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Working on the railroad shouldn’t mean working all the livelong day

A federal audit revealed T train dispatchers working 20-hour shifts. The short-staffed agency must do a better job training its future workforce.

Commuters waited at the Downtown Crossing MBTA station for the Orange Line on Monday, June 20. TheT switched to a Saturday schedule that morning due to staffing shortages.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

Without enough people to build, operate, and maintain a world-class infrastructure system, grand plans for improving Greater Boston won’t be much more than dreams on paper. And the last week has provided a distressing reminder that when it comes to the region’s most basic infrastructure asset — people — the MBTA lags behind other cities that have invested not just in roads, trains, bridges, tunnels, and other physical assets, but also the workforce that keeps them moving.

Because of a dire shortage of train dispatchers, on Monday the MBTA began scaling back the number of trains on the Red, Blue, and Orange lines on weekdays — a change that’s set to last the whole summer. Unlike some previous service interruptions caused by problems with train hardware or weather, the current cutback stems entirely from the T’s failure to hire enough people to run its system. The personnel shortage was exposed by federal regulators’ recent review of the transit agency, which found significant and alarming safety risks. In some cases, workers in the operations control center were clocking in 20-hour shifts with only four hours off before starting their next one.


Elsewhere in this section, Globe Ideas has made the case that Greater Boston needs to start thinking big again — to shake off its post-Big Dig aversion to large public projects and get to work on making the city more connected, efficient, and climate resilient. Those massive transit, energy, and infrastructure projects will also create massive demands for skilled labor that the region must do a better job meeting.

In its announcement of the service cuts, the MBTA cited a shortage in subway dispatchers, the workers who direct train operations. But while staffing shortages are indeed plaguing transit agencies across the country, that is not a valid excuse for the MBTA. Most staffing shortages have been among bus drivers, and when it comes to safety regulations, the T has been warned since well before the pandemic that it does not have a sufficient number of workers assigned to inspect and maintain the system to ensure that it’s safe.


A report in 2019, for example, cited a lack of staffing as one of the reasons that the MBTA has dropped some otherwise routine inspections and maintenance. Even back in 2009, one report, which mentioned the need for robust staffing to accommodate the antiquated system, stated: “There is abundant evidence that the service and safety issues that plague the MBTA are considerably worse than is commonly understood — and are becoming critically worse.” Still, none of those warnings stopped the agency from having runaway trains, derailments, and fatal door malfunctions.

Now that the T finds itself stuck in these service-hampering challenges, it needs to find a quick way out and start building a long-term solution to avoid these kinds of foreseeable staffing problems in the future. When it comes to short-term fixes, it appears that the MBTA is on the right track. In its press release, it mentioned embarking on a more aggressive recruitment campaign and offering generous bonuses to lure workers. But it needs to build a sustainable pipeline to ensure that there is a steady flow of skilled workers making their way to the T as it grows to meet the needs of the 21st century. (The MBTA did not respond to a request for comment.)


One way to do this is partnering with schools in the region — high schools, trade schools, and universities — to create apprenticeship programs and recruit people early in their careers. The MBTA has dabbled in this in the past, working with Boston Public Schools to get elementary school kids interested in STEM at an early age. But a much more ambitious program is needed.

One model is Washington, D.C., where the city established an “Infrastructure Academy” — equipped with classrooms, computer labs, and mechanical training areas — aimed at providing unemployed or underemployed adults with the necessary training to attain well-paying infrastructure jobs, from building environmentally friendly technologies to maintaining the transportation sector. The initiative, which started in 2018, was a response to a labor shortage in the city’s infrastructure sectors. Los Angeles, another example, created a transportation-focused boarding school, which is set to start enrolling high school students this fall and aims to give them the engineering, math, and technical skills that would ready them for transit jobs by the time they graduate.

This kind of ambitious employment pipeline is something that Boston desperately needs, and it would be money well spent. Government-funded jobs often provide people with a comfortable middle-class life, and creating that path for people at a young age is crucial. Nor is it just the MBTA that needs help: The clean energy jobs of the future will require a trained workforce that barely exists now. Investing now in workers isn’t just a down payment on the kind of transformative projects that the region needs more of — it’s a prerequisite to making them happen.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.