Phillip Eng started on Monday what is widely considered to be one of the hardest jobs in Massachusetts state government.
On his first commute as general manager of the MBTA Monday morning, Eng rode the Blue Line from Orient Heights to Government Center, then on the Green Line to Park Street Station where he took questions from reporters.
Along the way, Eng said he spoke to riders and T employees, including an “essential worker” who told him she relied on the T during the pandemic.
“Just listening to her and her dependence on the system is very inspiring, which is all the more reason we have a lot of work to do to restore the service to where it should be and make sure it’s safe,” he said.
Eng takes over the MBTA at a time of intense frustration for riders, who have endured drastic service cuts and a long series of grave safety incidents over the last 18 months, including a falling ceiling panel that nearly struck a commuter last month. Eng’s first day also happened to coincide with the one year anniversary of the death of Robinson Lalin, a 39-year-old who was dragged by a Red Line train at Broadway Station. Lalin’s death, as well as a number of other safety incidents, spurred a federal safety inspection of the agency last year.
Eng offered his “deepest sympathies to Robinson Lalin’s family,” calling his death a “tragic incident.”
He said he understands the public’s frustration about continued safety incidents and reliability problems. He told skeptics to “stay tuned.”
“I’m going to demonstrate that we can turn it around,” he said. “You’ll start to see meaningful improvements. It’ll be slow at the beginning. But as you start to see them come, I think people will regain that trust.”
Since Eng accepted the job late last month, he said he has been in discussions with staff about the major issues facing the agency, including widespread slow zones that still cover 25 percent of subway tracks.
He said he’s asked for a list of the work needed to lift the slow zones and plans to share a work schedule with the public.
“It’s not just where the speed restrictions are, but what we’re doing to remove them and when we plan to remove them,” he said. “And this way we can measure ourselves against our schedule, we can measure ourselves against the ability to deliver and beat those schedules.”
Eng said he “absolutely” sees himself as an everyday T rider and plans to use public transit not just to get to his new job, but also to restaurants and businesses.
“It’s not just the morning commute and the evening commute,” he said. “It’s what you’re doing during the evenings and weekends, and we’re going to promote that. And we’re going to restore service for people.”
Eng’s first day on the job also included a visit to the MBTA’s bus maintenance facility at Cabot Yard, where he toured the administrative offices and bus garage. He spoke with employees about their commutes, how to improve their experience at the agency, and thanked them for their work. He even stopped to play a quick round of Ping-Pong with one employee.
Eng said he asked workers for feedback on what resources or improvements the agency needs to provide to make the job more attractive to new hires and existing staff.
Eng said the agency will also aggressively hire to make up for its lack of bus drivers, which has forced the agency to cut service repeatedly over the last year, and find ways to retain existing staff. A Boston Globe review found the MBTA is lagging behind other large US transit agencies in hiring bus drivers and restoring prepandemic service, in part because the agency does not let new drivers start full time.
“Whatever we can do to encourage people to come back and still be fiscally responsible, we’re going to do,” Eng said. “I don’t know if it’s just offering more — I think it’s about the environment, the satisfaction, and restoring pride.”
Eng said encouraging employees to climb a career ladder, such as joining the MBTA as a bus driver and later becoming a manager, is one way the agency can retain and improve its current workforce.
“Some people may want to just operate a bus their whole career and love it,” Eng said. “And if they want to step up, we will help encourage them because that is the success of the agency, not just fixing it today.”
He said he aims to continue talking to employees to learn more about how to support them and improve the work environment.
“Right now they have so much on their plate, I need to help them with that,” Eng said. “They know how important the work we do is to the community . . . so there’s a lot of internal pride, we just need to build it up and make sure they know that they have the full support of management and myself.”
Governor Maura Healey appointed Eng to the post last month after a monthslong search. Eng comes to the T from New York, where he was president of the Long Island Rail Road from 2018 until he announced his retirement early last year. He previously worked as chief engineer at New York’s state transportation department and chief operating officer at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Advocates, union leaders, and colleagues who know Eng well said he has a record of solving big transportation problems in New York with a hands-on, rider-centered approach.
Former MBTA general manager Steve Poftak stepped down in January to coincide with the end of Governor Charlie Baker’s term. Since then, Jeff Gonneville, the agency’s former chief operating officer, has been serving as interim general manager.
Healey has not yet replaced any of Baker’s appointees on the MBTA’s board of directors, three of whom she could have replaced in January when she took office. Her transportation secretary, Gina Fiandaca, serves on the board.
The MBTA is in charge of the T’s subway and bus systems, commuter rail, ferries, and paratransit, together serving 176 cities and towns in the state. Riders took 362 million trips on MBTA vehicles in fiscal year 2019 and 203 million trips in fiscal year 2022, according to an analysis from the Department of Transportation.