IT'S INCREASINGLY likely that SEPTA is facing the worst-case scenario for its diminished rail fleet.
As a result, riders will see depleted service at least through Labor Day, officials said at Friday afternoon's press conference.
While SEPTA hopes to ease the crunch with some borrowed rail cars, "it's not looking good for a repair and a quick return to service," for the stricken vehicles, said Jeff Knueppel, SEPTA's general manager.
SEPTA pulled 120 Regional Rail cars from service, a third of its fleet, after discovering cracks in key load-bearing beams last week. To buttress its supply of rail cars, the authority is finalizing contracts to lease three locomotives and 18 passenger cars from Amtrak, NJ Transit, and Maryland Area Regional Commuter Train Service. Those cars should be on the rails by Monday, allowing SEPTA to offer a revised schedule. Priorities will include: relieving pressure on travel between Glenside and Center City, where overcrowded trains have been leaving customers on the platform; adding more seats to the Trenton Line; and offering more trains on the Paoli/Thorndale Line.
"It should have a big impact," Knueppel said.
SEPTA had hoped a temporary weld on the equalizer beams of their affected Silverliner Vs might get them back into service more quickly. There are four equalizer beams per car, and cracks have been found on 264 of the beams.
But the cracks formed at a welded point where plates were attached, and Knueppel said rewelding the area would likely lead to the same kinds of cracks.
That's no surprise, said Joe Martin, a Drexel professor of civil engineering.
"The plates are kind of inaccessible," he said. "How would you do a quality job replacing it?"
That means SEPTA has to wait for new equalizer beams, Knueppel said. Because it isn't certain why the fatigue cracks formed, SEPTA is also unwilling to use the five Silverliner V cars that don't show signs of the cracks.
"That's prudent," said Matt Mitchell, vice president of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers. "It's going to be tough but it's prudent."
Hyundai Rotem, which handled the contract to build the vehicles, is conducting computer analysis and metallurgical tests on the beams to zero in on why the cracks formed. The company has also sourced steel that can be forged or cast into new beams, Knueppel said.
Hyundai Rotem, which has a plant in Philadelphia where the rail cars were assembled, assigned personnel to work on the problem here, said Andy Hyer, a company spokesman, and is getting assistance from staff in South Korea.
"I can say it has been a well-coordinated effort of all hands on deck," he said.
SEPTA identified HICorp as the subcontractor that performed the welding. A company of that name near Pittsburgh did not reply to a phone call. Ace Precision, in Akron Ohio, made the equalizer beams, and declined to comment.
SEPTA continues to encourage riders to change their travel times or use other modes to get around. The message seems to be getting through. The crush at the morning commute has been relieved by some riders choosing to board earlier trains. And the Market Frankford and Broad Street lines saw a 2.5 percent increase in ridership since the Silverliner Vs were pulled.
SEPTA's already diminished service has been further hindered by the extreme heat this week, which prompted a 50-mph speed restriction.
The sudden crisis that began last week is going to have long-term repercussions for SEPTA. The cost of repairs, including labor and materials, should be covered by Hyundai Rotem's warranty, but it is unclear if some of the ancillary expenses, like lost revenue, refunds and overtime, will be covered. Knueppel declined to estimate what the disruption could cost the authority, but said it would be in the millions. Just leasing the additional rail cars is costing as much as $8,000 a day for a five-car set. The full cost hasn't been tabulated, Knueppel said.
Along with sidelining its newest cars - some have only been in service three years - SEPTA decided to postpone a procurement to buy 45 new bi-level cars it expected to finalize this fall. Hyundai Rotem is one of the bidders for that estimated $190 million contract. For a system that is running near capacity, those vehicles are much needed.