Federal transportation regulators are sounding alarm bells again over safety incidents at the MBTA, including one in which a worker was seriously injured, and ordered the agency to immediately change its protocols and training before an employee gets killed.
In a letter to new T general manager Phillip Eng on Tuesday, the Federal Transit Administration warned that there is a “substantial risk” of a death or injury on the agency’s tracks as dangerous close calls mount, citing recent incidents and reports of hazardous conditions from the T’s state oversight agency, the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities.
“Given recent events, the results of FTA’s on-site inspections, reports from DPU, and the MBTA’s backlog of maintenance work which necessitates continued track access for work crews, FTA finds that a combination of unsafe conditions and practices exist such that there is a substantial risk of death or personal injury,” Joe DeLorenzo, an associate administrator and chief safety officer with the FTA, said in the letter.
Between March 13 and April 7, the MBTA has said, it experienced four “near-miss events” — a term the agency uses when a train gets dangerously close to workers. On April 13, an employee was “seriously injured while working on the [right of way] in a location where access had not been requested or granted — a major violation of MBTA’s [right of way] safety procedures,” the letter said. And on April 14, the MBTA reported a fifth near-miss incident, the letter said.
From March 2022 to February 2023, the T reported no incidents in which a train had come close to hitting a track worker, MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo said in an e-mail.
“The MBTA believes its strong emphasis on improving the organization’s safety culture — such as encouraging employees to report safety concerns — is a contributing factor in the increased number of reported incidents,” he said in an e-mail.
Pesaturo did not immediately respond to questions about whether the FTA’s requirements will delay elimination of the many slow zones bedeviling the subway system.
But the perilous conditions for workers on the T’s subway tracks and the newly required FTA overhauls could make much needed repair work more difficult. Around 25 percent of the MBTA’s subway tracks have defects requiring speed restrictions, according to the slow zone dashboard, up from around 8 percent on March 1, dramatically slowing commutes.
The FTA imposed a series of deadlines by which the T must comply with new requirements or else face a freeze on track work.
The first begins Thursday, when the FTA will prohibit the T from working on its tracks unless the agency submits daily updates about the work it plans to do, including “hazard assessments,” and then meets certain benchmarks through mid-June, the FTA said. DeLorenzo said the FTA will do unannounced inspections.
Then, starting on April 24, the T will be prohibited from doing track work unless the agency provides the FTA with an analysis of how many work crews can safely operate on each line, and reviews paperwork and communication processes, the federal agency said. The T must also get FTA’s approval for “work crew limits per line” that will remain in place until the transit agency “shows sufficient improvements in [right of way] access safety have been made.”
And lastly, by May 5, the T must submit an audit of its radio communications that ensure workers are safely on and off the tracks, as well as revised work protocols and training materials, the letter said. All employees will have to be retrained on the new protocols by June 15, the letter said.
DeLorenzo said the MBTA has made “clear progress” since last year when the FTA released a scathing report that found the agency’s focus on long-term projects came at the expense of day-to-day operations and safety. But despite the improvement, DeLorenzo said “near-miss events continue to occur.”
Eng told the MBTA board of directors Wednesday that the agency is reviewing the FTA’s letter.
“I welcome the partnership and the oversight that DPU and FTA are providing,” he said. “Together we do have a common goal — that is assuring a safe, reliable public transportation system for our riders, for the communities that we serve, our workforce, our constituents, and all stakeholders.”
The FTA’s safety warning and orders come after the DPU made similar directives in recent weeks.
Hundreds of T workers are already having to undergo retraining to comply with DPU orders last week and in late March.
Last Thursday, the DPU ordered the T to prohibit engineering and maintenance workers from accessing the tracks until they take a four-hour in-person safety refresher course, Robert Hanson, DPU director of rail transit safety, said in a letter to Ron Ester, MBTA chief safety officer, that was obtained by the Globe. Hanson’s letter said the DPU is “extremely concerned” about the near-miss incidents.
Just three weeks earlier, the DPU ordered the T to provide an immediate safety briefing to all employees and contractors who have access to the tracks before they could return to work, citing similar failures to follow protocols, according to a March 24 letter the Globe obtained.
The MBTA has long been warned about its failure to move trains safely and avoid threats to workers. Last July, the FTA ordered “an immediate safety standdown” at the MBTA, requiring safety briefings and retraining with hundreds of workers amid ongoing issues with runaway trains.
During its safety inspection of the MBTA last year, the FTA found workers violated MBTA safety rules, a lack of effective safety checklists, and deficient radio quality at “several key locations,” contributing to safety incidents.
At Wednesday’s board meeting, Eng said the recent near-miss incidents “are avoidable and should not be happening.”
Eng said the T is considering shutting much of the Blue Line from 7 p.m. to the close of service for several nights over the next month to make repairs needed to eliminate speed restrictions.
There are currently 69 track defects that need to be fixed on the Blue Line, Eng said. There are 75 and 24 such track defects on the Red and Orange lines, respectively, according to Pesaturo. The T is still working to determine how many defects are on the Green Line tracks, Pesaturo said.
An FTA spokesperson said track work must be done without putting workers at risk.
“As MBTA continues to work to reduce a backlog of maintenance work, creating a safer ride for passengers, the agency is putting more workers on the rail tracks during operating hours,” the spokesperson said in an e-mail. “As it does so, transit workers must be better protected.”