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T says it’s making progress on safety, fixing failures found by feds

T General Manager Steve Poftak, seen here in this file photo, said he's pleased the agency has made many of the updates required by federal safety inspectors.Blake Nissen for the Boston Globe

The MBTA said Thursday the agency is making headway on improving subway safety and meeting the urgent directives of the federal government.

In an update to members of the T’s oversight board, staff at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority said the agency has so far met deadlines put in place by the Federal Transit Administration as it continues to work toward complying with immediate safety changes ordered by the FTA.

“I am pleased that the MBTA has completed many of those updates and continues to make progress on many more,” General Manager Steve Poftak, the T’s general manager, said in a statement. “These recommendations will make the T safer and more reliable for both our riders and our employees.”

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Last month, the FTA ordered the MBTA to address four safety issues immediately: understaffing at the operations control center causing subway dispatchers to sometimes work 20-hour shifts, runaway train incidents at railyards, workers with expired safety certifications, and track sections that are in disrepair.

The federal agency started the nearly unprecedented safety inspection of the MBTA in April following a series of safety incidents, including the dragging death of a Red Line passenger, and has said it will release its final report about the T in August.

In response to the interim findings, the MBTA cut service on the Red, Orange, and Blue lines on June 20 after determining it did not have enough dispatchers to safely operate those lines within the FTA’s parameters. Riders have faced increased wait times between trains, lengthening travel times.

The T said the service cuts will last through the summer as it works to hire more dispatchers, which must come from within the agency’s ranks. So far the T has started five new dispatchers in its 10-week training program, said Aisheea Isidor, assistant general manager for Operations Control Center and Operations Training, and another will start on July 25. Dispatchers are no longer allowed to work 20-hour shifts, and must stick to a maximum 14
hours of work in a 16-hour period, Isidor said.

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At the same time, safety vacancies at the MBTA have increased since May, said Tom Waye, chief human resources officer. As of June 30, there were 599 vacancies for safety positions, including bus drivers, rail maintenance staff, and signal workers, up from 586 vacancies at the end of May. The T is aiming to hire 15 new dispatchers, Waye said.

The T has added $10,000 bonuses for new heavy rail dispatchers, opened up those jobs to people with light rail experience, and is looking at inviting retired dispatchers back to work. The agency has also brought back three employees who had been promoted to new roles to return to their former jobs as dispatchers, said Isidor.

“We’re trying to be innovative and creative around what we need to do to further our outreach,” said Waye.

New Red Line trains arrived at the T's Cabot Yard in Boston in 2019.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Board members urged the MBTA to consider changes to recruitment, including job requirements, and increased apprenticeship programs.

“We got to think outside the box because some of the things we’re doing aren’t working,” said director Bob Butler, a labor union leader.

Brian Kane, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, a group made up of representatives of municipalities served by the transit system, said getting enough dispatchers to bring back service by the end of summer will be difficult at the pace the T is going.

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“They need to do this much faster and much more efficiently,” he said. “These are problems the T has known about for a long time.”

To address runaway train incidents that have injured workers in yards, chief mechanical officer Steve Hicks said the T is developing a “blue flag” program at Cabot Yard in South Boston that was mentioned by the FTA. It involves having “devices for protection” on either end of any vehicle that someone is working on, he said.

All workers that had lapsed certifications have been recertified, said Isidor, and a new system tracking certification status, formerly sent out weekly as an Excel spreadsheet, has been made visible to all departments.

The MBTA has already made progress on repairing a stretch of defective Orange Line tracks that has caused a years-long slow zone between the Tufts Medical Center and Back Bay stations.

Chief engineering officer Erik Stoothoff said on Sunday, July 10, the MBTA was able to replace parts of the track between North Station and Ruggles Station during a diversion, which lifted the speed restriction from 10 miles per hour to 25 miles per hour. Once the entire length of the affected area is upgraded in October, Stoothoff said trains will be able to reach 40 miles per hour.

The FTA found that MBTA track maintenance crews use a 2- or 2½-hour window to complete fixes overnight, not nearly enough time. Stoothoff said the MBTA is looking into having maintenance staff perform track upgrades during already planned construction shut downs and expanding overnight maintenance windows.

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The MBTA estimates that it will need to spend around $300 million to meet the FTA’s directives, chief administrative officer David Panagore told board members Thursday. So far, the agency has only budgeted $100 million, Panagore said, and is working on identifying funding sources.

While riders are enduring reduced service and longer waits for trains, Stacy Thompson, executive director of LivableStreets Alliance, a public transportation advocacy group, said the T should be offering discounted fares and fare-free days, as well as increased commuter rail and ferry service.

“We are paying the same amount of money for significantly less service; that is unfair,” she said.

Rick Dimino, president of business group A Better City, sent a letter to Governor Charlie Baker last month urging the MBTA to take steps to immediately restore subway service, including borrowing dispatchers from peer transit agencies, hiring consultant experts as dispatchers, reassigning employees with related expertise from Massport, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, or the National Guard.

“We need urgency,” Dimino said. “Longer wait times for two and a half months is just unacceptable. It’s a major equity issue.”

Also at Thursday’s safety subcommittee meeting of the MBTA board of directors, Stoothoff provided an update on the Back Bay escalator malfunction last September that injured nine people, not the first time an MBTA escalator has injured people, the Globe found. Stoothoff said a brake failure caused the ascending escalator to accelerate downward.

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“For some reason that brake unit inside that housing did not apply properly,” he said. Stoothoff said prior to the incident, inspectors checked and torqued the brake.

“For some reason there was other deterioration of that brake unit that led to it not holding,” he said.

The escalator remains out of service.

Video shows MBTA escalator careening backward at high speed
In September, an ascending escalator at Back Bay Station careened backward at high speed, sending a pile of riders tumbling to the bottom. (Footage courtesy of MBTA)



Taylor Dolven can be reached at taylor.dolven@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @taydolven.