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Public Records Show Problems At Springfield, Mass., Rail Car Factory Well Before The Pandemic

The pandemic has disrupted virtually all sectors of the Massachusetts economy, including manufacturing. CRRC, the Chinese company making trains for the MBTA, said the pandemic will further delay delivery of new trains for its two busiest lines.

But a Boston Globearticle written by Adam Vaccaro details issues at the company's Springfield plant that preceded the pandemic.

Kari Njiiri, NEPM: Adam, you were able to get public records that revealed the extent of the problems at the Springfield plant. What were they?

Adam Vaccaro, Boston Globe: The records that we were able to obtain demonstrate that CRRC was having a lot of trouble kicking into gear over the last couple of years. And that had very little to do with the pandemic — in fact, nothing to do with the pandemic.

The issues basically could be grouped into a few categories. One is just trouble training, hiring, retaining employees. The others relate to their supply chain, getting parts and keeping track of the parts — so, managing the inventory at the factory.

I think CRRC would argue, and I don't think it's unfair for them to argue, that they were trying to build a new industry building railcars in this part of the country, and there were some serious growing pains. That has resulted in slow delivery of these vehicles. And, so far, it's still pretty rare to be able to catch a new train on the MBTA.

The plant opened in 2017, but only three new train sets are serving passengers in the greater Boston area.

That's right. You know, by now, we were expecting much more of the fleet to be in service. The first Red Line train was — even as early as earlier this year — was expected by the spring and then the summer, but now they're saying the end of the year. CRRC was supposed to begin delivering trains at a much more robust rate well over a year ago at this point, but they're still trailing their goals even to this day.

A subway car under construction at CRRC's factory in Springfield.
Credit Adam Frenier / NEPR
A subway car under construction at CRRC's factory in Springfield.

Those public records also show confidence by MBTA officials has taken a big hit. Does the T think the company will be able to deliver on its billion-dollar contract?

The MBTA tells me now that they think CRRC is taking the right steps to rectify issues, and part of this is related to the pandemic. But they are still behind a lot of important benchmarks. So that sort of remains to be seen.

One thing the records demonstrated was that the MBTA has made efforts to try and repair the relationship with the contractor. They brought back a former general manager, Dan Grabauskas, to help oversee the contractor. He's working as a contractor himself and he'll help oversee the CRRC contract.

Grabauskas played a similar role recently helping the MBTA repair its relationship with commuter rail operator Keolis. That is another foreign company with a U.S. subsidiary that was struggling to get along, I suppose, with the T and its passengers. And that relationship has largely been fixed, so I think they're hoping that Grabauskas can work that magic again.

The T was initially expected to begin getting the trains by mid-2022. When do officials now say they will get the trains?

I think this timeline has shifted a little bit over time. But the final Orange Line trains, as recently as a few months ago, were expected to arrive by the middle of 2022, I want to say. And now that'll be about a year later. The Red line trains were supposed to be late 2023, and that will also be a year late. So we're looking at late 2024 before all of these vehicles are in service.

I think it bears some mentioning that the reason that this flummoxes so many of us in the Boston area is because we need these things. The Red and Orange line cars are really old. They break down a lot and riders are depending on the improvement.

Kari Njiiri is a senior reporter and longtime host and producer of "Jazz Safari," a musical journey through the jazz world and beyond, broadcast Saturday nights on NEPM Radio. He's also the local host of NPR’s "All Things Considered."
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