Here’s an MBTA head-scratcher: More than eight months after the ascending escalator connecting Commuter Rail tracks 1 and 3 to the Back Bay T station lobby suddenly plummeted in reverse, sending people lurching backward, and creating a bloody pileup at the bottom, the escalator is still out of service.
And the MBTA still doesn’t have an answer for why it catapulted backward on Sept. 26, 2021, injuring nine. Its website says the escalator is “unavailable due to maintenance.”
The MBTA halted all work and testing on the escalator several months ago at what it says was the direction of the Suffolk district attorney’s office, according to T spokesman Joe Pesaturo, leaving the machine out of service, delaying the investigation, and inconveniencing transit users.
The escalator seems to have slipped through the cracks at the DA’s office as the months dragged on.
In January, the office of Rachael Rollins, then the outgoing Suffolk DA and soon-to-be US attorney for Massachusetts, announced that Suffolk prosecutors were probing the T’s criminal culpability in last summer’s Green Line crash that injured 27 people. The news release mentioned other recent safety problems, including the death of a man who fell through a dilapidated, closed-off staircase near the JFK/UMass T stop in September, the Back Bay escalator malfunction, and a Red Line derailment.
Sometime that month during the handoff between Rollins and current DA Kevin Hayden, someone at the DA’s office communicated to the T that it might be wise to halt work on the escalator given the criminal probe, said Jim Borghesani,, a spokesman for Hayden. He didn’t say who that someone was.
But the DA’s office had already determined that there was no criminal negligence involved in the escalator incident, Borghesani said. The MBTA reached out to the DA’s office about the status of the escalator sometime in March, Borghesani said, and again in mid-May.
After the Globe recently inquired about the status of the escalator, the DA’s office responded to the T, giving the agency permission to begin its testing and investigative work again.
Pesaturo said that work is being scheduled, but did not say when the T expects to have the escalator back in service.
The delay in figuring out the cause of the malfunction has left riders without an escalator for months. As of Friday, the out-of-order escalator is the only ascending one connecting the two commuter rail tracks to the Back Bay station lobby.
Globe interviews with escalator experts found that a brake failure probably caused the September malfunction at Back Bay, a problem that can be prevented with the right level of maintenance. A Globe review of court documents and news archives found three nearly identical incidents since the mid-1990s, and a fourth alleged in a lawsuit, in which ascending MBTA escalators have suddenly stopped and accelerated backward, injuring dozens of people.
Last summer, the MBTA extended its contract with its escalator maintenance contractor, Kone, for another two years, ending in 2025, Pesaturo said. Kone, a Finnish company with US headquarters in Illinois, was first contracted by the MBTA to conduct maintenance on the escalators in 1999 and has won new contracts for maintenance services ever since.
In a statement in December, Kone told the Globe that safety is its top priority.
“KONE routinely inspects and maintains the MBTA’s units in compliance with regulatory requirements and the unique contractual terms and specifications of its agreement with the MBTA,” a spokesperson said in a statement at the time.
Kone faces a pending lawsuit from two families injured in the Sept. 26 incident. The company denies wrongdoing.