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Wanted for the T: more urgency and empathy from Baker

Lesley Becker/Globe Staff; Adobe;Globe File Photos

Remember that salt- and sweat-soaked fisherman who made Charlie Baker cry during a 2014 gubernatorial debate? The fisherman had pushed his two sons away from college so they could join the family business “and it ruined their lives,” Baker tearfully said.

Maybe that fisherman, if he exists, could hop aboard the Red Line and do what ordinary commuters have been unable to accomplish? Help the governor relate more to their lives, too.

Sobbing and wailing are not required. All Baker has to do is address the frustrations of people with no State Police driver and no choice but to take public transportation, with the urgency and empathy they deserve. Halting an MBTA fare increase scheduled to take place on July 1, as suggested by Mayor Martin J. Walsh, is one way to do that. Taking more time to explain what upgrades have already been accomplished, and why they can’t happen any faster, would also help.


He should also get on a train. Take it from this Orange Line commuter. All the data in Baker’s head can’t replicate the real-life experience of being packed into a grim and grimy old tin can that rattles along the tracks — and as it turns out, is in danger of falling off. According to a Globe report, MBTA trains derailed 43 times over the last five years, the second highest total of any metro transit system in the country. Those statistics don’t include the recent Green Line or Red Line derailments. A Baker aide said the governor is “livid” whenever a derailment occurs. But you wouldn’t know it from his public posture.

After the recent Red Line derailment, Baker kept his distance — literally — from the frustrating system breakdown that inconvenienced thousands of commuters. Press briefings were conducted by MBTA general manager Steve Poftak at the JFK/UMass station where the mishap took place — a location far from the State House. In his back-and-forth with reporters in Boston, Baker said he “appreciates the difficulties” created by the derailment. But the soundbite that got most of the attention was his declaration that when it comes to fixing the T, “we’re heading in the right direction on this stuff.” Maybe we are. But it’s a bumpy ride.


The Baker administration says it’s investing nearly $2 billion in the Red Line and Orange Line improvement program. That includes over $1 billion for new cars, which for the Orange Line, are due out this summer; $470 million on track improvements and upgrades to maintenance facilities; $351 million on signal system upgrades; and $152 million to keep equipment in a state of good repair. Since 2015, the T has replaced 23.5 miles of third rails along exposed segments of the Red Line. The transit authority has also installed a new signal trough spanning 5.75 miles from Braintree to Wollaston, and 34 miles of fiber optic cable between Alewife and Braintree.

That sounds promising — unless you are currently a passenger experiencing delays and wondering about safety. Keith Millhouse, a California-based transit consultant, told the Globe that the derailment statistics demonstrate “a real lax safety culture at the MBTA — and the culture emanates from the top. At the root of all those derailments is someone not doing their job to the level they need to be doing it.”

Operator error was blamed for the June 8 Green Line derailment. But no cause has been identified yet for the June 11 Red Line derailment. Poftak, who rides the T, declared it safe during last week’s press briefings. But on Monday, Poftak said the T is seeking a third-party review of the system’s safety and practices. It’s about time, isn’t it?


Meanwhile, Baker never could identify the tear-inducing angler by name and reporters could never find him. Fish tale or not, “The urgency in my voice comes from those conversations,” Baker said then. If that’s what it takes — calling all fishermen with a commuting story to tell.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.