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The MBTA passes a big winter test, for now

A conductor on the Red Line changed position, crosssing over a snow-covered platform.
A conductor on the Red Line changed position, crosssing over a snow-covered platform. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Since the MBTA’s catastrophic winter breakdowns two years ago, Governor Charlie Baker and transportation officials have insisted the transit system is better prepared for severe storms. After a fairly mild winter last year, Thursday’s heavy snowfall marked a major test.

While many commuters stayed home to avoid the nasty weather, commuter rail and subway trains were largely on time, officials said.

“We have not seen any substantial or out-of-the-ordinary delays,” Stephanie Pollack, the state’s transportation secretary, said at a news conference.

For the most part, evening commutes on the subway were relatively uneventful.

“I was expecting a lot of delays . . . but it ran perfectly,” said Enoch Wong of Somerville, who rode the Red Line from Harvard Square to South Station.

Commuter rail had a number of delays throughout the evening and a few cancellations on the Haverhill Line, but avoided the kinds of mass cancellations that plagued the operation two years ago.

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Officials at Keolis, which runs the commuter trains for the MBTA, said none ran late during the morning rush hour, but they could not immediately provide a number for the evening commute. Roughly 85 percent of trains overall were on time as of about 8:30 p.m., spokeswoman Leslie Aun said.

At an evening news conference, Baker said that state highway crews and the MBTA would “continue to work through the night” to clear roads and tracks for the Friday morning commute.

To be sure, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority was helped by the timing of Thursday’s storm.

Heavy snow didn’t start falling until after the morning commute, schools across the region canceled classes, and people were urged to stay off the roads. Ridership was light, a far cry from what regular rush hours bring.

Wong said the Red Line “was definitely emptier than it usually is. But maybe they were also a little bit more prepared.”

And the MBTA has made substantial investments to prepare for winter’s wrath. In 2015, Baker proposed an $83 million plan to buy more snow equipment, replace third rails on the subway system, and purchase more de-icing gear.

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Over the years, the MBTA had let crucial snow-removal equipment fall into disrepair. In an embarrassing admission before a legislative committee in 2015, its general manager said the MBTA had failed to use methods common for other transit agencies during the winter, such as applying anti-icing fluids to the third rails and preventing snow from blowing into the motors of aging subway cars.

Officials promised they won’t make such mistakes again. Pollack said they have outfitted the front of 80 subway cars with plows to push the snow away from the motors, and much of the Red Line’s third rail has been replaced on above-ground tracks.

At the commuter rail operation, Keolis has hired a “snow manager” to prepare for winter storms, plus more staff to make sure trains run smoothly in inclement weather.

Commuter John DeFlurin of Norwood said he was pleasantly surprised by his experience riding both the Red Line and commuter rail on Thursday. “They seem like they’ve fixed some of the problems,” said DeFlurin, as he prepared to board a train on the Providence/Stoughton Line.

“I feel like it’s a step in the right direction.”

People waited for commuter trains at North Station.
People waited for commuter trains at North Station.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

Correspondent Jacob Geanous and Josh Miller of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Nicole Dungca can be reached at nicole.dungca@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ndungca.