Just when riders thought their MBTA subway commutes could not get any worse, they endured another massive service disruption this week, this time because the agency could not verify that it was safe to operate its trains at full speed.
The latest debacle unfolded abruptly Thursday night when the MBTA announced around 10 p.m. that it would be putting a maximum 25-mile-per-hour speed limit — down from the normal top speed of 40 — in place across its Red, Orange, Blue, and Green Lines because of safety concerns raised by a state oversight agency. The speed restriction had actually started to take effect hours earlier, interim T general manager Jeff Gonneville disclosed Friday.
By 10:30 a.m. Friday, the agency had lifted the systemwide speed restriction, keeping it in place only on the Green Line and Mattapan Trolley Line, Gonneville said. Nonetheless, widespread slow zones persisted on the Red, Orange, and Blue Lines, covering 30 percent of track as of Friday morning, T spokesperson Joe Pesaturo said in an e-mail. The remaining speed restrictions imposed Thursday will stay in place while the MBTA searches for documentation on the condition of tracks that were inspected as far back as last fall, Pesaturo said.
“There are some documentation inconsistencies and areas where documentation does not exist,” Gonneville said at a Friday press conference. “It is our obligation to make sure the system is safe at all times. . . . The risks that we would run is that there could potentially be some form of incident with our trains.”
The seemingly unprecedented slowdown of the entire system was triggered by a recent inspection of the Red Line by the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, Gonneville said. On March 6, DPU staff inspected a portion of the southbound track between Ashmont and Savin Hill stations and “identified concerning conditions and violations of track standards that required immediate corrective action,” a DPU spokesperson said.
The next day, the DPU demanded the T come up with a corrective action plan for those track conditions along with a host of other safety issues, according to letters sent to the MBTA and shared with the Globe. In exchanges with the DPU over that inspection, the MBTA could not produce certain documentation to verify the condition of its track, Gonneville said.
Inspections are sometimes done using sophisticated equipment that can identify “things that wouldn’t be visible to the naked eye, things that wouldn’t be visible to inspectors,” Gonneville said. When the MBTA could not say for certain whether all issues needing action had been fixed, or if ongoing issues had been properly recorded, Gonneville had no choice but to act, he said.
“We took the necessary corrective actions at that moment to ensure the safety of our system and the safety of our customers,’’ he said. “We are asking riders to please be patient and allow us until the start of service on Monday to validate repairs and verify speeds.”
Governor Maura Healey called the MBTA speed restriction situation “unacceptable.”
“We have been really clear that our focus is on safety and reliability,” she told WHDH Boston on Friday. “We’ve made that a top priority and we’re going to continue to make that a top priority.”
The T is without a permanent general manager, and Healey has not yet named a new leader or replaced any of former governor Charlie Baker’s MBTA board members.
Though the systemwide slowdown lasted less than a day, subway travel times were significantly slower Friday compared to a week earlier, according MBTA data analyzed by TransitMatters, a public transportation advocacy group, as localized slow zones remained in place. A trip from end to end on the Orange Line took as much as 15 minutes longer, the TransitMatters dashboard showed.
At Downtown Crossing Friday, frustrated riders lamented the slowdown’s toll on their morning commutes.
”It’s awful,” said Jennifer Stone, 24, a University of Massachusetts Boston student, while waiting for the Red Line. “It’s inconsiderate. I have absolutely no time to alter my schedule today. I feel like [the MBTA] needs to be aware of how frustrating inconsistency is.”
One man, who asked to only be identified as Richard, said that he’s been taking the T for 40 years, and that it feels as if it’s only gotten slower.
”They used to call it quick transit,” Richard said. “They don’t call it that anymore.”
The 74-year-old works from home most days as an accountant but heads to his office in Charlestown on Fridays.
”I missed this train, now I have to wait 12 minutes. Now, it might be even longer,” he said, pointing to the screen listing wait times. “They’ve just got to increase their efficiency. They haven’t in my lifetime.”
Chethana Raman, 24, was headed to work at Massachusetts General Hospital. She said she got an automated text from the MBTA about the new speed limit and was frustrated, but not surprised.
”I have very low expectations at this point. I read it, and was just like, ‘Classic,’ ” she said. “I just think that they kind of need to get it together. They constantly go after the little problems without going after the actual issues that alter people’s schedules.”
The speed restrictions weren’t the only issue during the Friday morning commute. On the Mattapan Trolley line, shuttle buses were put into use after a mishap at the Milton station where the T is dismantling a crumbling set of stairs despite community opposition. Regular service resumed at 8:17 a.m., the T tweeted.
And on the Blue Line — where power supply issues created long commutes Thursday night — buses also replaced train service because of a power supply issue between the Maverick and Airport stations in East Boston. Regular service resumed around 10:30 a.m.
The systemwide slowdown came as the T continues to grapple with slow zones across its system. Before the announcement, the MBTA’s public slow zone database showed speed restrictions covered 7.5 percent of the subway tracks in February, up from 6.5 percent in January. Slow zones are areas of track where the MBTA operates trains at reduced speeds because of track defects and other problems.
Last year, the Federal Transit Administration directed the MBTA to come up with a plan to repair its tracks and lift its slow zones more efficiently, noting that some had been in place for years. It also directed the DPU to enhance its technical capacity and enforcement capabilities. A spokesperson for the DPU said the Rail Transit Division now has 10 staff members, up from seven last year.
It’s not just the slow zones keeping commutes long. The T has also reduced the frequency of subway service. It put those service cuts in place last June and said they would last for the summer as the agency addressed a shortage of dispatchers. But the cuts have remained in place, and the T said last month that it does not have enough operators or trains to restore service.
Alfonso Sanchez, a linguist who has lived in Boston for four years, said the unpredictable nature of the T has been a surprise. He’s originally from Spain, where public transportation was always more dependable, he said.
”Coming to Boston, I had no idea it would change like this,” Sanchez said. The speed limits “would never happen there.”
John R. Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report.