Silverliner V 101: The problematic backstory of SEPTA’s futuristic cars

“The future of SEPTA” has been plagued by shoddy work and multimillion-dollar delays.

Just like that, a third of the cars on SEPTA’s incredibly popular Regional Rail line went out of service, one day into the holiday weekend that best showcases Philadelphia.

On Saturday, the transit authority abruptly sidelined 120 of its Silverliner V passenger cars due to a “significant structural defect” after staffers noticed they were “leaning.” Ominously, the move set the stage for a potential commuting mess when the 130,000 people who ride the Regional Rail try to do that again after the July 4 holiday.

While officials stressed the flaw did not pose a safety threat, they sure acted quickly; the decision to pull the cars came just hours after an impromptu Friday night inspection. SEPTA has said it plans to keep all of the cars offline until they can be fixed, which could be “weeks” — a representative from the Delaware Valley Association of Railroad Passengers told Philly Mag that as he understood it, “things won’t get completely back to normal until the end of the summer.”

The issue that prompted all this was something to do with the “truck,” which is the part beneath the cars that holds the wheels and axles in place and connects them with the motor. Yeah, kind of an important facet of a train car.

But this setback is just the latest development in the troubled history of the Silverliner V. These cars have been plagued by delays and design flaws since their introduction.

Construction delays

In 2006, SEPTA awarded a $274 million contract to build 120 new cars to South Korea’s Hyundai Rotem. Parts were to be manufactured at the company’s home base, and then assembled at its plant in South Philly, with the understanding that they would be completed and rolled out by 2011.

A relatively young company (est. 1999), Hyundai Rotem is thought to have scored much of its business by undercutting competition; it now exports to more than 29 countries around the world. Whether or not price had anything to do with it, SEPTA Silverliner V production did not finish anywhere near on time. The final cars weren’t delivered until March 2013.

By that time, the Hyundai Rotem owed SEPTA nearly $13 million in late fees — the contract (which ended up being for $330 million including spare parts and training) called for a fine of $200 per day for each overdue car.

What happened to the fine money? SEPTA used at least some of it to pay the South Korean company to overhaul 22 older Bombardier rail cars.

Despite the issues — and the fact that several workers have complained about a less-than-stellar culture at the South Philly plant — the agency continues to rely on the same company for production. Most recently, in March 2016, it awarded Hyundai Rotem a $6.38 million contract to refurbish 11 more old Regional Rail cars.

Broken doors and more

When the first working models were introduced in 2010, the Silverliner V was touted as “the future of SEPTA.” Various news reports extolled the LCD screens that announced stops, the larger windows, the non-glare lighting, the new bench seats and wider doors and the greater top speed (110 mph).

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Flickr/The West End

But problems began cropping up right away.

Experts noticed multiple “shoddy welds” at the car ends. Engines that were designed to be environmentally friendly sometimes had trouble starting up again after idling for more than 15 minutes.

During the ultra-cold winter of 2014, some of the doors stopped working entirely, trapping passengers so they had trouble exiting at the appropriate stop and causing widespread delays throughout the Regional Rail system.

Other cities

Somehow, none of the (well-publicized) difficulties kept other cities from following SEPTA’s lead in contracting with the low-priced South Korean company.

Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority placed an order for 75 cars from Hyundai Rotem, due for delivery in 2012. At the start of 2013, only four had been delivered from the South Philly plant, and the MBTA threatened to sue. It did not — but maybe should have, since one year later the new fleet was plagued by the same kind of mechanical, engineering, and software problems seen in Philadelphia.

“In my 40-some years of railroad experience, we’ve never seen problems like this,” Tom Murray, president of the local chapter of the Transport Workers Union of America, told the Boston Globe, to which MBTA officials responded that the issues were “a normal part of introducing new, more technologically advanced train cars into a transit system.”

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Flickr/John Corbett

Denver’s Regional Transportation District ordered 66 Silverliner V cars in 2010. Three years later, the parts began arriving from South Korea for final assembly in South Philly, and RTD finally began taking delivery in July 2015.

Contacted this weekend, a representative from Denver RTD said there were no plans to pull Silverliner V cars from service in that city, as of yet.

“Engineers say they don’t think we’ll have issues, because it’s a different model vehicle,” said RTD senior PR manager Nate Currey, noting that this was only a preliminary response and that the agency would be looking into the issue more fully over the next couple of days.

What’s next

Currently, all 120 Silverliner V cars are out-of-service for inspection. Per SEPTA, while this will not adversely impact service through Monday July 4th (as the weekend/holiday schedules can be accommodated with the remainder of the fleet), when the workweek resumes, riders will likely feel the impact.

“It is likely that this loss of vehicles will persist until repairs can be completed,” the agency said in a statement. “Contingency service plans for regular weekday travel are currently being developed.”

A SEPTA press conference on Sun., July 3, provided more details about the issue and the agency’s contingency plans.

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