Latest Green Line meltdown highlights hidden problems for MBTA

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has an ambitious, $8 billion plan to improve service and reliability on the aging transit system: shiny new subway cars, a modernized fare collection system, and track improvements to allow for more frequent service during rush hour.

But it is the mundane and obscure pieces of equipment that continue to disrupt service, such as the partial shutdown of the Green Line Tuesday morning that forced thousands onto shuttle buses and required the evacuation of two trolleys stranded in the ancient tunnels.

MBTA officials say they are focused on that more hidden infrastructure, too. But whether it’s flashy new vehicles or basic parts, the Baker administration acknowledges that it may take a decade or more for all of the work on the T to bear fruit.


“We’re hopeful given the level of investment we’re doing that we’ll see an improvement in the system,“ said Steve Poftak, a member of the T’s governing board. “That doesn’t mean things that are old won’t continue to break.”

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That future cannot come soon enough for passengers who are late to work and other appointments when the system breaks down, as the Green Line did for more than two hours Tuesday morning.

“The amount of delays during rush hour is staggering,” said Ryan James, who commutes on both the Red and Green lines between Quincy and the Back Bay. “It’s the same issues over and over again, with no solution in sight.”

Already, the Green Line has the worst on-time performance of the MBTA’s four subways, in part because trolleys stop at traffic lights while above ground, and then queue up where its branch lines converge on the underground tunnels. Each workday the Green Line, which reaches out through Brookline and Newton, averages 200,000 or so passengers.

T officials attributed the Green Line failure to a broken insulator that separates two wires, and that required workers to cut power for the underground Green Line near Copley Station. James, the Quincy resident, said his trolley was between Boylston and Arlington stations when the power problem began. The car inched forward for about 15 minutes, and once it was about 100 feet from the Arlington platform, MBTA workers escorted passengers off the vehicle and through the tunnels.


“Very frustrating, because we were crawling along at like one to two feet per second, and then just sat in-between stops,” James said. The MBTA “kept saying there were power issues and all we wanted was to get off the train and continue our commutes.”

Green Line goes down, passengers evacuated

The failure of an obscure part underscores the challenge of a system with old equipment.

“That was a terrible morning,” Governor Charlie Baker acknowledged later Tuesday. “It was a difficult and complicated morning, but this is just another example of why the $8 billion we’re going to spend on the core system over the next several years is so important.”

Later this year the MBTA begins hundreds of millions of dollars in work on the Green Line to improve power systems, tracks, tunnels, and other infrastructure, part of the much broader, $8 billion campaign to update so much of the aging equipment across the system over the next five years.

The power system, in particular, is a problem, said Abigail Swaine, a Green Line commuter who chairs the Brookline Public Transportation Advisory Committee.


“This all feeds back into the longstanding problem of power in the Green Line tunnels being under-supplied for modern trains,” she said of the breakdown. “They have to keep the spacing [of trolleys] as tight as possible and that puts a lot of strain on the infrastructure.”

MBTA deputy general manager Jeffrey Gonneville said the segment of wire around the broken insulator had passed a thorough inspection as recently as last week, and a test the T runs every morning on the wiring system showed no problems Tuesday. The T will inspect the material in the coming days to understand why it broke, and will determine if any similar materials must be replaced, Gonneville said.

Gonneville said the most noticeable improvements for commuters are still billions of dollars and several years away. But he also stressed there is much unseen work underway that will have a more immediate impact — devoting more time to preventative maintenance, for example, to find and address problems before they occur.

“They’re the type of incremental changes you’d expect us to do to maintain our system as it is in a reliable fashion,” he said.

Just a week ago Baker reiterated that his vision for the MBTA is “making it work,” touted additional spending for infrastructure, and argued that the state does not need more revenue to properly fund the transportation system.

Widespread transit improvements typically take years, said Augustine Ubaldi, a railroad expert for a Pennsylvania consulting firm. The alternative to a longer timeline, he said, is significant service closures to clear tracks for expedited work, rather than scheduling fixes overnight.

“You have a choice: You can either run trains or repair the track, but you can’t do both simultaneously,” said Ubaldi.

The Green Line breakdown Tuesday provided Democratic candidates for governor this year with more fodder to accuse Baker of moving too slowly. Democrat Jay Gonzalez said the system could be fixed more quickly with new revenue.

“He’s saying that’s the best we can do with what we have,” said Gonzalez. “We need to be aiming higher and treating it like the emergency it is.” A second Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Bob Massie, tweeted the T needs more money.

John R. Ellement, Steve Annear, Emily Sweeney, Matt Rocheleau, and Travis Andersen of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent JD Capelouto contributed to this report. Adam Vaccaro can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @adamtvaccaro.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the title of MBTA deputy general manager Jeff Gonneville.