fb-pixel Skip to main content

The shutdown was supposed to make the Orange Line faster. It’s slower, data show.

Commuters board an Orange Line train inbound into Boston from Oak Grove on the MBTA Orange Line on the first day of its reopening after a one month shutdown for renovations on Sept. 19, 2022.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

If the Orange Line feels slower to you than before the shutdown, you’re not imagining it.

Despite repeated promises from the MBTA of faster travel times, the Orange Line has been running slower this week than before the agency shut down the entire line for 30 days to make repairs, data show.

Before the repairs, it took about 40 to 45 minutes to travel from one end of the Orange Line to the other, depending on the direction, according to MBTA travel time data analyzed by TransitMatters, a public transportation advocacy group.

This week, it took as long as 48 minutes in either direction to cover the same ground.


Overall, a round trip on the Orange Line was more than 20 minutes slower this week than it would be if trains were traveling at full speed, the data show, compared to around seven minutes slower before the shutdown.

T officials acknowledged that the service is slower and offered a series of explanations. They indicated that the five years’ worth of work they said was completed during the shutdown turned out not to be enough to immediately eliminate the slow zones.

Trains still have to operate just as slow as they did before the shutdown in two of the slow zones the MBTA said it had addressed when it reopened the Orange Line on Sept. 19. In three slow zones, the MBTA has increased speed limits, but trains still can’t operate at full speed.

In some of the new slow zones added since the reopening, they said, signal crews haven’t had time to manually adjust the speed limits to allow trains to run full speed.

And officials offered no timeline for when the Orange Line would be back to full speed.

TransitMatters tracks train travel times and labels areas as slow zones after four consecutive days of delays in a particular area. The data are the best source available, since the MBTA does not publish speed restrictions and has repeatedly declined to provide information about them to the Globe.


This week, through interviews, the MBTA provided the Globe with a list of speed restrictions in place along the Orange Line before the shutdown and a list of speed restrictions in place this week.

Ideally, Orange Line trains should be able to travel as fast as 40 miles per hour along most of the 11-mile stretch, said T Chief Engineer and Acting Chief Operating Officer Erik Stoothoff, except in areas with curves where top speeds are 25 miles per hour.

All of the work that the MBTA said it would complete during the shutdown was actually completed, Stoothoff said, but in some cases it was not enough to lift the speed restrictions entirely.

One area between Tufts Medical Center and Back Bay stations, where workers replaced around 400 “Cologne egg” fasteners, which limit vibration and noise, went from 10 miles per hour before the shutdown to 18 miles per hour now. To get up to the full speed of 25 miles per hour, around 200 more Cologne eggs need to be replaced, Stoothoff said.

That replacement work has not yet been scheduled, he said. The MBTA has required trains to travel slower in this area because of track defects since 2019, federal investigators found earlier this year.


On the north side of the Orange Line, the MBTA discovered at the end of the shutdown that more work needed to be done north of North Station in order to be able to lift speed restrictions and allow trains to travel 40 miles per hour for the whole stretch. That work includes clearing old rail from the track area and replacing rail and rail plates. Stoothoff said he is not sure how long the work will take.

“So when our engineers went out there and looked at it, they’re looking at wear and tear over the . . . long term and then right now, and their recommendation to us to be safest is to keep the speed restriction until we can address additional work,” he said. “We need to do this work in order to make sure that we have the appropriate feedback from the appropriate people telling us that the conditions are optimally safe for our riders.”

Trains now have to travel at 25 miles per hour, below the 40 mile-per-hour top speed, when going over track crossovers near Jackson Square Station and Massachusetts Avenue Station. Before the shutdown, trains were going 10 miles per hour over these stretches, Stoothoff said. The MBTA’s machine that settles new infrastructure needs to go over the areas before signal teams can increase the speed limits, Stoothoff said.

The ongoing slow zones paint a different picture about the success of the Orange Line shutdown than the MBTA was offering last month.


General Manager Steve Poftak said on Aug. 19 that the riders would have “faster service on the Orange Line” after the shutdown, and on Sept. 18 and again last week he said that speed restrictions would be lifted in the coming days. He did not mention that some slow zones the T said it had addressed would still be in place more than two weeks after the shutdown ended.

“I feel bad that we didn’t communicate that more clearly to people, because I think people are kind of feeling like, ‘Wait a second, you said it was going to be faster,’ ” Poftak said Wednesday. “But we are doing it with an eye towards getting those slow zones removed overall.”

That communication flip-flop will make it harder for the MBTA to gain public support for similar projects in the future, said Stacy Thompson, executive director of LivableStreets Alliance, a transportation advocacy group.

“What the riding public cares about is getting to work on time, getting to school on time, picking their kids up from school on time,” she said. “They need to tell us when the Orange Line will be back to full speed.”

Stoothoff said the MBTA does not have a firm date for when all speed restrictions on the Orange Line will be eliminated.

He indicated the focus should not be on when all speed restrictions are lifted but rather “when we’re back to a place where it is a more manageable and palatable level of interruption to our riders.”


Slow zones — areas where the MBTA requires trains to travel at slower speeds because of track defects or other subpar conditions — have plagued the MBTA for years as maintenance has been deferred, quietly lengthening commutes for riders.

During its investigation of safety at the MBTA earlier this year, the Federal Transit Administration said nearly 10 percent of MBTA subway tracks have speed restrictions in place and urged the T to come up with a plan to address track defects so that trains can travel at full speed.

Since service resumed, the MBTA has put in place several new slow zones along the Orange Line, causing further delays for riders, TransitMatters data show and Stoothoff confirmed.

In the areas with new speed restrictions where the MBTA completed work during the shutdown, like between Chinatown and Tufts Medical Center stations, trains should already be able to travel at full speed, but the signal crews have not yet been able to go out into the track area and adjust the signals, Stoothoff said. These should be resolved in the “next couple of days,” Stoothoff said.

“There is just the limited resources that we have in order to do that work and the amount of time that we have to do that work during the overnight,” he said. “And we appreciate that it’s an inconvenience. We’re trying to operate in the best interest of the safety of our service.”

Edgar Dworsky took an Orange Line trip to the doctor this Tuesday from Assembly Station to Tufts Medical Center Station, and said the train “crept” along much of the ride.

“It was pure torture for someone eager to get to a medical appointment,” he said in an e-mail.

On the way back, Dworsky said, he asked the train operator how long the slower speeds would remain in place, but the operator did not know.

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