SEPTA should return to a regular Regional Rail schedule again by October, the authority's general manager said in a press conference Wednesday.
The rail authority will begin replacing defective parts on 120 Silverliner V rail cars, about a third of its fleet, at the end of this month and and plans to return 10 cars to service every week until November 12, said Jeff Knueppel, SEPTA's general manager.
SEPTA expects to have at least 40 rail cars leased from other agencies, though, which should allow it to return to a regular schedule in about two months, before all the Silverliner V cars are repaired.
The 120 cars were almost all found to have cracks in equalizer beams, a part that transfers the weight of the car to the axles. The cracks could have posed a significant safety hazard if they hadn't been discovered by a SEPTA inspector.
They developed over time due to a poorly designed weld that attached a plate to the main body of the equalizer beam, Knueppel said. The flawed design's weaknesses were exacerbated by a weld that didn't match the specifications for the work, officials said.
A fatigue test would have revealed the parts' defects before they were installed on cars, but that test was never performed. SEPTA didn't say why. Under Federal Railroad Administration regulations SEPTA must submit for the agency's approval a safety testing plan for new vehicles. The agency and a spokesman from Hyundai Rotem, the company that made the cars, could not say how much it would have cost to perform fatigue testing when the cars were being assembled. The Silverliner V cars went into service from 2010 to 2013.
The two kinds of replacement beams SEPTA may use will undergo fatigue testing, which over the course of a few days replicates the stresses a beam incurs over 25 to 40 years of use, Knueppel said. One type of equalizer beam uses pins to hold a plate in place at the ends of each beam, while the other uses a weld different from the design that caused problems on the defective beams. SEPTA will decide which type of beam to use by Friday, Knueppel said.
SEPTA officials are considering using fatigue testing on some parts of rail cars it buys in the future, Knueppel said. The agency will now also subject one or two vehicles from all its modes of transportation to an in-depth annual inspection by an outside consultant, he said.
While Knueppel and Andy Hyer, a spokesman from Hyundai Rotem, the company that built the cars, stood side by side at a media conference Wednesday, and Knueppel noted how helpful the company has been, there were clearly unresolved tensions between the rail authority and the company. They were both reluctant to go into detail over how the original beams failed, and why the faulty weld designs were used. Another potential sore spot is who's going to pay for this. Hyer said his company would cover the costs of parts and repairs, though he wouldn't put a dollar amount to it. Knueppel, though, laid out what the car shortage was costing SEPTA. $235,000 in refunds paid in July alone. Up to $1 million a month by Labor Day for leased rail cars. A 10 to 20 percent drop in ridership. It remains an open question how — or if — Hyundai Rotem will cover the indirect costs of the vehicle failures. Knueppel and Hyer acknowledged it could be a contentious question to answer.
"The lawyers will be busy," Knueppel said.
Those costs and others related to developing the new beams will not be passed on the riders, Knueppel said.
The general manager also said the ongoing rollout of its new fare system, SEPTA Key, would not be affected by the Regional Rail problems.
The sidelined rail cars have caused big problems for riders, including crowded trains, delays and jammed platforms. The car failures came amid SEPTA's efforts to improve its on-time performance.
"I can't tell you how much it hurts me, the workforce, to have this kind of situation," Knueppel said. "It's not what we wanted to do."
The Regional Rail lines are running on modified schedules until the cars are fixed. Another new modified schedule is expected when some of the Silverliner V cars get back into service around Labor Day.
The agency is also considering express busing to supplement the trains.