Metro

For T workers, a ‘lucky’ winter after the worst winter of all

Mike Dauwer used a rail saw as he and other MBTA maintenance workers repaired tracks at the Red Line’s JFK/UMass station during the overnight hours last week. The work has been easier this winter.
Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe
Mike Dauwer used a rail saw as he and other MBTA maintenance workers repaired tracks at the Red Line’s JFK/UMass station during the overnight hours last week. The work has been easier this winter.

When a cold rain started around 2:30 one recent morning, the welders drilling new Red Line track for the JFK/UMass station didn’t flinch. They had seen much, much worse.

“Compared to last year? This is nice,” said Walter Frye, a night supervisor for MBTA maintenance crews.

Paul Good, a foreman standing in the 43-degree gloom amid the welders’ flying sparks, agreed.

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“This is excellent,” he said. “Last winter? It was brutal.”

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For months, Governor Charlie Baker and transportation officials have assured residents that they were prepared for a repeat of last year. This year’s $83 million “winter resiliency plan” included new rails and heaters on the tracks and a fleet of new snow-removal machines.

But all that preparation apparently scared off the snow. During a winter in which 60-degree days have made surprise visits in February — and temperatures this week may reach the 70s — the agency has been more concerned with crises involving old infrastructure, such as a panel falling off an Orange Line vehicle and a broken Amtrak signal diverting dozens of commuter rail trains away from South Station.By this time last year, about 105 inches of snow had fallen. This year, only about 26 inches of snow have hit the ground, 10 inches less than a 30-year average, according to the National Weather Service.

As a result, many MBTA employees are feeling relieved — even lucky — while they cross their fingers and hope the surprisingly mild weather persists.

And for the cash-strapped T itself, an easy winter will probably prove easy on the budget. For the first 58 days of last year, the MBTA spent an average of $265,000 a day on overtime for its workers. This year, that number has decreased 54 percent — to an average $122,000 a day.

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And that’s not the only dramatic difference between this winter and last.

Rick Keefe, a worker with a Red Line maintenance crew, said it wasn’t unusual to work 24-hour shifts, when the MBTA needed all the able-bodied people it could get on the tracks.

“It was just too much snow, and there was nowhere to put it,” he said.

Frye, Keefe, and Good are members of the crews that roam the tracks in the middle of the night, fixing broken and damaged rails. Patrick Kineavy, the head of their department, refers to them fondly as the T’s worker elves.

Kineavy, who spent 16 years on the night shift for the “maintenance of way” department, said the group is used to snow and cold. When the temperature dips below freezing, they usually work in the tunnels, where it’s warmer. But in general, Kineavy said, the workers are unfazed.

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“It is what it is,” Keefe said. “It’s our job. It’s what we do. You hope it doesn’t get bad, but if it does, you have to deal with it.”

Still, the weather was hard to ignore last year. Their repair work was made doubly hard by mountains of snow and persistently cold weather that kept it from melting. And, at times, the agency didn’t have enough workers showing up to shovel everything.

On the Red Line last year, the third rail became encased in ice, disastrously preventing the trains from moving and closing entire outdoor sections of the subway for several days.

This season, the MBTA has used an anti-icing fluid, which came in handy after a cold snap in February. And officials beefed up their snow-clearing fleet, after officials had let several machines fall into disrepair before last winter.

The new equipment and preparation almost made Frye hope for some intense snowstorms that seem unlikely to come:

“You kind of want to see them in action, you know?” he said.

That’s not the case for many bus and subway drivers, who would be glad to see the unseasonably warm weather last all the way to spring. During one recent lunch hour at the Cabot Yard maintenance building, a group of bus drivers recalled — with little fondness — how they slept in the break room this time last year or had to catch rides from managers because it was impossible to drive their cars down their streets to get to work.

Compared to last year, one driver said this year has been a blessing. But she wasn’t going to speak too soon, she said.

“March is up in the air,” said the driver, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she didn’t have permission to speak to the press. “It could go this way, or it could go that way.”

A co-worker with decades of experience jumped in to agree: “We won’t be happy until April,” she said.

Rick Keefe (left) assisted Matty Crowell with a rail drill as workers repaired rails at JFK/UMass station.
Aram Boghosian The Boston Globe
Rick Keefe (left) assisted Matty Crowell with a rail drill as workers repaired rails at JFK/UMass station.

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