fb-pixel Skip to main content

One day, but plenty of bad news for Red Line riders

Commuters crammed into a Red Line train at South Station on Monday.
Commuters crammed into a Red Line train at South Station on Monday. Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

On a day that the Red Line was plagued with morning delays, transportation officials happened to gather to assess the state of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s most used subway line — and the picture wasn’t pretty.

The MBTA is behind on about $1.5 billion in upgrades or replacements for Red Line trains, tracks, signals, and other infrastructure, officials said Monday. The line’s on-time performance rarely beat 75 percent during last summer and fall. And as more riders take the Red Line every year, the trains are frequently overcrowded during peak hours.

Charles Planck, an assistant general manager for operations strategy and support, told the MBTA’s fiscal control board that even if the Red Line ran without its commonplace delays, many of its cars would still struggle to handle the crush of passengers they attract, particularly at rush hour.


“Probably everyone in this room has been on a Red Line train that they thought was too crowded,” Planck said at the board’s weekly meeting.

From 8 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. on weekdays in March and April last year, the Andrew, Broadway, South Station, Kendall, Central, and Harvard stations frequently attract more passengers than the Red Line can handle, according to internal data. The T’s own data also show that Red Line cars arrived on time — about every 4 to 5 minutes during commuting hours — less than 75 percent of the time, from July to November 2015.

All of that comes as the Red Line attracts more riders, surpassing the T’s overall growth. Ridership across the T grew about 6 percent from fiscal year 2008 to 2015. But Red Line ridership grew 14.7 percent during the same period, to 280,800 a day.

Jeffrey Gonneville, the MBTA’s chief operating officer, said officials are pursuing “creative” options to reduce crowding but gave few details.


There was some good news: Data showed that the T is breaking down less often, with roughly 13,600 more miles traveled between mechanical failures last month compared with the previous December.

The report on the state of the Red Line came on a day that the MBTA reported “severe delays” through much of the morning rush hour.

Scott Groth, a commuter rail rider from West Concord, said he arrived at the Porter Square station to take the Red Line around 8:15 a.m., and he found a mass of people trying to pack onto already jammed trains.

“People were just piled in there. Then they said on the announcer that there were severe delays,” he said. “There were a bunch of people staying there and they couldn’t get in.”

Frank DePaola, the MBTA’s general manager, said the Red Line cars have begun running on a new track on the Longfellow Bridge, which is being rebuilt by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. Because of the construction work this past weekend, the T had to enact a 10 mile-per-hour speed restriction over the bridge.

DePaola said they hoped they could lift the restrictions in time for Tuesday’s commute, but officials on Monday night said the restrictions will still cause delays then.

The move had cascading effects on the rest of the line, with some passengers stuck on stationary trains for more than half an hour and trains showing up erratically during the height of the morning commute.

For several weeks over the past year, the MBTA has shut down the Red Line between Kendall Square and Park Street for select weekends as the bridge was rebuilt. The MBTA has run shuttle buses in lieu of subway service during the weekends, but Monday marked the first major bridge-related disruptions on a weekday morning.


Any regular user of the Red Line, however, knows that weekday delays are far from rare.

The problems plaguing the Red Line are not new, nor are they unique, compared with the MBTA’s other lines. The Red Line has 218 vehicles, 92 signals, 54 track miles, and more than 1.7 million of signal wires to maintain, among other infrastructure.

And like many big-city transit systems across the country, many of those assets are old: The Red Line operates with a 1970s signal system, and some of its cars date to the 1960s.

MBTA officials say the Red Line has a backlog of about $1.5 billion in necessary equipment maintenance or replacement. The MBTA is under a $566 million contract with the China-based China Railway Rolling Stock Corp. to replace 132 Red Line cars, and DePaola said the project is proceeding according to plan. Still, those cars won’t start rolling on the tracks until at least 2019.

Gonneville said officials gave the presentation on Monday to begin a discussion about what long-term, big-ticket investments they need to improve the Red Line’s reliability.

Transit advocates said they hoped the new information about ridership growth and continued problems will lead to more money for the transit system.


“People are on overcrowded platforms in the morning and they take it anyway,” said Rafael Mares, the vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation. “Can you imagine how many people there are that would like to take the Red Line but don’t because of the conditions? There’s a huge demand of service, and it hasn’t been met because we don’t invest in the system.”

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