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New subway wait times highlight longtime T trouble: staffing

An Orange Line commuter at State Street. The reduction in service on the Orange, Red, and Blue lines came with just three days notice.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

MBTA riders endured longer commutes on Monday as the T throttled back subway service, the latest fallout from the agency’s persistent failure to maintain staffing levels federal transit officials say are needed to keep the system safe.

The extended times between trains on the Red, Orange, and Blue lines were put into place after federal regulators found some dispatchers in the operations control center working 20-hour shifts with just four hours off, and demanded the T staff up.

But the reduction in service, which came with just three days notice, was a symptom of a more systemic malady: Even as the T has added new positions to its books, hundreds of safety-related jobs across the system, including in the operations control center, remain unfilled. As of May 31, the MBTA had budgeted for, but not yet filled, 586 open safety jobs, nearly triple the number of vacancies from just two years prior.

MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said the agency is offering $10,000 bonuses to hire badly needed dispatchers, and has increased its recruiting capacity. But the path is steep to fill key positions.

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”Morale is at an all-time low,” said Brian Kane, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, a group of representatives of municipalities served by the transit system. “Everyone is afraid of being blamed for the next incident because the equipment is so old and hasn’t been maintained adequately for the last 35 years.”

The staffing shortages put into stark relief by the federal probe and the subsequent service cuts were identified more than 2½ years ago. An outside panel of experts brought in by the T’s former oversight board determined that “safety is not the priority,” partly because the MBTA was taking far too long to staff up and falling so short in investigating and preventing failures.

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At the time, the panel said the T’s intense focus on capital projects had come at the expense of daily operations. That problem, it found, was compounded by a “grossly understaffed” safety department, and the agency’s already “lengthy hiring process of more than 100 days.”

“The MBTA is experiencing repetitive operational incidents,” the panel wrote in its 2019 report, describing a reality that remains true today. “Therefore, it is apparent that current mitigating strategies are not effective/appropriate and are not performing as intended.”

T officials have said they’ve implemented most of the 61 individual recommendations the panel made, including hiring seven “subject matter experts” within a safety department that, in 2019, had just one on its accident investigations team.

But the 2019 report didn’t specify how many the agency should be employing, and it’s not clear to what degree the vacant positions throughout the agency have undercut any changes the T made in response to those findings.

Since that report, failures have continued, culminating in a nearly unprecedented intervention by the Federal Transit Administration earlier this year after a man was dragged to death by a Red Line car when his arm got stuck in the train door. Before the FTA could complete its safety inspection of the T, which started in mid-April, the federal agency said last week the T must fix four glaring problems immediately, including an understaffed operations control center.

The outside panel hired by the state in 2019 warned the T about the safety impacts of its staffing challenges, which predate the COVID-19 pandemic.

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“All eyes are on the T right now and there are very clear steps that need to be taken in the short term,” said state Senator Brendan P. Crighton, the Senate chairman of the transportation committee, who called the service cuts on the three subway lines “unacceptable.”

“We’re going to work with them throughout the process,” the Lynn Democrat said, “and hold them accountable.”

The MBTA has repeatedly pointed to new budgeted safety positions as evidence of its progress toward improving safety throughout its transit system. Since July 2020, the T has added 276 roles in areas such as heavy rail maintenance, signals and communications, and operations control center and training. But at the same time, vacancies have grown from 200 to 586, according to an MBTA presentation earlier this month.

Despite adding 20 new rail maintenance positions since July 2020, the MBTA hadn’t hired a single new person for rail maintenance in two years as of the end of May. The operations control center has only hired one since 2020 — despite budgeting for seven new positions.

For the fiscal year that runs through the end of this month, the MBTA had 5,385 budgeted safety positions. As of May 31, more than 10 percent were vacant.

“Since last summer, the MBTA has doubled its recruiting capacity [and] is working continuously to improve and reduce the length of its hiring process,” Pesaturo said via e-mail.

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Aides to Governor Charlie Baker, who both names the T’s board and whose administration is directly tasked with overseeing the system’s safety, said he was not available Monday, and pointed to comments he made over the weekend at an unrelated event.

”One of the things they said was, ‘You need to find or train up some people who have particular skills around dispatch. Because you need more dispatchers.’ And I think that’s going to be a big focus of the T from this point forward,” Baker said.

The MBTA, and its myriad of failures, could come to define Baker’s own legacy. His stake in the agency is so large, he included the T in his recently released book about navigating management problems, framing it as evidence of how to attack a problem.

Still, questions about proper oversight at the T extend beyond the Republican governor, covering everyone from the new iteration of the agency’s own board to the Legislature, which has largely deferred to other entities to dig into the MBTA’s problems in recent years.

“We need to see the Legislature take charge here, especially with an outgoing governor who, after eight years, has as many questions as answers about how to fix the MBTA,” said Chris Dempsey, a transportation advocate and Brookline Democrat now running for state auditor. “After riding the MBTA for my entire life, this is the first time where I’m fundamentally questioning the safety of the system and feeling concerned when getting on the train.”

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His primary opponent, state Senator Diana DiZoglio, said she’s twice pushed Senate leadership to hold an oversight hearing — first in October, then again in a letter last week. “The underlying issue here is a lack of accountability,” the Methuen Democrat said. “It is clear that transportation leadership over many years has failed the people of Massachusetts.”

For riders Monday, the concerns were more tangible.

Daniel Williams, 40, didn’t know about the service reductions as he waited for an inbound Red Line train at the Davis Square station just past 8:45 a.m.

“It would’ve been nice,” he said, “to have some signs.”

Globe correspondent Alexander Thompson contributed to this report.


Taylor Dolven can be reached at taylor.dolven@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @taydolven. Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.