Test run for two of SEPTA's new Silverliner V train cars

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The new cars have wider seating and video monitors giving details about the next station.

Humming along at 90 miles an hour as it approached Norwood on Tuesday, SEPTA's newest train was quiet and steady.

And it still had that new-car smell.

On a test run from Market East Station to Marcus Hook, the first of the new Silverliner V cars was bright and spacious, with big windows and fewer of the reviled three-across seat arrangements.

Video screens and digital display panels announced each stop in advance, in tandem with a computer-generated female voice.

"I love it," said SEPTA General Manager Joseph Casey, taking his first ride on the long-awaited, long-delayed Silverliner cars that are supposed to be put in service next month. "And I think our customers are going to like it, too."

SEPTA's Regional Rail passengers, packed into overcrowded cars during morning and evening rush hours, have been waiting a long time to show the love.

SEPTA ordered 120 of the Silverliner V cars, at a cost of $274 million. The contract for the Silverliner V's was first awarded in 2004, thrown out because of competitors' complaints, and awarded again in 2006.

Production delays have pushed back by nine months the date for the first cars to be put into service.

"The important thing is that we get it right," Casey said Tuesday. "The last cars lasted 47 years, and there's a good chance these will have to last a number of decades, too.

The new Silverliners will replace 73 railcars built for SEPTA in the 1960s. With the retirement of the old cars and the addition of the 120 new ones, SEPTA is to have about 400 railcars by mid-2011.

The new cars, with state-of-the-art air-conditioning and heating systems and wide mid-car doors to speed boardings, are being built in South Korea with final assembly at a plant on Weccacoe Avenue in South Philadelphia.

The builder of the cars, United Transit Systems, is a consortium of Hyundai-Rotem Co. of South Korea and Sojitz Corp. of America, a U.S. subsidiary of Sojitz Corp. of Japan.

The two cars being tested Tuesday are "pilot" cars that were fully manufactured in South Korea. Wires were still draped on the overhead luggage racks and some seats were covered with plywood platforms Tuesday, as SEPTA crews continued to work on the cars' new communications system.

"The communications system has to work, and we need to get our people trained, and we're good to go," Casey said. He said the first cars should be in service sometime in October, but he declined to be more specific.

Training will take about a week for each crew.

Larry Ryan, the engineer on the test train Tuesday, said the train was a pleasure to operate.

"I like it. It's a big improvement over what we have now," Ryan said. "It's quiet. It's got fast braking and fast acceleration. And it's more comfortable to operate."

The new trains feature a subway-style cab for the engineer, taking up half of the width of the car, rather than the full-width cabs in the current cars.

That was a bone of contention with SEPTA's engineers, who wanted full-width cabs.

Luther Diggs, SEPTA assistant general manager, said that SEPTA has decided, after safety evaluations, against changing the cab design.

"We couldn't find a reason to change," Diggs said. He said wider cabs would cost SEPTA 158 lost seats.

The new cars will have about 12 fewer seats than their 120-seat predecessors, because of fewer three-across seats, wider doorways, and wheelchair seating areas.

The new car interiors are a light gray, with seats that are blue and gray with red piping. Fluorescent ceiling lights brighten the interiors, and there's increased headroom near the ends of the cars.

There are still a few details to attend to.

Several seats already have torn upholstery, which Diggs said will be repaired before paying customers sit on them.

The instructions on the safety placards are so wordy that even a speed-reader might have trouble figuring out what to do in an emergency.

And the exterior color scheme doesn't match the paint job on existing cars. Instead of SEPTA red, the new cars feature a sort of tandoori orange.

"We'll fix that," Casey said.

SEPTA officials met with top Hyundai-Rotem executives last week to discuss ongoing production problems that have delayed delivery of the cars, and Casey said the Korean manufacturer is committed to fixing the problems.

Both the Korea and South Philadelphia plants have encountered difficulties.

Inexperienced workers, late material shipments, and poor workmanship have caused delays at the South Philadelphia factory.

The manufacturer has hired additional workers locally and brought more employees in from its plant in Changwon, South Korea, to try to speed production.

At the South Korea plant, where the car shells are built and partially equipped, work has been slowed by the need to repair rust damage on 10 cars.

Each finished car is expected to weigh about 146,600 pounds, instead of 137,000 pounds.

The extra weight remains within the design parameters of the cars and should not create problems with operation or maintenance, said David Casper, SEPTA's director of new vehicle procurement.

United Transit, the manufacturer, is liable for penalties of $200 for each day each car is late, Diggs said.

 


Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.