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MBTA learns from other cities after rough winter

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/File

Interim MBTA chief Frank DePaola.

By Nicole Dungca Globe Staff 

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority failed to use anti-icing fluid on its third rails or operate its trains on reduced schedules during this winter’s storms, steps commonly taken by other cold-weather transit systems to keep trains running, the T’s interim leader told legislators Monday.

Frank DePaola, the T’s interim general manager, told lawmakers the agency made “eye-opening” discoveries when it compared its practices with those of peers in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Toronto, after Boston’s snowiest winter walloped the transit system and stranded thousands of commuters.

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Other cities’ transit systems use special maintenance trains, rather than passenger trains, to remove snow, the agency discovered.

Hearing this, legislators on the joint committee on transportation questioned why the T was so far behind other cities that experience winter weather. Representative Evandro C. Carvalho asked why the T hadn’t “caught up” with other cities.

“Some of these, especially the recommendations they made, sounded to me — and I’m no expert — but the anti-icing thing and that you shouldn’t be using the Red and Orange line cars to clear snow, sounded, to me, kind of basic,” Carvalho said.

DePaola, who started as interim general manager this month, told legislators that the agency and its workers were used to old practices.

“The MBTA has a set of policies and procedures that have worked for them for maybe 100 years,” he said. But when the system faltered this winter, he said, T leaders decided to look outside for fresh ideas and fresh thoughts.

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For example, the T knew that anti-icing fluid could have prevented the third rail on the Red Line from becoming encased in ice when record-breaking snow and extreme cold overwhelmed the heating system that in normal winters keeps the trains running.

Representative David Muradian asked DePaola why they had not used anti-icing fluid, and DePaola said officials had been worried the fluid could be corrosive to the tracks. What they did not know, until they heard it from New York and Chicago, was that noncorrosive anti-icing fluids have become available in recent years.

The T has begun using these modern anti-icing compounds, and the fluid has “started to show some good results,” DePaola said.

The review of the T’s service by peer transit agencies, which was organized by the American Public Transportation Association, has not yet been completed, said Joe Pesaturo, a T spokesman. But DePaola said the agency is taking several steps in response to the review.

In addition to buying the anti-icing fluid, the T is looking into purchasing new vehicles specifically for snow removal and implementing a plan to operate a reduced schedule during winter emergencies.

Four major snowstorms hit the area in a month’s time, helping Boston to break the record for the most snow in a winter. The onslaught of snow forced the T to shut down service for nearly 3½ days, and the commuter rail ran on a reduced schedule for six full weeks.

Representative William M. Straus, the Democrat who co-chairs the transportation committee, said he noticed legislators at Monday’s hearing stopped short of taking the T to task for its failure to implement basic steps in its preparations for winter.

“People were very polite today,” he said. “There was a sense of, ‘How come these things weren’t thought of?’ ”

The legislative committee hearing came on the day Keolis Commuter Services, which operates the T’s commuter rail system to suburban communities outside Boston, announced it was operating its full schedule for the first time since February.

Keolis has borne the brunt of criticism for canceled trains and disrupted service. But Keolis officials had attempted to act in accordance with accepted practice when, during the height of the crisis, they had asked the MBTA if they could reduce their schedule, to preserve their trains and allow workers time to clear snow.

Instead, said Keolis’s general manager, Gerald Francis, the T did not allow the commuter rail service to reduce its schedule. At one point during the winter, more than a third of the commuter rail locomotives were out of service, many of them because snow had blown into the motors and broken them.

Stephanie Pollack, the state’s transportation secretary, defended the initial refusal to reduce commuter rail schedules.

“Part of the issue was that we didn’t have a plan for reduced service,” she said.

Pollack also said the T had to balance providing enough service to customers at a moment when people are being discouraged from driving, and preserving their trains and tracks.

“We were trying to make those balancing decisions in real time under real pressure,” she said. That’s not the optimum way to do that. Now we have the advantage of learning from what [we] did and didn’t do right, so that we can go into next winter, and we already have the plans and we don’t need to make these really tough calls.”


Nicole Dungca can be reached at nicole.dungca@globe.com
Follow her on Twitter @ndungca.