Denver's commuter rail cars are very, very similar to SEPTA's — but not quite the same

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Is SEPTA’s Silverliner V a “lemon”?

On Saturday, SEPTA general manager Jeffrey Knueppel tip-toed around the question, saying that while “there have been problems in the past, [manufacturer Hyundai Rotem has] worked with us to fix them.”

However, the recently discovered cracks in the equalizer bars that distribute the cars’ weight over their wheels — the flaw that caused the transit authority to pull all 120 Silverliner Vs out of service last week — is simply the latest in a line of issues that have plagued the railcars since their intended delivery in 2011. Moreover, there’s another, more modern model in use that doesn’t seem to have any of the same problems.

The Denver Regional Transportation District employs 60 Silverliner V cars. As of now, all of them are still in service, and RTD has no plans to pull them out.

“Our engineers have been carefully inspecting them since we heard about what happened in Philadelphia,” said RTD spokesperson Nate Currey.

“We have a slightly different model,” he continued, using an airline industry analogy. “It’s kind of like comparing a Boeing 737-500 to a 737-900er.”

One difference is weight: RTD’s cars are 5,000 lbs. lighter than SEPTA’s (which ended up 10,000 lbs. over-budget because of last-minute changes to meet new crashworthy standards put out by the Federal Railroad Administration).

A second distinction is in the equalizer bar itself.

“Our equalizer bars were machined flat, to prevent them from gathering water,” Currey said, “so I believe they were attached with a different style of welding.”

Additionally, there were various small changes to multiple parts of the general design to accommodate RTDs specific needs. Instead of having platforms at multiple levels like SEPTA, all of the Denver commuter rail platforms are at exactly the same height. The ultra-modern railway, which just came online this spring, was the first local transit built from the ground up to incorporate Positive Train Control — the automated system that helps avoid high-speed crashes and derailments — so that also induced some design tweaks, Currey said.

All of the above could be relevant to why Denver isn’t worried about SEPTA’s current issue.

Currey added that — “with no disrespect to SEPTA” — he was under the impression that RTD’s stress testing had been “a little more thorough.”

“From what I understand, Hyundai Rotem learned from Philly, and improved the process with us,” he said.

He also noted that internally, RTD doesn’t refer to the cars as “Silverliner,” instead calling them “EMU V” cars. EMU stands for “electric multiple unit,” a generic term for a self-propelled train that uses electricity for power.

Currey went on to praise manufacturer Hyundai Rotem, which assembled the cars in its South Philadelphia plant, for being open and communicative. “As soon as they identified the issue with SEPTA, they notified us right away.”

That’s in contrast with what some SEPTA officials told PlanPhilly, saying “they were having difficulties getting Hyundai Rotem representatives on the phone.”

One last disparity between the two projects: SEPTA has said its Silverliner V warranty is for seven years, and that the current problem should fall under its purview. RTD’s railcars came with only a 3-year warranty.

As of now, the only operational line in the new RTD commuter rail system is the A-Line, which connects downtown Denver to its airport. The next line in the system is due to start service July 25, with another set to launch in late fall.

In the end, RTD is not overly worried, but “we’re obviously going to be keeping an eye on this.”

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...