Four days after the MBTA reduced service on the Blue, Orange, and Red lines to comply with a federal safety directive, the agency’s general manager said Thursday that the T has embarked on a “hiring blitz” to address the dispatcher shortages that forced the service cuts.
General Manager Steve Poftak described the agency’s plan to add more dispatchers during a meeting of the T’s Board of Directors, which gathered Thursday for the first time since the Federal Transit Administration unveiled its demands for safety improvements last week.
“We need to correct this as quickly as possible,” said state Transportation Secretary Jamey Tesler, who serves on the board.
The FTA, which is conducting a safety audit of the MBTA, found staffing shortages meant that some dispatchers worked 20-hour shifts without adequate time off before they went back on the clock in the control center for the Blue, Red, and Orange lines. The agency is requiring the T to submit detailed staffing schedules for six weeks and turn in a plan next month for resolving worker shortages.
The T began enacting its plans on Monday, when it scaled back service on the three lines by putting its Saturday schedule into effect on weekdays. The reduced service will keep subway dispatchers from working too many hours at a time, Poftak said.
But passengers and transit advocates have panned the service cuts, and their criticism dominated voicemail messages played during the meeting’s public comment period.
Board members didn’t address the criticism. Poftak said the MBTA is addressing the safety problems identified by the FTA, which completed its onsite inspection Friday. The agency plans to release its findings in August. If the MBTA fails to complete the actions required by the FTA, it could lose 25 percent of its federal funding.
“Safety is a priority here at the MBTA,” Poftak said.
On Wednesday, six candidates for heavy-rail dispatcher positions visited the MBTA’s operations control center, Poftak said, and applications from another 12 are being considered. The T wants to hire at least seven additional dispatchers, an MBTA spokeswoman said after the meeting.
The MBTA is in the process of introducing a $10,000 bonus for new heavy-rail dispatchers, he said. The agency is also looking into rehiring retired dispatchers and enlisting an outside service to provide dispatchers.
Mary Beth Mello, a board member, said making the dispatcher job more appealing is a “very good mitigation approach.”
“It’s critical that you attract enough people to reduce those hours,” she said.
Dispatchers are scheduled to work eight-hour shifts, the MBTA said. But if they are needed to work longer, dispatchers can’t work more than 14 hours in a 16-hour period and must be off-duty for at least 10 hours before their next shift, the MBTA spokeswoman said.
The FTA gave the MBTA three other directives. One requires the agency to address safety concerns for workers who repair tracks, fix a portion of Orange Line track between Back Bay and Tufts Medical Center stations, and improve the system for repairing tracks.
Another order instructs the MBTA to address safety concerns in rail yards. A third requires MBTA staff with safety training certifications to be recertified. As of Monday, all MBTA workers have been recertified, Poftak said.
Separately, Poftak addressed a “battery failure” that occurred Monday on a new Orange Line car in Wellington Yard. The MBTA has pulled all new Orange and Red line cars from service pending an investigation.
“We are in the process of what trying to understand what happened here,” Poftak told the board.
On Wednesday, two rail experts told the Globe the battery failure was likely an explosion. Poftak didn’t address that theory.
At the conclusion of Poftak’s report to the board, Mello asked him to discuss “the success you had in the US Open transportation.” Some spectators were transported to the golf tournament in Brookline by private buses that picked up passengers at MBTA stations.
“It seemed to have gone well,” she said.
Bob Butler, another director, told Poftak that he was thankful that the MBTA held an appreciation event for employees on Wednesday.
“We only get the bad press. We don’t get the good press,” Butler said. “So I appreciate you going out, talking to the employees. Thank you.”