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Decision to shut down entire Orange Line for a month of track work is a high-stakes gamble for the MBTA

Commuters rode the Orange Line on Wednesday after the MBTA said it would close the line for 30 days for improvements.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

MEDFORD — For the embattled MBTA, the decision to shut down the entire Orange Line for one month to replace and repair tracks is a high-stakes gamble that could finally lead to faster, more reliable subway service — or be the biggest transit calamity yet in a year full of them.

For perhaps hundreds of thousands of Orange Line riders, though, the announcement Wednesday by top officials could translate into a very bad day — or 30 of them. From the evening of Aug. 19 until the morning of Sept. 19, the MBTA will shut down Orange Line service to finish badly needed fixes on its train tracks.

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The shutdown will come just as students are starting classes, and many workers are considering a post-summer return to downtown offices.

“This is an unprecedented service diversion for the MBTA,” said T general manager Steve Poftak. “We have never shut down an entire line in this way in order to make sweeping improvements. But we’re doing this because it’s the fastest, most efficient way to deliver benefits to our customers.”

If not for the full line shutdown, Governor Charlie Baker said, it would take the T around five years during weekends and evenings to finish the work.

Governor Charlie Baker spoke to employees of the MBTA after providing an update regarding the closure of the Orange Line. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Employers and schools are scrambling to figure out how to make the shutdown something bearable for people.

Poftak said the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is just starting its outreach to schools along the Orange Line, which include Northeastern University, Roxbury Community College, Suffolk University, and Bunker Hill Community College.

Roxbury Community College interim president Jackie Jenkins-Scott said she would have liked more notice about the announcement and hopes the T can increase bus service. The first day of classes is Aug. 31.

“More time to plan would have been better, but I am assuming that the T and the governor did not make this decision lightly, that they made it out of concern for public safety,” she said. “Our students and our community are a resilient community. We know how to bounce back from adversity.”

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Riders reacted with a range of emotions.

Blanca Estela Martinez, 64, uses the Orange Line every day to get to her job at a dry cleaner. She said she was resigned to the shutdown.

“There’s no point in asking questions,” she said in Spanish while waiting for a train Wednesday. “If they are going to close it, they are going to close it. It’s no problem for them. But for the rest of us, it’s a huge problem.”

On Wednesday, the MBTA’s board of directors approved a $37 million contract with A Yankee Line for up to 200 shuttle buses, though the T is still working on figuring out which routes they will take. Poftak said the T will allow people to board the commuter rail at Zone 1, 1A, and 2 stations by showing their CharlieCard or MBTA pass.

But many details of the transportation alternatives are still undetermined.

“We’ll fill in the blanks between now and the time we get to the 19th,” said Baker, who emphasized that commuters have a two-week window to prepare.

Boston is working on devoting curb space and lanes to shuttle buses and making its Bluebike system more accessible, according to chief of streets Jascha Franklin-Hodge.

“This is an extraordinary situation that came about quickly,” he tweeted. “Many basic details, like shuttle routes, are still in flux.”

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Poftak said the T does not plan to improve service on its other subway lines or bus lines, which have been cut back significantly due to worker shortages, during the shutdown.

The shutdown decision comes as the MBTA is awaiting the results of a months-long safety inspection by the Federal Transit Administration expected later this month. The FTA already found that the T is desperately behind on maintaining its tracks, especially on the Orange Line where trains have been forced for years to travel at reduced speeds due to track defects.

The shutdown payoff for riders could be big if things go according to plan.

The T said it will replace 3,500 feet of 38-year-old track, repair track, ties, and concrete along the route, and upgrade signals at Oak Grove and Malden stations.

The Orange Line is also facing safety issues with its cars, which were put into service between 1979 and 1981. One caught fire July 21 when a side panel fell off and touched the electrified third rail, causing 200 passengers to flee while the train was on a bridge over the Mystic River.

As of last month, the T had received 78 of 152 new Orange Line cars on order, MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo said on July 22.

Poftak said that on Sept. 19, Orange Line riders will return to deep-cleaned stations and board mostly new trains that will travel much faster than before.

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The Orange Line runs from Malden to Jamaica Plain, traversing downtown Boston and transporting hundreds of thousands of people each week.

Before the pandemic, there were 218,000 average weekday trips on the Orange Line in October 2019, according to MBTA data. The average number of weekday trips as of October 2021 was 104,000. By comparison, average weekday trips on the Blue Line in October 2021 were 41,000, the Green Line, 94,000, and the Red Line, 125,000.

Orange Line riders were already enduring a 26 percent reduction in service since the T cut back on the number of train trips on three subway lines in June in response to an FTA finding that the agency did not have enough dispatchers to operate service safely.

At Downtown Crossing on Wednesday, Orange Line riders, some who do not have the option to work from home, worried they would lose income during the shutdown.

Emily O’Brien, 26, uses the Orange Line to get to her side jobs as a cat sitter and house sitter.

“I won’t be able to take as many clients, which is a huge part of my income and how I make rent,” she said. “I just know it’s going to take so much longer for me to get places.”

Other riders said they were fed up with conditions on the line and expressed optimism that repairs could improve cleanliness and reliability.

”The Orange Line is the worst one,” said Raymond Bambot, 30. “The sanitary conditions are very bad. It’s horrible.”

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He said he hopes the repairs will bring new cars and better air conditioning.

Rick Dimino, president of business group A Better City, said the shutdown could not come at a worse time.

“This is a time to encourage transit use, not shut down a vital rapid transit line,” he said in a statement. “While the work is necessary, due to the lack of planning and mitigation measures, its impact can be unnecessarily brutal for both riders and our region.”

Since a Green Line collision in July 2021, the T has been beset by safety troubles. An escalator malfunctioned at Back Bay Station causing a bloody pileup and injuring nine people, a commuter rail train killed a woman in her car after a crossing signal in Wilmington malfunctioned, another two Green Line trains crashed and derailed injuring four people, and a man was dragged to his death by a Red Line train at Broadway Station.

The death of the passenger spurred the intervention by the FTA, which began a safety inspection of the T’s subway system in mid-April.

Baker said he inherited an old, underfunded MBTA and has made progress on improving it.

“The system needs work,” he said. “None of us should be satisfied until it works exactly the way it’s supposed to. I’m not satisfied.”

Travis Andersen, John R. Ellement, and Emily Sweeney of the Globe staff and correspondent Kate Selig contributed to this report.


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