The derailment of a Red Line car Tuesday caused significant damage to the traffic signaling equipment on the subway line that has forced the MBTA to operate at reduced speeds at a critical juncture, and officials do not yet know when service will return to normal operations.
Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority general manager Steve Poftak said Red Line riders should expect delays to continue through at least Friday, while investigators assess whether the signaling equipment can be repaired or needs to be replaced outright. The T is also assessing damage to the third rail system that powers that stretch of the Red Line.
Without properly working signals, Red Line trains will continue to move at lower speeds as workers physically direct and route trains down each line.
“Right now we’re simply assessing the damage,” Poftak said in an interview. “We’re in the process of assessing the damage done to the infrastructure, the power system and looking to our various teams to present us with options. We want to be able to run service safely and that is our first priority.”
Poftak also said the cause of the derailment, which occurred early Tuesday as the morning rush hour was getting underway, is under investigation.
The signaling equipment is housed in several large sheds near the JFK/UMass Station that were ripped open by the derailing train car, damaging the banks of equipment that control traffic in an area where the Red Line splits into the Braintree and Ashmont branches.
The full extent of the physical damage was revealed Wednesday morning, after workers removed the derailed train from in front of the sheds. In an extensive notice on its Twitter account Wednesday morning, the T warned that repairing the equipment sheds, or “bungalows,” would be time-consuming.
“Looking ahead, bungalows will need to be rebuilt, new signals & cables installed, tracks repaired. At this time, we can’t say how long that will take,” The T said, warning Red Line riders to allow extra time for their commutes. “We know this is a big ask. We sincerely appreciate all our riders’ understanding and patience while crews work around the clock to fix this.”
The derailment, the second on MBTA lines in less than a week, caused a cascade of delays that carried over into Wednesday, and forced Quincy and Braintree riders to switch trains at JKF Station.
Electronic countdown clocks, normally lit with train arrival times, were shut down, leaving some commuters confused and others furious.
“If it’s going to be like this for a while, it’s going to be a pain in the butt,” said Emily Wright, whose commute time from Quincy to Harvard Medical School was tripled Tuesday. Wednesday was slightly better, she said.
“It definitely seems calmer than it did yesterday, and people seem to be just kind of going with the flow,” added Wright. “But I think that if it stays like this for a long time, then people are going to start to get angry and more annoyed.”
The MBTA stationed personnel inside Red Line stations to steer passengers and update them on service, and issued updates online throughout the day about delays and additional service on commuter rail trains that stop at Red Line stations. On Thursday, passengers on the Braintree branch will have to switch trains at JFK station.
For the past two days, Lauren Smith’s commute was the stuff of nightmares.
“I left work 45 minutes ago, and I only went two stops, and now I’m waiting here,” said Smith, who is eight months pregnant, while waiting at the JFK Station. Communication from MBTA about the delays and repairs has been “not great, it’s very frustrating. . . . It just makes it hard when your ride is several hours a day when it’s not supposed to be.”
Wynton Habersham, a New York-based transit consultant, said judging by pictures of the damaged equipment sheds, restoring the line to full service “won’t be a quick fix.”
Recalling an incident on the New York City subway system, where he previously was a longtime executive, Habersham said, “Every situation is different, but we had a fire 10 or 15 years ago that took out an entire signal relay room, and we didn’t go live for another two or three weeks.”
“It takes a lot of time to test each individual circuit post-installation,” added Keith Millhouse, a California-based transit consultant.
Depending on whether the MBTA has a full set of equipment in reserve, Millhouse said it could take one month to get trains back to running on the electronic signal system, and perhaps much longer if the T needs to order new parts. “If not, it could take up to a year,” Millhouse said.
Former Massachusetts transportation secretary James Aloisi said that extended delays could erode ridership.
“It really needs to get fixed on an expedited basis,” he said. “It could inconvenience people. It could drive ridership down. “The only silver lining to this pretty dark cloud is that it may be finally getting through that we need to get serious about improving and upgrading the system,” he said.
The T suspended Red Line service in the area for about two hours Wednesday to allow workers to access the crash site, and ran shuttle buses in the interim. Around 1:30 p.m., there were about 30 workers on the tracks outside the JFK Station, placing wooden boards over the gaping hole in one of the two equipment sheds that were damaged by the derailment.
One worker appeared to be signaling to incoming trains on the nearby track, waving them through. None of the workers could say how long the repairs would take, though one who declined to be identified said they wouldn’t be completed until “way down the calendar.”
The MBTA’s aging signaling equipment has been the bane of Red Line riders in particular, with frequent failures and tripped signals accounting for a significant portion of the delays on the subway lines. In October, the MBTA awarded a $218 million contract to Barletta Heavy Division to install a new signaling system on the Red Line by 2021, and on the Orange Line by 2022. Officials predicted the upgrade could reduce signal failures by 50 to 70 percent.
After the derailment, riders continued to expressed anger at the timing of the T’s scheduled increase in fares, with some reiterating calls a postponement. On July 1, fares on the subway line are scheduled to increase to $2.40 per ride, from $2.25, and monthly passes will cost another $5.50.
Poftak said the T remains committed to the July 1 increase, saying the additional revenue “allows us to make needed investments in capital equipment.”