fb-pixelMBTA executive shakeup after worker safety issues Skip to main content

Federal regulators rip MBTA after finding agency violated safety order

An MBTA employee walked past a Red Line train at Ashmont Station last month.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Federal regulators on Friday delivered a blistering warning to the MBTA and accused the agency of violating new orders that seek to prevent fatalities by prohibiting the T from letting workers access tracks alone while trains are running.

The letter from the Federal Transit Administration capped a whirlwind day for the T as its general manager shuffled some of his top executives and the agency revealed that it had halted some construction work days earlier amid the safety crackdown from regulators in Washington, D.C.

Joe DeLorenzo, an FTA associate administrator and chief safety officer, wrote in the letter that regulators were “disappointed” the T sent workers onto its tracks alone after they had prohibited the MBTA from doing so last week.

Advertisement



On Sept. 14, the FTA imposed new restrictions on T operations, citing what it called four near-misses on T subway tracks between Aug. 10 and Sept. 6 and writing that “a combination of unsafe conditions and practices exist such that there is a substantial risk of serious injury or death of a worker.”

On Friday, DeLorenzo warned that failures by the T to comply with federal orders could prompt Washington regulators to withhold or redirect federal funds or impose more limits on MBTA operations.

“This communication aims to emphasize the critical nature of our concerns and to reiterate the measures that must be taken to ensure the safety of lone workers on your transit system,” DeLorenzo wrote in the letter addressed to T general manager Phillip Eng.

In a statement issued Friday night, Eng said the MBTA had been in “frequent communication” with federal regulators and had asked for permission to use lone workers to respond to emergencies when trains are on subway tracks.

“While the FTA was reviewing our requests for those exemptions, we believed we could continue those practices while the review process was ongoing,” Eng said. “The FTA has clarified its position, and we fully respect that. Those dialogues resulted in a positive outcome with regards to improved practices for the safety of our employees and the public.”

Advertisement



The MBTA had initially asked to be exempt from the outright prohibition on lone workers, but on Thursday scaled that request back to only for emergencies involving disabled trains or stranded trains carrying passengers. The FTA approved the modification for some emergency situations, DeLorenzo wrote Friday, but warned the FTA “will closely monitor the MBTA’s implementation of these exception measures.”

FTA officials were in Boston this week for previously scheduled visits they have been conducting monthly since they did an extraordinary safety inspection of the T last year, according to MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo.

DeLorenzo’s letter detailed why the FTA is prohibiting the T from allowing workers to access the tracks alone while trains are running, as well as an alleged infraction of the federal order by the MBTA.

Federal regulators raised the alarm after a T worker encountered maintenance vehicles on the Longfellow Bridge at about 4:15 a.m. on Sept. 6 when MBTA vehicles were under orders not to travel there, DeLorenzo wrote. The worker reported the vehicles to the T’s operations control center “in time to avert a potentially tragic outcome,” the letter said.

“This incident posed an immediate and substantial risk to the safety of the lone worker, who had no safe escape route while the vehicles were approaching,” DeLorenzo wrote. The vehicles halted and the worker exited the tracks unharmed, the letter said.

Advertisement



An investigation found the dispatcher in the operations control center who directed the maintenance vehicles onto the bridge did not know the worker was also there, DeLorenzo wrote. Federal regulators also learned about dispatchers who did not enter into the T’s tracking system information that other workers had been sent onto subway tracks alone, the letter said.

Because of those revelations, the FTA concluded that allowing workers onto T tracks alone presents a “severe risk of serious injury or fatality.”

On Wednesday, federal regulators visiting the T’s operations control center observed a dispatcher direct a T employee onto the tracks alone to assist a disabled train, a “direct violation” of the FTA’s Sept. 14 order, DeLorenzo wrote.

He said the FTA also determined the T has violated the same order on other occasions since last Thursday, but didn’t provide specifics.

On Friday morning, Green Line riders got a firsthand look at how the new federal restrictions on T track work may affect their commutes. A signal problem at Kenmore disrupted service for about three hours, and for a time, trains stopped running between Government Center and Kenmore stations.

“Mobilizing the required number of employees to Kenmore took some time, but the safety of workers is of paramount importance,” T spokesperson Lisa Battiston said in an email. “The MBTA apologizes to riders who were delayed and inconvenienced by the signal and switch issues.”

Advertisement



The T will be navigating these new restrictions with a reorganized slate of managers. Eng’s staff shakeup marked his boldest personnel moves since joining the agency in April and installed new leadership in safety, operations, and track maintenance.

In a statement, Eng said his shake-up was “not about the status quo but about careful, meaningful restructuring to put people in the best position to succeed based on their talents and experience.”

“We owe it to the public and the workforce,” he said.

Eng reassigned at least 16 senior executives, created new leadership positions to oversee each of the T’s five transit modes, and established new offices to handle the agency’s response to climate change and implement Governor Maura Healey’s goals for building housing near public transit, according to MBTA records obtained by the Globe. At least two executives overseeing operations were demoted.

Eng transferred T veteran Jeff Gonneville from his deputy general manager job overseeing operations to the role of lead negotiator for the agency’s contract with CRRC, a Chinese firm building subway cars for the MBTA in Springfield, the general manager said in his email.

Eng formalized the ascension of Tim Lesniak to chief safety officer, a role he had held on an acting basis following the departure of Ronald Ester in August.

Chief railroad officer Ryan Coholan, who works on commuter rail, will become chief of operations and report to Eng. He replaces Erik Stoothoff, the acting chief of operations and former T chief engineer, who was demoted to deputy chief engineer and will report to chief engineer Sam Zhou, one of four outside executives Eng hired earlier this year, the email said.

Advertisement



T riders will likely have high hopes for the success of another appointment, Doug Connett, who was named chief of infrastructure earlier this year. He is responsible for “eliminating the speed restrictions backlog,” according to an internal overview of the changes obtained by the Globe.

Connett joined the T from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority in Washington, D.C., where he was vice president and assistant chief safety officer of operations and investigations.

Working with him will be Jody Ray, who will oversee subway tracks in the role of senior director of maintenance of way.

Chief of engineering and maintenance Joe Cheever, ultimately responsible for track safety, was named deputy director of project delivery in transit facilities maintenance, said Pesaturo. The job is a lower level position.

John Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report.






















Taylor Dolven can be reached at taylor.dolven@globe.com. Follow her @taydolven. Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her @lauracrimaldi.