Jun 16, 2022 - News

Federal transit authorities order MBTA to address critical problems

A Green Line train travels down Heath Street on a sunny day.
A Green Line train makes its way up South Huntington Avenue to the Heath Street MBTA station on Dec. 7, 2020. Photo: Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald

The Federal Transit Administration is in the middle of inspecting the MBTA in the wake of a series of incidents on the T that hurt or killed passengers, and wants the agency to start addressing its biggest problems now.

Driving the news: The FTA issued several directives Tuesday night for the MBTA to address immediately after finding that the beleaguered agency is almost exclusively responding to "red" condition defects — the biggest flaws with the potential for failure — while overlooking other critical problems.

  • These directives call on the agency to address a failure to repair less-severe defects before they get worse, in addition to properly training and certifying workers to do their jobs and creating protocols for handling broken-down cars in the train yard.
  • The FTA did not elaborate on what constitutes a "red" condition defect, but said that ignoring less-severe defects lets deterioration go unnoticed, and leaves the agency exposed to the risk that multiple lower-level flaws could collectively disrupt train service.
  • Staffing shortages are partly to blame for this failure to address lower-level problems (staffing vacancies are near 20%), the FTA found.

Why it matters: The MBTA's flaws aren't just a nuisance for commuters; they're a matter of life and death.

  • A Red Line train with a faulty safety feature trapped and killed 39-year-old Robinson Lalin in April, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
  • A Green Line crash, allegedly caused by speeding, injured 27 people near Boston University's Agganis Arena last July.

By the numbers: The MBTA has a five-figure backlog of defects over tracks, signals, power and more that it needs to address, according to the FTA. That includes 4,195 open cases and 12,432 pending cases.

Details: The FTA found workers across the system aren't properly trained, especially in the Operations Control Center and the Green Line. Officials ordered the state to do a better job of overseeing the transit agency.

  • The state Department of Public Utilities, which oversees MBTA compliance, issued corrective action plans in October 2019 to address seven problems it found as part of its own routine compliance checks. But the plans remain unfulfilled, according to the FTA.
  • "The fact that those seven findings remain open gives rise to concerns regarding the DPU's ability to effectively oversee the MBTA's compliance with its own practices and procedures," the FTA findings state.

What's next: The MBTA must take steps to fix these problems in the following weeks. Otherwise it risks losing federal aid, having entire rail lines shut down due to unsafe conditions and other penalties, the FTA says.

The bottom line: Love or hate the T, the FTA agrees the system has major issues — and this might not even be the half of it.

  • The FTA expects to complete the full inspection report by August, according to MassLive.
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