The MBTA will suspend service on the Red Line’s Ashmont branch and Mattapan Line for more than two weeks in October to repair tracks and speed up trains, general manager Phillip Eng announced Thursday, in the latest effort to improve service on the beleaguered system.
But, the T chief promised, it won’t be déjà vu for riders who remember the debacle last year when the agency closed the Orange Line for repairs, only to result in slower service.
Eng said the plan is: “Get in, get it done, and get out.”
Free shuttle buses will replace train and trolley service south of JFK/UMass Station from Oct. 14 to 29 while crews work to alleviate dozens of speed restrictions, the T said. Service along the Braintree branch and from JFK/UMass through downtown and north to Alewife will not be affected.
The closure will, however, affect more than five miles of rail, covering 11 stations, complicating commutes for tens of thousands of riders.
“After the end of these 16 days, the T intends to give our riders back that safe, reliable route,” Eng said in a Globe interview. “And then that allows us to shift our resources to other areas, because we have so much other work to be done.”
The shutdown of that stretch of the Red Line is different than the month-long shutdown of the full Orange Line, Eng emphasized: It will affect fewer passengers and take less time, and it is being announced significantly in advance of the disruption.
During the October partial closure, workers will replace rails, track ties, and ballast between Ashmont and JFK/UMass and between Ashmont and Mattapan, which should increase speed and reduce the need for future maintenance, according to the T. While the stations are closed, workers will also complete non-track work, including repairing lighting, removing overgrown vegetation, and improving accessibility.
The project aims to return trains and trolleys to their regular, pre-speed restriction speeds, according to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. On the Ashmont branch, trains should hit top speeds of between 25 and 40 miles per hour, and top Mattapan Trolley speeds are 25 miles per hour, according to Lisa Battiston, a T spokesperson.
The Ashmont branch, which includes Ashmont, Shawmut, Fields Corner, and Savin Hill stations, carries about 40,000 riders each day, and the Mattapan line around 3,700, according to the T. The areas include some of the system’s oldest rails, which need to be replaced, the T said.
A T spokesperson said workers will replace more than 8,000 feet of rail and perform tamping and alignment work on nearly 50,000 total feet of track, with the goal of alleviating 28 speed restrictions, 14 on each branch.
As of Thursday, there were at least 30 individual speed restrictions across both branches, according to the MBTA. Meanwhile, service, ridership, and speed across the entire Red Line are all down since the T added new slow zones last year.
On the Ashmont branch, a dozen restrictions create delays of nearly six minutes outbound and just over six minutes inbound, according to data from advocacy group TransitMatters, which do not include the Mattapan route.
The more than two-week, continuous closure marks a change from the piecemeal approach to repairs the T has employed on the Red Line this summer, including overnight work and evening and weekend closures. The percentage of Red Line track, and all MBTA subway track, with speed restrictions has increased in recent months, according to the T’s dashboard, as the agency struggles to repair its deteriorating infrastructure.
“We’re holding the line, but we’re not making the progress that we need,” Eng said. “When you think about how much we accomplish in an overnight, versus how much we can accomplish in 16 days, this is a better way to go.”
Eng said additional shutdowns for repair work are possible on the Red Line and on other rail lines.
Sheila Johnson, a mother who lives near Dorchester Center, wrangled her two children and nephew on an outbound Ashmont train Thursday afternoon. Picking up one child’s shoes, Johnson said she had not heard about the upcoming closure.
“That’s really inconvenient,” she said. “This is just a mess.”
Johnson, who works in administration at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said she might take a short leave of absence during the closure. She already had to push back her daily shift to make sure she could get to work on time given the Red Line’s penchant for delays and service interruptions that required shuttle buses.
Johnson said she and her family already “avoid going out during shuttle bus times.” She pushed a two-child stroller, nearly as wide as the space between seats on her Red Line car — too wide for some buses.
“I’m not sure I trust the [MBTA] at all,” given its record, she said.
On the Mattapan Line, 19-year-old Naveya Williams was similarly pessimistic.
Williams takes the trolley from Mattapan to Ashmont, then the train from Ashmont to JFK/UMass for work. Her usual route lines up precisely with the upcoming closure.
“I feel like every time they say they’re going to change they don’t, and we’re stuck with this,” Williams said. “Actions speak louder than words, so I’ll believe it when I see.”
Eng said the T learned from its month-long closure of the Orange Line last summer, which yielded even slower trains despite promises of speed, and expressed confidence that the Red Line’s closure would be smoother.
“We don’t want to repeat that,” Eng said. “We cannot continue to ask our riders to go through this and not have the benefits and results that they’re expecting when we’re done.”
He said the agency is committed to improving transparency and noted that the upcoming Red Line closure, while shorter, was announced much earlier than the one for the Orange Line, in which riders were given about two weeks’ notice.
Speaking to the T’s board of directors at its Thursday meeting, Eng emphasized the diversion will “bring us back to line speed” on the two branches. He said advanced communication with riders was key to easing the transition to shuttle buses and ensuring public expectations line up with predicted improvements.
“What I understood with the Orange Line is the expectations were not clear,” Eng told the board.
Affected riders should pad an extra 15 minutes onto their trips during the October diversion, according to Joe Pesaturo, a T spokesperson.
Free, wheelchair-accessible shuttle buses will run every five to six minutes during weekday peak hours and every 10 to 15 minutes during off-peak times, according to the T.
The agency is also encouraging riders to take local buses and the commuter rail during the closure.
The closure is expected to cost the MBTA at least $12.2 million for construction, Pesaturo said. That cost does not include non-track work. The T does not have an estimate for how much lost fare revenue will cost the agency.
Eng said the ability to quickly restore speeds on the Red Line, which has the worst delays of the subway system, is “basically priceless.”
Boston Mayor Michelle Wu attended Thursday’s board of directors meeting as a placeholder, she said, for the person she will appoint to a new seat on the board for the city. Speaking after the meeting, Wu said the Red Line is “the number one source of headache” she hears about from T riders.
Wu said she hoped to get more clarity on what the payoff of the Red Line shutdown will be for riders in the coming weeks.
“We will continue pressing in this next couple of weeks . . . to really understand what will be done and what we can really plan on experiencing,” she said.
Throughout Thursday’s meeting, Wu asked questions of T staff.
After a presentation from a T official outlining the MBTA’s new high level goals, Wu asked when riders can expect to see tangible change. She cited the lack of progress on many of the goals made during the MBTA’s last big public planning process in 2019.
Speaking after the meeting, Wu said she wants to know when riders can expect to see long discussed projects, such as connecting the Red Line to the Blue Line, become a reality.
“I hope,” she said, “we’ll get to the place where the hopes and dreams and needs that residents have, beyond just a baseline of safety and reliability, are really clear and with actionable timelines.”
Taylor Dolven of the Globe staff contributed to this report.