New CTA cars flawed; Manufacturer to fix weak steel part

March 8, 2012 4:38:22 PM PST
Creaky, old ''L'' cars -- some of which are 45 years old -- are back in service, reinforcing an image the CTA was hoping to shake with its new cars -- that were defective.

"You want the truth? It's kind of danky. But it has character," Lucas Lomans, CTA rider, said.

New cars were supposed to upgrade the "L" train's character and last for decades. The CTA ordered 706 of the cars, which have wider aisles; a smoother, quieter ride; electronic signs; and surveillance cameras. But after the first 50 arrived CTA engineers found flaws on the train cars' underbelly: steel parts - made by a supplier in China - that the transit agency says simply won't hold the weight of the trains over the long haul. That, they say, could lead to the possibility of a derailment.

"There was no imminent danger here. Our top rail engineers looked at this and the chances of this being a serious safety issue were extremely remote," CTA President Forrest Claypool said.

But the problem was serious enough that the train cars are out of service and their manufacturer - Bombardier - has agreed to pick up the tab to fix them.

"The trains that were delivered, roughly 50 cars are being disassembled and carted back to the Bombardier plant where the parts are being replaced. Then we'll receive new cars with new parts," Claypool said.

So how does this happen? "China, Inc." author and Chicagoan Ted Fishman says companies that eagerly turn to China for material and production need to be just as aggressive in their quality control.

"Look, Bombardier also makes aircraft. It's terrifying to think they're not up to the quality control need for advance transportation. The steel they used on a train car may also be used on a plane," Fishman said.

Late Thursday a spokesperson for train-maker Bombardier said problems with the steel parts from China weren't detected sooner because they were apparent to the naked eye. She says it was only confirmed after the train car components were taken apart and X-rayed. Bombardier is no longer using that specific Chinese manufacturer.

The CTA hopes the new rail cars will be ready for service this summer.