Boston transit safety

Investigators work at the scene of a crash between two Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, or MBTA, light rail trains, July 30, 2021, in Brookline. Federal transportation officials issued a series of orders to the Boston area’s troubled public transit agency Wednesday, June 15.

It’s a tale as old as time — or at least rail travel.

There’s a derailment on the MBTA. Or a train catches fire. Or a passenger is injured by malfunctioning equipment. T officials insist it’s an isolated problem, that things are getting better, that safety is the agency’s highest priority. The cycle repeats.

Now, the federal government is calling the T’s commitment to safety in question, pausing a review of the agency’s practices to call for immediate change. The Federal Transportation Administration’s review, begun after a series of mishaps on T routes, began this spring and is expected to be completed in August. The administration, however, found serious problems that couldn’t wait until the final report is delivered.

“During the inspection process, FTA identified a number of safety issues that require immediate attention by the MBTA and (the Department of Public Utilities) to ensure the continued safety of MBTA employees and the passengers they serve,” Paul Kincaid, the FTA’s associate administrator for communications and congressional affairs, told the State House News Service earlier this week. “There are a range of issues, all of which need immediate remedy.”

Those issues are:

Inadequate staffing at the agency’s operations control center;

A lack of safety protections in train yards;

Delayed track maintenance; and

Lagging training recertification of MBTA workers.

“While MBTA has recently embarked on a significant program of capital improvements, the agency faces systemic challenges in maintaining its aging infrastructure in a state of good repair and managing the ongoing operations of its complex equipment and systems,” the FTA said in its series of orders. “These challenges require greater focus, assessment, and resource prioritization, at all levels of the organization, to ensure that the system remains safe for both passengers and workers.”

The Department of Public Utilities is charged with making sure the MBTA makes the necessary changes. T spokesman Joe Pesoturo said the agency is “developing immediate and long-term mitigation measures to address these matters.” Transit employees were to be certified by the end of the week, he said.

It is small comfort for passengers who rely on the T for safe, reliable service, especially with the expected disruption from the closing of Boston’s Sumner Tunnel for repairs. And the problems aren’t lost on business leaders.

“It’s unreliable, there are concerns about safety that keep emerging,” Jim Rooney, the president of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and former T deputy general manager, told The Boston Globe. “The T has a critical role to play and it’s not playing it.”

If all this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. In 2019, an outside safety review backed by the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board found the agency “did not prioritize safety.”

That report said the MBTA did not invest enough in its safety department and prioritized completing capital projects over making sure daily operations ran smoothly and safely.

“In essence, safety is not the priority at the T, but it must be,” the panel wrote at the time.

Almost three years later, little has changed. The FTA found some workers at the agency’s operations control center were doing 20-hour shifts, which, Kincaid said, “obviously can create safety issues due to fatigue.”

Four out of 18 dispatcher jobs and two out of 11 supervisor jobs are unfilled, the FTA found.

“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,” the agency said in its directive.

There have been five “runaway train” incidents in T rail yards since January of last year. In them, three T workers were injured. More than 10% of the T’s subway lines are under speed restrictions thanks to defective tracks; derailments are a regular occurrence. Adding insult to injury, the Green Line work train used for maintenance has been inoperable for at least eight months, according to the FTA.

“The combination of inadequate procedures and staffing and a safety culture where others look away when individuals do not follow basic safety rules creates circumstances that result in unacceptable and entirely avoidable incidents,” Kincaid told the State House News Service.

The time for excuses is over. If current administrators can’t ensure a safe, reliable service, then it is time for new leadership to take over.

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