When Chris White, 22, first began commuting from Dorchester to Back Bay for his personal trainer job, the subway ride took him about half an hour, he said. Then suddenly last month, the train countdown clocks started featuring double-digit instead of single-digit numbers and his commute time doubled. Now, he’s considering ditching the T altogether.
“I didn’t know that it was going to be so inconsistent,” he said while waiting for an Orange Line train.
Rider frustration on the subway is palpable, after the T slashed service on the Blue, Red, and Orange lines last month by more than 20 percent in response to safety edicts from the federal government after a series of terrifying incidents.
And though the T says it’s too soon after the June 20 service cuts to see any trends, weekday ridership on the three affected lines has dipped since the slowdown, according to a Globe review of Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority data.
In the two weeks between June 20 and the week of Independence Day, weekday trips taken on the Red, Orange, and Blue lines were down between 4 and 12 percent from what they were on June 17, before the T cut service. That compares to ridership being down 0 to 7 percent over the same period in 2021 and up 1 percent over the same period in 2019, before the pandemic.
In the two weeks after the July 4th holiday week, average weekday ridership on the affected lines combined remained between 6 and 11 percent below levels before the service cuts. In previous years, by July 14, ridership had completely rebounded after the holiday week.
T riders say they are frustrated by having to pay the same fare for worse service, and splurge on Uber rides or spend more time away from home to be able to make it to appointments, work, and school on time. And advocates warn about the service cuts deepening racial inequities and increasing carbon emissions.
“For a major city to not have reliable public transportation is a huge problem,” said Mikah Farbo, 28, of Jamaica Plain, who was waiting for an Orange Line train at Back Bay Station on a recent weekday. The middle school teacher said, “I’m hoping by the time school starts again, it will be better.”
That seems unlikely.
The MBTA reduced subway service after the Federal Transit Administration found the agency did not have enough heavy rail dispatchers and was overworking its staff with sometimes 20-hour shifts. Scheduled wait times between trains have increased as the T operates fewer trips.
Bus riders face longer wait times too, after the T cut bus service by about 3 percent in December due to a driver shortage. Even with fewer scheduled bus trips, MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo said the T is still having to drop around one out of every 30 trips.
The T initially said the subway cuts would remain in place through the summer. But at a board of directors meeting last week, it appeared it may take far longer for the T to hire the needed dispatchers.
The T currently has 17 heavy rail dispatchers, according to Pesaturo, and is aiming to hire 15 more. Dispatchers must have operator experience and must make it through a 10-week training course. Six new dispatchers are in training or will soon begin training, the T said, but the agency only has the capacity to train six dispatchers at a time, meaning it could take more than six months to fill the jobs.
“That puts us well into 2023,” said director Travis McCready at the board meeting.
Riders worry that if more trains aren’t running by the fall, even more people will be squeezed on the already-packed cars.
“We’re all going to go slowly back to work, schools will be back, it’s going to be a nightmare,” said Xhulia Bratja, 30, while waiting for a Red Line train.
Her East Boston to Kendall Square commute has just about doubled since the T reduced train service, she said. Bratja has been taking a $25 Uber home about once a week so she can make it to post-work activities on time.
“It’s horrible,” she said. “I want to see action — what are they doing to fix it?”
Mina Tm, 40, has had to take Ubers two to three times a week, she said, to make it to her various restaurant jobs across the city on time from her home in Malden.
“When I see the clock, I know it’s going to take too long,” she said while waiting for the Red Line.
Anthony Saunders, 22, takes a bus to the Orange Line to the Red Line to make it from his home in Hyde Park to his job as an audio and video engineer in Cambridge. The bus service cuts in December were most noticeable, he said, and now that the trains are coming less frequently, he’s getting home even later.
“I have less time to go to the gym and make a healthy meal,” Saunders said.
To examine changes in ridership since the service cuts took effect, the Globe calculated the five-day weekday rolling average of fare gate taps on the affected subway lines between June 7 and July 22. To compare the changes in ridership over this period to the same periods in 2021 and 2019, the Globe chose the five-day weekday rolling average on June 17 (the last weekday of full service in 2022) on each of the three years as a baseline and measured the percent difference from that baseline for each day in the time period.
Before the subway cuts, total ridership on the Red, Orange, and Blue lines so far in 2022 was down around 51 percent compared to ridership in the same period in 2019, before the pandemic began.
Pesaturo said the T has shut down parts of the system more this year than in 2019, which could have an impact on ridership. Parts of the Green Line and Blue Line were shut down for several days for repairs. Service was interrupted on the Orange and Green lines after a water-damaged support column inside subway tunnels near Haymarket Station was discovered in late June. The new Juneteenth holiday, recognized on June 20 this year, may have also reduced ridership.
“The T believes a larger data sample is necessary to establish a trend,” said Pesaturo via e-mail.
The T is offering $10,000 bonuses to new dispatchers and considering bringing back retirees to fill the open roles. It’s possible that service could improve before the T permanently fills all 15 open spots, Pesaturo said.
The hiring effort comes amid a nearly unprecedented safety inspection by the FTA, which began looking into the T’s operations in mid-April after a series of safety incidents. The FTA issued four interim findings in mid-June, including the one about dangerous understaffing at the operations control center that led the T to cut service.
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren questioned FTA administrator Nuria Fernandez about the service cuts earlier this month, citing the impact on riders.
“Prioritizing safety and service should not be ‘either-or,’ it should be ‘both-and,’ ” Warren said.
Fernandez said the FTA expects to have its final report completed next month.
White, the personal trainer who says his commute has doubled, said that if things don’t improve with the T, he’ll need to start using his bike to get around Boston.
“I was ready to rely on the MBTA service,” he said. “But now I’m seeing that I’m going to have to take matters into my own hands.”
John Hancock of the Globe staff contributed to this report.