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Is a fire just a mechanical issue? How the MBTA alerts riders about problems

The engine of an MBTA commuter rail train was extinguished by Hanson firefighters on Nov. 29.
The engine of an MBTA commuter rail train was extinguished by Hanson firefighters on Nov. 29. (Hanson Fire Department)

A train’s engine catches fire? That’s a mechanical issue. A wheel falls off a coach, causing a derailment? That’s a disabled train.

MBTA officials have had their hands full on the commuter rail recently, with two major incidents, on the Fitchburg and Kingston lines. But amid the concerns about delayed trips and failing equipment stood another criticism from riders: The T was not offering enough detail through its service alerts about what, exactly, was going on.

Through social media alerts earlier this monthl, the T for nearly two hours referred only to a “mechanical issue” on a derailed train near Belmont before eventually citing the derailment for subsequent delays. A locomotive that caught fire in Hanson, meanwhile, was never directly described.

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Some Twitter users said the vague messaging seemed to downplay, if not outright hide, the gravity of the trouble. “Are you going to let people know that your train was on fire?” one user wrote.

The T has emphasized improved communication about service problems in the last year, and has taken a few of tangible steps. On the subway, the T dropped a vague set of descriptions that classified delays as “minor,” “moderate,” or “severe,” replacing them with time estimates for how long it may take to clear up problems. In-station signs that estimate passenger waits now say if a train is stopped on the tracks. And riders can now better customize the T’s text-message service alerts based on time and location.

But other issues persist. The Pioneer Institute, a conservative Boston think tank, recently released a report that criticized the commuter rail for using varying terms to describe disruptions. According to the report, some alerts say a train is delayed, meaning it is likely to remain off-schedule for the entire trip, while others say a train is behind schedule, meaning it may still catch up to its schedule.

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Problem is, the difference is not publicly described anywhere, making it more than just a rhetorical issue, said Pioneer research assistant Kaila Webb. If a train is described as running behind, and riders therefore assume they should show up to their station a few minutes late, they may miss a train that catches up to its schedule.

“When I see ‘running behind,’ I don’t immediately think it might catch up. I think I have another five minutes,” Webb said.

While most riders probably would prefer delay-free service over better communication, there’s good reason for all this communications focus. Several academic studies have shown that getting clear and accurate information about transit, from service alerts to real-time information about vehicle locations, has a positive influence on rider experience.

Transit agencies should “take the uncertainty away as much as possible,” said Vikash Gayah, an engineering professor at Penn State University who studies mass transit. “Take the workload from the passengers trying to figure it out and put it on the agency.”

So why not be explicit about what, exactly, is wrong with a train?

Officials say they must strike a balance between getting information to riders both quickly and accurately, sometimes delaying an official announcement of a problem until it can be confirmed by communications staff — even if it’s obvious to people on board.

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In the case of the fire, Keolis, the private company that operates the commuter rail for the MBTA, said it wasn’t initially clear whether there was indeed a fire or just smoke. Still, while Keolis eventually confirmed the fire to news outlets that published accounts of the issue, it was never directly referenced in service alerts.

Officials also note that there are different types of service alerts. Tweets about service, for example, are meant to reach riders who are planning a trip and may want to adjust their schedule, not necessarily riders who are already on a train.

For riders who are on a vehicle that breaks down, the conductor is meant to be the primary form of communication. (Conductors, of course, can be hard to reach on a particularly crowded trip, though they can make announcements on a public address system.)

Dan Dufresne, a Halifax resident who was on the train that caught fire, said conductors alerted passengers the train would be delayed for a prolonged period five to 10 minutes after it initially stopped, which he considered a reasonable timeframe. But he did not realize smoke was billowing from the engine until he stepped off the train.

“In fairness to the conductors, I rushed out to grab coffee . . . so I honestly don’t know whether they were aware the engine was on fire,” he said. “The sequence of events was pretty quick from my [point of view], so I don’t know what they knew, and when.”

Keolis spokesman Tory Mazzola said the company will listen to criticism about how disruptions are described.

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“We recognize that we can continue to improve this process and will undertake an evaluation of both the process and the language we use following [last week’s] incidents to determine possible improvements,” Mazzola said.

Kari Watkins, a Georgia Tech professor who has studied service notifications, said the era of smartphones and instant information has made it more important for agencies to provide riders with as much information as possible.

In the transit industry, Watkins said, “we have to have a higher level of accountability, where if we’re going to keep riders, we need to have really great information.”


Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.