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T woes raise worries about Olympic travel

Commuters waited for a train at the Sullivan Square MBTA station on Tuesday.Steve Annear/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Daniel Pritchard was stuck on a Red Line train somewhere between Central and Harvard squares when he fired off his Tweet: “Overheard on #MBTA: Commuter rail got stuck halfway across a road crossing and the Red Line was on fire. I can’t wait for the #Olympics.”

Kelly Packard, a public relations professional at a Boston hospital, was enduring her own hellish commute when she had the same thought.

“My normal 25-minute #mbta Green Line commute took 1 hour and 20 minutes this morning,” she tweeted. “But let’s have a parade and the Olympics!”

Across the city, exasperated T riders enduring one of the worst commutes in recent memory seemed to wonder in unison: how can an aging, chronically under-funded transit system handle the world’s biggest sporting event, if it can’t even cut through a rough New England winter?


Sure, the Olympics would be held in presumably fair weather in the summer of 2024 and Boston is now buried under the deepest seven-day snow total in recorded history.

“We’re not bidding on the Winter Olympics, we’re bidding on the Summer Olympics,” said Richard Davey, chief executive of the local Olympic organizing group, Boston 2024. Davey, who also happens to be the former general manager of the T, also noted that winning the Olympic bid would kickstart long-overdue improvements to the system. And some have already been ordered, including new Red and Orange line trains.

But the basic equipment failures that have plagued the T over the last week have prompted even hard-bitten straphangers to fret over how ready the system would be for a flood of athletes, spectators, and tourists from around the world.

“When I think about the possibility of bringing probably millions more people into the city even in the best of weather, at best it makes me anxious,” said Pritchard, a Quincy native and lifelong T rider.


On Tuesday, his typical 40-minute commute on the Red Line from his home in Medford to his job at MIT took a frustrating 2 hours and 20 minutes --- and included failed attempts to board two packed Orange Line trains, followed by a bus to the Green Line and then an MIT shuttle.

“I’m a huge supporter of the system and think they generally do a good job with what they have,” Pritchard said after finally arriving at work. “But the Olympics is a different beast altogether and I think, rightfully, a lot of people are skeptical.”

Davey pointed out that the T’s problems are largely caused by equipment failing in the snow and cold.

“In July of 2024, neither will be a problem,” said Davey, whose own T commute from the South End to South Boston was a relatively painless 30 minutes on Tuesday.

Still, he said, the massive delays have exposed longstanding weakness in the system, such as 47-year-old Red Line cars.

Indeed, Tuesday brought a litany of problems familiar to any commuter who rides the T in the winter. A Greenbush train broke down near Quincy Center for two hours, blocking other trains from the South Shore from reaching South Station. Passengers on the commuter rail were treated to a 100-minute delay on the Fitchburg/South Acton line and a 120-minute delay on the Needham Line. And on the Red and Orange lines, nearly 40 percent of all cars were disabled.


Yes, the Olympics would be nine years away. But it wasn’t looking good.

“If we can’t handle something that we know is going to happen – this is New England, hello, we have snowstorms – and we almost have the system shut down for that, how are going to transport thousands of extra people around the city?” said Kirk Hazlett, an associate professor of communication who takes the T from his home in Belmont to his job at Curry College. “At this point in the game, we’re not prepared to handle it.”

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.