‘It’s Just Not Acceptable’: MBTA Derailments Frustrate Riders

The Red Line is sometimes called the “brain train,” carrying students to Harvard and MIT, and scientists to the nation’s unofficial biotechnology capital in Kendall Square.

But because of a derailment, the Red Line on Tuesday stranded some of the brains that make up the Kendall Square Association’s Board of Directors, which had scheduled a meeting to discuss, of all things, transportation.

“It truly was ironic,” said association President C.A. Webb. “I had multiple board members emailing me: one from a stopped train, one from a slowed train. They were, of course, apologetic [that] they were going to be late to my meeting. But they’re not the ones that really need to apologize.”

Frustrations mounted Wednesday, as residual damage from the previous morning’s derailment caused delays and forced riders onto shuttle buses for a second straight day.

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The latest disruptions follow a Green Line derailment on Saturday.

At Park Street Station, where the Red and Green lines converge, rider Angela Marini was exasperated.

“It’s just not acceptable, of course,” she said of the T’s condition. “But we have been complaining about it for so long, and nothing happens. Nothing changes.”

Jacqueline White was changing from Green to Red to begin the third leg of her commute; she had come into the city from Salem on the commuter rail. After 10 minutes on the platform, she still didn’t know when to expect a train because a monitor that is supposed to display wait times wasn’t working.

“It’s a little frustrating,” White said, “especially with the rates going up July 1.”

MBTA fares will rise by an average of about 6% next month, under a plan approved by the agency’s Fiscal and Management Control Board in March.

At JFK/UMass Station, near the site of Tuesday’s derailment, Gail Jennes said she hopes “that there’s a good wakeup call here.”

“It makes me very nervous that they have these problems on the trains on the Green and the Red Line,” Jennes said. “And I think that much more money should be spent on improving our public transportation system.”

The MBTA recently estimated the cost to fix or replace its aging equipment and infrastructure at $10 billion.

MBTA derailments increased every year between 2012 and 2018, and have been trending upward for 15 years, according to Federal Transit Administration records.

There were 11 derailments from 2004 to 2008, 17 in the following five years, and 43 in the most recent five years.

The Boston Globe previously reported that the MBTA’s 43 derailments between 2014 and 2018 were the second-most by a major transit authority in that span. Only the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority, with 72, had more.

“We’re in a state of emergency,” said Webb. “I was encouraged by the number of legislators I saw saying essentially that [Tuesday]. But I was incredibly discouraged by Governor Baker’s reaction. He said that the MBTA is on the right path. And my reaction to that is, OK, we might be on the right path, but if we get there in 50 or 100 years, it doesn’t matter.”

Second Derailment In 4 Days Turns Heat Up On MBTA

By Chris Lisinski | State House News Service

Following the second train derailment in four days, MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said Tuesday he is confident the transit system remains safe but recognizes the incidents are “not acceptable” and will solicit an outside review.

The early morning Red Line derailment Tuesday snarled morning rush-hour traffic, forcing commuters onto crowded shuttle buses and slowing trains around the area. Officials have not yet determined the cause, and although service was restored for Braintree and Ashmont lines by late in the afternoon, delays were still expected.

Four MBTA passenger trains have now derailed this year, including a Green Line trolley in a Saturday incident. Poftak said at a Tuesday afternoon press conference that officials will now ask a third-party firm to examine all MBTA derailments in the past two years.

“I want a fresh set of eyes on this to make sure we’re not missing something,” Poftak said. “We have done investigations into all of these derailments, obviously, and where root causes are identified, we’ve taken comprehensive steps to mitigate them. But I think we have an obligation to the riding public and the taxpayers of this commonwealth to make sure we are taking every step possible to address this issue.”

An MBTA spokesman said that an organization had been selected for the review, but he did not immediately provide the name.

Tuesday’s incident at the JFK/UMass stop created significant challenges for commuters and the MBTA. Poftak said during an afternoon press conference that bus shuttles would continue to replace Red Line coverage between Broadway and North Quincy through the evening, but the MBTA announced around at 4:30 p.m. that Red Line service had been restored for the Braintree and Ashmont lines.

Braintree passengers were told to switch at JFK/UMass, while Ashmont line riders did not need to change trains. Commuters should still anticipate delays of 15 to 20 minutes because trains will move slowly through the affected station, the MBTA said, and four additional commuter rail trains departing at 3 p.m., 4:30 p.m., 6 p.m. and 7:20 p.m. were added to make stops at a handful of Red Line stations between South Station and Braintree.

The derailed train still remains on site, but additional tracks were used to restore service.

Poftak said the train derailed underneath a bridge at the station and, in doing so, it caused “significant damage” to the signal infrastructure, creating further complexities. He expects the affected cars to be removed within 24 hours, but described it as a “delicate piece of work” that will require several cranes.

One crane will need to be stationed on Columbia Road, Poftak said, so further impacts on car traffic are likely. State police later indicated they would close Interstate 93 ramps to Columbia Road overnight starting at 7 p.m. Tuesday, and Columbia Road will be closed from Dorchester Avenue to Kosciusko Circle.

Two passengers reported minor injuries in Tuesday’s derailment and 11 were hurt in Saturday’s, but Poftak stressed that he is confident in the system’s safety.

“We have a comprehensive system of maintenance and inspection protocols in place,” he said. “I use the system every day. I believe it’s safe.”

The derailment drew a fresh round of criticism from wide swaths of the public, including frustrated riders, business leaders and lawmakers. Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone, Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce President James Rooney, and Sen. Eric Lesser all independently described the transit system — and the ubiquitous congestion on the region’s roadways — as a “crisis.”

Richard Dimino, president and CEO of A Better City, said in a press release that the derailments reveal “decades of neglect and underinvestment impacting our whole transportation system.”

“The business community, riders, public officials, and other stakeholders must come together this year to find real solutions, including new revenue, to bring forth the modern, comfortable, and convenient system Massachusetts residents deserve and are demanding,” he said.

Sen. Cindy Friedman acknowledged the topic at a Joint Committee on Health Care Financing hearing, welcoming late arrivers who “braved getting to the State House.”

“We won’t talk about whether we need more funding for the T,” she said. “That’s for another group.”

On the same morning as the derailment, a Boston Globe-Suffolk University poll was released in which about 61 percent of respondents said their commutes have become worse in the past five years, compared to 22 percent who said the quality remained the same and just 11 percent who said it improved.
The incident also came one day before state lawmakers are set to debate a constitutional amendment that would raise taxes on the wealthy specifically to fund education and transportation improvements. And next month, fares across most of the system will increase as the MBTA once again faces a budget deficit.

Poftak responded to frustrations Tuesday by pointing to forthcoming investments, noting the MBTA plans significant capital improvement spending to address what officials now say is a $10 billion price tag to bring all equipment and infrastructure up to date.

“We are building a better system, we are enhancing safety,” Poftak said. “Customers are going to start to see the results of these as we go. I understand there’s frustration. I’m frustrated we’re having this. We want to provide a much higher, more reliable level of service to our customers, and we are actively taking steps to invest that money so we can provide that service.”

Among the investments the T is planning is a full replacement by 2023 of all 252 cars in the Red Line fleet.

Gov. Charlie Baker, who was in Springfield on Tuesday, told reporters that he believes the MBTA is pursuing necessary infrastructure updates, according to an audio recording provided by his office.

“I’ve said many times that the T has not been investing in its core systems the way it should be for a long time,” Baker said. “There’s currently programming in place to invest in tracks, signals, switches, trains, power systems and electronics, many of which will replace existing systems that are 50, 60 and 70 years old. It’s overdue. We want to make sure we get it right. I wish we could install it all tomorrow. We can’t, but I believe we’re heading in the right direction on that stuff.”

Poftak said he spoke with the governor and received a similar response.

“The governor obviously wants this system to run safely,” Poftak said. “But he also understands that we are making a tremendous amount of investment in this system and we are headed in the right direction. He also wants to make sure we turn over every rock to understand why this happened.”

Katie Lannan contributed reporting.

The MBTA’s Leadership Is “Defeated, Helpless and in Some Cases Hopeless”

The MBTA’s Leadership Is “Defeated, Helpless and in Some Cases Hopeless”

A “debilitated” safety department. Employees silenced by fear of retaliation. Unanswered requests for safety equipment. Maintenance crews stretched thin. A total lapse in organization-wide communication. These are just some of the revelations surfaced by a damning new report on the MBTA’s safety culture published Monday. Most worrisome, though, is what the report pinpoints as the “overarching reason” why safety measures at the agency have fallen to the wayside: Its leadership is a mess.

Compiled by an external panel of transportation experts, the report concludes that the recent derailments and breakdowns riders have noticed on the T are symptoms of the fact that “safety is not the priority at the T.” Problems are everywhere. “In almost every area we examined, deficiencies in policies, application of safety standards or industry best practices, and accountability were apparent,” the report reads.

The safety review panel behind the report, comprised of former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, former FTA Administrator Carolyn Flowers, and former New York City Transit President Carmen Bianco, first convened in June, shortly after the disastrous Red Line derailment that destroyed signal bungalows at JFK/UMass and crippled service for months. To complete their comprehensive analysis, the panel participated in over 100 “collaborative discussions” with MBTA employees and partner organizations at all levels, hosted focus groups, and conducted site visits across the system.

The report is a flashing red warning light. While the T is “relatively safe” for now, according to the report, deep-seated issues within the transit authority require immediate attention. A 7-page executive summary of the 63-page report, which you can read here, reveals that the MBTA’s simultaneous budget tightening and project acceleration has created a serious safety deficiency at the agency. The summary focuses heavily on the MBTA’s subway services. The commuter rail is “performing well” comparatively, likely because the system is beholden to the stricter regulations of the Federal Railroad Administration.

Leadership turnover is the root of many of the problems, the report claims. Since the beginning of the decade, there have been nine new general managers at the MBTA, and little to no time has been invested in onboarding them or introducing them to safety practices, the report says. Leadership was also bogged down by excessively frequent meetings—the panel writes that they “cannot overstate how detrimental” preparations for these meetings are to the “overall safety and operational performance of the organization.” Additionally, the revolving door at the GM’s office has led to confusion surrounding what maintenance and inspections need to be performed, and some preventative maintenance and quality control inspections have thus been omitted or even dropped. This, according to the panel, is a critical issue—and may even be the reason why riders have seen so many service disruptions recently.

Morale also seems to be an issue with the MBTA’s higher-ups. The panel’s interviews with staff revealed that leadership “feels somewhat defeated, helpless and in some cases hopeless” in the face of over-exuberant cost- and staff-cutting.In turn, employees across the system have lost faith in the abilities of the MBTA’s leaders. The panel claims that multiple employees told them first-hand that they reported safety issues multiple times, only to have their requests go unanswered. Routine upward and downward communication at the organization is basically nonexistent, and employees told the panel that leadership has not attempted to open any channels of communication with them. An “overwhelming number” of MBTA workers are not even able to receive electronic communications—the only channel (outside of a “safety hotline” that does not seem to be taken very seriously) by which they can communicate with agency leaders.

Employees feel there is a “culture of blame and retaliation” at the MBTA, and fear of discipline discourages employees from sharing safety concerns in the field with higher-ups. This tracks with allegations earlier this year from the MBTA’s former top safety official Ron Nickle, who says he was fired by the agency for flagging safety concerns. “It is likely that many safety issues today go unreported” because of this issue, the panel concludes.

Leadership has also failed to support the MBTA’s safety department, the team that should be guiding the organization’s day-to-day safety initiatives. According to the report, the department is “somewhat debilitated” in what they can accomplish, as it is “grossly understaffed” and lacks any subject matter experts.

What’s missing, it seems, is a comprehensive strategic plan for making a safer work environment. Instead, the organization has focused its attention and resources on its capital acceleration program, the initiative that has become well-known among riders for shuttering large portions of the Red, Green, and Orange Lines over the weekends for large-scale repairs. Over-emphasis on this program has been “detrimental to Operations,” the panel claims. “The result is sharing of critical operational resources and stretching those resources to serve multiple functions,” the panel writes. “For example, the maintenance crews are being flexed between daily operational support requirements and the accelerated capital program. This has had an adverse impact on the ability to support system maintenance repairs and safe delivery of services.”

The panel makes six policy recommendations that are intended “to move the organization to a place where safety is a priority and is culturally integrated into every aspect of their mission.” They include establishing better safety performance indicators, identifying the areas where maintenance is being deferred, implementing stronger data collection, and strengthening the MBTA’s leadership team with “more seasoned” transit professionals.

MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said in a statement that the MBTA has already begun implementing many of the recommendations laid out in the SRP’s report. “This has been a constructive and collaborative process that focuses on the highest priority of the T, the Control Board, and the SRP: Making the T a world leader in transit safety while we provide reliable, dependable, attractive service every day to our 1.3 million riders,” he says.

Given the disarray the report found at the top levels of the agency, that’s not necessarily reason to think that things will get better any time soon.

Safety ‘is not the priority’ at the MBTA, panel finds

By Matt Stout and Adam Vaccaro Globe Staff,Updated December 9, 2019, 12:02 p.m.

The MBTA’s intense focus on tightening its day-to-day budget while speeding the pace of long-needed projects under Governor Charlie Baker has been detrimental to the operations of the agency and has helped foster a culture in which “safety is not the priority,” according to a withering report released Monday.

The findings, delivered by a panel of experts hired by the Fiscal and Management Control Board, which oversees the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, describe an agency struggling with generational problems, such as constant turnover in its upper ranks, and hamstrung by its own decisions.

The MBTA has not invested in necessary resources for its safety department, and there’s widespread concern that the strong push to quickly complete some capital projects has come at the expense of daily operations, according to the report.

“In essence, safety is not the priority at the T, but it must be,” the panel, which included a former US secretary of transportation, wrote.Get Metro Headlines in your inboxThe 10 top local news stories from metro Boston and around New England delivered daily.Sign Up

It added that among staff at the MBTA “there is a general feeling that fiscal controls over the years may have gone too far, which coupled with staff cutting has resulted in the inability to accomplish required maintenance and inspections, or has hampered work keeping legacy system assets fully functional.”ADVERTISING

The panel was hired to review safety procedures and the T’s performance following a June derailment on the Red Line, where a train jumped the tracks as it headed into JFK/UMass Station in Dorchester, destroying bungalows that housed computer equipment that operated the signal system.

The 69-page report covered far more than that single incident, however. It discussed a safety department that has become “debilitated,” critical inspections that are not being performed, and departments that rarely, if ever, communicate with one another.

At a news conference on Monday, Baker said the report would guide his administration. He and members of the safety panel said that the T is safe — but that it could be safer.

“One of the reasons you do a deep-dive review like this is to find out where your issues and your opportunities are, and that’s exactly what this report represents,” Baker said. “That’s why we’re so glad to have it and so anxious to implement it.”

The findings, however, could dent Baker’s reputation as a reform-minded executive who made overhauling the MBTA a priority after the record-setting winter of 2015 exposed a raft of deep-seated problems at the transit authority.

Union leaders said Monday that they have raised concerns about the T’s safety practices for years that have been ignored.

And the report gave fuel to advocates who have criticized Baker’s contention that the system already has the money it needs.

“An obsession with reducing operating costs while growing capital expenditures has led to an unsafe situation,” Chris Dempsey, director of the advocacy coalition Transportation for Massachusetts, wrote on Twitter.

Baker rejected the notion there are parallels between the MBTA and the troubled Registry of Motor Vehicles. Consultants hired by the state found that the Registry had neglected safety in favor of customer service in a still-unfolding scandal that revealed the agency had failed to suspend thousands of licenses of drivers with out-of-state violations.

“I don’t think safety’s ever been a blind spot,” Baker said.

The panel hired by the T conducted more than 100 interviews as part of its review and made 34 recommendations to improve the system, including cutting the number of legally required meetings the Fiscal and Management Control Board must hold to make it “less burdensome on staff.” The current demands of preparing for board meetings, it argued, “divert attention from operations and safety.”

Since Baker took office in January 2015, the MBTA has made expanding its capital program — work such as tunnel repairs and signal upgrades — a key priority, and with success. It spent more than $1 billion on capital investments last fiscal year, more than double what was spent in fiscal year 2013.

But, the panel found, many of the T’s maintenance and engineering staffers are “being pulled from their normal day-to day functions” to support the capital projects.

And the T’s simultaneous cost-cutting on the operations side has frustrated staff. By fiscal year 2018, the authority had 5,643 employees, but officials later expanded that to 6,200 by the end of June after “recognizing that they cut too close to the bone,” the panel wrote.

“It appears that on the transit side of the T operation, in many instances, financial considerations take precedence over operational performance and safety, even when it is extremely detrimental to the organization,” according to the panel, whose members include a former US transportation secretary, Ray LaHood; former top Federal Transit Administration official Carolyn Flowers; and Carmen Bianco, who once led New York City’s transit system.

“This mind-set demonstrates an ‘upside down’ set of priorities for running a transit agency,” the panel added.

The safety department, the panel said, should also be providing day-to-day leadership on safety initiatives, but is “somewhat debilitated in what they can accomplish.” For example, the panel said only one person on the accident investigation team can be considered a “subject matter expert,” and that many times, it’s basically “rubber-stamping” the findings of investigations.

When major problems do occur, the T remains too reactionary, in that officials provide a “feverish response to a very specific problem without developing and implementing a global strategy to address the hazard,” according to the panel.

At the news conference, Baker acknowledged the T will need more money and manpower to implement the report’s recommendations. The second-term Republican, who once campaigned on not raising taxes stopped short of calling for new revenue for the MBTA but said he will speak with its leaders to determine if more money should be spent on safety.

However, he placed some blame on the Democratic-controlled Legislature, which has yet to agree on a supplemental budget that includes $50 million the governor asked for earlier this year to fund accelerated repair work.

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, who has said the House will take up transportation financing in 2020, said that while Monday was “the first time I’ve heard” the $50 million would address safety issues, the report’s findings “clearly underscore the need for a dedicated long-term revenue stream” to help the MBTA.

In its summary, the panel — which the T has so far paid $488,000 for its work — also homed in on the culture of the T. It said that “employees in general do not trust their leadership and therefore, do not share with leadership what is happening in the field for fear of heavy-handed discipline.”

But the experts, while harshly critical of the T’s safety practices on subway and bus lines, applauded Keolis Commuter Service’s operation of the T’s commuter rail system, which must follow Federal Railroad Administration regulations. Those rules, the panel said, are “clearly defined and have fiscal consequences if not complied with.”

Steve Poftak, the MBTA’s general manager, said he will ask the board at next week’s meeting to reallocate roughly $10 million from money the Legislature allots for the T each year to hire more workers in the safety and quality control departments.

But he also said that making other changes, namely to the MBTA’s culture, are “going to take a long time.”

“I think this is a very sobering report,” said Poftak, who, the panel noted, is the ninth general manager since 2010. “We understood the gravity of this report, and everyone understands the need to change the culture here at the T.”

John R. Ellement and Vernal Coleman of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com.