New SEPTA railcars roll out slowly

an electrician, works on the wiring under one of the new SEPTA Silverliner V Regional Rail cars at the Hyundai Rotem USA plant in South Philly.DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
an electrician, works on the wiring under one of the new SEPTA Silverliner V Regional Rail cars at the Hyundai Rotem USA plant in South Philly.DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER (Rich Scarpignato,)
Posted: August 08, 2011

WHEN SEPTA's new Silverliner V made its maiden voyage last October, taking reporters and a few startled Regional Rail riders on the five-stop run between Suburban Station and Cynwyd, it had that new railcar smell emanating from plush, blue vinyl seats, that magic-carpet ride and that seductive bedroom voice announcing SEPTA stations as if they were topless joints.

The "Little Silverliner that Could" - three railcars from Hyundai Rotem's South Korea factory - held the promise that, as soon as SEPTA put 117 more into service, Regional Rail riders could blow a goodbye kiss to the butt-busting battalion of Silverliner IIs and IIIs, built during the '60s, when Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney were young.

It was supposed to happen by now. But 10 months after the coming-out party, the Silverliner V remains a shy diva with three or four trains - 24 railcars - making rare guest appearances all over the Regional Rail system, still far outnumbered by those 73 relics from the '60s that ride like cattle cars in an old western.

Although reasonably modern Silverliner IVs make up much of the Regional Rail fleet, the terrible IIs and IIIs show up often enough to make you wonder what the holdup is all about. Published reports indicate that delays in Silverliner V production have been due to culture clashes between American workers here who've never built a railcar and their native Korean advisers from the Hyundai Rotem factory in South Philly.

After months of Silverliner whining, is there a silver lining?

Luther Diggs, the no-nonsense, former-Marine, SEPTA operations manager who has honchoed the Silverliner V project since its 2006 birth in Korea, told the Daily News that, yes, the rollout is a year behind schedule, but don't get your boxers in a bunch.

"If you think there's not going to be problems when you buy 120 railcars that were designed starting with a blank sheet of paper," Diggs said, "you're not living in the real world."

Ramrod straight, wearing a pressed SEPTA dress shirt so white it glowed, Diggs stood in the middle of the 13-acre Hyundai Rotem USA factory on Weccacoe Avenue near Snyder, surrounded by 200 local workers building and testing 63 Silverliner V railcars.

Today, it's the Silverliner V. In the future, they'll be building railcars for Denver and Boston. The heart of SEPTA's $327 million Silverliner V project is a sight to behold in a city where so many neighborhoods have never recovered from the closing of factories decades ago. The Hyundai Rotem USA plant is really a gigantic railyard under a roof, alive with skilled workers while the recession rages outside.

Don't focus on the growing pains, Diggs said. They're normal. "This is not the kind of thing where I've got Silverliner V trains stuck all over the track," he said, smiling.

Diggs, who was operations manager for a nationwide trucking company long before he began his 29 years with SEPTA, said that Silverliner V trains will be a major presence on Regional Rail by next summer. And when that happens, and he has to get rid of the trusty, musty old Silverliner IIs and IIIs, will he miss those dinosaurs from SEPTA's '60s?

"No," said Diggs. "I am not a rail buff. This is a business, not a nostalgia museum. Give me an acetylene torch and pffft! I hear those old trains make nice reefs. You cut 'em up, you put 'em in the ocean and, I'm telling you, they make nice reefs."

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