The MBTA on Thursday disclosed yet another problem in the troubled rollout of its new subway cars, saying it is taking its new-model Orange Line cars — 64 in all — out of service after a brake unit in one car malfunctioned.
The setback is but the latest in a series of incidents that have hit the beleaguered agency in the past few months. The Federal Transit Administration has taken the unusual step of conducting an extensive safety review of the agency after the death in April of a passenger who was caught in the doors of a moving Red Line train. Earlier this week, the Globe reported that construction vehicles working on the Blue Line had derailed three times in as many days in May, not once as officials had originally disclosed.
This latest incident “contributes to this feeling of a never-ending ‘Groundhog Day,’ where you wake up and there’s always a problem with the T,” said Stacy Thompson, executive director of the advocacy group Livable Streets, referring to the 1993 film in which Bill Murray plays a TV weatherman stuck in a time loop.
MBTA officials stressed that only one brake unit was disabled and that commuters and MBTA staff were not in danger.
“Earlier today at Wellington Station, a new Orange Line train experienced a problem in one of the train’s multiple braking units, and it went disabled,” the T said in a statement.
Officials added that “a proactive decision has been made to keep all of the new trains out of service while the vehicle engineering and technical teams troubleshoot the problem. With safety being the top priority, the MBTA took this action out of an abundance of caution.”
A spokesman said the agency could not estimate how long the new cars would be out of service. However, riders should expect longer wait times, with trains arriving about 8½ minutes apart on Thursday afternoon, the MBTA said.
The MBTA has a nearly $1 billion contract with a Chinese rail manufacturer, CRRC, to build 404 cars to replace the entire fleet of aging Red and Orange Line trains. The company built a factory in Springfield to do the final assembly, but the work has been beset by problems and quality control issues that have delayed delivery of the new cars.
In 2019, 2020, and again in 2021, new Orange Line cars were repeatedly forced out of service by technical problems — sometimes for weeks on end. At one point in 2020, MBTA officials were so frustrated they said “their confidence in CRRC has been reduced due to past failures,” according to the minutes of meetings between officials and the contractor.
To date, the T has received 74 of the new Orange Line cars, with 64 of them in service, according to spokesman Joe Pesaturo. As of April, 10 of the new Red Line cars had been delivered, and another two were expected soon, the MBTA said.
The T is now left with aging cars on the Orange Line and no hard date on when riders can expect to see the new ones return. Thompson, the transit activist, said inconvenience aside, the decision to remove the trains from service shows the T is looking out for public safety.
“These situations are frustrating, but it’s actually a sign that the people who work on the system every day take their jobs really seriously, and that when they see something that seems unsafe, they act immediately,” she said.
The T is operating under something of a microscope after the death of Red Line passenger Robinson Lalin, who got caught in a subway door at Broadway Station and was dragged about 100 feet to his death in early April. The FTA has disclosed it is taking an “increased safety oversight role” of the transit system.
In the letter to MBTA general manager Steve Poftak 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.”
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.
In January, a 58-year-old woman was killed when a commuter rail train struck her car in Wilmington after the crossing gates and flashing lights meant to keep cars off the tracks did not activate in time. Keolis operates the MBTA’s commuter rail system.
Last 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 escalator malfunctioned at the Back Bay Station and suddenly accelerated in reverse, causing a bloody pileup of people at the bottom. Nine were sent to the hospital.
In October, the driver of a Green Line train that crashed into the one in front of it last July pleaded not guilty to negligence charges. The Globe has reported that he had a history of speeding infractions at the T. In response, 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 National Transportation Safety Board first recommended it.