FTA Rejects MBTA Safety Improvement Plan

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor

Whether actual or fictitious, Bostonians have had problems with their transit, and it appears those will continue, at least for a while longer. The Federal Transit Administration has ordered the MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority) to revise a safety plan, this time for track workers, which will further delay the repairs that will be needed to return service to normal.

When he ran for Mayor of Boston as the candidate for the Progressive Labor Party in 1949, Walter A. O’Brien debuted a campaign song that would retain its local fame even today in Boston lore, even though his campaign is long forgotten. Charlie, the unfortunate protagonist, was unable to pay the newly imposed five-cent exit fare, so “he may ride forever ’neath the streets of Boston, he’s the Man who Never Returned.” I could wonder why Charlie’s wife gave him a sandwich every day but never the nickel he needed, but riders on today’s “T” have reason to wonder if they “will ever return” from the problems that have plagued the agency and their transit in recent years.

It seems as though the T’s CharlieCard reusable farecard is living up to its namesake.

The new CRRC (China Railway Rolling Stock Corp.) cars are not performing well, there are slow orders throughout the system as construction to abate its problems continues, and the FTA asserted its newly granted authority over safety on transit to order the T to fixseveral problems, the federal agency’s first use of that authority outside of Metro Rail in Washington, D.C.

In 2022, Railway Age reported extensively on the safety problems at the MBTA, with reports on June 3 (Second FTA Safety Probe Targets MBTA), June 23 (FTA Issues Safety Directives to MBTA), July 15 (MBTA Makes Prompt Response to FTA Safety Concerns), and Aug. 31 (FTA to MBTA: Additional Safety Changes Needed). The final report of that previously unexpected “series” came on Sept. 16 (How MBTA Coped During Partial Shutdowns), when I reported that a 30-day shutdown of the entire Orange Line (a rapid transit line running north-south) and the northern portion of the Green Line (the Union Square Branch, part of a light rail line north of downtown) had disrupted transit and the lives of many of its riders. The shutdowns lasted from the evening of Aug. 19, through the service day on Sept. 18. There were measures to help riders get through the month: substitute buses, cross-honoring for fares, and extra trains on lines that were not affected. It was a difficult time for riders, as we reported, and their troubles are not over yet.

Latest From the FTA

The bad news for the T and its riders was announced on the FTA website on May 19: “Resubmission Required for Right of Way (ROW) Rules Compliance and Safety Work Plan.” The summary began: “The FTA has reviewed the Right of Way (ROW) Rules Compliance and Safety Work Plan (Work Plan) that was submitted by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) on May 5, 2023. This Work Plan is in response to the Immediate Action Letter the FTA sent to the MBTA on April 18, 2023. The Work Plan was deemed insufficient and must be resubmitted.”

The FTA said that the plan previously submitted by the MBTA was not sufficient to protect the safety of the workers on the right-of-way and directed: “Given the immediate risk to worker safety on the ROW, FTA requires direct and focused actions. The MBTA must resubmit the Work Plan by June 5, 2023, with revisions that address and implement ROW safety processes and procedures within the next 60 days.” The directive called for immediate action. The summary concluded: “If the MBTA fails to appropriately revise the Work Plan and comply with the other requirements of the April 18 letter, ROW access will be prohibited.”

The latest directive came in a letter sent by FTA Associate Administrator and Chief Safety Officer Joe DeLorenzo to recently installed MBTA General Manager Philip Eng (former Long Island Rail Road President), with copies to various safety officials at the MBTA and the chief safety officers at the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) and the Department of Public Utilities (DPU), which has some jurisdiction over rail safety. It can be downloaded below:

The MBTA tells its side of the story on its website, but there was no direct response to the FTA’s May 23 letter.

Local Media Response

Local media reported the story, but did not speculate on how actual events would shake out for transit riders in the Boston area. Chris Lisinski of State House News service reported on May 30 on WGBH a reason for the crackdown: “The FTA, which mandated a range of safety fixes at the T after an investigation last summer, in April flagged a series of ‘near misses’ between subway trains and workers and ordered the transit agencies to improve employee safety.”

A May 31 Boston Herald editorial headlined Safety Shouldn’t be Stuck in T Slow Zone began by saying: “Slow zones are not just speed restrictions in place until track repairs are made, they’re part of the MBTA’s mission statement. T riders have followed—and endured—the beleaguered transit agency’s torturous saga of accidents, derailments, delays, special panels, probes and scathing safety reports. We need to trust that actions are being taken in a timely manner and the T is pulling up its collective socks.”

Experienced Rider, Journalist Adds Background

Dennis M. Kirkpatrick is a longtime rider on the T, as well as an advocate and former journalist on the rail beat. He first reported the situation to his colleagues at the Rail Users’ Network (RUN) in an e-mail post, where he expressed his concern about the effect of the FTA letter: “If denied, the MBTA may not be allowed to operate trains during repair windows, which at this time is overnight, when no revenue service is conducted. There are concerns of line closures and further schedule losses.”

Looking at the communication from the FTA and considering the expected result, he told me: “If they disallow people to do repairs without a proper safety plan, if there is one problem, the entire line shuts down.” Regarding the 30-day Orange Line shutdown last August and September, Kirkpatrick said that “management had attempted to accomplish as much repair work during that month as would normally take five years, working only on weekends. But either not all the needed repairs were done, or they were not all documented to the FTA’s satisfaction, so it became necessary to re-inspect everything.”

Kirkpatrick also said that during the re-inspection process, more problems were found that might have shown up for the first time. Those problems necessitated multiple slow zones all along the line that, in some cases, increased the running time of a ride by 50% or more. It was not only the Orange Line that was affected. Some defects on the newly opened Green Line Extension (GLX) to Medford were identified: “final touche” that should have been installed but were not, so there are slow zones on that line, too.”

The opportunity to “Fight the fare increase! Vote for Walt O’Brien and get Charlie off the MTA!” was offered only once, and that was almost 74 years ago. Now the base fare is $2.40, and some riders aren’t convinced that they are getting their money’s worth. It has not been an easy year for Boston’s riders or for the agency that provides their transit, such as it is.

As for Dennis Kirkpatrick, he reported to his colleagues at RUN: “So far this does not seem to include buses, so I have alternate routes already laid out. Takes longer, but you get there.”

David Peter Alan is one of America’s most experienced transit users and advocates, having ridden every rail transit line in the U.S., and most Canadian systems. He has also ridden the entire Amtrak network and most of the routes on VIA Rail. His advocacy on the national scene focuses on the Rail Users’ Network (RUN), where he has been a Board member since 2005. Locally in New Jersey, he served as Chair of the Lackawanna Coalition for 21 years, and remains a member. He is also Chair of NJ Transit’s Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee (SCDRTAC). When not writing or traveling, he practices law in the fields of Intellectual Property (Patents, Trademarks and Copyright) and business law. Opinions expressed here are his own.

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