Top T official calls Red Line ‘an urgent matter’ but unable to predict when it will be fixed
Fed up and scrambling, stressed Red Line commuters got more ominous news Friday when MBTA officials said they could not predict when normal service will be restored to the delay-plagued subway line following a derailment this week that took out part of the signaling system.
Steve Poftak, general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, said he does not know when repairs will be completed to critical signals at the JFK/UMass stop, where a 50-year-old train jumped the tracks Tuesday morning and threw the week’s commute into chaos.
“We view this matter as an urgent matter,” Poftak said, “and we are addressing it as fast as we can do it and do it safely.”
Poftak said MBTA officials are hoping to know by the end of the weekend whether they can restore direct service along the Quincy-Braintree branch line, instead of forcing those riders to switch trains at JFK/UMass Station in a workaround that the T has been using since the derailment.
Although the MBTA has repaired damage to the third rail, power system, and a significant amount of track, Poftak said the agency is still assessing the destruction of the signaling system “and how long it will take to fix.”
One big challenge is that, like so much of the T’s equipment, the signaling system is aging, and finding replacement parts has been challenging. “The signals themselves are relatively old, so the availability of spare parts is somewhat uncertain,” Poftak said.
The signals manage flow along the rail lines, keeping trains at set distances apart. But three sheds containing that electrical gear were heavily damaged by the derailing train, forcing the agency to run its cars at lower speeds since then and manually assist traffic in an area where the Red Line splits into its Braintree and Ashmont branches.
Since Tuesday, tens of thousands of riders have had their routines upended and been forced to improvise new ways into and out of the city. Many have become grudgingly and grouchily resigned to longer travel times and later arrivals at work.
“It’s ridiculous,” said Jessika Ewaart, 22, an accountant from Dorchester who normally takes the Red Line to JFK/UMass and then switches to Braintree. “I don’t take the Red Line anymore. It’s too much, it’s too much.”
Poftak said Red Line riders should continue to add 15 to 20 minutes to their travel time. T officials said commuters should check local media or the MBTA’s website on Sunday to see what’s in store for their commutes on Monday.
“Part of the reason for the current delays is that we are running the trains more slowly because we do not have the automatic switches and signaling equipment in place,” Poftak said. “We won’t speed up the system unless we believe we can do it safely.”
Poftak said the MBTA will run test trains over the damaged area through the weekend but said repairs to three signal sheds at JFK/UMass, including one that was nearly destroyed, will take time — raising the prospect that the Red Line could run at lower speeds for the foreseeable future. He said 150 employees and contractors are working on the repairs.
The signals at JFK/UMass were scheduled to be replaced as part of an ongoing $113 million program to replace all Red Line signaling systems.
“This, unfortunately, was supposed to be the last one replaced,” Poftak said of JFK/UMass.
The commuting chaos, caused by the second derailment in four days for the subway system, pushed long-simmering irritation into open disgust for many riders.
David Jones, a project management consultant from Quincy who commutes to the Prudential Center, said Friday he just wants to know what Monday will bring.
“It’s challenging in terms of making meetings. It’s causing major delays in my schedule, and I’m actually thinking about transferring to another office that’s located in Quincy because it’s really just — it’s a nightmare,” Jones said.
“It makes sense for me to jump into my car — seven minutes without traffic, 12 minutes with — down the road to an office where I can park, as opposed to getting on the Red Line and dealing with the havoc of the train derailment and the crowds,” said Jones, 58.
“Everybody’s angry, and you might run into some of the conductors, and some of them aren’t too happy, either.”
Poftak said the MBTA is looking at track infrastructure and the subway car as possible causes for the derailment. Although the car was built in 1969, the wheels and apparatus that hold them were installed in 2014, Poftak said. The train was inspected most recently on May 3.
“The message I want to send is we have a safe system,” Poftak said.
The derailed train traveled around one-third of a mile after jumping the tracks. The accident resulted in four-hour commutes for some riders, many of whom waited for already packed buses or paid ride-hailing fares that at times exceeded $100 for short rides.
About 60 people were evacuated from the train by Boston firefighters, and one person received a minor injury but did not require hospitalization, officials said. The MBTA has ruled out driver error and foul play.
Whatever the cause, the accident has forced hordes of riders to rethink their strategies for getting into a city that already has one of the worst commutes in the country.
Erika Badger normally drives to the Red Line from Scituate, but she has switched to taking the commuter rail to South Station.
“It usually takes us, before the accident happened, an hour and 10. It took us three hours on the day it happened, and then two hours the day after,” said Badger, 22 who works at a software engineering firm.
Ebonee Jones, 42, a nurse assistant at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital who takes the Red Line from Ashmont, said she is contemplating a more drastic alternative.
“I’m ready to drive now. I’m ready to learn how to drive,” Jones said with a laugh. “Something’s always wrong with the Red Line, always.”