New Orange Line cars being tested

Cause(s) of March derailment still unclear

THE MBTA has begun testing its new Orange Line cars with the goal of returning them to active service in the coming weeks, a move that suggests the transit authority is finally closing in on the cause of a derailment nearly six months ago. 

The Orange Line derailment – not to be confused with the more recent Green Line crash – occurred on March 16. One of the T’s new Orange Line trains was moving from one track to another at slow speed in a work zone near the Wellington train yard in Medford when it derailed.

The derailment was concerning because all of the T’s 252 Red and 152 Orange line vehicles are being replaced by CRRC Mass., the Chinese manufacturer who has built a facility to assemble the vehicles in Springfield. While the cause of the derailment is being investigated, T officials removed from active service all of the new Orange and Red line trains that have been delivered so far. 

The initial focus of the investigation was the 46-year-old switch that the Orange Line train used to move between tracks. But in early May the T’s deputy general manager, Jeffrey Gonneville, said he suspected the problem had to do with the vehicles themselves – specifically pads attached to the vehicle trucks, which enable the vehicles to turn. He said testing indicated the pads were wearing down faster than expected. When that happens, he said, the pads tend to grip harder, increasing “rotational force” that makes it more difficult for a vehicle to turn.  

In early June, Gonneville outlined a handful of other infrastructure issues that could have played a role. He said the switch, in addition to being old, lacked a guardrail that helps to keep a train on the track in tight turns. He also outlined two other issues with the track itself that could have been contributing factors. 

There was no “single point of failure” that caused the derailment, Gonneville said in early June. 

The T executive also suggested there was a disagreement between T officials and CRRC about the cause. “The MBTA right now does feel pretty strongly that the guardrail itself on the switch and the excessive rotational force were more than likely the key contributing forces that led to this incident,” he said. “But in full fairness, CRRC is of the opinion that really the infrastructure items that I’ve outlined here played a greater or more key role in influencing the derailment itself.”

The stakes are high for CRRC. The MBTA is the company’s first customer in the United States and the firm has leveraged the T contract to secure other clients. Problems with CRRC’s vehicles could have a ripple effect on the company’s business. 

Two months since Gonneville’s last report the T still hasn’t settled on an explanation for the derailment, but it apparently has reached a point where it believes the vehicles can be returned to active service. 

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

T spokesman Joe Pesaturo said in an email that the new Orange Line trains are currently being tested on the main subway line and are expected to return to active service before the end of the summer, which is September 22. He said the investigation into the cause of the derailment is ongoing with a “continued focus” on the various factors Gonneville had outlined previously. 

“The investigation into the cause(s) of the derailment and the process of re-introducing the cars are on parallel tracks,” he said.