The derailment of a construction vehicle on the Blue Line in May didn’t come at a great time for the T. Nor did a similar derailment the next day. Nor another the day after that, as federal transit authorities were conducting a nearly unprecedented review of the MBTA’s safety practices.
The MBTA and its state oversight agency, the Department of Public Utilities, drew up statements to provide the public with details about the incidents, but they never saw the light of day after they were sent to the governor’s office for review. The derailments — relatively unserious mishaps with no passengers involved and no injuries — would not be publicly confirmed until the T’s top official faced questions from reporters in person four days later.
The abandoned draft statements are among the findings from e-mails, phone records, and derailment alerts obtained by the Globe through a public records request. The records offer a rare window into how a notoriously opaque public agency communicates — or doesn’t — when things go wrong, and what information it chooses to release and when.
Spokespeople for Governor Charlie Baker, the T, and the DPU say far from obscuring derailments, they were vetting information about them, making sure they knew exactly what happened before releasing more details publicly.
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority originally planned to shut down the Blue Line between the Airport and Bowdoin stations for harbor tunnel repairs, including track replacement, for two weeks, from April 25 to May 8. Construction vehicles derailed on May 7, May 8, and May 9. The MBTA extended the shutdown twice — first on May 8 and again on May 12 — for an additional nine days, until May 18, further inconveniencing thousands of people without fully explaining what had happened.
The derailments and the MBTA’s decision at the time to keep information about them from the public happened as the T was under intense scrutiny from the Federal Transit Administration, which had launched a safety management inspection of the agency following a long string of serious safety incidents. The MBTA did not tell the public about the FTA’s inspection, which began in mid-April, until the Globe wrote about it on May 9.
The FTA is also probing whether the DPU is effectively overseeing subway safety at the MBTA. The e-mails about the derailments between the DPU and the MBTA give an inside look at the apparently cozy relationship between the two agencies.
MBTA director of communications Joe Pesaturo this week framed the e-mails about the derailments as representing not obfuscation, but “a small period of the time during which the MBTA carefully collected information from the underground work zone.”
“Because it’s important to present the public with accurate information, the MBTA feels strongly about not only gathering all of the facts but also verifying them before making any formal declarations,” he said via e-mail. “After the facts had been confirmed by MBTA personnel and the project’s construction contractor, the General Manager shared the information with reporters.”
Baker’s director of communications Sarah Finlaw said the e-mails are “a snap shot in time of a deliberative process where information is gathered, refined, and confirmed for accuracy.”
Danielle Burney, deputy communications director at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said the DPU, which is part of EEA, “takes seriously its role to oversee rail transit safety.”
She added that as information about the Blue Line “continued to develop,” DPU worked with its partner agencies to make sure “the public was provided with accurate and thorough information.”
The T sends out internal alerts when there’s a derailment, defined as a noncollision event when one or more of a rail vehicle’s wheels go off the tracks, the e-mails show. The alerts for the first two derailments received by MBTA deputy press secretary Lisa Battiston show the T alerted the DPU and re-railed the vehicles within several hours.
Crews reported no damage to the track after the first derailment. “All clear,” the follow-up alert said. A follow-up alert for the second derailment said, “Track conditions in the new rail have been cited as a contributing factor, and the investigation is now complete.”
On May 8, Battiston sent a draft public announcement to MBTA deputy chief of staff Angel Donahue-Rodriguez about the need to extend the Blue Line shutdown. The draft would have informed the public that “a piece of heavy equipment derailed.”
Later that evening, Battiston sent out the final version of the public announcement, which did not mention the two derailments that had already happened.
The next morning, Battiston received questions from several reporters, including Bruce Mohl, editor of CommonWealth Magazine, about the reason for the extended Blue Line shutdown. Another derailment happened that afternoon, alerts show.
Over the course of the next few days, Mohl repeatedly asked if there had been any derailments. Battiston sought feedback from MBTA officials about how to respond before giving Mohl some information that didn’t include the derailments. General manager Steve Poftak discouraged her from providing more information, e-mails show.
On May 11, Battiston sent a draft public announcement to Poftak about needing to extend the Blue Line shutdown for a second time, which mentioned the timing of one derailment, the third, and details about the process to re-rail the construction vehicle.
Poftak responded, “Can you rewrite with less detail? Cannot go out until I notify Secy and Buckley,” presumably referring to Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation Jamey Tesler and Baker chief of staff Tim Buckley.
On the morning of May 12, Battiston sent out the public announcement. It mentioned one derailment and omitted exactly when it happened, saying only, “earlier this week.” The MBTA had still not disclosed the other two derailments.
The Globe then sent questions to Battiston about how many derailments had occurred and when, and why the May 8 statement had not mentioned any derailments.
The Globe also sent questions to Burney, at DPU, about how many derailments had occurred.
Burney immediately forwarded the Globe’s questions to Battiston.
Battiston asked Burney to share the DPU’s draft response with her, which Burney did. It read: “The MBTA reported three derailments on May 7th, May 8th, and May 9th, near the Airport station.”
Battiston asked Burney to hold off on responding to the Globe’s questions: “We’d like to run this by our folks, too, if that’s all right,” she wrote. Battiston forwarded the DPU draft response to Anisha Chakrabarti, the governor’s deputy communications director, Finlaw, the communications director, and MassDOT assistant secretary of marketing and communications Jacquelyn Goddard.
Over the course of the next several hours, Battiston sought input from MBTA officials and the governor’s spokespeople about how to respond to the Globe, given the DPU planned to reveal that there had been three derailments, not just the one the MBTA had acknowledged in its statement earlier that day.
In some draft statements, Battiston misstated the number of derailments, only citing two. In one, she planned to call the derailments “minor” and say they are not uncommon during construction.
MBTA chief engineering officer Erik Stoothoff cautioned against using the term.
“DPU and FTA have commented in the past that derailments are derailments big or small, and are serious to the point that we investigate every derailment,” Stoothoff wrote.
Other T officials agreed with that sentiment, the e-mails show. Battiston revised the draft and sent it to spokespeople in the governor’s office: “As background, there were two incidents (on May 7 and May 8) in which a construction tool cart’s front wheels left the rails while traversing a work area — these incidents are also categorized as derailments, and do sometimes occur. These incidents were resolved, there were no injuries, and they were not the cause of the extension of the Blue Line suspension announced on May 8. Today, we announced that a construction tool cart also derailed near Airport station earlier this week — this took place on May 9. There were no injuries.”
At 3:53 p.m. on May 12, Battiston sent this draft response to Poftak for his review.
At 4:04 p.m., Chakrabarti at the governor’s office called Battiston, phone records show.
At 4:12 p.m., Battiston informed Poftak that the governor’s team instructed her to send reporters little information: “Gov’s comms has advised us to respond to these inquiries with this response: There have been delays in construction on the Blue Line project, as the MBTA has previously announced. The MBTA will continue to keep customers updated on impacts to service.” Battiston sent this response to the Globe at 4:29 p.m.
At 4:54 p.m., Poftak asked Battiston, “Can you push back on them?” Poftak asked if the MBTA could at least confirm that the agency had not fired its contractor on the project, something reporters had asked about.
At 5:12 p.m., Chakrabarti at the governor’s office called Battiston again.
At 5:16 p.m., Battiston told Poftak no: “Hi, GM — my apologies — I’m told the below two lines should be the only response.”
Battiston never sent the draft statement with information about the three derailments to reporters. Burney at the DPU never sent the draft statement with information about the three derailments either. The Globe published a story about the one derailment mentioned in the MBTA’s public statement.
Later that evening, the Globe filed a records request for Battiston’s e-mails, derailment alerts, and call logs for Battiston and Donahue-Rodriguez.
Seconds later, Battistion and Donahue-Rodriguez had an 11 minute phone call, phone records show.
Four days later, at a press event on May 16, Poftak was asked about the Blue Line derailments.
The head of the MBTA offered a clear statement.
“Just to clarify,” he said, “there have been three derailments.”