Top federal transit officials gave an extraordinarily grim assessment of safety at the MBTA on Wednesday, painting a picture of a dysfunctional agency that allows critical safety issues to fester, putting passengers and workers at risk.
The Federal Transit Administration found dispatchers working 20-hour days, runaway trains injuring workers, many operators and supervisors with expired safety certifications, and no prompt plans to fix track sections that are in disrepair.
A full safety management inspection report by the FTA is expected in August, said FTA associate administrator Paul Kincaid, but in the meantime, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, which is in charge of ensuring that the MBTA complies with federal safety laws, will have to begin addressing serious shortcomings.
On Wednesday, the FTA formally issued four “special directives” for the MBTA to complete immediately, a “result of continuous safety violations and a failure to take urgent corrective actions,” Kincaid said.
Citing two recent runaway train incidents in the MBTA’s railyards that resulted in worker injuries, Kincaid said the T doesn’t have “adequate written procedures for safety processes and training.”
“Not having written rules leads to a lack of understanding of what is required, as well as the lack of safety culture throughout the agency that sets the stage for safety lapses,” he said.
The FTA is ordering the MBTA to increase staffing at its operations control center, improve general safety operating procedures, and address delayed critical track maintenance and safety recertifications for employees whose credentials have lapsed.
The DPU will have to ensure that the MBTA implements the changes.
MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo said in an e-mail that the T is “developing immediate and long-term mitigation measures to address these matters.” The agency expects to have all active transit rail employees certified by this week.
Spokespeople for Governor Charlie Baker did not respond to a request for comment.
Kincaid said operations control center staff are sometimes working 20-hour shifts with just four hours off in between, “which obviously can create safety issues due to fatigue.” The FTA found that the control center is understaffed; as of April 29, four out of 18 heavy rail dispatcher jobs and two out of 11 supervisor jobs were vacant.
“MBTA has created a management process whereby OCC staff members are required to work without certifications, in a fatigued state, and often fulfilling multiple roles at once,” the directive said.
Since January 2021, the MBTA has reported five runaway train events that happened in yards or during maintenance, the FTA found, including two since the FTA began its inspection of the T in mid-April.
A runaway Red Line train in the railyard on Dec. 17 caused three injuries, the FTA said.
The FTA found that around 10 percent of the MBTA’s subway tracks are under speed restrictions due to defects, including a years-long slow zone on the Orange Line tracks between the Tufts Medical Center and Back Bay Stations and over 2 miles of Green Line track. Track maintenance crews use a 2- or 2½-hour window to complete fixes overnight, not nearly enough time, the FTA said. The Green Line work train used for maintenance has been inoperable for at least eight months, the FTA found.
In its directives, the FTA said the MBTA’s investments in capital projects dwarf investments in day to day maintenance of its older equipment, limiting critical upkeep.
At one point during the investigation, the FTA found that 80 percent of subway dispatchers had expired safety certifications, said FTA chief safety officer Joe DeLorenzo.
On the Green Line, the FTA found 41 percent of operators, 26 percent of inspectors, 50 percent of supervisors, and all yard masters had expired safety certifications. Twenty-five percent of Orange Line, 14 percent of Red Line, and 33 percent of Blue Line supervisors were “out of compliance with recertification requirements.”
The interim findings are frustratingly similar to the findings issued by another group of outside experts that audited safety at the T, in 2019, after a series of derailments. That panel also found the T lacked a safety culture and issued 61 recommendations, the majority of which the T says it has completed.
DeLorenzo said the FTA will be assessing whether meaningful progress has been made on those previous recommendations.
If the MBTA fails to complete the actions issued by the FTA, it could lose 25 percent of its federal funding.
Each directive includes a deadline for when the MBTA must submit its plans to the FTA ranging from 15 to 35 days. In some cases, the MBTA must report information to the FTA each day or each week going forward, including staffing information for its operations control center.
Rick Dimino, president of A Better City, a business group that focuses on transportation issues, said he is grateful for the deadlines.
“If we expect people to come back to the T, we need the T to be engaged in safety as a priority with real outcomes, to be able to prove to the public that the T is safe,” he said.
T ridership remains well below pre-pandemic levels. In April, average weekday trips on the MBTA transit system, including the commuter rail, reached just 55 percent of April 2019 levels, according to MBTA data, and subway ridership lingered at around 47 percent.
The FTA’s assessment came less than 24 hours after Green Line passengers in Boston were forced to walk on the tracks through an underground tunnel between Park Street and Government Center Stations Tuesday evening after two trains “unintentionally coupled” at a slow speed while at the Government Center platform.
Two two-car trains accidentally attached to each other while at the platform, forming a four-car train. The MBTA temporarily suspended service between Government Center and Park Street while T staff detached the trains, according to Pesaturo.
A rider on a train between the two stations shared a video on social media of people walking along the dark underground tracks.
Safety incidents have persisted since the FTA first began investigating.
The federal agency first told the T it was going to “immediately assume an increased safety oversight role of the MBTA system” in an April 14 letter to the MBTA, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, the DPU, and the MBTA board of directors, but authorities kept the news from the public.
The FTA inspection, first reported by the Globe last month, is only the second time the FTA has intervened on the local level in such a way. In 2015, the agency conducted a safety management inspection of D.C.’s Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority that led to the federal takeover of safety oversight there for nearly 3½ years.
In its letter, the FTA cited a “pattern of safety incidents” at the T, including the April 10 dragging death of Robinson Lalin, whose arm got caught in a Red Line car at Broadway Station.
Kincaid said the FTA’s interim findings should not discourage people from taking the T.
“FTA’s actions provide systemwide measures to fix longstanding issues with the T’s overall safety program and culture that will make it an even safer ride for folks in Boston,” he said.