For much of the past month, rail riders in Boston have been doing without one of their major lines and part of another. The 30-day shutdown, which began on August 19, is intended to allow crews to perform major work on the lines, in light of a report from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) that called for major safety improvements on the system.
Boston is one of four major “legacy” rail transit systems in the nation, along with New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA; known locally as the “T”) operates three major metropolitan-style lines: the Red, Blue, and Orange Lines. There are also four light rail lines, known collectively as the Green Line. The lines that have been out of service for the month include the 11-mile Orange Line and the northern portion of the Green Line, also known as the Union Square Branch. The former runs between Oak Grove in Malden, north of the city, to Forest Hills, south of downtown. The portion of the Green Line that has been out of service runs from downtown Boston, past North Station (which serves North Side regional trains and Amtrak Downeaster trains, historically part of the Boston & Maine Railroad), to a newly opened station in suburban Somerville.
FTA Safety Concerns
Safety has been a problem at the T lately, and the FTA has called for safety improvements, as Railway Age reported on June 3 in a story headlined “Second FTA Safety Probe Targets MBTA.” The agency acquired jurisdiction over transit safety in 2015, and had previously exercised it only over WMATA, which serves Washington, D.C. and neighboring parts of Maryland and Virginia. It became involved with safety problems at the MBTA after two reported fatalities (one involving a passenger on the Red Line, which was not shut down). There were also several other reported incidents, including derailments and a runaway train. Railway Age ran subsequent reports on safety problems at the T on June 23 and July 15.
Pursuant to inspections initiated in April, the FTA issued five Special Directives to the MBTA and the DPU (the Department of Public Utilities, the State agency responsible for safety on the transit system) on June 15, numbered 22-4 through 22-8. All of these and subsequent Directives can be found on the FTA website, www.fta.dot.gov.
An FTA press release issued that day explains those directives and their purpose: “A special directive is an order from the Federal government that requires an FTA-regulated transit agency or oversight organization to take immediate action on safety issues within a specific period. The special directives being issued today—four of which are being issued to the MBTA and one to the DPU—are a result of the FTA’s safety management inspection of the MBTA that began April 14, 2022, following several incidents that resulted in one fatality and several injuries to passengers and employees on MBTA’s transit rail systems. These special directives require the MBTA, the MBTA Board of Directors and the DPU to work together to remedy safety concerns and improve the MBTA’s safety culture.”
The Directives noted deficiencies on the Orange and Green Lines and elsewhere, and mandated numerous actions that the MBTA must take. They ranged from training to track maintenance to safety oversight by the DPU. The FTA’s enforcement mechanisms include requiring the MBTA to spend its federal grant money for complying with the safety mandates, withholding funds under 49 U.S.C. §5307, and imposing specific restrictions that could include speed restrictions or shutting lines down. The FTA Directives did not explicitly order that the Orange Line or the northern part of the Green Line be shut down.
On Aug. 31, the FTA released its Final Safety Management Inspection (SMI) Report. The 90-page report detailed 24 separate findings, most of which detailed deficiencies concerning management related to safety on the system. While it specified numerous actions that must be taken, the report did not order that any lines be shut down. The same day, the agency issued five more Special Directives (22-9 through 22-13). The FTA required the MBTA and the DPU to submit Corrective Action Plans in response to each of the Special Directives. Railway Age Senior Editor Carolina Worrell reported these developments at https://www.railwayage.com/passenger/fta-to-mbta-additional-safety-changes-needed-following-inspection/?RAchannel=home.
Shutdown and Contingency Plans
After the FTA issued the June 15 directives, but before the Aug. 31 SMI Report and Directives, the MBTA announced the month-long shutdown. On Aug. 15, Worrell reported developments over the past month, including an announcement from the agency on August 3 that the suspension would begin at 9:00 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 19 and last until the end of the service day on Sunday, Sept.18.
The announcement on the MBTA website, headlined “Building a Better T” said, “This shutdown will give crews full, uninterrupted access to the tracks, allowing them to complete multiple projects more than five years faster than originally planned. … We’re accelerating several projects during a month-long shutdown of the Orange Line, including work on the [Green Line] Union Branch to prepare for the Medford Branch [also on the Green Line] this November.”
The agency has relied mostly on shuttle bus routes established to provide alternate service in or near the areas where the regular service is suspended. In the downtown area, a supplemental shuttle bus connects Tufts Medical Center, Chinatown, and the downtown stations at State Street (interchange with the Blue Line) and Government Center (where Green Line cars terminate during the shutdown). That line was reportedly added because of rider demand, and was scheduled to run every 30 minutes, but only during early morning and evening hours. North of Government Center, shuttle buses substitute for the Green Line to Union Square and the Orange Line to Oak Grove.
As an alternative, regional trains from North Station stop at Malden Center and Oak Grove on their way to Reading and Haverhill, and transfers to those stations were offered at no extra fare. Trains on that line customarily run every 90 minutes on weekdays, throughout the service day. The “surge schedule” added extra short-turn trains at Reading, so service on that part of the line runs every 45 minutes during the morning and afternoon, but not in the evening. Weekend service did not change; running generally every two hours, with a few three-hour gaps.
The service pattern south of downtown is similar, although the Green Line is still running there. There are shuttle buses from Copley Square (a Green Line station) to Forest Hills, where the Orange Line terminates. The Orange Line runs in a cut, adjacent to regional trains from South Station to Needham, Stoughton, Providence, and Franklin/Foxboro which use the line. Trains stop at Forest Hills and Ruggles Station, near Northeastern University. The agency has issued a “service suspension schedule” that lists all trains stopping at those stations, which is available on the website.
Planning and Progress
According to local advocate and journalist Dennis Kirkpatrick (who, in the interest of full disclosure, was my Managing Editor when I wrote for the now-defunct Destination: Freedom), getting enough buses to run the substitute service was a monumental task. He told me that buses from other transit agencies and from charter operators in the private sector were visible around town, and that some drivers were not familiar with the MBTA’s procedures. Still, he said that drivers and passengers eventually got the hang of the temporary operation. Drivers did not collect cash fares on the shuttle buses. Kirkpatrick also said that bus enthusiasts reported spotting buses from as far away as New York’s MTA and SEPTA in Philadelphia that had been pressed into service.
To get the word out, the T issued a series of press releases under the series headline “Building a Better T.” The first one, dated Aug. 3, announced the Orange Line shutdown: “The major revitalization work to take place on the Orange Line during this 30-day shutdown will deliver a number of projects over five years faster than originally planned, and will result in track replacement, upgraded signal systems and station improvements. The MBTA will also be able to accomplish required track maintenance associated with FTA directives as quickly as possible.” The release also quoted General Manager Steve Poftak as saying: “Thirty days of 24-hour access to the Orange Line replaces more than five years of weekend diversions needed to address delays and slow zones. We can eliminate slow zones, prevent unplanned service disruptions and increase the reliability of our service. Perhaps most important, we will provide the quality of safety and service that our riders deserve.”
On Aug. 5, the agency announced the Green Line closure, which was scheduled to start on Aug. 22, three days after the Orange Line shutdown. The announcement about alternative service was issued on Aug. 12. Six days later, the agency released a Bicycle Guide and announced supplemental service for the Tufts Medical community.
Local media helped get the word out, too. One example is a report by Nik DeCosta-Klipa on local NPR station WBUR, which ran on August 22. The report comprehensively described all the alternative transit services and mentioned other transit within walking distance of the Orange Line. In addition, it contained information for cyclists and the admonition: “Seriously, don’t drive.” The report mentioned three new bus-only lanes on Boston streets, which Kirkpatrick told this writer might become permanent. Another cautionary note in the WBUR report suggested that residents along the Orange Line stay home: “While Poftak said he thinks the commuter rail will be a ‘really efficient option’ for some, he also encouraged Orange Line commuters to work from home during the shutdown, if they can. He also encouraged employers to give their workers that flexibility—though he acknowledged that not everyone can do that.” On Sunday, Aug. 21, the Boston Globe ran an article that was even more comprehensive than the WBUR report, and contained similar information. It bore the headline: “Orange Line shutdown: How we got here and how to navigate it.”
Boston Mayor Michelle Wu has earned a reputation for supporting transit in the city. According to Kirkpatrick, she tried all the alternative means of getting around, including by bicycle, and is promoting them all. A post on the city website, www.boston.gov, said: “The City of Boston is taking a cross-departmental approach while working closely with the MBTA, regional partners, and commuters. Our goal continues to be to aid in planning and ongoing monitoring of alternative shuttles and diversions.”
How Did Riders Do?
Aside from the beginning of the shutdown, when riders were getting used to it, the biggest challenge occurred when the city’s kids went back to school earlier this month. A report in MassLive from Sept. 9 by Chris Van Buskirk, headlined “MBTA faced ‘most challenging day’ yet during 30-day Orange Line shutdown as Boston Public Schools students returned” described the scene, reporting “MBTA officials faced their ‘most challenging day’ running alternative shuttle buses Thursday when Boston-area students returned to class amid a 30-day shutdown of the Orange Line, the agency’s top executive said Friday morning.” There were 190 shuttle buses running that day, 120 on the North side of the city, and 70 on the South side, according to Poftak, who said: “We’ve had students return on the north side of the line… The bulk of the students in the Boston area returned yesterday. We also saw really challenging traffic conditions, a combination of additional people on the roads, a couple major incidents, and a couple major events in Boston.”
It appears that the first day of school was a challenging day during a challenging month for the city and its transit riders. On Aug. 27, Kirkpatrick reported his impressions to the Board of the Rail Users’ Network (RUN), of which he is a member, describing the first week of the shutdown as “a substantial challenge” because the riders “were not used to unexpected changes” to their transit. That was after the first week of the shutdown, and he later said that riders came to terms with the situation. He told me on Sept. 14: “The riders faced a steep learning curve. As the month went on, they got into the swing of things.”
At this writing, the shutdown is about to end. Effective Sept. 19, the Orange Line and the northern branch of the Green Line are scheduled to return to full service. The T reported on Sept. 9 that work was 69% completed, and more-recent reports indicated 82% completion. The agency says that it is ready for full service as scheduled. In addition to the track work and other projects, the agency will place 60 more of the Chinese-made CRRC cars into service on the line. According to Kirkpatrick, most of the older Hawker-Siddeley cars are being retired.
We will know soon how well the repair program, part of the “Orange Line Transformation” went. If all goes well, Bostonians will soon breathe a huge sigh of relief. They know that their transit has had safety problems lately, and it appears that they are willing to put up with less mobility and less convenience now to get a better and safer ride later. The Green Line Transformation and Red Line Transformation programs are in the offing, and they will probably cause some inconvenience, too. Bostonians may look back and say that their month without the Orange Line and part of the Green Line wasn’t as bad as they originally feared. Kirkpatrick expressed doubt that the agency would again shut down an entire line.