By Anthony Campisi
As shipments of Silverliner V regional rail car shells make it here from Korea next month, it will mark SEPTA’s first major rail procurement in nearly 30 years.
SEPTA is hoping that the new cars will herald a better rider experience and help meet its growing ridership needs, adding about 4,200 additional seats to the current regional rail capacity.
But rail advocates worry that SEPTA’s decision to sell off the older cars for scrap could put it in a bind if the Silverliner Vs have any manufacturing problems.
The authority has purchased 120 Silverliner Vs to replace 73 older Silverliner II and III cars, some of which date back to the 1960s. They point to brake problems that the Acela Express cars have experienced, which forced Amtrak to take them out of service in 2002 and 2005, and the fact that SEPTA has gone such a long time without designing and procuring a new class of rail cars.
Matt Mitchell of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers, the rail advocacy group, said that he would like SEPTA to keep the older cars on hand until the Silverliner Vs have a year’s worth of revenue service. That would give SEPTA enough time to discover any problems the cars might have without putting the authority in a position of having to lease cars from other transit agencies to avoid a severe capacity crunch.
Some of the same concerns were expressed by some members at a meeting of the regional rail subcommittee of the SEPTA Citizen’s Advisory Committee.
Though the CAC has not issued an official recommendation to SEPTA about the Silverliners, some members pointed out that Hyundai Rotem, the company that is manufacturing the Silverliners in a joint venture with Sojitz Corp., has never handled a rail project like this one before.
The Rotem venture was given the worst technical rating by SEPTA of all the bidders for the Silverliner V contract.
Because SEPTA doesn’t have the yard capacity to store the older Silverliners, Mitchell suggested they lease storage space from a railroad.
Though freight railroads do this quite often, Bob Parker, president and CEO of the East Penn Railroad, an area short-line railroad, said that his company has never stored passenger cars before. He said that doing that is “a different sort of animal” and that it would present different liability concerns.
For its part, SEPTA says that concerns about the Silverliner Vs are overblown.
David Casper, SEPTA manager for the Silverliner project, has told a meeting (http://planphilly.com/septa-issues-new-timeline-silverliner-v-cars) of the CAC rail subcommittee that it had addressed workmanship concerns seen in the Silverliner V mockup the authority displayed last year.
Luther Diggs, SEPTA’s assistant general manager for operations, also pointed out that SEPTA is planning on keeping some of the older cars on hand throughout the construction process. “We will have some overlap where we won’t just instantly take some things out of service,” he said.
SEPTA will still have 30 older cars on hand when all of the Silverliner Vs are in service, and because the rollout of the new cars will take more than a year, Diggs said that the authority will be able to identify any problems before they pose a threat to system capacity. He also said that SEPTA has been “testing and retesting” all of the equipment that will be going in the Silverliners to avoid any problems.
Though Rotem has never built regional rail cars before, Diggs said that the Silverliner Vs are being built out of equipment that’s “been around for years.”
“It’s not like we’re getting some strange vehicle from Korea,” he explained, adding that the Acelas were using “unproven technology.” Though Diggs expects that SEPTA will find minor issues with things like the software that will run the trains, he doesn’t expect there to be any major design flaws that could seriously slow rollout.
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