The MBTA can’t get its story straight.
At the beginning of the month-long shutdown of the T’s second-busiest subway line, general manager Steve Poftak trumpeted that riders would have “faster service on the Orange Line” when the sweeping rehabilitation project was complete.
But the line is still slower than it was before the Aug. 19 to Sept. 18 shutdown, and officials can’t seem to land on a reason why. They also don’t know when it will be at full speed, or even back to the speed it was before the shutdown.
Brace yourself for a dizzying, slow-motion series of explanations.
In June, federal inspectors issued a scathing report about widespread defects on the MBTA’s subway tracks and urged the agency to fix longstanding issues with the Orange Line slow zones — areas where trains had to go slower than the normal speed limit because of damaged or outdated equipment.
A month and a half later, the T announced the unprecedented shutdown of the entire line to complete five years’ worth of nights-and-weekend work in just one month. Poftak said the repairs would lead to faster service within five to seven days of the line’s reopening on Sept. 19. A press release from the T on Sept. 18 said work accomplished during the shutdown included “elimination of six slow zones to allow for faster service.”
On Sept. 18 and again on Sept. 29, Poftak said that Orange Line speed restrictions in those areas would be lifted in “the coming days” once the new tracks had time to settle.
But when the line remained slower and the Globe asked him about the ongoing slow zones on Oct. 5, he struck a different tone: “I feel bad that we didn’t communicate that more clearly to people,” he said, “because I think people are kind of feeling like, ‘Wait a second, you said it was going to be faster.’ ”
Last week, as data showed trains still running slower than before the shutdown, Poftak was grilled by Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey during a congressional hearing and said that all six “slow zones” the agency said it targeted during the shutdown had been lifted.
“There was the six zones that we identified where indeed the work was completed and we have been able to lift the slow zones,” he said.
But that’s not what the T’s chief engineer told the Globe just a week earlier, and it’s still not the case now.
Erik Stoothoff, who is also the T’s acting chief operating officer, said speed restrictions remained in place in some of the areas where more work was required after the shutdown ended.
Poftak also told federal lawmakers that the T defines a slow zone as an area of track with a 10-mile-per hour speed restriction.
But Stoothoff said something different: that different “slow zones” had different speed restrictions.
In response to questions about the mismatching explanations for why and how the Orange Line is actually slower than it was before, MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo offered a clarification and a mea culpa on behalf of the T’s communication rather than its speed.
“The MBTA takes responsibility for the confusion following the recently completed 30-day closure of the Orange Line and the elimination of slow zones,” Pesaturo said via e-mail. “The T should have better communicated to its riders who were told service would be faster after the 30-day closure. It’s unfortunate that our initial attempts to explain the ongoing slow zones added to people’s confusion.”
He said that speed restrictions in some of the “slow zones” the T said it had addressed remain in place, and “slow zone” speed limits vary.
At Friday’s Senate hearing, Poftak said he could not say when the Orange Line will be faster than before the shutdown, as work along the line continues.
“I cannot give a specific date because that is dependent on not only field conditions, but also the judgment of our field staff and our inspection staff, and I feel that it is my duty and my responsibility as a leader of this organization to prioritize safety,” he said. “And if I put a date in place, it doesn’t prioritize safety. It puts pressure on field staff to make a decision that is not based on what is the safest conditions in the field, it forces them to make a different decision.”
MBTA travel time data analyzed by TransitMatters, a public transportation advocacy group, shows that a round trip on the Orange Line was more than 12 minutes slower last week than it would be if trains were traveling at full speed. This is an improvement from the previous week, but still slower than before the shutdown, when a round trip was around seven minutes slower than it would be if trains were traveling at full speed. There appear to be more problems with the area north of downtown compared to south.
With fully functioning tracks, Orange Line trains should be able to travel as fast as 40 miles per hour along most of the 11-mile line, Stoothoff said two weeks ago, except in areas with curves where top speeds are 25 miles per hour.
The MBTA does not publish its subway speed restrictions and has declined to provide a list of them.
And after additional questions from the Globe this week, Pesaturo said “slow” did not necessarily mean slow. Actually three of the six “slow zones” the MBTA said it was working on during the shutdown were operating at full speed before the shutdown but would have soon required speed restrictions without repairs, he said.
On Tuesday, Pesaturo said two of those — State Street to Downtown Crossing stations and Wellington to Assembly stations — remain at the same speed as before, and one — Assembly to Wellington stations — has a slower speed than before.
Pesaturo said in two of the zones — between Tufts Medical Center and Back Bay stations in both directions and between Stony Brook and Jackson Square stations — speeds have improved, but remain below the top speed. And one of the zones — North Station to Community College Station — has a slower speed than before the shutdown.
Another slow zone in place before the shutdown — between Community College and Sullivan Square stations, which was not one of the six the T said it had addressed — still has the same speed restriction in place now. And new slow zones put in place since Orange Line service resumed outside of the six areas are still in place, Pesaturo acknowledged.
At a press event on Monday, Governor Charlie Baker said the MBTA hasn’t lifted speed restrictions as fast as the agency said it would.
“My view at this point is, they owe the public answers to when people can expect those speed restrictions to be lifted,” he said.
Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Taylor Dolven can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @taydolven.