Feds Order Immediate Safety Fixes At MBTA
An understaffed command center where some train dispatchers get only four hours off after 20-hour shifts. More than 220 Green Line drivers and dozens of other workers with lapsed safety certifications. Repeated failures to prevent trains with faulty brakes or propulsion from cruising out of control in rail yards.
Those major red flags are among the suite of problems investigators have found so far during a probe of the MBTA's safety, leading the Federal Transit Administration on Wednesday to order immediate action in the next month before it wraps up a broader report about the transit system that stretches across the greater Boston region and into Rhode Island.
Warning of "continuous safety violations and a failure to take urgent, corrective actions," the FTA issued four directives requiring the MBTA to fix staffing shortages in its control center, prevent runaway trains, address critical delayed maintenance, and renew lapsed employee certifications.
The FTA also ordered the Department of Public Utilities, which one federal official said "has not fully exercised its authority over the MBTA to help work on safety culture," to ramp up its oversight of the T.
Federal authorities are still working on a nearly unprecedented probe into the MBTA fueled by a series of incidents including derailments and the death of a Red Line passenger. Involved parties will convene a "closeout meeting" on Friday, but the FTA said Wednesday that teams on the ground found problems serious enough to warrant a quicker response before the safety management inspection concludes.
"We anticipate that report will be completed in August," said FTA Associate Administrator for Communications and Congressional Affairs Paul Kincaid. "However, during the inspection process, FTA identified a number of safety issues that require immediate attention by the MBTA and DPU to ensure the continued safety of MBTA employees and the passengers they serve. There are a range of issues, all of which need immediate remedy."
The directives each carry different timelines. As soon as Friday, the MBTA must provide the FTA with staffing schedules for next week to prove that employees involved in running the Red, Orange, Blue and Green Lines for passengers possess active certifications and have not been overexerted without sufficient rest. The agency must also file plans to correct many of the most significant flaws the FTA flagged within 30 days.
At the MBTA, where officials have insisted the system is safe despite the incidents, spokesperson Joe Pesaturo said Wednesday the T has been "fully engaged" with the FTA during its safety management inspection.
"Examining the actions required by the FTA, the MBTA is developing immediate and long-term mitigation measures to address these matters. The MBTA will share its plans with the FTA in the coming days and weeks," Pesaturo said in a statement. "Advancing safety-related objectives with an unprecedented $8 billion in infrastructure and vehicle investments over the past five years, the MBTA is working collaboratively with the FTA to make the T a transit industry leader in safety and reliability."
Details on immediate corrective actions were unavailable.
A spokesperson for the DPU, which like the MBTA is overseen by Gov. Charlie Baker's administration, similarly did not provide details on next steps.
"The Department of Public Utilities welcomes the Federal Transit Administration's review, and will work with the MBTA on implementing the FTA's special directives as we continue to ensure riders receive a safe, modern, and clean transportation system," spokesperson Troy Wall said in a statement.
The DPU, part of Energy and Environmental Secretary Beth Card's secretariat, is overseen by three commissioners: Chair Matthew Nelson, and commissioners Bob Hayden and Cecile Fraser.
Kincaid stressed Wednesday that "transit remains the safest form of surface transportation in our country."
"FTA has identified several areas that the MBTA has to address quickly to maintain the level of safety their riders expect, but our actions today are intended to address concerns that need to be addressed in the near term to maintain the high level of safety we all expect," he said. "Transit riders in the Boston area should not interpret the special directives issued today as a reason to avoid MBTA's subway or light rail."
Four Major Categories of Concern
Kincaid said staffing at the operations control center, where crews monitor and manage the movement of trains and trolleys on all four MBTA rapid transit lines, is "inadequate for the number of trains operating on the T."
In late April, the control center had 14 heavy rail dispatchers employed despite requesting 20. Another two supervisor positions out of 11 budgeted were vacant, and the office also lacks a dedicated trainer, the FTA said.
The shortages result in dispatchers regularly working 16-hour shifts and sometimes working 20-hour shifts followed by only four hours off as well as supervisors filling in on dispatch duty partway through their shifts.
"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," the FTA wrote in its directive about the command center. "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."
In both the OCC and in rail operations roles more broadly, FTA warned that many MBTA workers have missed deadlines to renew certifications. At one point, as many as 80 percent of heavy rail dispatchers had lapsed certifications, as did 221 Green Line operators -- representing 41 percent of that workforce -- 25 Green Line inspectors, eight Green Line supervisors and all 12 yard masters.
Starting next week and continuing weekly through at least the end of July, MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak and MBTA Chief Safety Officer Ronald Ester will be required to sign forms submitted to the FTA confirming that all workers operating or supervising trains carrying passengers have active certifications.
The T said all control center employees have been properly certified since May 20 and that any remaining rail transit workers whose certifications lapsed would resolve the issue this week.
Additional safety risks exist in rail yards, federal inspectors found. Since Jan. 1, 2021, the MBTA reported five different "runaway train" incidents in yards or during maintenance. Two of those occurred after the FTA started its inspection in April, and in some cases, workers were injured.
The FTA ordered the MBTA to develop and implement new written procedures for handling trains with defective brakes or propulsion systems and to ensure all workers are trained and comply with those policies.
"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 said.
Federal overseers knocked the MBTA's maintenance, too. Several of the high-profile incidents last year and this year that drew scrutiny, including six mainline derailments, stemmed from "deferred maintenance of assets in a poor state of repair," the FTA wrote in its directive.
From Jan. 1, 2021 to April 29 of this year, the MBTA experienced a "growing backlog" of open and pending defects related to tracks, signals, power and facilities, according to the FTA. And because the MBTA has not dedicated enough resources to transition paper records to a digital format, "the agency does not have access to quality data regarding the state of its infrastructure to support safety decision making, maintenance planning, and selection of capital projects," the FTA wrote.
While the FTA noted the MBTA has pursued some longer-term shutdowns for major capital projects, federal inspectors said the agency's leadership has prioritized running regularly scheduled service over the diversions needed to perform track maintenance.
"Less than two hours a night are available for track maintenance. This is in a system with close to 400 miles of track," Kincaid said. "Moreover, the only maintenance train for the entire Green Line, an important part of an effective maintenance program, has been out of service for eight months with no definitive timeline for repair."
Additional Action Could Be On the Horizon
Each of the new directives threatens enforcement if the feds are not satisfied with the MBTA and DPU's response. The FTA said it could order the MBTA to use federal funds to address safety deficiencies, withhold up to 25 percent of federal funding the agency receives in urbanized area formula grant dollars, or hand down federal action ranging from mandatory speed restrictions to a "complete system shutdown."
Federal involvement does not end with the five orders issued Wednesday, either.
The FTA is still conducting its safety management inspection, only the second such probe ever launched by the administration, and expects to produce a final report in August.
"These are not necessarily saying that these are the only problems," Kincaid said. "We're definitely going to have the report out that will hopefully take a more holistic view of the T and the DPU and get to the bottom of (the issues)."
That final report will take a closer look at the work done by an independent panel -- whose membership included former FTA Acting Administrator Carolyn Flowers -- concluding in December 2019 that "safety is not the priority at the T."
Following a similar inspection of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority launched in 2015, the federal government seized control of overseeing subway safety at the Washington, D.C.-area system for more than three years.
Asked Wednesday about a longer-term federal intervention at the T, Kincaid said the topic is "too far into the future to look at."
"FTA's goal is a T with a strong safety culture and a state safety oversight agency that conducts consistent safety management oversight as is intended," he said. "The people who work at the T and the people who ride it deserve an agency, in this case DPU, that can address safety issues at the T without the need for direct FTA oversight. It is for that reason the FTA is addressing special directives not just to the MBTA, but to the DPU as well."
Kincaid stopped short of comparing the MBTA's performance on safety issues to the D.C. Metro or any other regional transit system.
"There's a saying, and it's one that I've seen in person, that if you've seen one transit agency, you've seen one transit agency," he said. "Size, complexity, age of systems all lead to making comparisons really difficult."