Five months after the T slowed trains across its system, causing delays and disruptions for riders, the new general manager said Thursday that the MBTA has made “some further progress” on lifting the slow zones, but “we have a lot more to do.”
Across all four subway lines, the MBTA lifted 66 speed restrictions in April and May. The restrictions were put in place after parts of the track were found to be unsafe for trains to run at full speed. There are still 204 restrictions in place system-wide, representing 20 percent of all tracks.
Red and Green Line repairs in June
The T cut service to Blue and Red Lines this spring to find extra time to make repairs. Going into June, the MBTA will be focusing repairs on southern sections of the Red Line, where widespread slow zones have caused major rider delays, and even the northern Green Line extension -- the newest tracks, most of which have only been open for roughly seven months.
The Green Line extension, which starts at Lechmere Station in Cambridge and has two branches to Union Square in Somerville and to the Medford/Tufts stop in Medford, will be closed for the first two weekends of June. The Union Square branch opened last year and the Medford/Tufts branch opened in December, Gov. Charlie Baker’s last full month in office.
MBTA officials say these closures will allow workers to finish work on the tracks.
“This service change allows the GLX team to complete final finishing work, including track and drainage work around the Red Bridge, Inner Belt Yard, and other locations. MBTA crews will also perform additional work along the East Cambridge Viaduct. Additional Green Line service changes may take place later in June, and the MBTA will announce more information when these changes are confirmed and scheduled,” MBTA spokesperson Lisa Battiston said.
Asked how essential this work is, and if the lines have been operating without it since riders started taking the trains last year, Battiston said “it’s final work that will be completed before the contract is formally closed out. It’s work that will help ensure long-term service reliability on the Green line Extension.”
On the Red Line, where riders have already had to schedule around substantial evening and weekend closures during May, shuttle buses will replace trains from Braintree to JFK UMass during weekdays and during early nighttime shutdowns throughout June.
Blue and Red Lines
Work in April and May on the Red Line from Ashmont Station to Park Street and from Braintree Station to Park Street cleared 20 speed restrictions, according to the MBTA’s slow zone tracker.
MBTA General Manager Phil Eng said the lifting of these slow zones is giving riders two to 10 minutes back in their days.
“There is no denying that we have a lot of work to do and to reverse years of underinvestment to achieve a state of good repair. But we are moving in the right direction, we are making some progress towards delivering a more reliable transportation system that the public does deserve,” he told the MBTA Board during their meeting on Thursday.
On the Blue Line, where service shut down early on eight nights over the past month to give crews more time for repairs, slow zones have been eliminated on the mainland Boston side of the tracks.
The MBTA has lifted nine speed restrictions along the Blue Line in the past month and a half, including all restrictions between Bowdoin Station and Aquarium Station, Eng said.
There are still 14 restrictions on the longer stretch of the Blue Line in East Boston into Revere, including six westbound slow zones where trains cannot safely exceed 10 miles an hour.
As of Thursday, restrictions took up 31 percent of the Blue Line tracks -- not far off from Eng’s goal of reducing the slow zones from 43 percent in mid-April to 28 percent by the end of May.
Through lifting the nine slow zones, eastbound travelers are arriving at their destinations about 10 minutes earlier than they were a month ago, according to Eng. Westbound travelers are getting five to six minutes back, and headways between trains are now at six minutes or less.
“In my humble opinion. This approximate 24-minute trip is better than driving,” Eng said. “Google Maps tells me this trip could take 35 to 45 minutes by car, that does not take into account the need to find parking. We want people to know that the Blue Line is reliable and safe for them to take. More frequent trains, shorter headways and shorter travel time.”
On a transit system fraught with service and safety issues across all five of its lines and over a hundred bus routes, the Blue Line repairs took priority partially due to the closures to the Sumner Tunnel -- which also connects East Boston to the rest of the city for drivers -- this summer, Eng said.
He also said it was prioritized because the line connects Logan Airport to the rest of the city, and because of the “need of essential workers, transit dependent riders and travelers along this corridor.”
“As we consider our strategy for lifting speed restrictions system-wide, we know that not all speed restrictions are created equal,” Eng said. “We are prioritizing work on those restrictions that are the slowest and impact the trip the most. We will be focusing on those that have the greatest impact to our riders’ trips, and lifting them where we can to give them the greatest improvements in their travel times.”
The T is aiming to lift all remaining Blue Line speed restrictions by November, which would be eight months after MBTA officials suddenly expanded slow zones across the system.
Addressing staffing shortages
A major pressure point for safety and service issues at the T is a shortage of workers.
Eng announced on Thursday that the MBTA “experienced the largest number of separations this [fiscal] year” with 774 people leaving the organization, but that the T is also likely to see a five-year high in new staff.
The MBTA and Federal Transit Authority each reported that since fiscal 2020, the T has operated with vacancy rates in the excess of 10 percent of the positions they budgeted for, though they were less than 5 percent in fiscal 2019. FTA investigators said the shortages contributed to safety incidents and service delays.
To address this issue, the T’s fiscal 2023 operating budget staffing plan called for hiring 1,759 new staff, increasing the MBTA’s operations headcount by a net 1,091 after accounting for backfilling vacancies.
Eng announced on Thursday that so far this fiscal year the T has only achieved a net headcount growth of 210 new hires -- over 800 below their goal.
But, he said the May headcount numbers puts the MBTA on track to achieve its largest headcount increase in the last five years, with external hiring of 983 and internal promotions of 506.
Since Eng took the helm of the floundering transit authority in April, he has repeatedly said that he is committed to prioritizing hiring.
The T has held job fairs in Quincy, Mattapan, Lynn and Revere over the last two months, and over 1,500 prospective candidates have applied to positions during the four recruitment events, according to an informational video shown at Thursday’s board meeting.
The agency has also begun offering free bus operating classes, increased marketing campaigns and offered a $7,500 sign-on bonus for some jobs, such as bus operators. Eng said Thursday that these tactics have yielded an 112 percent increase in average monthly applications.
He also announced that they will create a new position, head of workforce, to “spearhead and drive hiring and retention efforts.”