Springfield plant fixes MBTA rift with Orange and Red Line car deliveries

SPRINGFIELD – With the help of American railcar experts and top executives from China, better subway cars are now rolling out of CRRC’s Springfield plant at a faster pace, improving the company’s strained relationship with the MBTA.

In addition, Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority executives are often in Springfield, monitoring production along with constant on-site inspections, said Jackie Jiang, a project manager at the Chinese-owned railcar maker.

“They work very closely with CRRC, so with all the people in the plant we can concentrate on production,” Jiang said in a telephone interview from CRRC’s offices in Quincy. “We take the lessons learned. We’re talking about how we can build a strong team and effective communication between the CRRC and the MBTA.”

Meanwhile, plastic-covered empty car bodies sit around the CRRC factory in the East Springfield neighborhood, signaling that the factory is getting busier.

Railroad car bodies wait to be completed outside CRRC’s East Springfield factory in mid-November. (Don Trigger / The Republican)

The extra attention appears to be working for the beleaguered East Springfield plant, which is behind on delivering much-needed MBTA subway cars. Joe Pesaturo, a T spokesman, said Nov. 14 that CRRC has delivered 98 Orange Line cars to date, with four more cars scheduled for delivery by the end of this month. CRRC has also delivered 14 Red Line cars to date, with two more scheduled for delivery before the end of the year.

All 152 Orange Line car bodies have been produced and the grounds around the Springfield factory are filled with parked car bodies covered in white

In 2014, the CRRC was awarded a $566 million contract by the MBTA to build a 152-car Orange Line and 252-car Red Line in Springfield. In 2016, the state increased the order by 120 more Red Line cars, with production of those to begin in June 2022 at a cost of $277 million.

All cars were due to be delivered in September 2023, according to the original contract. The revised deadline of September 2026 is probably not feasible and the two sides are negotiating a new timetable.

“We expect to reset this contract to supply a very important rolling stock for us,” Philip Eng, general manager and CEO of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, told the T’s board of directors last month. “The quality and safety of the cars we receive continue to exceed expectations.”

“Spirit of Partnership”

In a sign of how the once-hostile relationship has changed, trustees who questioned Eng seemed more concerned that CRRC would “walk away” from its manufacturing plant, frustrated by federal laws that limit the Chinese company’s ability to make cars for federally funded projects.

Eng said the T and the CRRC are negotiating funding, fines the CRRC could face for late car deliveries and a new race schedule for the cars.

“I believe what we’re seeing is a spirit of partnership,” said Eng. “We need this fleet,” he said.

Economic Development Secretary Yvonne Hao singled out the CRRC last month when she spoke in Springfield to the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, saying the factory is an important part of the state’s transportation future.

Eng cited Hao about her work with the CRRC from an economic development perspective. “These are not easy tasks,” Eng said. “They are good professions. They are skilled labor.

The state ran out of federal money to require the wagons to be assembled in Massachusetts. The goal: Bring railcar manufacturing back to Massachusetts and create manufacturing jobs.

Springfield was an early center of railroad car manufacturing. The Wason Manufacturing Co., one of the nation’s largest manufacturers of railroad cars and locomotives, operated in the city from 1845 until the Great Depression.

CRRC spent $95 million and built a 204,000-square-foot railcar manufacturing facility on a 40-acre site that was once a sprawling Westinghouse plant. Casino Hope had already cleared the site before losing out on the MGM bid.

At the factory, the car bodies arrive from China and are fitted with almost everything else, including wheels, steering systems, lights and seats. By contract, 60% of the material must be American made.

Early problems

But there were problems at first. The cars were shipped with quality issues, including undercarriage problems that prevented the cars from turning and created excessive noise, battery damage, and brake problems.

In a December 2022 letter first reported by a Boston Globe columnist, MBTA Deputy Director Mark DeVito laid out a list of quality and inspection lapses.

“Given the scope, number and age of the chronic quality issues that have remained unresolved, it is abundantly clear that CRRC MA management has completely abandoned its core responsibilities and commitment to lead, monitor and support quality management,” it wrote he.

This is quite a contrast to Eng’s comments last week.

“We really overcame the MBTA,” CRRC spokeswoman Lydia Rivera said.

Springfield Staff

In Springfield, CRRC has 406 employees, including 261 unionized production employees made up of Sheet Metal Workers Local 63 and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 7.

“The majority of the workers are actually from Springfield. There are good-paying jobs, union jobs,” said state Rep. Orlando Ramos, D-Springfield, a longtime union carpenter with ties to organized labor. The plant is located in his area.

Aerial view of the CRRC factory on Page Boulevard in Springfield. (Bridget Peary/The Republican/MassLive)

Rivera said the CRRC’s hiring plan for 2024 is to maintain its current staffing levels, while possibly adding union, engineering or project management staff as needs warrant.

Ramos said the CRRC just reached a new collective bargaining agreement with Local 63 and is close to one with Local 7. “I understand that these negotiations have gone well,” Ramos said.

The plant has many orders to fulfill, he said, not only for Boston, but also for Los Angeles and the SEPTA transit system in Philadelphia.

CRRC has two out-of-state contracts. 64 subway cars are being built for the Los Angeles Metro at a cost of $230 million.

For Philadelphia, it built 45 bi-level buses at a cost of $138 million.

The Los Angeles Metro has already received its first Springfield-built cars.

For Philadelphia, two of the multilevel cars ordered by SEPTA are at CRRC’s Springfield facility, SEPTA spokesman Andrew Bush said.

These are the pilot cars that SEPTA will use for testing. They arrived at the Springfield facility in May and are scheduled to be shipped to Philadelphia by spring. “There have been many delays in SEPTA’s procurement of multi-level vehicles, particularly due to pandemic-related travel restrictions and supply chain challenges,” Bush said.

SEPTA, the Philadelphia area transit agency, ordered these cars from the CRRC factory in Springfield. (Photo provided)

Future orders are unclear

It may be difficult for CRRC to get more work after completing these projects. A compromise deal, brokered by U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Springfield, allows the CRRC to do business with only those three agencies — SEPTA, the T and Los Angeles — if the project is to receive federal funds. A grace period that allowed the CRRC to do business with other agencies — but never with Washington, D.C. Metro, because of espionage concerns — has expired.

Opponents, worried about Chinese government interference, espionage and national security, have pushed for a ban on the CRRC’s continued work here.

Rivera, the CRRC spokesman, noted that the Trump-era tariffs of 25 percent are still in effect on imported railcar equipment coming from China.

Rivera said the fares added $18 million in costs to the T project, $35 million to the SEPTA contract and $44 million to the cost of cars in Los Angeles.

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