• The Orange Line Rolling Stock Crisis, Pt. 2: Flawed Bidding

    If you haven’t done so already, read Part 1 for context!

    In 2013, the Blue Line Hawker fleet had been retired from revenue service for 4 years, and parts from that fleet were helping to keep the Orange Line Hawker fleet alive. Without a rebuild, though, the Hawkers would only last so long, with the oldest cars nearing 35 years old and showing their age. The faux wood paneling and warm interior lighting, in style when the trains were ordered in the 1970s, had become wildly out of date. The wonky PA chimes show the age of the technology, and the trains were starting to become rusty. To some, these are the Hawkers’ charming element; to others, they are the Hawkers’ ugliest element; to all, it was the reality of life on the Orange Line in 2013. Something would need to be done soon, with an RFP for new trains long overdue.

    Over on the Red Line, a similar story was unfolding. The Red Line’s fleet is a bit more unique than the Orange Line. The oldest trains on the Red Line were (and, in 2023, still are) even older: the 76 oldest cars, the 1500 and 1600 series, were built by Pullman-Standard in 1969 and 1970. Unlike the Hawkers, the Pullmans were rebuilt ……. between 1985 and 1988. As it turned out, the Pullmans still had more than half their life left.

    The rebuild gave the Pullmans a new look, one that is harsher than the Hawkers and identical to the UTDC 1700 series fleet on the Red Line, ordered as a 58-car supplemental fleet that could train line with the Pullmans and built between 1987 and 1989. (UTDC bought Hawker Siddeley’s rail division not long following the Orange and Blue Line order, and if you ride in a UTDC Red Line car, you will hear PA and door chimes that are virtually identical to those of the Hawkers.)

    A very similar interior is also present on the 1993 Bombardier-built 1800 series fleet, which was 20 years old in 2013, and were holding up well at the time. The Bombardiers had been ordered to replace the older 1963 Pullman-built 1400 series train cars. (Incidentally enough, Bombardier bought UTDC in 1992, right before the Red Line cars were built!)

    Interior of Red Line car 1600 on December 25, 2022. The 1500 and 1700 series have virtually identical interiors, clearly setting apart the older Red Line trains from the Orange Line Hawkers. (The 1800 series trains also have an extremely similar interior design.) (Photo mine.)

    The UTDC fleet would receive a rebuild from 2011 to 2016 to give them a somewhat longer useful life, but it was clear that the Pullmans on the Red Line and the Hawkers on the Orange Line were in need of replacement, with the UTDC’s on the Red Line not far behind despite an ongoing rebuild, and a rebuild decision was looming on the Bombardiers on the Red Line. With the fates of both lines’ fleets hanging in the balance, the decision was made to have the Orange Line RFP also include replacement of the Red Line Pullmans, with an option to replace the UTDC cars as well. In October 2013, the RFP was finally issued, but unfortunately for the riders of the Red and Orange Lines, there was a fateful twist: the state would be forgoing federal funding in order to require the cars be assembled in Massachusetts, necessitating the construction of a new factory for assembly due to the lack of an existing railcar manufacturing or assembly facility in the state at the time. Proposals were due in May 2014.

    For reasons that will become clear later in this series, the factory stipulation has turned into one of the worst, most short-sighted moves ever. When you are dealing with an order replacing rolling stock that was approaching 35 (Hawkers) and 45 (Pullman) years old at the time of the RFP, you do not want to be introducing unnecessary delays to the process. The winning bidder would need to stand up an entirely new factory and train a workforce before they could even start assembling trains, likely adding years to the process!

    This came despite the fact that outside firm STV recommended to the MBTA in 2011 that the old Red and Orange Line fleets “should be decommissioned as soon as possible”, and a state-commissioned independent review of the agency in 2009 also noted the deteriorating conditions of the fleets. The MBTA needed new, reliable times in an expedited manner; requiring a new factory to be stood up would only add delay and risk to the process as bugs in the process often occur. Additionally, this stipulation opened the door for a company with no experience in the North American market to underbid, because such a company would need to build a plant in the United States to expand into the country regardless.

    Ultimately, six companies bid for the contract: Bombardier, Kawasaki, Hyundai Rotem, CNR, CSR, and CAF. Bombardier, Kawasaki, and CAF all had extensive experience in the American market, with CAF having won the contract for the MBTA Green Line Type 9’s, a supplemental order of light rail vehicles, in June of 2014; in-state assembly was not required for the Type 9’s, which entered service in 2018. CAF later won the contract in 2022 for the Type 10’s to replace the Kinki-Sharyo Type 7’s and Breda Type 8’s. The Type 7’s helped supplement the Boeing LRV’s, a disastrous LRV order for the T in the 1970s; the Type 8’s, built to replace the Boeings and for ADA accessibility, also had a terrible rollout. Boeing had no experience whatsoever building light rail vehicles and very limited experience building other transit vehicles (although in the MBTA’s defense, the federal government essentially forced them to go with Boeing, and would not fund German-built LRV’s the T wanted), and Breda had relatively little experience in the American market, with their only history prior to the MBTA order being an LRV order from Cleveland in 1980 and heavy rail subway orders from Washington and Los Angeles in the 1980s. Breda merged with another company, Ansaldo, during the Type 8 order and had a run of botched orders tanking their reputation.

    Back to the Orange and Red Line bidders: Hyundai Rotem was still very new to the market, and won the contract for 75 MBTA Commuter Rail coaches in 2008. That contract faced years of delays with the coaches experiencing mechanical issues, and the MBTA threatened to cancel the contract in late 2012. SEPTA experienced similar delays and issues for their regional rail EMU’s built by Hyundai Rotem around the same time. The MBTA and SEPTA were Hyundai Rotem’s first two American customers.

    The other two bidders, CNR and CSR, had absolutely no experience in the North American market and were looking to gain a foothold. The requirement to build a plant in Massachusetts immediately gave CNR and CSR an advantage, and allowed both companies to bid lower in a gamble to try and gain entry into America. Do you sense a theme here? The MBTA has a history of buying rolling stock from companies with a limited American track record in the vehicle type they are purchasing, and having it blow up in their faces.

    CAF’s bid was disqualified for not complying with the Letter of Credit for the contract, and CSR’s bid was disqualified for not meeting the technical specifications, leaving Bombardier, Kawasaki, Hyundai Rotem, and CNR as the final four. CNR used their opportunity to vastly undercut the other bidders: as seen in the chart below, their bid was over $150 million below the next lowest bidder, with all options included (the options would ultimately be exercised); the CNR bid was also between $200 million and $300 million below the independent estimate of the cost for the order (the ICE). The Kawasaki and Bombardier bids came in over the estimate.

    Cost estimates for each of the final four bidders for the Red and Orange Line RFP, in millions of dollars. (Source: MBTA)

    In October 2014, CNR won the contract to replace the Orange Line fleet, as well as the Pullman and UTDC trains on the Red Line. The MBTA board was fine with this risk, citing CNR’s extensive experience in the Asian market. And to be fair to them, any new assembly plant would be a risk, regardless of the company; but to be fairer, any bid that comes in $200 million under budget should be raising alarm bells, especially with the need to build and staff the plant being more or less equal amongst the bids. It didn’t help that CNR, being a Chinese company, was looked at with suspicion by many. CNR and CSR were both state-owned companies, which is a valid concern given the many human rights abuses of the Chinese government as well as the broader geopolitical situation.

    However, in just the context of the rolling stock order, the lack of a North American presence should have been the biggest red flag. Even without knowing what has happened in the years since the contract was awarded, that fact is undeniable. The work culture and labor laws differ dramatically between China and the United States, and from what I was able to find, all the non-Chinese systems that ordered from CNR had their orders shipped directly from China completed. (Please correct me if I am wrong on this note!) This was going to be CNR’s first time wavering from that model, which presented another red flag. The shells would be produced in China, and then shipped to the U.S. for final assembly, along with the parts for the train (which would be mostly American sourced).

    CNR had no experience dealing with North American standards or workforces. That didn’t mean they couldn’t learn, of course, but it was irresponsible for the state to open up the MBTA and the riders to be a guinea pig in order to score some cheap political points in western Massachusetts, an area of the state that had long lamented paying for the MBTA in its sales taxes. Gov. Deval Patrick, in his final year of office, attempted to steer the bidders toward a Springfield-area facility, and CNR was going to do just that by setting up most of their North American operations there. After a lawsuit by Hyundai Rotem in 2015 that alleged the MBTA had rigged the process in favor of CNR was dismissed, the project was clear to go forward. As an aside, Hyundai Rotem’s concern was not unjustified – Gov. Patrick admitted when the contract was awarded that he met with CNR officials in Hong Kong in the middle of the RFP process, although he did claim that the contract was not discussed. There are too many uncertainties about what may have actually happened, so I mostly left that meeting out of this discussion.

    Anyway, CNR had the green light to proceed, but it was about to get a whole lot worse, and a whole lot sketchier, for the MBTA. Part 3 to follow soon! Again, if there were any errors, feel free to let me know, and thank you for reading!

  • The Orange Line Rolling Stock Crisis, Pt. 1: Hawker History

    Whether you love them or hate them, for over 40 years, the Hawker Siddeley 1200-series fleet has been synonymous with the Orange Line riding experience. The Hawkers were the last rolling stock to ride the rails on the Washington Street Elevated, and have been the steady friend for Orange Line riders in a city that has changed so much with the world around it during the lifetime of the fleet. They have been the gap between Boston’s past and Boston’s present.

    Hawker car 1318 leads the deadhead run starting at the old elevated Forest Hills station (seen here) early in the morning on May 1, 1987. This was the last train to ever go up the old Washington Street Elevated; within an hour of this photo being taken, the connection between the El and the subway was being severed as part of the changeover to the Southwest Corridor. (Photo: Boston City Archives)

    The Hawker-Siddeley 1200-series fleet, and its smaller but otherwise virtually identical 600-series cousins on the Blue Line, came into service between 1978 and 1981, with the first Orange Line pair being built in 1979. (The only major mechanical difference was that the Blue Line fleet had pantographs in addition to third rail shoes, because the eastern section of the Blue Line uses overhead catenary power, while the western section of the line uses third rail.) In the decades that followed, the Hawker fleets on both the Orange and Blue Lines provided reliable service to countless Bostonians. The fleet was built to last 25 years (inclusive of a midlife overhaul), standard for most rapid transit rolling stock. This meant that the fleet should have been retired around 2005 or so, and this is where the story of a line with a rolling stock crisis begins.

    Neither the Orange nor the Blue Lines’ Hawker fleets received that midlife overhaul. With the Blue Line fleet corroding at the turn of the millennium due to that line’s proximity to the ocean between Logan Airport and Wonderland station, an RFP was issued to replace the Blue Line Hawkers in their entirety, and the contract was awarded in September 2001 to Siemens. Conspicuously absent from the contract was any sort of new rolling stock for the Orange Line, or even a large scale overhaul of the Orange Line’s fleet. The contract only included provisions for an overhaul of 24 Blue Line Hawkers to be transferred to the Orange Line, without addressing the existing 120-car Orange Line fleet. The Siemens rollout had its problems and delays, but the line was entirely running Siemens trains by the end of the decade, with the cars proving reliable in the 15 years since they began revenue service in 2008.

    Blue Line Hawker car 622 at the Seashore Trolley Museum on September 3, 2022. Aside from color, dimensions, and the presence of pantographs (with Seashore also having added trolley poles to 622 and 623), these cars are identical to the Orange Line Hawkers. (Photo mine.)

    Given the age of the combined Hawker fleet and the condition of the Blue Line cars, it’s easy to say that the RFP that eventually went to Siemens should have been a full replacement for the Orange Line as well — and you wouldn’t be wrong. Unfortunately, the RFP took place at a bad time for state transportation funding and especially MBTA funding. This was at the height of the Big Dig, and the MBTA had newly become responsible for highway debts associated with the mega project. Additionally, the MBTA had also just become subject to forward funding, allocating a percentage of the sales tax toward the MBTA.

    The MBTA was perhaps not in the best position to order two fleet replacements at the same time, especially given the disastrous Type 8 rollout was in full swing on the Green Line. However, they did not have the foresight of what would happen in the 2000s. The sales tax revenue projections were too high, thanks in part to an economic downturn after the September 11 attacks, the rise of online shopping (which in the 2000s was largely tax-free), and the Great Recession toward the end of the decade. It’s a shame, because aside from the delivery delays, the Siemens fleet has been very reliable on the Blue Line and it’s easy to imagine the Orange Line doing well with a nearly identical fleet.

    Blue Line Siemens car 703 trailing while departing Suffolk Downs westbound on January 20, 2023. After initial delays, these Siemens cars have proven to be reliable replacements for the Hawkers that once rode the Blue Line rails. It is likely that a similar success would have happened on the Orange Line had it been included in the Blue Line’s RFP for fleet replacement. (Photo mine.)

    Thus, it seemed reasonable enough to kick the can down the road with regard to acting on the Orange Line Hawker fleet. After all, they were in generally better condition than the Blue Line Hawker fleet, due to operating in a less harsh environment, and with 24 Blue Line Hawkers potentially being overhauled for Orange Line service, it would not have been unreasonable to think that a full overhaul of the Orange Line fleet would become reality. But ultimately, no Blue Line Hawkers were ever overhauled and sent to the Orange Line, and as already mentioned, the Orange Line fleet never saw a major overhaul.

    Orange Line Hawker car 1263 trailing while departing Green Street northbound on July 28, 2022. (Photo mine.)

    As the 2000s went along and eventually became the 2010s, the Orange Line fleet was starting to become a maintenance nightmare for the T. The fleet was becoming well-known for rust as the fleet deteriorated rapidly in the 2010s, with parts from the scrapped Blue Line fleet helping to keep a deteriorating Orange Line fleet alive. They had no choice — new rolling stock on the Orange Line was still years away when the final Blue Line cars were scrapped.

    As it turned out, this was only the beginning of the nightmare for the Orange Line and its rolling stock. An RFP would finally be issued in 2013 to replace the Hawkers, as well as a similarly-ancient fleet on the Red Line. But that’s a story for tomorrow.

    Hawker car 1318 leads a typical six-car set into Green Street northbound on August 17, 2022, two days before the Hawkers’ last day of regular service to this point. 35 years prior, 1318 led the last train to ever go up the Washington Street Elevated, pictured near the top of the post. Green Street is on the Southwest Corridor, the alignment that replaced the old El. (Photo mine.)