It started out as a joke about staging a protest during her daily Red Line commute, but then Nicole Merullo came to her senses: There’s nothing funny about putting up with a dysfunctional MBTA.
So last week, the 25-year-old clinical research coordinator began wearing a handmade cardboard sign slung around her neck with red yarn that reads: “We deserve a better T.”
Many of us feel that way, and even more so this summer with the MBTA operating on a reduced schedule for the foreseeable future on the Red, Blue, and Orange lines because of a dispatcher shortage. The recent change has resulted in longer wait times, crowded trains, and legions of people running late.
Stepping into a standing-room-only train at Harvard Square on a recent morning, Merullo received curious looks from fellow riders glancing up from their phones. She vows to bring the sign on her daily 45-minute commute until regular service is restored.
Merullo, who works at Tufts Medical Center, is frustrated by what feels like a daily deluge of bad news about our transit system, from derailments to mechanical problems to vandalism. The morning I was on the Red Line with her there were multiple text alerts about delays, including the dreaded “20+ min” wait time message on the platform display.
More worrisome has been the safety concerns raised by the federal authorities investigating T operations following a series of accidents, including a rider who was dragged to death in April after getting trapped in the door of a Red Line car.
“I’ve always felt comfortable on it, and I still do, but these safety issues, they make me nervous and upset,” said Merullo.
She’s hoping to inspire other irked riders to make signs, so a one-woman demonstration can become a movement that gets Beacon Hill to finally fix the T.
Transit user Justin Brown likes Merullo’s strategy and thinks her message is spot on. The 24-year-old data analyst takes the T two or three times a week to get to his job in Boston. With the reduced service, his commute can take twice as long, or close to an hour just going from Davis Square to Downtown Crossing. With the amount of taxes everyone pays, Brown believes service should be faster.
“We do deserve a better T,” he said.
Another Red Line rider, Shubham Tapadiya, wants change, too. The 24-year-old software engineer catches the Red Line from Central Square to South Station, and then switches to the Silver Line bus to his job in the Seaport District. During the morning rush hour, the Silver Line is so full he often has to wait for two buses to swing by before he can get on.
These days, a commute that normally takes an hour can stretch into an hour and 20 minutes. Tapadiya said his sign would read: “We need more frequency.”
But some MBTA riders are resigned to the woeful status quo. Among them is Lorna Davies, one of Merullo’s coworkers. Davies has taken the commuter rail and subway for more than three decades. She said she has filled out countless surveys from the MBTA and given feedback on how to improve service.
“I have been very blunt and brutally frank,” said Davies, an administrative coordinator at Tufts Medical Center. “Nothing has been done.”
Davies, who lives in Salem, said she can tolerate the delays during summer and fall, but when winter sets in, she knows the commute will be tough. At 71, she wants to keep working because she likes to stay busy, but now she’s rethinking that plan.
“When it’s not a mechanical issue, it’s a signal issue. Some bridge needs to be repaired. There is always a reason,” Davies said of delays. “I am actually thinking of retiring because of the MBTA.”
Merullo, who grew up in Belmont and Watertown, has been a T rider since she was about 13 years old. She has fond memories.
“It was my first foray into independence,” she explained. “The first thing I can do without my parents.”
When she went away to college in Washington, D.C., she missed her hometown transit system. She remembers the Metro as plodding, with 15-minute waits for trains in the middle of the day.
“I remember being like, ‘The T, it’s so much better than this,’ ” she said. “The Metro is so horrible.”
At the moment, Merullo has no plans to ditch the T. She considers her cardboard sign as much an act of protest as it is a desire to see the system succeed.
“I’ve always loved it,” she said.
As public transit users, we don’t ask for much. With every swipe of a CharlieCard, we shouldn’t have to worry and wonder if our train will show up, and whether we can get to where we need to go on time.
We deserve better.
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Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.