The MBTA is staring down a deadline on Monday to propose critical new workplace safety measures, after federal regulators rejected an earlier plan as insufficient because it would take much too long to implement, and gave the agency just two months to launch more rigorous protections for crews working along its tracks.
The Federal Transit Administration warned in a letter that if the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority fails to respond appropriately, regulators will prohibit the state agency from accessing the right of way space along the tracks. Experts said that would be a drastic — though very unlikely — step that could effectively shut down subway service.
The letter raises serious issues about “the broader lack of a safety culture” at the T, said Brian Kane, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board.
“What I think the FTA is saying . . . is that it’s noticing and actually seeing the wrong thing happening out on active train tracks,” Kane said. “And that’s kind of scary.”
MBTA general manager Phillip Eng said in an interview that his agency and the FTA are in continued discussions about the revised plan, and expressed confidence the T will meet the Monday deadline.
“The key behind this [is to] make sure our employees are safe, make sure the work gets done properly, and make sure, at the end of the day, when it’s done, we can restore train service for the riders in a safe manner,” said Eng, who began at the MBTA on April 10.
The call to action by federal officials comes after a string of incidents in recent months, and more broadly, is the latest in a series of admonishments by federal officials to improve the culture of safety at the T. Last month, Joe DeLorenzo, an FTA associate administrator and chief safety officer, pointed to an April 13 incident where an employee was seriously hurt working along the tracks, plus five “near-miss” incidents between March 13 and April 14.
DeLorenzo warned of “substantial risk” of a death or injury, and directed the T to create a safety plan that would include more training for T crews, better communication between workers and dispatchers, and audits of Right of Way safety at the T.
But a proposed plan submitted by the T to the federal agency earlier this month was “insufficient” and included items that wouldn’t be completed until late this year or 2024, DeLorenzo said in a May 19 letter to Eng.
Instead, the T has until June 5 to submit a revised plan, and implement those steps within 60 days.
“Given the immediate risk to worker safety on the [right of way], FTA requires direct and focused actions,” DeLorenzo said.
Representatives of the FTA did not respond to repeated requests for comment Tuesday.
Eng said the new proposal the T is preparing will include measures such as a revamped training program, new procedures intended to keep workers safe on the tracks, and adding more experienced staff to help guide new employees.
During an MBTA board of directors meeting on Thursday, officials discussed efforts to improve workplace safety, though did not directly reference the May 19 letter from DeLorenzo.
Katie Choe, the T’s chief of quality, compliance & oversight, said the agency is in the midst of retraining about 10,000 employees and contractors who have right of way certification.
That training, which began May 15 and is running 24 hours a day, includes two hours of classroom work and another two hours working on site, according to Choe. The course is offered in English and Spanish.
About 3,000 people are expected to complete the new training by June 15; after then, workers will only have access to the tracks if they completed the program, according to Choe.
Participants will have to demonstrate their safety skills during a session on the T’s right of way before being recertified, she said.
Eng, in the interview, said the T would not be left shorthanded while workers undergo recertification, and has been prioritizing crews such as the MBTA’s own equipment and maintenance workers, or contractors who are assigned jobs that need to be done soon.
“The ones that need access now are the ones that are getting the training,” Eng said.
Jim Aloisi, a former state transportation secretary, said the FTA doesn’t just want “quick action” on a written proposal, but also on the hiring of more professional staff. And he expects that the MBTA will have to turn to outsourcing to get the work done — which will add more expense to its operating budget.
The FTA, Aloisi said, needs to work collaboratively with the T: “Issuing orders without taking realities into account does no one any good,” he said.
Eng said hiring at the T is an “ongoing effort,” and the agency is supplementing staff with contractors to get the work completed.
“The amount of work that we’re accomplishing continues to be to the level that we’re targeting,” Eng said.
Observers were mixed Tuesday on whether the T could successfully make the sweeping changes to worker safety by midsummer.
Kane, of the MBTA Advisory Board, praised Eng and T managers, but questioned whether they can do the work in less than two months.
“They have the right leadership team in place, they just need time. But unfortunately, time is not something they have a lot of,” Kane said.
Stacy Thompson, executive director of LivableStreets Alliance, said that if the T failed to meet the FTA’s requirements, federal regulators wouldn’t likely make a move that could shut down service. Instead, they would be more apt to increase safety oversight of the state agency.
Thompson said she thinks Eng will be able to comply with the FTA’s directives.
“I wouldn’t want people to freak out. I think Phillip Eng is well equipped to handle this appropriately,” she said.
Emily Sweeney of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.