Credit: Flickr/John Corbett

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Hyundai Rotem, the company that assembled SEPTA’s faulty Regional Rail cars, is a colossus internationally. It has plants throughout the world and trains in Europe, Asia and beyond. In the first quarter of this year, Hyundai Rotem sold $756 million worth of orders.    

In America, it has little experience and in the few areas in which its trains are used, problems have arisen, just as they have for similar companies. Without heavy demand for rail in most of the United States, most railcar manufacturing companies are based internationally, from Canada’s Bombardier (assembled the New Jersey Transit cars) to Japan’s Nippon Sharyo (which has done some of Amtrak’s cars and also experienced serious problems).    

“The biggest issue on US railcars is the US specifications are bigger and heavier than anywhere else in the world,” said Paul Dyson, president of the Rail Passenger Association of California. “That’s new manufacturing techniques than they’re used to in home markets.”

The reason commuter trains in the United States are bigger is in large part because they can be. America has larger tunnels than most European and Asian countries, allowing for double-decker cars (SEPTA doesn’t have double-decker cars yet but is considering them). The other part has to do with Federal Railroad Administration regulations. The FRA requires passenger rail cars to be sturdier and stronger than other countries do, partially because passenger rail cars share so much track with massive freight trains.

“This is not necessarily good or bad,” said Matthew Mitchell, vice president of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers. “It’s a difference of opinion, engineering-wise.”

The requirement forces trains to pass compression and drafting tests and, as Dyson puts it, “be built like armored vehicles.”  

“A lot of engineers argue this is overkill, (that they can) get more safety by better engineering rather than large quantities of steel,” Dyson said. “The FRA is conservative, and it takes years to change anything.”  

Hyundai Rotem’s U.S. entry

Hyundai Rotem’s initial foray into the United States was through SEPTA. It lowballed three other companies and won the bid, despite having the worst technical score as well as a clause in the Request For Proposal requiring the manufacturer to have previously made train cars compatible with FRA requirements. Kawasaki, a competitor, sued, and SEPTA introduced a new Request For Proposal that didn’t include the clause requiring previous experience manufacturing trains to FRA standards. This time the bid was contested by Hyundai Rotem and one other company, Kawasaki. SEPTA awarded Hyundai Rotem the bid. 

Delays followed, partially because the company couldn’t meet the FRA’s sturdiness requirements. Hyundai Rotem added too much steel, and the cars were too heavy.  

The company’s second foray into the United States was in Los Angeles, for the area’s Metrolink line. In 2015, the front car of a Metrolink train derailed after colliding with a truck. Officials have speculated whether a plow-like attachment, colloquially known as the cow-catcher, was at fault. The NTSB has yet to rule on the exact cause of the crash, but Dyson questions whether it was a design problem with that particular part.  

“Now whether that’s Hyundai or an independent engineer who designed it, that’s where we’d need to do some digging,” Dyson said. “It certainly seems the evidence at the moment is it was not sufficiently robust and caused that chain of events to happen.”

In Boston, Hyundai Rotem vehicles were delivered behind schedule and faced mechanical, engineering and software problems when they were ready. Denver appears to be the lone place in the United States where Hyundai Rotem’s products have yet to see major complications. The Denver cars weigh 5,000 pounds less than SEPTA’s Silverliner V cars.

What stopped Philly’s Hyundai Rotem cars

The Silverliner’s problem is cracks on a part of the car known as the truck equalizer beam. The part was constructed by an Ohio company called Columbus Castings, assembled in Pennsylvania and then assembled by Hyundai Rotem in Philly onto the train cars. The cause for the problem is still unknown. Mitchell said it could be any of the following problems, or a combination of them:

  • Design issue: The part wasn’t adequately designed to handle the necessary forces.
  • Materials issue: The steel might not have been up to standard.
  • Manufacturing issues: Either with Columbus Castings, the company that assembled the beam in Pennsylvania or with Hyundai Rotem. It could be that the train cars are too heavy for the truck equalizer beam to handle.  
  • SEPTA issues: SEPTA could have mishandled the equipment during maintenance.

SEPTA spokeswoman Carla Showell-Lee said SEPTA has not announced an investigation into the cause of the cracks on the Silverliner V cars. Mitchell said it would take months or longer for a failure analysis to be complete.

Mark Dent is a reporter/curator at BillyPenn. He previously worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he covered the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State football and the Penn State administration. His...