History of the MBTA’s troubled new orange line trains

The bidding process

In late 2013, the MBTA was looking to replace its aging fleet of orange line trains – Cars that were 34 years old, and nearing the end of their useful lives.[1] They were going to have more seating, more standing space, wider doors, automated announcements, and digital displays for live information!

Deval Patrick, who was governor at the time wanted to build the new trains in Massachusetts. Not only would that add jobs and economic activity Massachusetts, but if the factory remained open and thriving, it would mean many permanent jobs![2] Unfortunately, this would later backfire on the MBTA.

In late 2014, the T got all of the bids for the new orange line trains. The companies that submitted a bid were CSR+CNR (CRRC), CAF, Kawasaki, Siemens, Bombardier, and Hyundai Rotem.

A handy chart the MBTA created, showing all of the proposed prices. ICE means Independent Cost Estimate, and is what they were expecting to pay coming into the new train RFP.

As you can tell, CRRC’s proposal was way below the rest. Their base proposal (the minimum cars they planned on buying) was priced $120M below the next closest competitor, and almost $300M below Kawasaki’s proposal.[3] Generally, contracts for large projects like these are usually awarded to the “lowest reasonable bidder”, or the cheapest company that the MBTA thinks will deliver a high quality product within schedule and budget. Clearly they had high expectations for CRRC that don’t seem to have come to fruition.

Bombardier’s and Kawasaki’s prices were higher than their average prices for similar orders, but likely because they had to build a whole new factory in Massachusetts, despite already having factories in the US. It made a little more sense for CRRC to bite the cost and bid lower, because they would need to build a new factory in Massachusetts to break into the US railcar market anyways.

Delays, delays, delays

In late 2017, the first 2 new orange line cars arrived on MBTA property. After months of testing, the MBTA announced the debut of the new orange line trains would be in January 2019. Unfortunately, issues designing and testing a new signal system pushed the rollout back to late summer; specifically, August 14th, 2019.[4][5]

The deadlines for the new trains keep creeping closer, but CRRC seems to be moving at a snails pace – partially due to zero-covid restrictions in China, staffing and training issues, and quality control issues.[6] The MBTA has had 12 new red line cars delivered thus far; to receive all 252 new trains by the MBTA’s projected completion date of 2024, CRRC would need to deliver 10 new trains per month… the most they’ve done is an inconsistent 4 CARS in a month.

Good luck with that, MBTA!

Issue after issue

Door Issue

9/26/19 – New trains pulled aside due to an issue with the trains “bump stop”; a door component.

“Strange Noise”

12/04/19 – Engineers noticed a “strange noise” coming from the underside of the trains; caused by wear pads on the trains truck.

Brake Issue

5/19/22 – Engineers noticed a “strange noise” coming from the underside of the trains; caused by wear pads on the trains truck.

Battery Issue

5/19/22 – Engineers noticed a “strange noise” coming from the underside of the trains; caused by wear pads on the trains truck.

Wiring Issue

1/1/23 – Engineers found an issue with an electrical component that may have led to additional arcing, impacting the trains axle.

A chart showing all of the various issues plaguing the cars.  Click on any issue to read more.

The new trains clearly haven’t been the most reliable things in the world.  Getting pulled 6 times over the course of 3 years isn’t a good look…  

Fortunately, most of these issues seem like minor teething issues, and not too large of a concern.  The MBTA seems to have taken its time and actually found the root causes of most of these issues, which should hopefully mean these trains will stick around for their entire service life (about 30 years).

What may not, however, be a small teething issue is the unreliability of the doors.  Its among the largest complaints of the new trains, and seems like its a headache for the T to try and manage.  They constantly have to isolate one door leaf, and run the train with only one half of a door set opening.  

On September 19th 2022, the day after the orange line reopened after the shutdown, a trains doors refused to close, leading to massive delays along the orange line.

“Made in China”

Much of the conversation around the quality of these trains is centered around China trying to rip the state off, or not having good quality control. In this instance, that isn’t the case; it’s purely American incompetence.

Posted by CRRC-MA

CRRC only makes the car shells; all of the other many components used in the new trains are from US Manufacturers, per Buy America requirements.  

Lots of the issues most likely come from lingering staffing shortages[6], and general lack of rail experience here in the US.  I mean, its a new factory, in a new country, that never had a previous order… what was everyone expecting?

Quality Control Issues

On Dec 22, 2022, the MBTA sent a letter to CRRC-MA, citing concerns of a lack of inspection reporting, workmanship issues, and quality issues.

According to this letter, CRRC “completely abandoned its core responsibility and commitment to lead, monitor, mentor, and support quality management.”  Basically, this means CRRC wasn’t overseeing the construction of the cars as closely as they should have been, weren’t having inspectors verify their work, and wasn’t reporting Quality reports to the MBTA.

This means small wire issues, like the one discovered last week, can slip through the cracks and cause issues until the MBTA notices it.  Or the brake issue, which the MBTA said was caused by one bolt that wasn’t properly installed.[7] 

Considering the lack of new train deliveries since June, multiple issues reported in that time, and the fact that the T mentioned charging CRRC for manufacturing delays, it seems like this has been going on for months, and probably will continue for many more months until the 2 companies can reach an agreement.

Either that, or the MBTA is going to be forced to constantly hunt for these small issues, and patch them before they lead to larger issues.

Safety of the new trains

Even with all of the issues and delays – the new trains are safe.  Before the new trains hit the rails, they were stress tested, and their diagnostics were closely monitored to make sure nothing weird was happening.  When they do get pulled, the engineers have to look closely at the areas that were causing issues to try and determine the root causes of issues; if there were quality control issues there, they would most certainly notice.

TLDR: These cars have been taken apart and tested so much, that the major issues that could actually cause safety issues have been ironed out; most likely, just the small defects are left.

Most likely, the letter to CRRC was made not made because they are concerned about the safety of the trains, but because the T feels like they have to micromanage CRRC.  As noted in July’s FTA report, the MBTA is extremely short staffed,[8] and doesn’t have the resources to inspect every corner of these trains, and do CRRC’s job.  Not unsafe, but a headache for the T.

And at least the new trains haven’t caught on fire over a bridge!

Other controversies & Misconceptions

Did you know the new trains had a child labor scandal?  Yeah, me neither!

Zip ties on the bumpers are not a reason for concern.  They are not a load-bearing component, and aren’t safety critical; rather, they are there to prevent people from falling in the gap between cars.  Zip ties are fine in this instance.

Did you know: At the new trains mockup, the trains beeping had to be turned off mid-way through the day, because it was annoying.  People still (rightly) complain about the obnoxious beeping of these trains.

Anyways, thanks for reading and have a nice day!


[1]: https://www.bostonglobe.com/2021/05/12/opinion/case-you-missed-it-orange-line-is-falling-apart/?p1=BGSearch_Overlay_Results

[2]: https://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/2013/10/22/mbta-ornage-line-trains-upgrades-red-line-governor-patrick/

[3]: https://bc.mbta.com/uploadedfiles/Business_Center/Bidding_and_Solicitations/Staff%20Summary%20for%20Red%20and%20Orange%20Line%20Procurement%2010-22-2014.pdf

[4]: https://www.wgbh.org/news/local-news/2019/08/14/mbta-rolls-out-new-orange-line-trains

[5]: https://railway-news.com/first-new-train-for-bostons-orange-line-enters-service/#:~:text=United%20States:%20the%20first%20new%20six-car%20train%20for,entire%20current%20fleet,%20which%20consists%20of%20120%20cars.

[6]: https://www.wwlp.com/news/state-politics/some-new-mbta-trains-wont-arrive-til-2023-2024/#:~:text=They%20will%20also%20allow%20the%20MBTA%20to%20run,back%20as%20a%20result%20of%20the%20manufacturing%20delay.

[7]: https://www.cbsnews.com/boston/news/mbta-new-orange-line-trains-back-in-service-brake-inspections/

[8]: https://www.transit.dot.gov/sites/fta.dot.gov/files/2022-08/FTA-Safety-Management-Inspection-Report-for-MBTA-and-DPU_0.pdf

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