Healey appointing non-MBTA team to review CRRC situation

Says she learned of problems at Springfield plant in last few weeks

GOV. MAURA HEALEY said on Thursday that she is putting together a team of non-MBTA technical and legal experts to review the troubling situation at the Chinese-owned Springfield assembly plant for new Red and Orange Line trains.

Healey said she learned about the problems in Springfield a couple weeks ago, apparently at roughly the same time the public learned about them in detail from a presentation by acting General Manager Jeffrey Gonneville to the MBTA board of directors.

On Monday, Healey seemed shaky on details of the situation in Springfield. On Thursday, she seemed much more up to speed.

“The project is way behind schedule. Some alarming details have emerged about the quality of the production process,” Healey said.

Healey, Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll, and some of the governor’s top aides took a two-stop ride on the Red Line and chatted up customers at South Station. Afterwards, they took a tour of MBTA headquarters and then met with the press to announce the appointment of the outside team to review the situation with CRRC.

Gov. Maura Healey (left) and Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll ride a Red Line train from Park Street to South Station on Thursday, where they toured the MBTA’s operations control center. [Barry Chin/Pool]

“We have instructed this team to take a deep dive into these existing challenges and think through our long-term needs and how we prioritize and make good on the expediting of the delivery of cars,” Healey said at MBTA headquarters. “We understand that time is of the essence here and we are already underway on this effort since we became aware of it just a couple weeks ago.”

Healey provided few details on who would be part of her CRRC team or how it would interact with existing T personnel working on the problem.

Gonneville said at the MBTA board meeting that recent negotiations with CRRC had been better, and that shipments of new cars could possibly resume this month, albeit at half the contracted rate. T officials late Thursday said four rail cars are expected to ship this month, half the contracted rate.

At the MBTA board meeting, Gonneville said shipments were halted in June to give CRRC time to deal with its manufacturing problems. That halt to production was not announced at the time by the MBTA or the Baker administration.

CRRC, the Chinese company that manufactures train shells in China and ships them to Springfield for final assembly, is facing strong headwinds.

The state-owned company underbid competitors by $200 million in 2014 to land the MBTA contract and set up a beach head for additional growth in the US. CRRC subsequently landed contracts in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Chicago before Congress in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act cut off most future growth opportunities for Chinese rail car companies.

Gonneville said at the MBTA board meeting that the Springfield plant currently has no additional business coming in beyond the MBTA order, which raises concerns about the company’s willingness to address its existing manufacturing problems let alone stick around to make repairs and supply parts.

“This was a deal [with CRRC] that was struck many, many years ago,” Healey said. “Unfortunately, during the Trump presidency, certain actions were taken that definitely impacted the work that they are doing here domestically. That said, they have existing contracts and we want to make those contracts work. And we want to make sure we have the right team in place, which is why we’ve assembled a team of independent experts who are going to do two things – one, look at the contractual terms of what we need to do to rework things, to expedite and accelerate the delivery of those cars, and, two, look at it from a real operational standpoint. What’s happening at the facility, what needs to happen at the facility, again to expedite, accelerate the delivery of those cars. We proceed with confidence and determination to get this done.”

The governor sounded like she wanted to work with CRRC rather than battle with the company.

“We’ve got to figure out a way to make this work,” she said. “Unfortunately, as sometimes is the case, there are intervening forces, intervening market forces, intervening worldwide forces, intervening geopolitical forces. We’re coming into this three weeks ago. We’ve got a great team assembled. We’ve just become aware of it.”

Healey also promised transparency about any problems at the MBTA. She also promised to make public information on subway zones where trains have to reduce speeds because of problems with the track.

“This is about rebuilding the public’s confidence and trust in the transit system,” she said. “I’m not going to sugarcoat anything. I’ve told you from the outset we will be transparent with whatever the facts are.”