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Feds say safety problems on the T so bad they had to issue urgent directives today even before finishing their investigation

Open door on the Orange Line

Safety problem on the Orange Line at 3 p.m. today. T says it fixed it. Photo by Patrick.

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.



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Executive Summary:

The T is broken.. do something, N O W

Every Massachusetts resident since 1964: "We know. We've been saying this for decades"

But will "they" do something, now?

Voting closed 87

The Feds claim they'll withhold 25% of their funding if the T doesn't improve quickly.

If that comes to pass it's going mean major reductions in service. Possibly the permanent bus replacement of one of the subway lines and drastic cuts in service.

It seems nearly impossible for the T to fix some of these problems quickly, such as hiring additional staff. Some of the problem are easy to fix (renewing certification) but most are things which would take a year even with no restrictions and a high budget.

Voting closed 36

Since I've been an adult (in the 1970s) I've never seen the Feds land on a Mass state agency like this. The only bigger failure may have been the situation with Boston Harbor. That took a court order to compel the cleanup, and the Feds were leaning hard there also. The actions taken by the FTA are likely the only thing that will compel action. And the next governor may fire a bunch of people.

Voting closed 53

And the next governor may fire a bunch of people.


Voting closed 34

One of the Feds biggest complaints is that far too many critical positions are vacant.

I’m not going to defend anyone at the T but you can’t cycle through people rapidly and expect great things.

Voting closed 45

Has Charlie (Baker) ever been on the M(B)TA?

Voting closed 21

But Baker is spending over a billion dollars and lots of time on a new fare collection system (which will require a fare increase to pay for). He doeant care, for republicans in this state like Baker the only thing useful they see about the T is a punching bag for campaigning for their core supporters who don't use public transit.

Voting closed 58

Sure, let’s abolish fares. That will definitely result in more money going into good state of repair.

Voting closed 25

Plenty of studies that show that it would reduce a slew of costs to stop trying to collect fare money, prevent fare jumping, etc.

Voting closed 60

In 2019. They’re just completely incompetent.

Voting closed 37

Not the overall budget but the part allocated to capital improvements if I'm recalling correctly.

If as the feds say, there is a critical deficiency in the leadership/management level then who exactly would have overseen these capital projects that could have been readily funded?

Voting closed 29

I’m talking about the capital improvements budget.

That was 3 years ago. How do they still have deficiencies in leadership/management? Are they trying to cheap out and not pay workers? Raise the salary ranges, bonuses, etc to get good talent. It’s what the private sector does and it works.

Again, complete incompetency on show at the MBTA.

Voting closed 21

I’d put anything that it is less than the amount of fares collected.

Again, let’s take a third of the revenue of the T away. What’s the worst that can happen?

Voting closed 15

Once you spend a billion dollars on a new system, the cost is going to be more than what's collected.

Voting closed 17

It's about $600 Million to build the system and $330 million to operate it over a 10 year period, or $33 million per year to operate. (1)

As for revenue:

For the first six months of the fiscal year (July-December 2021), fare revenue was nearly $156 million, well ahead of the budgeted amount of $91 million. That’s a gain of 70 percent over what was budgeted, but still only 46 percent of pre-pandemic revenue levels for the month of December. (2)

6 months of revenue was $156 million and that was HALF of pre-pandemic ridership? Does that mean that *IF* ridership returns to full we are looking at $600 million PER YEAR in revenue?

Anyways, some quick mental math says that over a 10 year period, there is significant net positive revenue even with this massively expensive new fare system. Whether or not it is worth it, or if eliminating fares could transform the public system into something even greater, I'll leave that to people who think about those things.

(1) https://www.wcvb.com/article/boston-mbta-new-fare-collection-contract-ye...

(2) https://commonwealthmagazine.org/transportation/mbta-fare-revenue-trendi...

Voting closed 18

So, Kaz is basically saying that the T can be safer with $500 million a year less in revenue.

As I always say, the debate on whether or not the T should be charging fares has be be seen in relation to lost revenue. Wu has been touting "free the T" for 5 years now, and I'm waiting for the question of revenue to be answered.

Voting closed 12

Since Commonwealth & WCVB (and a Globe story or 2 I didn't need to cite) had the numbers I needed.

I would definitely not discount the $60 million per year over 10 years that we are paying to BUILD the fare system. Since they're talking about operational costs over 10 years, I'm going to assume that is the operational lifetime of this new system. Perhaps it will stretch to 15 or 20 years (we are talking about the MBTA here...) but at some point the tech will be way too obsolete.

I'll just make a note that personally I'm not opposed to the idea of the MBTA being fare-free. It would have to be funded somehow, I mean that's a given as the trains won't run if there's no money to operate them. So, I'll sit here waiting for a reasonable proposal to make the T fare-free and if it makes sense to me, I'll support it.

One set of data I haven't yet found is the breakdown of revenue. How much of the revenue coming in is from each mode and line? Is all "revenue" on these balance sheets from fare revenue or are there other means of revenue involved? I have to imagine there is other revenue coming in, at least from advertising and rent from the vendors that operate inside stations. We would want to see the proper breakdown before we juxtapose "revenue" against fare collection costs.

Voting closed 15

…. the cost of time wasted collecting fares that slows down busses and trolleys.

Voting closed 13

You think that the T will be safe with less revenue?

The whole idea that the government can spend more money and/or take in less taxes is a virus that has permeated the political culture of this nation across the political spectrum, and nothing good will come of it. For instance, how do we get the T into a good state of repair? Well, let's get rid of a revenue source. That will solve everything.

Voting closed 11

All is not well in Paradise...

Voting closed 33

It literally takes five minutes to go from Tufts to Back Bay. Roughly three minutes in the other direction. Great that the FTA has officially confirmed this, but in the interim, still completely unacceptable; it's only one of many slow zones on the SWC.

Voting closed 29

I can’t believe I’ve been pining for bustitution, but knowing that my commute is taking 5-10 minutes longer (mind you, I don’t go north of Back Bay) due to the slow orders would make the closures bearable.

Voting closed 19

I was nearly hit by MBTA buses on two separate occasions lately, both by turning buses. The first time was a couple of months ago by a Harvard bound Number 1 bus making a left turn from Albany Street onto Massachusetts Ave nearly hit me while I was crossing Mass Ave with the walk signal -the pedestrian signal across Mass Ave in both directions and southbound Albany Street get the light before the northbound light goes green. I was walking northbound and was about halfway across Mass Ave when the bus barreled into the intersection, turning left, with apparently no intention of stopping. I had to jump back in order to avoid being hit. The second time was a couple of weeks ago, I was walking down Albany Street towards Mass Ave and I was crossing East Newton St with the exclusive pedestrian phase, when the Central bound Number 47 bus that had been waiting at the red light suddenly decided that the No Turn On Red sign didn't apply to him, and turned right into my path, only to stop short to avoid hitting me. I got the vehicle numbers for both and reported them to the MBTA. At first I felt a little bad doing that, because I ride the buses regularly and find the MBTA drivers are overwhelmingly decent drivers and good at what they do (not to mention, after an injury several years ago that resulted in both of my legs being locked in extension by Bledsoe braces for several months, I relied on MBTA buses to get around and the drivers were universally helpful -many going out of their way to help be board, alight, and find seating), and I sympathize with some of the on-the-job difficulties they face regularly, but these are professional drivers, and with proper training, neither incident should have happened.

Voting closed 41

This morning - The conductor of our Green Line Trolley opened the wrong set of doors at Government Center. Then panicked and opened the other set, while leavening the doors facing the wall open.

Looking at the past week's incidents - they are just asking for the feds to take over. How did that work for when they took over the DC Metro? Did that improve it? Honest question.

Voting closed 34

Years and years ago, but I was crammed all the way in the back against the door when it popped open unexpectedly and inappropriately. It was amazing how quickly this forest of hands reached out from the crowd and grabbed me before I could topple completely out of the train.

Riders have to look out for each other on the T!

Voting closed 41

Wait. They made us cattle take shittle buses several times during recent years because of track work . WHERE DID THE MONEY GO?? WHO WAS PAID TO DO THE TRACK WORK?

Voting closed 36

Seems like the most basic of tasks for a rail system. Yet despite years of concerns expressed directly to the “Supervisor” of the Blue Line, none has been conducted (but for the tiny segment during the harbor tunnel shutdown). I live by the tracks and only twice in seven years have I heard crews working on the rails overnight. Insane. Given how short the line is, and all the $$ available at the State and Federal level, the tracks should be totally modern with smooth running welded rail. Instead every time the train approaches you can hear it coming a long way out as it clatters and clacks over ancient rail. Good on the FTA!

Voting closed 28

But not a single surprise. They can’t even get the new trains right, did anyone expect the rest of the system to be anything less than f***ed?

Overall, nearly 10% of Red, Orange and Blue Line tracks, and two miles of Green Line tracks, now have speed restrictions

The recent Blue Line shutdown—which lasted a week longer than planned—was supposed to address the need to slow down between Maverick and Aquarium. That trip is not any faster after all of that.

compounded by the fact that some people in key positions are not even certified for the jobs they're doing.

For starters, anyone with a management role for the last few decades.

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.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t pretend to fix it until it is and you need to shit down a significant portion of the system for weeks or months at a time.” –Unofficial MBTA slogan.

But why would anyone have a car in Boston?

Voting closed 21

That's what the sign on the Red Line kiosk at Harvard Square used to read back in the 1970s.

The last time I boarded a train there, it took about 20 minutes.

Voting closed 24

To be fair, that sign existed over the old kiosk, when the station in a different place and didn't have that god awful curve & crossover before entering/exiting the station where it has to go 5mph.

Once it gets past the crossover, its pretty speedy. So yeah prior to the 1980s remodel of Harvard Station, it probably was 8 minutes.

Voting closed 20