What intrigues me is the silence of the lambs, otherwise known as fellow T riders.
On Tuesday around 5 p.m., the State Street station was packed with commuters unable to squeeze onto a succession of crammed trains that rattled slowly up and then screeched away, as a violinist on the platform played beautiful music. Perhaps the stranded were tweeting their dismay directly to MBTA management. But there were no outward signs of rebellion. People stared passively into smart phones, texted and listened to whatever was flowing into their ear buds. I ended up walking to North Station, but the Orange Line platform was jammed there, too. When I asked the woman next to me about the air of quiet surrender, she replied: “We’re beaten down.”
Maybe resignation explains recent results from WBUR/MassINC Polling Group. A survey of 504 registered voters, completed Jan. 5 to Jan. 7, found that 45 percent of those polled said they approve of Governor Charlie Baker’s handling of the T. On the other hand, 37 percent said they didn’t know if they approved or not, which could mean a large percentage of those surveyed simply don’t use public transportation.
Jay Gonzalez, a Democrat running for governor, said that on the campaign trail, “the number one issue I hear complaints about is the T. It’s not even close.” Overcrowding and a lack of reliability are the chief gripes, said Gonzalez. To better understand the problem, he took “the pledge” suggested by a commuter who dared public officials to ride the T to work for five days in a row. After taking a different route every day, Gonzalez said, “I have learned some new things about the frustrations people have.”
According to T spokesman Joe Pesaturo, Tuesday’s Orange Line problem stemmed from a disabled train at Ruggles station. Echoing a version of the “Siberian temperatures” excuse tweeted and then deleted by MBTA General Manager and CEO Luis Ramirez, Pesaturo said the 40-year-old Orange Line took a beating, “battered by a major snow storm and the coldest stretch of weather in a century.”
MBTA management can rightly take credit for better storm preparation. T workers removed snow, anticipated flooding, and chipped ice away from switches. Snow-damaged traction motors were replaced and moisture was pumped out of air hoses to prevent the freezing that can cripple train propulsion systems. The MBTA now owns a 1.5 megawatt portable generator, jet snow blowers, and locomotives with augers. If the goal is to perform better in 2018 than the T did during the 2015 winter catastrophe, that standard was met. But what a low bar.
Shouldn’t T riders want more? And shouldn’t a governor who is actively wooing Amazon and its 50,000 workers to Boston want more too, and faster? Baker is committed to a major transportation overhaul that will invest billions more into the MBTA. But under his plan, it will take 15 years to close the T repair gap. He should try taking the T while that timeline plays out.
As a T newbie, my frame of reference is not the winter of 2015, but the past six months. My Orange Line commute takes me from Oak Grove to Haymarket or State Street, depending on weather and desire for exercise. So far, the issues are more frustrating than cataclysmic. I am dropped off and picked up, because the Oak Grove parking lot fills up very early. Frequently, four or five trains go by before I can squeeze onto one for the ride home. A new fleet of Orange Line cars is expected for delivery in December 2018, but that’s a long way off. It won’t stop rail breaks, one of which I experienced on Dec. 29. The dreaded order came to get off at Wellington, and be shuttled by bus to Community College. There, a long line of Ubers awaited passengers who apparently had little faith in the T’s backup plan. I hurled myself onto a train just as the doors closed. Passengers were so tightly squished together, falling wasn’t an option. We rode in silence, our wedged bodies holding each other up.
Protest doesn’t have to be noisy. Imagine if every T commuter held a sign that read: “Attention, Amazon! This is what awaits you.”