Why SEPTA's railcar woes aren't over yet: It's the beams, stupid!

Nearly six months after SEPTA pulled from service a third of its Regional Rail fleet due to flawed weight-bearing beams, 33 of 120 cars remain out of service.

The delay occurred because SEPTA is pursuing a more durable repair job for those cars, which should be completed by the last week of December, SEPTA officials said.

But the final repair work may open up a new disagreement over money between the rail authority and Hyundai Rotem, the company that manufactured the 120 Silverliner V cars.

SEPTA says forged beams, which are a solid piece of metal with no pieces attached, will require less maintenance in the long run. It has 132 forged beams for the 33 unfinished cars, and wants to put forged beams in the 87 cars already repaired and back in service.

At issue, though, is whether Hyundai Rotem, which has so far covered the costs of fixing the cars, is willing to keep paying.

“We’re not saying we’re not going to pay for that or we’re not going to do that,” company spokesman Andrew Hyer said, “but at the same time we haven’t gone over the details on who’s going to do what.”

The beams, four per car, distribute the weight of the vehicle to the axles. And in July, inspectors found fatigue cracks near the ends of the beams, where a plate had been welded on to support the part on the wheel bearings.

The design and execution of the weld was poorly done, officials have said, creating an inherent weakness at the welded area. If ignored, the cracks could have grown and led to a derailment.

SEPTA tried to keep operating with a third fewer cars. The results were severe delays, overcrowded cars, and canceled trains.

Getting cars back on the tracks was the only fix, and SEPTA chose a kind of beam that was described by Jeff Knueppel, general manager, as “fast but safe.” The replacement beam had pins holding in place plates that rested on the wheel bearings. Each car requires four equalizer beams, and 348 of the beams with pinned plates have been installed.

SEPTA takes pains to say those parts, which allowed cars to return to service beginning in September, are safe. But they may not last as long as forged beams, and will require more maintenance and inspection.

“It’s one piece and that’s what we like about it,” Knueppel said.

SEPTA considered buying all forged beams, and put in an order with Canton Forgings in Ohio through Hyundai Rotem this summer for the 132 now being installed. Forged beams took much longer to make, though, and since speed was a priority, SEPTA didn’t order more.

Hyer, Hyundai Rotem’s spokesman, said the company was “99 percent sure” the pinned beams would be a final solution, but said forged beams had come up in discussions. He did not say how much the beams cost, but said the forged beams were marginally more expensive than the pinned beams.

Hyundai Rotem has so far paid for all the repair costs, which it has declined to reveal. (Payment was demanded by the company’s contract with SEPTA.) The company is now in the position of deciding whether to pay for a second set of replacement beams. Whether it's obliged to depends on negotiations between the company and SEPTA, said David Hoffman, a Temple University Law School professor with an expertise in contracts.

The contract states the two parties must “mutually consider” how to resolve a fleetwide defect. The communications between SEPTA and Hyundai Rotem through the summer should be a guide as to whether the company will be liable for an upgraded repair, Hoffman said.

“It’s likely we’ll never know because they’re almost certainly going to resolve this behind closed doors,” Hoffman said. “It’s in no one’s interest to litigate dirty laundry in public.”

He predicted the dispute over installing forged beams would likely be resolved with all of the railcars getting the more robust part, and the two parties negotiating payment.

Hyer said a resolution would likely be reached within the next week.

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