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After blistering report from federal inspectors, MBTA has its work cut out for it

The Red Line.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The MBTA has its work cut out for it.

Federal transportation officials on Wednesday issued a scathing report about the agency, finding it has too few workers, too little training and maintenance, and weak safeguards, but also offered marching orders for the long-troubled transit system to get back on track and prioritize safety.

The Federal Transit Administration analysis, which found focus on long-term projects came at the expense of day-to-day operations and safety, added up to a condemnation of the T’s management in recent years and the state’s feckless oversight.

The FTA ordered the T to staff up, improve communication with front-line workers, and bolster safety checks, among dozens of required actions.


“It’s our hope that today is a turning point for the safety culture,” Paul Kincaid, an FTA associate administrator, said. “And they’ll begin making the correct decisions that provide a safe, reliable ride for their riders throughout Boston.”

The nearly unprecedented federal review of the T’s subway system came after a bloody procession of safety incidents, including the April death of a Red Line passenger who police said ran alongside a moving train at Broadway Station with his right arm trapped between closed subway doors before he lost his balance, and was dragged in between the train and station wall.

The T safety troubles have gone largely unchecked, the FTA found, in part because the state agency charged with T safety oversight, the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, is not providing proper oversight.

The result is a transit system that lurches from crisis to crisis, federal inspectors indicated.

“The combination of overworked staff and aging assets has resulted in the organization being overwhelmed, chronic fatigue for key positions in the agency, lack of resources for training and supervision, and leadership priorities that emphasize meeting capital project demands above passenger operations, preventive maintenance, and even safety,” the report said.


In response to the findings, Governor Charlie Baker will ask the Legislature for $200 million for the T to address the FTA’s findings, he said in a statement, and $10 million for a training academy to help with hiring. And the MBTA plans to open a new office called the Quality, Compliance, and Oversight Office, with Katie Choe, the current chief of capital delivery, at the helm.

Baker said he appreciated the “thorough review” of the T.

“This report will make the system safer and more reliable for riders and the T workforce,” he said in the statement. “We look forward to working with labor, MBTA leaders, lawmakers and riders to deliver the MBTA riders deserve. The DPU has also taken a number of steps to address the FTA’s findings, and our administration will ensure they have all the resources necessary to strengthen their oversight of the MBTA.”

But, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey pointed the finger at Baker and his team, who have been in office since 2015, saying in a joint statement, “It is unacceptable that the MBTA has forced riders to carry the burden of the Baker Administration’s failures.”

Others, including transit advocates, called for an immediate course correction at the T. Somerville Mayor Katjana Ballantyne urged the next governor to prioritize investing in the T. (Baker is not running for reelection this November.)

The MBTA has long been warned about the consequences of slowing investment in its operations. The FTA’s conclusions Wednesday are similar to findings from a group of outside experts in 2019 who conducted a safety audit of the MBTA after several derailments, and seem to show what little progress the T has made since then.


Since January 2019, the MBTA experienced a higher overall rate of reportable safety events and a higher rate of derailments than its peers, the FTA report said.

In mid-June, the FTA ordered the T to immediately address four issues: lapsed safety certifications among staff, deteriorated stretches of subway tracks, dangerous understaffing at its operations control center, and repeated runaway train incidents.

In response, the MBTA cut back service on the Red, Orange, and Blue Lines on June 20 by more than 20 percent, and subsequently shut down the Orange Line for 30 days for track upgrades.

While the FTA was conducting its inspection and finalizing its report, a process that stretched from April to August, T riders and workers continued to endure safety troubles. Those included derailments, runaway trains, collisions, and a July fire on an Orange Line train on a bridge over a river.

Its 90-page report included 20 findings about the MBTA and dozens of required actions in four categories: managing the impact of operations, maintenance, and capital project requirements on the existing workforce; prioritization of safety management information; effectiveness of safety communication; and operating conditions and policies, procedures, and training.

The FTA similarly took the DPU to task.


“DPU has not used its authority to ensure the identification and resolution of safety issues at MBTA,” the report said.

The FTA instructed the DPU to complete a legal assessment of its independence from the MBTA, given the “shared agency reporting relationships to the Governor.” The report also said the DPU “has not demonstrated an ability to address safety issues and concerns identified” by the FTA.

In a statement, DPU spokesperson Troy Wall said the agency will be adding more staff, including a new director of rail transit safety position, and increasing safety audits.

Under Baker, the MBTA has made investments in long-term projects — such as the Green Line Extension and new Red and Orange Line cars — a top priority. The T spent more than $2 billion on such projects in fiscal year 2022, up from around $875 million in fiscal year 2018, the report said.

“At the center” of many of the MBTA’s safety problems is too little focus on the agency’s day-to-day operations and maintenance, the report said, while the T is “still recovering from the long-standing impact of funding cuts made in 2015-2019 . . . which resulted in a reduction in hundreds of millions of dollars and hundreds of positions.”

The result, the FTA said, is too few workers to operate the subway service or to manage and certify the safety of its long-term projects.

In 2019, the safety review panel recommended the MBTA identify the resources it needed to operate service safely, manage preventative maintenance, and support long-term projects. The T told FTA inspectors that the agency has not completed the analysis because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the report said.


Meanwhile, the T moved forward with long-term projects and transferred $500 million from its operating budget to its capital budget earlier this year, the report said.

“Key elements of this approach are significantly impacting preventive maintenance inspections and repairs for the aging system, exacerbating the deterioration of aging infrastructure and assets,” the report said.

Inspectors’ interviews with T staff indicated the agency may be short as many as 2,000 employees, the report said.

“The T absolutely will need to staff up,” Kincaid, the FTA official, told reporters. “They are engaged in a substantial hiring program and that is one that we will work with them on . . . to get as many people as possible that are good quality transit workers who want to come work and serve the people of Massachusetts.”

At a separate event Wednesday, T General Manager Steve Poftak said the agency expects the FTA to be closely involved in its safety efforts “for years.” The T will have to submit a workforce analysis to the FTA, describing how many more employees it needs.

“I think then there’s an important conversation to be had about: what is the appropriate level of funding for the T down the road?” he said. “We can’t simply be asking the existing workforce to do more and more. I think we certainly accept that here at the T.”

In its report, the FTA also zeroed in on the apparent lack of understanding about safety risks among MBTA leadership. The FTA found that T leadership looks at “raw, unanalyzed safety data” instead of useful information about safety concerns in order to know what to prioritize and where to direct resources.

“Under this framework everything becomes a safety priority, overwhelming supervisors, managers, senior managers, and executive management, and resources are allocated to address symptoms rather than causes of safety concerns,” the report said.

The FTA said the MBTA relies too heavily on its safety hot line, an anonymous tip line for employees, and likely isn’t hearing enough safety feedback from front-line employees. The FTA found workers violating MBTA safety rules, a lack of effective safety checklists, and deficient radio quality at “several key locations,” contributing to safety incidents.

The agency stressed the need for more safety oversight of MBTA worksites, citing recent safety events, including “derailments of work vehicles, electrocutions, fire and smoke events, burns, and falls.”

“The T did not get here overnight, and it will not get back to a state of good repair overnight,” Kincaid said during Wednesday’s briefing. “There is going to have to be, unfortunately, patience on the part of the riders of the T.”

Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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