Last summer, the MBTA slashed Red, Orange, and Blue Line service by more than 20 percent after federal inspectors slammed the agency for not having enough dispatchers to safely operate its schedule.
The cuts, which significantly lengthened commutes, would be in place for the summer, the agency said at the time. “And as soon as sufficient dispatch capacity exists, the MBTA will revert to its previous level of service,” the T’s announcement reassured.
But eight months later, not only is the T short on dispatchers, but operators and trains, too, acting deputy chief operating officer Kat Benesh told MBTA board members Friday. She did not provide an estimate for when subway service would be restored, nor did she say how many additional operators and vehicles are needed.
“The MBTA is fundamentally committed to safely providing higher levels of service,” she said. “And we are budgeted for pre-COVID quantities of service, albeit future service patterns will look different than pre-COVID, just due to fundamental shifts in how people travel.”
No board members asked questions about when service would be restored.
The subway cuts, along with the T’s cuts to bus service and widespread slow zones across the T’s tracks, have made public transit commutes increasingly unreliable over the past year, frustrating riders. In interviews, riders told the Globe they are often forced to use ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft at the last minute to make it to work on time.
Hiring more dispatchers was supposed to fix the subway service problem.
The Federal Transit Administration found last summer that dispatchers in the T’s operations control center were working as many as 20 hours straight with only four hours off between shifts and ordered the agency to staff up. At the time, the T had only 15 dispatchers, Benesh said, although it was budgeted for 18.
After cutting service in June, the T determined it would need at least 24 dispatchers and ideally as many as 32, Benesh said. The T began limiting dispatcher shifts to 14 hours, offering $10,000 hiring bonuses, and actively recruiting from its pool of operators (the T requires dispatchers to have previously worked as operators).
The T currently has 26 total dispatchers, of which five are temporary employees who once previously worked as dispatchers, Benesh said. The agency is considering opening the positions up to people from outside the organization, as other transit agencies do, she said.
Despite having enough dispatchers to meet the agency’s new minimum, the T is keeping the subway service cuts in place, forcing riders to endure longer waits on chilly platforms.
“While we’re still keeping a close eye on our overall dispatcher levels, we are transitioning to our rapid transit service levels really being driven by vehicle availability and motorperson staffing,” Benesh said.
MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo said in an e-mail the T has hired 25 new operators in the last quarter, “but needs to continue recruiting new talent while also increasing the number of supervisors on the front line.”
“To accelerate the MBTA’s ability to safely boost service levels, the T is working hard to expand its hiring and training capacity for heavy rail motor persons,” he said.
The cuts have made slow zones and T service disruptions like those this week even more turbulent for riders. Between Thursday evening and Friday morning, the agency replaced train service with shuttle buses at stretches along its system following a third rail heater outage on the Orange Line, a pantograph problem on the Green Line, and an equipment train derailment on the Red Line, MBTA interim general manager Jeff Gonneville told board members.
“[We have] already identified some areas where we know we need to make some improvements,” Gonneville said.
Also at Friday’s board meeting, Gonneville announced that John Dalton, the project manager for the Green Line Extension, is leaving the agency. Dalton is largely credited with bringing the nearly-doomed project back from the brink and getting it finished, a key asset for the agency.
Governor Maura Healey has not yet announced who will take over as the permanent general manager of the T. In December, Healey said the search for a new MBTA general manager should take “weeks and not several months,” after her administration retained an executive search firm.
Earlier this month, Healey said she hoped to have information on that “real soon.”
Friday was the first T board meeting for Healey’s transportation secretary, Gina Fiandaca. Healey has not yet replaced any of former Governor Charlie Baker’s T board members.