SEPTA: Serious cracks found in 95 percent of cars inspected so far

At the Wayne Junction SEPTA Station yard many of the 120 Silverliner V trains are put on side tracks awaiting whatever repair will come before they can be brought back into service.

Structural failures found in a third of SEPTA's train fleet are forcing more than 100 cars off the tracks indefinitely.

Fixes could take the rest of the summer, but riders who account for 150,000 trips on Regional Rail each day will likely face crowded trains and big delays.

"Unfortunately, it will be rough on our railroad customers," said Jeff Knueppel, SEPTA's general manager.

The flaw, a crack in a weight-bearing beam on a train car's undercarriage, has shown up in almost all of SEPTA's Silverliner V's, the newest trains in its Regional Rail fleet. The agency spent $274 million on them and they were put in service from 2010 to 2013.

A revised schedule will be announced Monday, but SEPTA officials warned that delays and crowded trains will be a near certainty when riders return to work Tuesday. The severity of the structural problems is still being investigated, but the failure could cause vehicle shortages throughout the summer, Knueppel said.

SEPTA runs its trains at 90 percent capacity and doesn't have a significant stock of unused, operable rail cars. With 120 vehicles out of commission, the authority has few options.

Workers who use rail to commute are going to face difficult choices come Tuesday. They can use buses that travel roughly the same routes as trains. They can brave highway traffic and drive either to work or to one of the outlying stops on the Market Frankford or Broad Street lines. Or they can wait and see how bad SEPTA's train delays will be.

"When you take away 30 percent of the capacity there's not much space for everyone to go," said Matt Mitchell, vice president of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers, an advocacy group.

He sent a memo to the organization's 400 members advising them to warn employers about the rail problems and find any possible alternative means of commuting. "Ask for flex time," he recommended. "Ask for telecommuting."

The flaw in the Silverliner V cars was found by chance, Knueppel said. Shortly after midnight on Friday, an inspector noticed a train car tilting to one side slightly more than another car it was linked to. Inspection of the car at SEPTA's Powelton Yard revealed a 10-inch-long crack in a 350-pound equalizer beam, a piece that transfers the weight of the car to the axles. The crack, which appeared where a plate was welded to the beam, had totally severed the equalizer beam. Pressure between cars was holding the beam together tightly, Knueppel said, but if the beam had given out while a train was in motion a serious accident - even a derailment - could have resulted.

As Friday wore on, engineers found less severe cracks at similarly welded places on equalizer beams in all but five of about 100 Silverliner V train cars. SEPTA implemented a speed restriction for all Silverliner V cars by noon Friday. By the time Friday became Saturday SEPTA had pulled all the Silverliner V's from service, as required by the Federal Railroad Administration.

How the cracks formed is uncertain. They are fatigue cracks, Knueppel said, that likely began forming a year or two ago. They would have been hard to spot in the standard inspections conducted every 92 days, he said.

"At the first sign of a crack, it doesn't mean you are going to fail," Knueppel said. "But what can happen, though, is that the crack will grow."

The cracks could be the result of a design failure, Knueppel said, or a problem in the manufacturing. Mitchell, the advocacy group vice president, noted the Silverliner V cars were heavier than originally planned by about 10,000 pounds, though engineers usually design parts to handle excess pressures. The additional weight was added to ensure the cars met American safety standards, he said.

SEPTA awarded the Silverliner V contract to the lowest bidder, United Transit Systems, a consortium of Hyundai-Rotem Co. of South Korea and Sojitz Corp. of America, a U.S. subsidiary of Sojitz Corp. of Japan, in 2006. Many of the parts were constructed in Ohio and the cars were assembled in Philadelphia.

The solution is also still unclear. SEPTA will try an interim fix by welding the beams, but is considering the possibility all the equalizer beams will need to be replaced. If a temporary fix is not feasible, he said, disruptions could affect the Democratic National Convention, which begins July 25. On a positive note, he anticipated that most of the conventioneers would be riding the subway, not the regional rail.

While Hyundai Rotem Corp., part of the consortium that handled the original contract, provided a seven-year warranty on the vehicles, obtaining the parts will take time and the work is significant, 30 to 60 hours per car to replace the equalizer beams. Hyundai Rotem has assigned staff to assist SEPTA, Knueppel said. The agency was talking with New Jersey Transit and Amtrak about the possibility of leasing equipment to help SEPTA until its own cars are repaired, he said. Knueppel said he was not aware of any other local transit agencies using the affected Silverliners.

Hyundai Rotem did not respond to an email requesting comment Sunday.

Questions about the manufacturer's ability to deliver the cars arose early in the bidding process. The original contract for Silverliner V's went to UTS in 2004. Kawasaki, a competitor seeking the Silverliner V contract, sued, saying UTS didn't meet requirements that the winning bidder have experience building rail cars for American railroads.

Kawasaki dropped its suit after SEPTA rewrote and rebid the contract without that provision. Hyundai Rotem has facilities in Philadelphia, making the vendor a favored bidder in a city whose workers benefited from the contract.

Problems continued, though. Material delays, design flaws, labor-management disputes, and workmanship problems delayed the delivery of the last of the cars to 2013, almost three years later than planned.

The Silverliner IV cars, which make up the majority of the fleet and are about 40 years old, do not have welded parts in the same place on the equalizer beam, and are not affected by the flaw.

Knueppel said the issues involving cracks in the cars' 350-pound equalizer beams were immediately reported to the Federal Railroad Administration, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and PennDot.

Starting Tuesday, SEPTA will invoke its modified Saturday schedule - developed for weather emergencies - and add additional rush-hour service. He said the rush-hour service would be 30-minute intervals on most lines and that early morning trains would also be added "where possible and appropriate."

The exact service schedule has not yet been decided. Knueppel urged customers to check with the agency's website, www.septa.org, on Monday. Another announcement detailing the schedules is expected on Monday.

"There is no detailed schedule in place for a scenario exactly like this one," Knueppel said.

With fewer cars carrying double the usual number of passengers, people trying to catch trains at interior city stations such as Temple University would likely not be able to get on because of heavy overcrowding.

For that reason, subway service on the Market-Frankford, Broad Street, Norristown high-speed lines and Media/Sharon Hill trolley lines will be bolstered. The agency is working with the city and the Philadelphia School District and the Philadelphia Parking Authority to add parking near those lines.

Customers who have purchased weekly and monthly transpasses they cannot use for July will get credit, he said. They are asked to hold on to those passes for future credit.

"We will work hard to overcome this setback," Knueppel said. "This is an all-hands-on-deck situation for SEPTA and we understand the profound ways in which this will adversely affect our loyal riders."

jlaughlin@phillynews.com

215-854-4587@jasmlaughlin