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opinion | Robin Washington

What to fix first on the T?

Snow piled up at the entrance of the closed Arlington Station on Jan. 25.Getty Images

Anyone have a spare third-rail heater?

With MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott’s surprise resignation Wednesday — an answer to her critics that could be colorfully construed as “All right, you fix it” — ways to keep ice off the trains’ power source suddenly became the problem of everyone using the T.

And while we’re at it, look for some railway snowplows. And motors for Orange and Red Line trains that keep short-circuiting, leaving passengers trudging along the tracks.

“I really don’t know where to begin,” T spokesman Joe Pesaturo said when asked for the most urgently needed fix for the nation’s oldest, and crumbling, subway system. He did have plenty of reports, however, including one in 2011 requesting $100 million to patch up subway cars, some built the year Richard Nixon was inaugurated, from the T’s chief mechanical officer.


“He got about a third of that,” Pesaturo said. That covered rehabbing 58 cars, nowhere near enough to last until the 2018 scheduled delivery of 284 new ones from CNR MA Corp., a subsidiary of China’s state-owned railcar manufacturer.

Even if all the old trains were refurbished, they won’t budge in winter without third rail heaters, which have failed, knocking out both the Blue and Red lines recently. A bid for new heaters closed Thursday, too late for this winter, but helpful, we hope, in future years.

As for what to do next, well, riders stuck on trains or forced to miss work have had plenty of time to come up with ideas. Quincy’s Mike Fishman eagerly volunteered.

“I’d seriously reevaluate the CNR contract,” he said, questioning not the need for new cars but the manufacturer’s scant experience in the United States, coupled with the T’s bad luck with new vendors.

“There’s still a scar on the outbound Northeastern station platform from when a Green Line train jumped the tracks years ago,” Fishman said of derailments that plagued the MBTA’s first purchases from Italian carmaker Breda in the early 2000s.


Transit buff Scott Moore of Weymouth suggested the T could do better than just emergency retrofits.

“Philadelphia entirely rebuilt a group of trolleys from the 1940s, like on the Mattapan line, with all new components for a mere $1.2 million each,” he said, making them air-conditioned and handicapped-accessible (though with a lift, not ramps) for much less than the roughly $4 million for new trolleys.

Fitchburg Line rider Jenna Flanagan just wants any train to run, lamenting: “Even before all the snow, on my commuter rail line hardly a day goes by that I’m not getting texts about ‘mechanical failure’ or switch or crossing malfunctions delaying trains.”

North Andover’s Charlie Sullivan called snowplows the top priority. And Janine Clifford cited broken equipment unrelated to running trains but potentially a bigger drain on revenue.

“The Charlie Card turnstiles,” the Jamaica Plain-to-Southie commuter said. “I have had to ‘piggyback-in’ several times because when I scan my card, it accepts it, but the doors don’t open.”

“Piggyback-in” is a nice way of saying turnstile jumping, which could become a serious problem if broken machines encourage it across the system.

Finally, from Helenmarie Seager of Kingston, N.H.: “An elected GM.”

OK, none of these people is going to end up running the T (though Moore, an amateur T historian, bowling alley worker, former small bus line supervisor, and Northeastern University transportation and logistics graduate, says he’d like the job.)


But neither should their suggestions be dismissed. They’re all interconnected, and if not addressed, the entire system fails, and the state and regional economy with it.

Which is everyone’s problem.

Robin Washington writes on transportation. He can be reached at robin@robinwashington.com