If there’s a difference today, it’s that any crowded-looking train is due to service cuts decreed by MBTA management during the coronavirus pandemic.
That’s right. Under Governor Charlie Baker, the T has taken steps that could make your ride less safe during a public health crisis. Fewer subway and bus lines means more people are vying for whatever is available. Now commuters can add fear of contagion to any other concerns they may have as veterans of a system that was previously called out for cultivating a culture where “safety is not a priority.”
“It’s as bad as I’ve ever seen it,” said Chris Dempsey, director of Transportation for Massachusetts, which advocates for better transit services. “These service levels start to have us look more like what you’d expect in Cleveland than in New York or Washington, D.C.” And that’s not where the fifth-largest transit agency in the country should be, said Dempsey.
Baker has a lot on his plate, as he tries to get COVID-19 vaccines into arms, kids back to school, and businesses back to life. But safe and reliable transportation is vital to the regional economy, and it’s also an equity issue. White-collar workers are still working remotely and safely at home. Front-line and service workers rely on the T, and more students will too, as schools return to in-person learning.
With $30.5 billion in federal stimulus money targeted to transit agencies across the country, cities like New York and San Francisco reversed plans to cut service in light of falling ridership linked to coronavirus lockdowns. The T stands to collect more than $1 billion; yet MBTA general manager Steve Poftak stands behind slashes to commuter rail, ferry, bus, and subway service. With that, Poftak is just channeling his boss.
Public transit has never been a passion or priority for Baker. When he finally took a ride on the T in 2019 — more than four years after taking office — it was a big deal. Baker views the MBTA as “a ward of the state,” as Dempsey sees it, and his instinct is to cut costs as much as possible. Outrage over the system’s failure during record-breaking snowfall back in 2015, plus congested highways, forced Baker to focus more on transit concerns. But the pandemic has given him an excuse to follow his impulses and generally ignore transportation matters. In January, when Stephanie Pollack, the state’s longtime secretary of transportation, left for a job at the Federal Highway Administration, Baker appointed Jamey Tesler, who heads the Registry of Motor Vehicles, as acting transportation secretary. If Tesler has any thoughts on current policy, they have not made headlines.
The latest round of service cuts went into effect over the weekend. Then, on Tuesday, an Orange Line train derailed in a work zone at Wellington Station in Medford. That means the system’s newest subway cars will be pulled from service, to be replaced by shuttle bus service for the next three weeks.
The derailed train was part of a fleet of new Orange Line cars, two of which were removed once before, in December 2019, due to what was described as “an uncommon noise from the underside of the cars.” They were put back into service in January 2020. The cause of this week’s derailment is under investigation and, luckily, no one was hurt. The T had previously been cited for having one of the worst derailment records in the country. It was a Red Line derailment in June 2019 that forced the Baker administration to pay attention to the T and promise to address safety issues.
The new Orange and Red Line cars were the great hope for the future. “If they turn out to be duds, you can kiss the Red and Orange lines goodbye,” said Dempsey. According to Dempsey, there aren’t enough “old” Red and Orange line cars to keep the system running at meaningful levels in the years ahead. It’s not yet known if derailment is a track issue or new-car issue, but the prospect of a flawed new fleet is depressing.
Even more depressing: The T needed a champion in state government before the pandemic, and it still needs one.