Tuesday, July 16, 2024

A red line T arrives at the Kendall Square stop. The line is switching to a single-person train operation system that should improve service, state officials said Tuesday. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The red line T serving Cambridge and Somerville should see changes starting Sept. 3 that include more workers on train platforms for customer service, faster and safer boarding for people with disabilities and even shorter waits for service, according to state Department of Transportation officials at a meeting Tuesday.

The improvements would come from switching to “single-person train operation” in which one person, helped by video surveillance systems and better mirror and marker placement, would oversee an entire train of T cars while a second worker who had been placed midway on the train would be given other jobs in the area’s mass transit system. The approach is already being used on the orange and blue lines, said William F. McClellan, deputy director of heavy rail operations for the red line, as well as in cities with new rapid transit such as Los Angeles and even on older systems such as Chicago. Shorter trains in New York City also use the system.

The red line serves more than 178,000 people daily. T drivers will have greater responsibility for them, but experience on other lines indicates the new system is safer than what’s in place now, officials said.

Money saved, no layoffs

Also, because T employees would be given other work to do, mainly in providing a presence in stations for “increasing security and customer assistance,” there will be no layoffs, McClellan said. There will be eventual cost savings as the system loses workers who retire or leave for other jobs.

The officials’ presentation contained no dollar amounts, but state Rep. Alice K. Wolf, a Cambridge Democrat, kept asking until some specifics were given:

The costs of putting the new structure in place will probably mean no cost savings in the first year of implementation, said Scott Andrews, a supervisor of day-to-day operations for the T, but giving workers added responsibilities could produce up to $1.5 million in savings in the second year, and not replacing workers when they leave could add money to the system starting in the third year.

The savings aren’t really intended to pay for badly needed train cars or track improvements, McClellan said.

“Our savings are going to be put into service, put into the trains, put into the tracks,” McClellan said, but there’s no direct line from single-person train operation to infrastructure money, which is already being sought. The orange line is the priority, since every car on the line is outdated. Only 34 percent of red line cars are outdated.

Any improvements come at a good time — in January the T said it was $8.6 billion in debt and had a roughly $3 billion backlog in maintenance projects — even though the handful of residents attending this first of four scheduled meetings on the topic (outnumbered by state officials) seemed wary of the promises and eager to ask about problems not always related to single-person train operation. Some questions had no real answer, making even promises of improvement elusive.

Some unanswerables

Resident James Williamson wondered about the cost and propriety of installing the video surveillance equipment; he was told the gear was paid for by a Homeland Security grant separate from single-person train operation and would have installed regardless.

Wolf, seeing a slide in McClellan’s presentation about the installation of gooseneck microphones to make it safer and easier for T drivers to make customer service announcements, noted that the more significant problem seemed to be that many of the speakers in T cars couldn’t transmit what was said anyway. McClellan said the speakers were tested, removed, repaired and replaced daily on a rolling basis. (“We’re going to be more aggressive out there,” McClellan promised.)

The frustrating habit of trains to stop just before entering a station, keeping people cooped up just meters from freedom, is automated and can almost never be overridden, Andrews said. A train stops there because there’s another one ahead, although the danger isn’t so much collision as it is literally crossing a line, putting two trains too close and overloading local electrical lines. On rare occasions a dispatcher at one of five hub centers can override the brakes, but never the T driver.

Similarly, the frequent failure of automated T stop announcements  — all too often saying the next stop is the one a train has actually just left, for instance — is attributed by Andrews to a “ghost in the system” that seems like it should be easy to track down and correct but has apparently frustrated state experts for years.

Platform announcements for the “if you see something, say something” security campaign aren’t quite so constant, McClellan said, because of passenger complaints. But Williamson laughed in pointing out that they’d been replaced by seatbelt announcements directed uselessly at people driving in private cars.

Hearing a complaint about the uselessness of emergency intercoms between passengers and T drivers when drivers consistently claim to have no emergency information, agency officials assured the audience that the drivers really do know what’s going on.

And when Williamson said every time he’s complained about something to a T station customer service representative “to a person they said, ‘Don’t bother telling me. They don’t listen to us, but they do listen to you,’” McClellan expressed surprise, since he has monthly meetings with the reps and a team in place whose “sole priority” is to travel around and check on what reps need.

Some things remained unclear at the end of the 1.5-hour meeting, including how and when the new system would result in faster trips, especially when part of the presentation warns that “run times may increase slightly due to station stop time required for operators to cross the cab at stations with center island platforms.” But officials were able to point to concrete steps being taken toward improvements, such as closing the gap between T platforms and trains to make getting on and off safer for the disabled. Plates used as bridges over those gaps would also be stored with T drivers instead of at the midpoint of T platforms, where drivers now have to run to unlock them for use and lock them back up when a disabled passenger is aboard. Additionally, disabled passengers’ destinations would be called ahead to make exits easy and fast.

Toward the end of the Ashmont line, a signal will go off to hold the green line trolley ferrying passengers to the Mattapan High Speed Line, ensuring commuters no longer miss their ride, McClellan said.

The remaining meetings on single-person train operation are at 5:30 p.m. June 8 in the State Transportation Building, 10 Park Plaza, Boston; at 6 p.m. June 22 in St. Mark’s Church, 1725 Dorchester Ave.,  Dorchester; and 6 p.m. June 29 in Quincy City Hall, 1305 Hancock St. A meeting on elimination or changes to stops on the Route 1 bus line take place 6:30 p.m. June 14 at the Cambridge Senior Center, 806 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square.