New leader for MBTA is announced: Phillip Eng, engineer who put New York rail on a better path
Phillip Eng made the trains run on time – and that’s why he was announced Monday as the general manager for the MBTA, to officially begin work April 10.
“When I took over the [the Long Island Rail Road], it had the worst on-time performance in decades. Little by little, we invested in the things that caused those problems” and turned around performance, Eng said Monday during a press conference. “Sometimes you have to spend a little money to save a little money.”
When he retired as president of the Long Island Rail Road in February 2022, it had the best performance in its history.
Now he’s bringing to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority his background as an engineer and experience: with the LIRR, but before that as chief operating officer of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and interim president of the New York City Transit. Despite all that time in New York, he promised he’s not a Yankees fan.
The T is “the best transit system in the world, and that’s why I’m here,” Eng said, adding that he too is a commuter and, when he relocates to Greater Boston, he’ll use the services of the system he’s tasked with running and fixing. In fact, he’s used the T since he’s been in Boston; he used the green line to get to the press conference introducing him to the press and public at Riverside Station in Newton. “I had a chance to talk to a lot of riders today. And while they are frustrated, they love the T.”
Gov. Maura Healey and state transportation secretary Gina Fiandaca said they looked at a number of candidates before choosing Eng.
“This is probably the most important appointment I’ve had to make,” Healey said. “And I say that as governor knowing how desperate the public is for leadership and a turnaround.”
The T has been plagued for years by slow zones, problems with day-to-day operations and deferred maintenance. After a Department of Public Utilities request revealed inconsistencies and missing documentation in track maintenance paperwork, interim general manager Jeff Gonneville called for a global slowdown that only lifted late St. Patrick’s Day weekend. Nearly 25 percent of tracks have slow zones in place.
Eng says he’s ready to tackle all of it.
“When [transit is] not functioning the way it should, when it’s not safe and it’s not reliable, everyone suffers,” Eng said. “It’s not going to happen overnight, but you will see meaningful manageable steps.”
Eng said it’s time for a new way of doing things at the T. He invited riders to talk to him “when they see him” on the T and said he wants to engage and empower workers, along with hoping to make the T a great place to work so people will want to work there.
Fiandaca said the public can celebrate Eng’s “passion for public transportation.”
Transit advocacy groups such as Livable Streets and TransitMatters were cautiously optimistic.
“This is progress,” Livable Streets executive director Stacy Thompson said. The work will be slow and it could be a “bumpy summer,” but she sees Eng as the right pick.
“Eng comes with about four decades of experience, and I think that’s what the T needs right now,” she said. “We need someone who gets the nuts and bolts of running a transit system, someone who literally has the experience of getting the trains back on track, someone who is going to be cool with doing the unsexy work. Fewer ribbon-cuttings and more just maintenance repairs and hiring – at least in the short term.”
She praised Gonneville on starting the push toward transparency and hiring, and said Eng needs to continue it, as well as keep working with transit unions.
Jarred Johnson, executive director of TransitMatters, said he too wants to see the record of transparency and decisive action started by Gonneville continued and bolstered, as well as restored subway services and bus routes.
“The agency needs a vision,” he said. “That vision must include making the T an agency current riders and staff can be proud of and building a system that serves our growing region and provides a workplace environment that is competitive for the future.”
That’s right in Eng’s wheelhouse.
“There’s no question the challenges before us are great,” Eng said. “I’m going to work every day to earn the trust of the people of Massachusetts. The work force I met today and the workforce I know exists are great … People are ready to step up.”
Eng began his career with the New York State Department of Transportation in the 1980s, working his way up to executive deputy commissioner and chief engineer from 2013 to 2017. He worked for the MTA as chief operating officer, overseeing performance and efficiency including the NYC Transit Authority, Metro-North Railroad, Long Island Rail Road and MTA Bridges and Tunnels. He served as interim president of NYC Transit, where he implemented an $836 million subway action plan to fix aging infrastructure; he moved to the MTA Long Island Rail Road in 2018. As president there, he oversaw performance and operating times and launched “customer conversation” forums and “meet the manager” station settings.
After retiring in 2022, Eng moved to LiRo Group as executive vice president, advising public- and private-sector clients on engineering, transportation and infrastructure projects. He has worked with a number of public transportation clients across the Northeast, including the MBTA.
Eng will be relocating from Smithtown, New York, with his wife, Carole. His daughter attends Northeastern University in Boston.