The federal government dropped a bombshell on the MBTA Wednesday, releasing devastating findings that document pervasive safety lapses at the agency. Derailments. Runaway trains. Fatigued staffers working 20-hour days with four hours to sleep between shifts. Inspectors, supervisors, and subway drivers without the proper certification to do their jobs. “Excessive wear and defects” in the tracks that carry thousands of subway commuters every day and cause trains to slow for lengthy portions of the network.
Although commuters certainly knew all too well about accidents and delays in the system, the expert review of the T revealed safety flaws that weren’t visible to the average rider. A maintenance train for the Green Line that’s been inoperable for eight months. A backlog of 4,195 open and 12,423 pending defects related to tracks, signals and communication, power, and facilities.
Yes, to some extent these problems reflect deeply entrenched dysfunction at the agency that has persisted for decades. But nearly eight years into his term of office, Governor Charlie Baker owns the dismal safety record at the T. In his time remaining in office, he should make it a priority to clean up the mess.
In fact, he won’t have much choice. The Federal Transit Administration, which conducted the review, took the rare step of issuing direct orders to the agency to fix the system and to the state Department of Public Utilities, which regulates safety at the T, to step up its oversight. The Globe’s Taylor Dolven reports that the FTA has only intervened so directly with a local transit agency once before, when it took over safety oversight for the subway system in Washington, D.C., in 2015.
Under the federal edict, T officials must increase staffing at its operations center and ensure employees are getting enough rest; make sure workers are property certified; fix worn track sections like the stretch of the Orange Line between Tufts and Back Bay; and improve overall safety procedures. Some of the federal directives come with tight deadlines. For instance, the T has only 48 hours to start submitting staffing plans and validating rest periods.
“The MBTA is developing immediate and long-term mitigation measures to address these matters,” T spokesman Joe Pesaturo said in a statement. “The MBTA will share its plans with the FTA in the coming days and weeks.” Meanwhile, the T expects all its active rail transit employees will be certified this week.
For the state, the damning findings could hardly come at a worse time, when workers are settling into new commuting habits as the coronavirus pandemic eases. The FTA said the public “should not interpret the special directives issued today as a reason to avoid the MBTA subway or light rail.” But when an investigation finds that the T’s “aging assets may be deteriorating without a clear plan in place for corrective maintenance or renewal,” that’s bound to affect the worker deciding whether to commute by car or train, or the downtown businesses deciding whether to continue remote work.
The explosion of teleworking during the pandemic means that workers and businesses are more footloose than ever. Greater Boston needs the T to help attract and keep businesses. Meanwhile, the state needs to convince workers to choose public transportation to cut greenhouse gas emissions and reduce traffic congestion.
But if riders don’t have faith in the basic safety of the subway system, its environmental and economic benefits won’t amount to much. Baker spent the first months of his governorship getting the T up and running again after disastrous winter storms in 2015; the latest warnings from the federal government should prompt him to spend his last months in office tackling dysfunction at the T too.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.