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Why SEPTA pulled the Silverliner V, shrinking Regional Rail by a third

Due to a structural defect discovered last week, approximately one third of the Regional Rail fleet is offline and shortages will likely last through July and August, SEPTA told riders at a press conference Sunday.

To accommodate the 120 missing cars, starting Tues., July 5, SEPTA Regional Rail will operate on a schedule based on the Saturday timetable with some added early morning and rush hour trains. Instead of their usually reduced summer schedules, the Broad Street Line, Market-Frankford Line and Norristown Line of the regular subway will be bumped back up to normal to help deal with overflow. SEPTA is also working with the PPA and the City of Philadelphia to make additional parking available in the city, and is in discussions with officials from Amtrak and NJ Transit about how those agencies might be able to help.

A detailed Regional Rail schedule is expected to be available on SEPTA.org at some point on Mon., July 4.

While detailing the problems discovered and the development of a contingency plan, SEPTA GM Jeff Knueppel noted that it may be difficult to board at some in-city stations due to overcrowding, and asked Regional Rail riders for their patience.

“This is a very upsetting situation. It’s all hands on deck,” he said. “The railroad has grown in ridership and we want to make sure our customers come back.”

He also praised his staff for acting so quickly and coming in on off-hours during a holiday weekend to help deal with the issue.

‘Fatigue cracks’

Fatigue cracks have begun appearing in a part of the Silverliner V called the equalizer beam. The 9-foot, 350-lb. piece of steel is where the car connects via springs to the “truck” that holds the wheels, brakes and axles. There are four of these beams per car, so there are eight places where cracks can occur — at each end of the beam. When engineers began taking a close look on Saturday, they found small cracks in all but five of the cars they inspected.

Knueppel stressed that the effect caused by these cracks is “progressive failure,” and that there was no immediate danger to riders on the trains.

“At the first sign of the cracks, it doesn’t mean the car will fail. They are typically slow to form, and then progress slowly, and then can grow,” he said.

Discovering the problem

Late on Friday, July 1 (probably after midnight), a SEPTA engineer noticed Silverliner V car 812 was leaning slightly to one side. The tilt was very slight, and was only noticeable because it was hooked up in tandem with another, properly seated car.

Normal tactics didn’t fix the problem, so the car was moved to SEPTA’s Overbrook shop, where workers realized the issue was with the equalizer beam — it had a crack running through its length. That had caused the car to sink, but instead of listing dangerously, it simply got stuck — and was wedged in so tight that SEPTA workers had to cut it out.

As other Silverliner V cars came into station, engineers began inspecting them. Around noon on Saturday, SEPTA senior management instituted a speed restriction on any Silverliner V trains remaining, and began pulling them offline. As of now, all 120 cars are out of service.

Safety first

Federal railway guidelines mandate that as soon as a problem like this is identified, trains must be pulled from service, per Knueppel. In making the decision to take action, SEPTA conferred with the Federal Railroad Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board and PennDOT.

Knueppel noted that the issue does not seem to affect any of the 231 older, Silverliner IV cars in the fleet, saying “In 40 years, we have never experienced anything like this problem.”

What we know:

  • All 120 Silverliner V cars are currently out of service
  • Cracks in the “equalizer beam” connecting the cars to the wheels caused the problem
  • Most cracks discovered were small and did not pose immediate danger
  • The cars in question are still under their original 7-year manufacturer’s warranty
  • The Silverliner V has a long, problematic backstory
  • Regional Rail will operate on a reduced schedule starting July 5
  • The schedule may not be back to normal until August
  • MFL and Broad Street service will be enhanced and additional parking will be made available to help commuters deal with the inconvenience
  • Riders with weekly or monthly TransPasses should expect some kind of fare credit; SEPTA is still developing the exact plan

What we don’t know:

  • Whether there’s a way to repair the cracks via welding, or whether all the beams will have to be replaced
  • How long it will take to fix the problem
  • Where the problem originated — the trucks were constructed in Ohio by Columbus Castings, but the equalizer beams were made by a different company, and final assembly took place in South Philadelphia
  • When the schedule will go back to normal
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