where it should not have—is any guide, before long, SEPTA regional rail riders will have to learn to live with “delays due to equipment problems” on their commutes to work. I hope the sentence I just wrote is incorrect. I fear it won’t be.