Problems Mount for Boston Rail Cars Built by Chinese State-Owned Company CRRC

By Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch
Mar 04 2020 |
Photo by MBTA

The transit agency pulled the new CRRC cars out of service this week.

The Alliance for American Manufacturing spent much of 2019 sounding the alarm about the dangers of allowing Chinese state-owned companies (SOEs) to build U.S. transit like rail cars and buses.

We mainly focused our attention on the national security concerns that come with awarding taxpayer-funded contracts to firms backed by China’s authoritarian regime. We also pointed out that winning these contracts is a key part of the Made in China 2025 plan, which aims to see China take over entire global industries (like rail car and bus manufacturing) at the expense of American companies and hundreds of thousands of workers.

Now there’s another reason why U.S. transit agencies should avoid contracting with Chinese SOEs: Safety.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), which oversees Boston’s subway system, announced on Tuesday that it pulled all of its new Orange Line trains from service after identifying a serious equipment concern.

According to the MBTA, inspectors found a fault with the bolsters, which are the beams underneath the rail car that allow navigation along turns on the track.

The news is particularly alarming given that it isn’t the first time the MBTA has pulled the rail cars because of serious safety issues. Back in December, the rail cars made uncommon noises tied to issues with wear pads. In September 2019, train doors opened while the cars were in motion.

Two months later, a train derailed from its tracks.

The problem-prone rail cars were all built by the China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation, or CRRC, a company with extensive ties to China’s government, military, and the communist party. CRRC is one of China’s “state champions,” a tool of the Chinese regime to eventually dominate a targeted global industry.

But it’s more than that. As an October 2019 Radarlock report outlined, China also utilizes CRRC to obtain technology for potentially nefarious purposes. As an international company, CRRC is able to gather both data and new technology, and hand everything over to China’s state apparatus and military.

Now there are serious quality and safety issues with the CRRC rail cars in Boston, further highlighting the risks of awarding taxpayer-funded contracts to a Chinese state-owned company.

This isn’t the first time that there have been major safety concerns over transit built by a Chinese company, by the way.

Build Your Dreams, or BYD, is a Chinese electric vehicle maker with extensive ties to China’s government, communist party, and military. Back in 2016, BYD contracted with the City of Albuquerque, New Mexico to produce 16 electric buses, part of the city’s plan to transition its fleet to cleaner energy.

Nothing went right. The buses didn’t meet their promised battery charge, which meant that they couldn’t manage a full day’s service. The charging system for the batteries was also defective, so some buses couldn’t be charged at all.

Worse than that, there were extensive durability and safety issues, including doors opening unexpectedly, malfunctioning brakes, faulty electric wiring, exposed wires, and overheating batteries, according to a 2019 report from the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, Environment America, and Frontier Group.

City officials ended up canceling the project and suing BYD.

Fortunately, there has been action in Washington. Bipartisan Members of Congress recognized the threat posed by Chinese SOEs like CRRC and BYD and passed a version of the Transportation Infrastructure Vehicle Safety Act (TIVSA) as part of a key defense spending bill last year. TIVSA keeps federal money from being spent on rolling stock — rail cars or buses — from state-owned or -controlled companies.

But while it was certainly a big step forward, the legislation doesn’t mean the threat is eliminated. China remains determined to take over the rail car and electric vehicle industries and is working hard to undermine TIVSA. CRRC even held a “thank you” event after TIVSA’s passage, where speakers discussed plans to extend a two-year implementation delay that was part of the TIVSA bill.

That is why it is absolutely critical that TIVSA is implemented without delay and as Congress intended.

In addition, Congress also must take action to shore up America’s own manufacturing capabilities, including by ensuring compliance with Buy America laws, incentivizing the production of EV batteries and battery cells in the United States, and finally investing in our failing infrastructure to spur demand.

There’s a multitude of economic and national security reasons why Chinese SOEs should not make taxpayer-funded rail cars and buses. But as the incidents in Boston and Albuquerque highlight, it might also just be essential to keeping Americans safe.