Can we trust the T? Not yet.
Late Tuesday afternoon, I took the Orange Line from the State Street stop to Oak Grove in Malden. When the train stopped, only one side of the door opened. The other side stayed shut. At that moment, exiting was no big deal. Only one other person was riding in that car. But what if a door stuck like that during an emergency when the train was packed? How hard would it be to get out?
As he leaves office, Governor Charlie Baker is celebrating the MBTA expansion that happened on his watch, especially the joyously embraced opening of the long-awaited Green Line extension from Cambridge to Medford. Yet the contrast between Baker’s victory lap and operational glitches like a stuck door highlights the crux of the challenge for incoming Governor Maura Healey. What’s the right balance between expanding service and rebuilding public trust in daily T operations — especially in light of recent tragic history?
Not to be overly dramatic, but right now, any stuck door is a reminder of the horrific account by Globe reporters Taylor Dolven and Sarah L. Ryley of what happened on the Red Line in April when doors snapped shut on Robinson Lalin, 39, at the Broadway station and dragged him to his death. Understood — the state of the Red Line is very different than the current state of the Orange Line. The train that Lalin was riding was more than half a century old and one of 68 of that vintage still in service.
Replacing the T’s aging Red and Orange line fleets had been put off for decades. In 2014, the state finally signed a contract to replace both fleets. However, the job was given to the lowest bidder — a Chinese company now called CRRC — which, as Dolven and Ryley wrote, “had never built a factory, trained a workforce, or assembled a train car in the United States.” The contract required the company to do all that in Springfield. For a variety of reasons, production dates have been continually pushed back. Final delivery of Red Line cars is now expected during the summer of 2025.
Orange Line commuters, meanwhile, are happily riding all new rail cars. But that only happened after an old Orange Line train caught fire on a bridge near Somerville in August. In the aftermath of that debacle, the entire Orange Line was shut down and the T promised to “complete five years of improvements in 30 days and bring track and signal infrastructure into a state of good repair.” As part of that restoration project, the old trains were replaced. While commuting on them is nice, the Orange Line itself remains a work in progress. Earlier this month, the Globe reported on a series of Orange Line delays and power outages. In September, one new Orange Line train was removed from service at Downtown Crossing station after a door malfunctioned and service was briefly shut down.
When I relayed my stuck door experience and asked if the T considers it a systemic problem, T spokesman Joe Pesaturo said via email, “There have not been any significant issues. In fact, I can’t recall a reported issue since I was contacted for the September 20 story. Orange Line riders have been served by nothing but new trains since it reopened in September, and the trains have been performing very well.” He added, “Along with the delivery of new cars came advanced diagnostics equipment that allows personnel to quickly identify and troubleshoot any issues. If there is something impacting the regular operation of a door, the door systems are designed to keep the door in the closed position (the safest position).”
Pesaturo also said he informed the chief mechanical officer of my experience “and the vehicle maintenance team will check the doors on that car (if it wasn’t already reported last evening by the train operator).” Reporting such an incident seems like it should be a given part of T protocol, doesn’t it? If it isn’t, that might explain why Pesaturo can’t recall any such reports since September.
Meanwhile, T officials insist the entire transit system is safe. Yet the Federal Transit Administration, which in August issued a scathing report on the overall safety and efficiency of the T, recently rejected more than half of the MBTA’s proposed improvement plans.
That is why, in the T, we still cannot trust. And that’s a big problem for any city that wants to consider itself world class.