With the Washington Metro, NYC Transit, and Boston’s T all plagued by delays, equipment failures, and cost overruns, the question wasn’t whether another city would develop problems, but which one it would be. Philadelphia seems to have been granted the honors, the New York Times reports:
Commuters here faced delays and crowded trains Tuesday after a third of regional rail cars were abruptly pulled out of service over the weekend when a major defect was discovered in part of the fleet.
Officials at the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority said inspectors had found cracks in the suspension systems of most of the commuter railroad’s relatively new Silverliner V cars. The repairs could take weeks — a signal that the misery may not end before the Democratic National Convention here later this month.
The suspension systems were still under warranty, and Hyundai Rotem, the rail car manufacturer, is working to address the problems, the transit agency said. Officials at Hyundai Rotem could not be reached for comment.
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) is now looking into borrowing train sets from other agencies—perhaps Amtrak or New Jersey Transit—so that it can operate a semi-functional service.
It’s still too early to know exactly why the trains are breaking down. New train sets often run into problems shortly after entering service, but some of the Silverliner cars first entered service in 2010 and 2011 and it’s unclear why these problems took so long to detect and/or develop.
Still, to many Pennsylvanians, the latest problems aren’t so surprising; Hyundai Rotem’s trains have been under scrutiny since many of them were delivered over a year behind schedule. The delays resulted from a host of inefficiencies at the plant manufacturing the trains, the Inquirer reported in 2011:
African American, Hispanic, and female workers say they are frequently disparaged as inferior by their Korean managers. Some managers have slapped employees, workers say, and a male employee says he repeatedly was grabbed in the crotch by supervisors.
Workers, who are in contract negotiations with manufacturer Hyundai-Rotem USA Corp. after voting to join the Transport Workers Union in August, also contend that wages and benefits are so low that many employees must rely on food stamps and Medicaid.
Jun-Yeon Jeong, manager of the SEPTA project for Hyundai-Rotem, downplayed labor friction and said language barriers were not a major impediment.
“Everybody is doing well, regardless of race or gender,” Jeong said. “From my observations, that is not a problem.”
He acknowledged cultural differences. He said he was unaware of slapping incidents, and he said he believed the crotch-grabbing incidents represented “a difference of way of expression, maybe.”
When Hyundai Rotem first bid for the SEPTA contract, many noted that it had little experience building trains in the United States. But Hyundai Rotem’s price was substantially lower than anyone else’s, and so it got the contract.
Building public transit in America costs several times as much as in Europe, and that puts pressure on state governments to agree to unwise cost-cutting measures such as hiring inexperienced contractors like Hyundai Rotem.
Whether Hyundai’s inexperience is a cause of the present troubles or not remains unclear, but it’s certainly the case that the way American state and local governments go about public transit is terribly inefficient—ill-advised savings up front, while operating, repair, and maintenance costs get kicked down the road.
The NYT reports that when SEPTA’s general manager was asked if it would take months for things to be sorted out, he replied, “It could. We hope not.” So do tens of thousands of SEPTA riders.