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Top Bidder for New BART Cars Under Scrutiny

Canadian company installed defective parts in Chicago's subway

A transportation company responsible for installing defective parts on Chicago's subway cars is the leading candidate to build BART’s $3.4 billion fleet of new train cars, The Bay Citizen has learned.

Bombardier Transportation outscored two other companies in the bidding process to build BART's new fleet, General Manager Grace Crunican said Friday in a memo obtained by The Bay Citizen.

Chicago Transit Authorty inspectors found that Bombardier installed defective parts made by a Chinese supplier on new rail cars, the Chicago Tribune reported. Initially, the firm only wanted to replace the most damaged parts, according to the newspaper.

The Canadian company must still undergo a rigorous audit before BART staff decides to recommend it to build the cars, said Paul Oversier, assistant general manager for operations at BART. 

Top BART officials say replacing the cars is the most expensive and important undertaking at the transit agency, which covers 104 miles and carries more than 300,000 riders every day. The 775 new cars will be designed by BMW and will feature easy-to-clean seats. They will begin rolling down the tracks in 2018.

Bombardier began manufacturing 706 new cars for the CTA in June, after winning a $1.14 billion contract. But in December, the CTA took the first 54 cars Bombardier delivered off the tracks, after inspectors found flaws in the wheel components. The Chicago Tribune reported last week that defective steel parts manufactured by one of Bombardier’s Chinese suppliers could cause derailments.

Molly Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the CTA, said that its inspectors first identified a problem with a part that helps attach the wheels and axels to the rail cars in November. The discovery was made at Bombardier's U.S. assembly plant, and the problem was traced to a Chinese foundry.

The company then shut down production, and the CTA took the trains containing the parts out of service, while Bombardier performed an internal investigation. After CTA insisted, Bombardier agreed to replace the parts in all of the trains. 

Sullivan downplayed the Tribune report about possible derailments.

“Our experts told us that there was very little risk, and had there been any, it would have been years down the road,” she said.

Maryanne Roberts, a spokeswoman for Bombardier, said Friday that BART riders shouldn't worry about the safety of the company's rail cars.

"There are literally thousands of parts on a car and this was just one part — it was found before there was any safety issue," Roberts said."It was an issue with a sub-supplier that has been replaced. We've stepped up our already-strong control process."

Roberts called the Tribune report "exaggerated," adding that there was "never any fear of derailment."

Oversier declined to comment on whether Bombardier's problems in Chicago would affect whether BART would choose the firm. But he said that transit agencies should learn from what happened there.

“It is an example of why the owner needs to be aggressive and do their due diligence when the cars are being designed and built,” Oversier said. 

Bombardier was the low bidder for the BART car project. It priced a single car at $2.95 million, 2 percent below Alstom, a French firm, and 4 percent below Hyundai Rotem, a South Korean manufacturer. The total cost of each car will be about $5.1 million, after inflation, taxes and other costs.

BART officials scored each bid on several factors — price, experience, design, approach to work, delivery speed and energy efficiency, in that order of importance, Oversier explained.

Bombardier must now undergo an audit of how well its bid meets so-called Buy America requirements. Under federal law, transit agencies must buy rail cars from companies that produce 60 percent of the car's total value in the United States.

Even though there are no American companies that could build BART’s new fleet of cars, some local officials have loudly protested the fact that the winning bidder will be from another country.

Once an audit of Bombardier's bid is completed next month, BART staff will make a final recommendation. The transit agency's board will vote to award the lucrative contract in early May, according to the memo.

Bombardier isn’t the only bidder facing scrutiny. The Korean government ordered Hyundai Rotem to recall 19 new bullet trains after a series of breakdowns last year, the Korea Times reported.

Bombardier, which also makes planes, has built cars for New York City subway and the London Metro, among others. 

BART officials and board members refused to talk specifically about each of the companies involved in the bidding process, owing to concerns about possible litigation.

"Every car builder, regardless of their reputation, goes through a difficult time,” Oversier said. “What distinguishes the good carmakers is how they deal with it, and also that it not be an ongoing problem.”  

Fleet of the Future Train
Source: BARTable

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