Lots of red lights: T says Red Line service will be cut back for months
Red Line riders will have to endure fewer trains and longer commutes until at least Labor Day, MBTA officials said Friday, as the agency works through the summer to rebuild the signal system that was badly damaged by the June 11 derailment.
Commuters on the heavily used line should continue to build 20 minutes or so of extra time into their rides, the officials added. They also warned that the delays might extend beyond early September.
For now, the agency plans to run 10 trains per hour on the Red Line during rush hour, compared to 13 to 14 trains when the line is running at full service.
“We are working to restore the full level of service using some of the existing equipment and any equipment we can secure,” Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority general manager Steve Poftak said Friday. “It is a very complicated process. Some of this equipment is obviously not the type of thing that you buy off the rack.”
Some 10 days after a Red Line train jumped the tracks near the JFK/UMass Station, investigators are still trying to determine what caused the train to leave the tracks. They’ve ruled out human error and any track-related issues, and have narrowed their focus to the 50-year-old train car itself.
The derailment damaged three sheds containing equipment that controls signals and switches where the Ashmont and Braintree branches diverge.
T officials also disclosed Friday they had initially projected it could take roughly a year to fully restore the signal system, but are “working to compress that schedule.”
Officials said there’s a chance service could improve through the summer as they make repairs and reduce the number of workers who are still manually helping manage train traffic.
The disclosures come just days before the MBTA is scheduled to increase subway fares by nearly 6 percent on July 1. Officials have resisted calls to postpone the fare hike until service on the Red Line is returned to normal levels.
“It’s of little comfort to get specific details and a timeline at this point because there’s a lot of skepticism about whether the goals that are set like that can be accomplished,” said City Councilor Michelle Wu, who plans to lead protests of the fare increases July 1.
She said commutes are taking much longer for many Red Line riders than the T is estimating. Faced with fewer trains, riders are waiting longer to get on one and are often battling heavy crowds.
“There’s a lot of frustration, and there’s a lot of anger still that the fare hikes are kicking in soon and this is the service that we’re dealing with,” Wu said.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who this week heavily criticized the T leadership under Governor Charlie Baker , wrote on Twitter that even though the T is making progress, “we need full restoration on a faster timeline.”
Poftak said money is not the issue in completing the repairs; the T has tapped both staff and outside contractors to help, but fixing an intricate system that controls everything from train speed to track switches is time consuming.
The T has a $113 million contract to replace all the signals on the Red Line with a new digital system — a project officials say they now intend to complete in 2020, instead of 2021.
“It’s a question of extensive damage to equipment that in some cases dates back to when this area was constructed,” Poftak said of the JFK/UMass Station. “That’s a very complicated process to work through that and come up with fixes.”
Keith Millhouse, a California-based transit consultant, said given that complexity, riders shouldn’t consider Labor Day as an end point for completing repairs.
“I’m not sure Labor Day is realistic given the amount of damage,” he said, adding that T officials “need to under-promise and over-deliver, as opposed to promising the moon and not delivering.”
Red Line commuters met the T’s announcement about the repair timeline with a mixture of disappointment and skepticism.
“At least to Labor Day, which means it’ll probably go into Columbus Day,” said Adam Hirst, who is commuting to MIT from Braintree for a summer course on computer applications.
“We don’t even know when the next train’s coming,” he said. “We could wait here 20 minutes and not know when the next train is coming, which can make me late for the class.”
Katarzyna Franczak, who commutes to work at Massachusetts General Hospital from Quincy Adams, called the developments a “bummer.” She now spends around three hours each day on the T and even before the derailment wasn’t happy with the Red Line service.
“And now it’s even worse, so it’s really getting ridiculous,” she said. “And now with the price hike, I don’t see it — to me, it just doesn’t add up. Why are we paying more for something that MBTA doesn’t get right?”
The T has said it’s in the midst of spending heavily on the system, including some $2 billion in improvements to the Red and Orange lines. That includes replacing its aging fleets, upgrading track, and installing new signals.
“We understand how disruptive this has been for riders,” Poftak said. “Our priority is on improving service, doing it as quickly as we can but doing it as safely as we can.”
Still, the Red Line faced other challenges this week.
The Cambridge Fire Department on Friday responded to reports of haze and smoky odors at several stations after a train experienced mechanical issues. That followed a similar incident the Quincy Fire Department responded to earlier this week, when a train had a motor problem at the North Quincy Station. The Quincy train was later cleared to return to service.
Linette Davis, a monthly T pass holder who commutes from Central Square, said Friday she now sometimes takes the bus because Red Line trains are packed and the service is erratic.
“It’s going to be very difficult if it’s this level of service till Labor Day,” said Davis.