The Federal Transit Administration today released a series of directives to the T about safety deficiencies on the nation's oldest subway system, deficiencies so serious they demand immediate action even as federal investigators continue going over the T's operations.
In 2021 and so far in 2022, MBTA has experienced several safety events resulting from deferred maintenance of assets in a poor state of repair, including six mainline derailments in 2021 (related to track, switches and/or vehicle conditions); accidents involving escalators and station facilities in poor condition; and safety events stemming from disabled trains, defective switches, and damaged equipment or tools in yards or maintenance facilities.
The FTA gave the MBTA 30 days to respond with plans for "corrective action."
In addition to recently highly publicized crashes on the Green Line and one death of the Red Line, this also includes five Orange and Red Line trains "running away" in repair yards. In one incident, on Dec. 17, three Red Line workers were injured due to a runaway train in a yard.
And on top of injuries and derailments are all the slowdowns caused by track problems, despite all of those weeks the T has shut down parts of all four subway lines for repair work over the past couple of years. Take, for example, the Orange Line tracks between Tufts Medical Center and Back Bay, where drivers have had to go particularly slow since 2019:
FTA found that portions of track displayed evidence of excessive wear and defects. These conditions were, in turn, managed through gauge rods, some of which showed signs of corrosion
Overall, nearly 10% of Red, Orange and Blue Line tracks, and two miles of Green Line tracks, now have speed restrictions, the FTA says.
While the maintenance needs of the system are far greater than those addressable in the short nighttime maintenance windows, MBTA has, to date, not scheduled more substantial track access for [maintenance of way] activities, even though it does schedule diversions and surges for capital projects.
The FTA issued four separate "special directives" today. One common thread to them all is poor management and serious worker shortages, which the administration says has led to overworked, tired, T employees being unable to properly maintain the sprawling system - compounded by the fact that some people in key positions are not even certified for the jobs they're doing.
This was particularly acute at the the T's Operations Control Center on High Street downtown, which oversees operation of the four subway lines:
Taken together, MBTA has created a management process whereby OCC staff members are required to work without certifications, in a fatigued state, and often fulfilling multiple roles at once. MBTA’s failure to ensure that personnel within the Operations Control Center (OCC), including train and power dispatchers, are trained and certified, properly rested, and concentrating on one role at a time is a significant safety risk - one that is compounded by inadequate procedures. These circumstances create an increased safety risk for trains, equipment, personnel and property. While FTA is mindful that these practices are the product of systemic staffing shortages, MBTA must nevertheless fulfill its duty to operate the OCC and the system safely.
The FTA also criticized the T for concentrating only on the direst of problems, which means that other problems go unfixed until they become absolutely critical. The T also lacks key workers and equipment to make certain repairs - outside contractors have to be called in for certain critical welding tasks - and a Green Line "work train" has been out of service for eight months.
The administration also criticized the way that trains in for repairs at yards on the Orange and Red Line sometimes just start rolling down the tracks:
These events raise serious safety concerns. Failure to properly secure disabled trains, including trains with insufficient brakes or propulsion systems, and failure to properly secure disabled trains in yards and maintenance facilities is a significant safety risk. Disabled trains may not be able to make moves directed by yard dispatchers or other personnel and may not be able to apply required braking or propulsion utilizing routine movement and securement methods, creating an increased likelihood of unintended and uncontrolled movements, resulting in collisions with other trains, equipment, or personnel injuries or fatalities.
One of the "special directives" was aimed not at the T directly, but at the state Department of Public Utilities, which the feds say has failed in its role of making sure the T is working to comply with earlier federal safety directives.