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It’s not just the Orange Line: Poor maintenance is slowing whole T system

Red Line is nearly 5 percent slower than it was in previous three years

Russ McFatter boarded a Red Line train at South Station. ”The Red Line has clearly gotten worse. Everybody knows it,” said McFatter, who has taken this commute regularly for the last four years.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Compared to T riders leaping into the Mystic River from smoking train cars or being dragged to their death by a malfunctioning door, Russ McFatter knows the problems with his commute seem minor.

Every day, his Red Line train slows to a crawl as it pulls out of Park Street station, braking on its way to Cambridge. A software engineer, McFatter has even used an iPhone app to calculate that the speed of the train drops to 8 miles per hour before reaching Charles Street, far below typical speeds of as fast as 40 miles per hour.

”The Red Line has clearly gotten worse. Everybody knows it,” said McFatter, who has taken this commute regularly for the last four years.

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As the MBTA prepares to shut the entire Orange Line for long overdue repairs, McFatter’s commute is more than an inconvenience. It’s a warning that the rest of the subway system may be in similarly poor shape. Data show many of the same symptoms that prompted the unprecedented closure of the Orange Line are true throughout the T system: neglect of basic infrastructure until drastic action is overdue.

And perhaps most maddening, the shortcomings have been known for years in reports that documented where the system needed more aggressive maintenance.

A Globe analysis of MBTA data shows its heavy rail subway lines — Red, Blue, and Orange — are running more slowly this year than just a few years ago. A ride on the Red Line from end to end has slowed by almost 5 percent, or more than three and a half minutes, compared to the average ride since 2019. That’s worse than the soon-to-be-closed Orange Line, which has slowed by 3 minutes and 12 seconds.

Overall, it now takes roughly 4 percent longer, or about 7.2 minutes, to travel the length of the three lines combined. Comparing times on the Green Line is more complicated because of factors such as car traffic on some above-ground sections.

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Many times, those slowdowns indicate bad maintenance. Nearly 10 percent of the tracks on the Red, Blue, and Orange lines had reduced speed limits this spring, according to a recent federal report, often because their condition would make it unsafe to go faster.

Riders have paid the price for that indifference: millions of minutes lost to longer travel time, disruptions from derailments and other unexpected breakdowns, and ponderous shuttle service when the rails increasingly go out of commission. And now, a complete shutdown of one of the T’s busiest lines going into the busiest time of the year.

Safety experts say the signs of today’s problems, starting with the aging tracks, have been visible for years. And T riders are now seeing the consequences of using a temporary fix instead of a permanent solution, said Russell G. Quimby, a rail safety consultant and engineer who worked as an investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board for two decades.

“When your Band-Aid is going bad, that’s a problem,” he said. “It’s reflective of somebody somewhere not doing good management and not doing good oversight.”

In a statement, T spokesman Joe Pesaturo acknowledged “many restrictions have been implemented over the years due to certain track conditions.” But he said the Orange Line shutdown is an unprecedented step to make significant improvements, along with other recent partial shutdowns on the T’s other rail lines.

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“The MBTA is exploring more opportunities to expedite track improvements in the coming months,” he added.

Warnings about the T’s practice of deferring maintenance date back more than a decade.

In 2009, an independent review highlighted dozens of projects that the T needed to address because of dangers “to life or limb of passengers and/or employees.” Yet in an all-too familiar pattern, many of those supposedly urgent fixes were unaddressed.

At the time, the report’s chief author, David D’Alessandro, warned the T was demanding more money from riders for worse performance: “The riding public deserves to have tangible evidence that the MBTA is improving safety and service — not deteriorating further.”

That 2009 report pegged the cost of catching up on the system’s backlog at $3.2 billion. By 2019, that cost had tripled, to more than $10 billion, according to another scathing safety review.

The rising price tag in part reflects the growing number of defects, but also old problems that have never been properly resolved.

For instance, in 2009, T officials said it was critical to repair thick sheets of concrete beneath the Red Line tracks that are supposed to absorb sound and vibrations, helping trains ride safely and smoothly.

But by 2020, nine years after that project began, the T still had not repaired 13 percent of those damaged “floating slabs” between Harvard and Alewife. Since then, the T has actually lost ground: the project is now only 65 percent complete, as more slabs have been added to the repair list, said Pesaturo, the T spokesman.

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Pesaturo acknowledged the system has been neglected for years, but also pointed to increases in T infrastructure spending that he said were “hitting record levels the past three years.” According to MBTA planning reports, at least $3.4 billion has been spent on maintenance and modernization efforts since mid-2018.

Experts and inspectors say the T has tried to cope by putting out the biggest fires first, focusing on defects that are coded red, meaning they pose the most serious dangers, and putting off less serious issues.

But that approach leaves little money for problems that can also pose significant problems down the line, said D’Alessandro, the 2009 review author.

“While you’re fixing the roof, the furnace is breaking,” he said. “It’s like catching a falling knife. They can’t even assess how fast everything is deteriorating around them.”

Speed restrictions that last for months are a good measure of the T’s deepening maintenance crisis, experts said. Though the T rarely acknowledges publicly when these restrictions are put in place, they are often used because it would be potentially unsafe to go faster.

One troublesome stretch on the Orange Line, between Back Bay and Tufts Medical Center stations, has seen regular slow zones going back to last year, according to a tracker built by the Boston transportation advocacy group Transit Matters. Federal investigators said the underlying speed restriction in fact dated back to 2019 due to “excessive wear and defects,” and ordered the T to fix the problem immediately.

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Some of that excessive wear included deteriorating tracks and corroded gauge rods, which are wedged between the tracks to keep them aligned, according to the Federal Transit Administration directive. Speed limits on that section had dropped to at least 10 miles per hour compared to the typical 40 miles per hour.

Further down the Orange Line, another stretch between Stony Brook and Jackson Square has also slowed by nearly one minute on average for months, the Transit Matters tracker shows. In November, the T began seeking a consultant for a modernization project along the line’s southwest corridor.

On the main trunk of the Red Line between Alewife and JFK/UMass, some of the most persistent slowdowns are in stretches with high ridership. On McFatter’s commute, for example, two segments between Downtown Crossing and Charles/MGH have slowed by nearly two minutes since March, according to the analysis by Transit Matters. That stretch is part of a Red Line segment undergoing signal upgrades, according to project updates.

Past MassDOT reports said speed restrictions covered about 3 percent of the T’s heavy-rail track on average in fiscal years 2020 and 2021. But the FTA, when inspecting the system this spring, said the amount of tracks that are currently subject to restrictions is much higher: nearly 10 percent. Pesaturo said the FTA’s estimate reflected brief speed restrictions on the Blue Line placed “out of an abundance of caution” after substantial repairs to the track made that spring.

But Pesaturo declined to provide the system’s most recent monthly and yearly averages, or a list of current speed restrictions, directing the Globe to file a public records request.

Governor Charlie Baker and the T general manager, Steve Poftak, promised the Orange Line shutdown would eliminate several slow zones and improve safety along the tracks.

Those claims will probably face scrutiny, as state lawmakers are holding another oversight hearing this month, and the FTA is due to issue its final report in a few weeks.

State transportation secretary Jamey Tesler has warned riders that overhauls of this magnitude will take time.

“Catching up on decades of underinvestment and deferred maintenance will take time,” Tesler said at a hearing before lawmakers on July 18. “It cannot and will not happen overnight or even in just a few years.”

McFatter, the Red Line commuter, said he is not expecting overnight fixes, but that the system should be more open about specific shortcomings.

“One of the things I wish the T would do is show people, here’s what we’re talking about,” he said. “How long do we have left on these tunnels, these bridges, these rails? Here’s what we need to get fixed.”

The sudden announcement of the Orange Line shutdown, he added, only makes him worry about the rest of the system.

“How bad is it? How many safety problems are there?” McFatter asked. “All the lines were built around the same time. They’re probably getting similar maintenance; they’re probably in similar conditions. It’s like, ‘Okay, the Red Line’s going to be next.’ "



Elizabeth Koh can be reached at elizabeth.koh@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @elizabethrkoh.