This week the MBTA pulled the new Orange Line trains off the tracks due to “an uncommon noise from the underside of the cars.”
Don’t freak out — yet. This could be an easily fixed glitch. In a statement, the T said, “We anticipate the issue to be resolved soon.” But what if it’s not? This is the second time trains from the new fleet have been pulled from service. It previously happened in September, after problems with a stuck door.
“I’m still hopeful these cars are going to work out fine,” Chris Dempsey, who heads Transportation for Massachusetts, a coalition that advocates for better statewide transportation policy, said in an interview. “But if they’re not, if there are some fundamental flaws, that’s an existential threat not just to the MBTA but to the entire region.”
Hyperbole? Not if you consider the ugly road and highway congestion that already paralyzes metro Boston traffic, and the urgent need for reliable, speedy, energy-efficient alternatives to allow people to get to work, and keep the local economy humming.
This latest news comes in the aftermath of the state’s first wintry storm, and Governor Charlie Baker’s call to stay off roads and use public transit. Easy for him to say. He wasn’t on the commuter rail coach that detached from the rest of its train on Monday morning and plugged up South Station service. He wasn’t on a commuter ferry that rocked and rolled enough to tip over chairs and people. And he wasn’t on the Orange Line train that dripped icy liquid — hopefully, melting snow — on my head. And that was a small indignity compared with power problems that other T commuters faced this week.
Because of its age, the Orange Line is an especially hot mess. The fleet is about as old as Tom Brady, without Gisele and TB12 products to keep it perky. A shiny new fleet is supposed to replace the old cars any minute now, or at least by 2022. But so far, only two new six-car trains have been put on line. And twice they were taken off.
The new cars are manufactured by a Chinese-owned firm, CRRC MA, and assembled in Springfield. On a recent November morning, one miraculously awaited me at Oak Grove. Riding it was sweet, making the return to old, creaky, over-packed cars all the more sour. Some commutes are worse than others — like the November night when a man who tried unsuccessfully to insert himself into the few remaining open inches of a crowded car started yelling and cursing at a passenger who wouldn’t budge. As the train pulled away, a street violinist on the State Street platform played Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” — a little like the band on the Titanic playing “Nearer My God to Thee” as the ship went down.
By now, we know Baker feels no duty to share in the public’s commuting pain. He rode the Red Line once in September, with Globe columnist Shirley Leung invited along to chronicle his brave adventure in mass transit. After that, he made sure to express contempt for the idea that he should hop aboard more often. As he put it, “I’m not a virtue signaler.” Yet, he did do a photo-op with the new Orange Line trains that are supposed to be game-changers.
The Orange Line reboot is part of a $1 billion modernization plan, which also includes new Red Line vehicles, manufactured by the same Springfield company. And that is part of an $8 billion, five-year capital investment plan, which includes station renovation and fare collection modernization. Meanwhile, Baker routinely defines progress on the T in terms of the amount of money the state is investing in it — as if money spent, not outcome, is how improvement should be judged. That’s especially true with the Orange Line.
“For years now, Governor Baker and his team have held out the new cars as the savior," said Dempsey. “It was going to be a turning point. Then, to have those dreams crushed, deferred, delayed, is psychically difficult.”
The next “uncommon noise” heard by the T? It could be the sound of wailing Orange Line commuters.