Following passenger deaths and injuries on the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority system, the Federal Transit Administration said it is “extremely concerned with the ongoing safety issues” at the T and will take on an “increased safety oversight role” of the transit system, according to a letter the federal agency sent to the T last month, obtained by the Globe.
An FTA spokesperson confirmed Monday that the agency has begun inspecting safety at the MBTA but did not produce a copy of the letter or address questions about it.
In the letter to MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak in mid-April announcing the inspection, a top FTA official said, “FTA leadership recently discussed the pattern of safety incidents with MBTA executive leadership, yet it remains unclear what actions the MBTA Board and executive team are implementing to prevent and address the system’s safety violations.”
The letter cited safety failures, including the death on the Red Line last month of Robinson Lalin, who got caught in a subway door at Broadway Station and was dragged about 100 feet to his death.
As part of its inspection, the FTA will assess the effectiveness of the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities in overseeing safety at the MBTA, according to the letter and an FTA spokesperson, who also said FTA’s on-site work as part of its inspection will begin in mid-May.
The FTA will “obtain critical data needed to establish MBTA’s safety risk profile and provide a roadmap to building a robust safety culture” at the MBTA, according to the letter.
Asked about the letter, the FTA directed the Globe to submit a Freedom of Information Act request.
According to the letter from Joe DeLorenzo, FTA associate administrator for Transit Safety and Oversight and chief safety officer, the FTA sent copies to FTA regional administrator Peter Butler, DPU Director of Transportation Oversight Elizabeth Cellucci, Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation Jamey Tesler, MBTA Board of Directors Chair Betsy Taylor, and MBTA chief safety officer Ronald Ester.
The new federal inspection comes as the MBTA faces a criminal investigation by the Suffolk District Attorney’s Office related to the July Green Line train collision that sent 27 people to the hospital and a National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the death of Lalin on the Red Line.
MBTA spokesperson Lisa Battiston said the agency has almost doubled the size of its Safety Department in the past three years and has “strong, well-funded plans for delivering safe, accessible, and reliable services for decades to come.”
“Sharing the Federal Transit Administration’s desire to make public transportation as safe as possible, the MBTA fully supports the FTA’s review of the Authority’s safety-related processes and practices and welcomes a constructive and collaborative process that focuses on making the T a transit industry leader in safety and reliability,” Battiston said in an e-mail.
Despite those efforts, the MBTA has been continually plagued by safety incidents.
In January, a commuter rail train struck a woman’s car, killing her, when the crossing gates and flashing lights meant to keep cars off the tracks in Wilmington did not activate in time. Keolis operates the MBTA’s commuter rail system.
In September, a Red Line train derailed and hit the platform at Broadway Station with 47 passengers on board. No injuries were reported.
The derailment came two days after an ascending escalator malfunctioned at the Back Bay Station and suddenly plummeted in reverse, causing a bloody pileup of people at the bottom. Nine people were sent to the hospital.
The driver of the Green Line train that crashed into the one in front of it in July has pleaded not guilty to negligence charges. The Globe has reported that he had a history of speed infractions at the T. In response to the incident, the MBTA is accelerating the implementation of a technology meant to prevent collisions on the Green Line from 2024 to next year, 14 years after the NTSB first recommended it.
Transit advocates have been urging the board of directors to take a more hands-on role in overseeing the MBTA as it grapples with the recent series of grave safety incidents and a fast-approaching financial cliff. Four days after Lalin’s death on the Red Line last month, the MBTA board of directors’ safety subcommittee did not ask MBTA staff a single question about the tragedy at a public meeting.
In 2019, an outside group of experts hired by the state to audit the T found that the agency lacked a culture of safety and provided 61 safety recommendations. As of February, two-thirds of the recommendations to improve safety had been completed, MBTA staff reported to the board, and one-third are in progress or on hold.
The MBTA has repeatedly declined to provide information about Lalin’s death, citing the ongoing NTSB investigation. Last week, the NTSB reported that “a fault” in a door control system on the Red Line train contributed to the fatal incident, which occurred when he became stuck in the doorway of an inbound train when he was trying to exit.
The MBTA is still waiting for delivery of hundreds of new Red Line train cars from a Chinese company first contracted in 2014 that are supposed to replace the decades-old cars like the one involved in Lalin’s death.
Taylor Dolven can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @taydolven.