Governor Maura Healey and transportation advocates reacted to news of yet another close call on the T’s subway system with frustration on Wednesday, as the transit agency, already under federal supervision, continues to struggle with basic tasks like keeping workers safe while repairing tracks.
On Monday, track workers on the Red Line reported that a train blew through their work zone despite the flagger’s warning. The incident came after at least three other similar near-misses on the T’s subway system since early August and increased scrutiny from federal regulators last week.
“Any incident like that is unacceptable,” Healey said after an event Wednesday. “Nobody is more frustrated than me whenever I hear of an instance like that. But know that we are on it and [MBTA general manager Phillip Eng] has been empowered to do everything that he needs to do.”
In an order issued last Thursday, the Federal Transit Administration cited what it called four near-misses on T subway tracks between Aug. 10 and Sept. 6, and warned “a combination of unsafe conditions and practices exist such that there is a substantial risk of serious injury or death of a worker.” The FTA instructed the T to retrain dispatchers and supervisors in its Operations Control Center and imposed restrictions on how the T can do track work while trains are running until it proves it can do so without endangering workers, among other interventions.
Then, on Monday morning, just days after that order, a two-person crew was inspecting northbound tracks between Harvard and Porter stations, when the flagger reportedly signaled the operator of a Red Line train to stop, but the driver did not, according to T spokesperson Joe Pesaturo.
The train, which had just left Harvard Station, was reportedly traveling at about 25 miles per hour when it passed the two workers, who moved out of the path of the oncoming train, according to a report about the incident obtained by the Globe.
No one was injured and the Red Line operator has been taken out of service while investigators look into what happened, Pesaturo said.
While speaking with the T’s safety department about the incident on Monday, the two-person crew reported another close call in the same area and involving the same Red Line operator on Sept. 11, a report obtained by the Globe said.
The newly reported incidents are at least the ninth and 10th reported near-misses involving T subway workers this year. The FTA disclosed five similar near-miss incidents on the T’s tracks in March and April and ordered the agency to bolster workplace procedures for operators, flaggers, track workers, and dispatchers at the time.
The MBTA’s changes to training and procedures since the FTA’s warning in April don’t appear to be improving safety for workers. Asked why mishaps keep happening, the governor said change doesn’t happen overnight.
“Things take time,” Healey said Wednesday. “We inherited a situation where we were down . . . several hundred in terms of workforce . . . We will work day in and day out to make sure that we are getting the resources in place to address these issues — longstanding issues, unacceptable, unacceptable, but longstanding — and we’re working every day to rectify that.”
Spokesperson for the governor, Karissa Hand, pointed to investments that the Healey administration has made in the T already, including hundreds of millions of dollars in new capital funds to inspect, repair, and upgrade T facilities.
Those investments don’t appear to be making a difference as safety incidents continue unabated and ridership across the system has plateaued amid a rise in slow zones and average trip times.
In an appearance later Wednesday on WBUR’s “Radio Boston,” Healey said the environment at the T also needs to change.
”Part of this is culture,” she said when asked about the repeated near-misses, adding that T employees “need to raise issues” when they see them for the sake of transparency.
”Right now it’s making sure that the right resources are in place, and clearly they haven’t been. They haven’t been. I don’t know how many near misses we haven’t heard about,” she said. “I can tell you as governor, I’ve been clear, where there are incidents, I want them reported. I want that transparency. We need to drive accountability and a changing culture while we work to do things like hire [needed staff].”
On Wednesday, the T was due to provide the FTA and Department of Public Utilities, the agency’s state-level regulator, with detailed accounts of what federal regulators said were delays in reporting close calls that have occurred on subway tracks since Aug. 1. Spokespeople for the T, DPU, and FTA didn’t respond Wednesday to Globe inquiries about whether the MBTA met the deadline.
Separately, the MBTA has set deadlines for next week for prospective bidders to submit proposals on three contracts related to safety and training, according to solicitations published online.
For one contract, the MBTA wants to hire a consultant who would help the agency identify the best ways to notify subway train operators about workers on tracks. As part of the work, the consultant would research practices used by public transit agencies similar to the T, assess a pilot program run on part of the Green Line, and develop short- and long-term plans that the MBTA could enact to keep workers safe while they work on or near subway tracks.
In another contract, the T wants to hire consultants to develop training materials for frontline workers in the engineering and maintenance division. These workers include track laborers and other employees who perform job duties on subway tracks.
The T is also looking for auditing services to conduct annual audits of the agency’s three-year safety improvement plan.
Transit advocates said what’s needed now more than anything is more transparency about what is going wrong.
“I want radical honesty about the depths of the issues, the condition of the tracks, the cost it will take to fix them, and about what they need,” said Brian Kane, executive director of the MBTA’s Advisory Board.
Kane said he expects the T will have to do more large shutdowns of rail lines like last summer’s month-long Orange Line shutdown or the upcoming 16-day shutdown of part of the Red Line’s Ashmont branch and Mattapan Line because of the risk to workers when track repairs are done during service hours.
“It’s terrible for riders,” he said, “but I don’t see another way.”
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