The MBTA’s chief safety officer, who has overseen the agency’s most important division for the last three years and helped shepherd the T through nearly unprecedented federal scrutiny after a series of critical safety failures, is leaving, General Manager Phillip Eng announced Tuesday.
Chief Safety Officer Ronald Ester’s last day will be August 30, leaving Eng and Governor Maura Healey the daunting task of finding a successor — someone qualified and excited to improve safety at an organization known for its lack of it.
Rod Brooks, Senior Advisor for Capital, Operations, and Safety, who Eng recently brought to the MBTA from Long Island Rail Road, will oversee the safety department while the T searches for Ester’s replacement, Eng said in an email to employees.
Ester reports to MassDOT chief safety officer Patrick Lavin, who was appointed by Healey to the newly created role earlier this year.
“I am grateful for Ron’s service to the MBTA,” Eng’s email said. “He has made a real difference in the safety of our system, and he will be missed.”
In a statement, Ester said he is proud of the agency’s work, “despite the many challenges that we have faced.”
“The MBTA has been underinvested in for decades, and it has taken a lot of hard work to make our system as safe as it is today,” he said. “I know that there is still more work to be done, but I am proud to have played a leading role in many of the improvements that have taken shape.”
His departure comes as the T is still working to comply with directives from federal regulators who have found serious lapses in maintenance and safety at the agency, including that the T is severely understaffed.
Federal regulators have estimated the T could be short some 2,000 people to safely operate its system.
Eng said earlier this month that hiring is increasing, but he acknowledged so, too, is attrition. The T hired 1,071 people in the fiscal year that ended on June 30, according to a presentation at a T board of directors subcommittee meeting last week, but only added 205 people to the workforce because 866 left.
Ester started at the MBTA in August 2020 as part of a reorganization of the safety department following several derailments and a report from a panel of outside experts that found the agency wasn’t prioritizing maintenance and safety. Ester joined the T after more than 28 years at Chicago Transit Authority.
The T’s safety performance continued to falter with Ester in the chief safety role.
The Federal Transit Administration found that between January 2019 and April 2022, the T had a higher rate of serious safety events on its subway system than the industry average. Safety events grew more serious over that time frame, the FTA said, “from minor property damage, brief service disruptions, and minor injuries in 2019 and 2020, to more significant property damage, extended service disruptions, and more serious passenger injuries requiring hospitalization in 2021,″ followed by the dragging death of a Red Line passenger in April 2022.
Since then, the FTA has continued to point out serious safety problems at the T, including several incidents earlier this year in which workers came dangerously close to being hit by trains. In April, the federal agency warned that there is a “substantial risk” of death or injury on the T’s tracks and ordered the T to retrain thousands of employees.
During Ester’s tenure, the T has said it expanded the safety department staff and broadened its scope, including training to prioritize safety.
Transit advocates weren’t surprised by Ester’s departure.
“He walked into the middle of a pandemic which turned into an abject safety crisis under an administration that wasn’t willing to give him the resources he needed,” said Stacy Thompson, executive director of LivableStreets Alliance. “He was put in a really tough position.”
Brian Kane, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, said Ester did a good job, but it was time for him to move on.
“There has to be a complete remaking of safety inside the T and of safety oversight,” he said.
The safety department is responsible for mitigating or eliminating hazards in order to reduce the risk of people dying, getting hurt or sick, property loss, or the government penalizing the T, according to its mission statement provided by T spokesperson Joe Pesaturo.
It has seen intense oversight from the federal government, and Ester’s successor may also face a new and more aggressive state-level regulator in coming months or years.
This summer, the Legislature’s joint transportation committee greenlit legislation that would take MBTA subway safety oversight power away from the Department of Public Utilities and create a new Office of Transit Safety in charge of supervising safety on all MBTA modes of transportation, including bus, commuter rail, paratransit, and ferry, and regional transit authorities. Federal regulators found the DPU has not provided sufficient oversight of safety at the T.