Wednesday, July 24, 2024

A rider boards the MBTA red line at Central Square Station in Cambridge on April 12. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Legislators were understanding – if not lenient – as they questioned new MBTA general manager Phillip Eng about repairing the system’s exhausted infrastructure and shattered reputation after years of poor performance and literal disasters.

Just a few days after the Legislature’s hearing, the agency announced that the green line extension’s Union Square branch into Somerville, which opened just over a year ago, will be closed for 42 days starting July 18 for work on the Squire Bridge, with no shuttle buses offered to replace the service.

Eng, who has led the transit system for about three months, and acting chief of staff Katie Choe testified June 26 on Beacon Hill to a Joint Committee on Transportation about the MBTA’s ongoing safety concerns about derailments, train fires and decaying stations, the speed restrictions on every line and initiatives to grow the workforce.

Top MBTA officials told legislators that combating speed restrictions for now means alleviating them, but not lifting them completely. “I have issued a directive to target the most severe speed restrictions first,” Eng said – aligning with a comment from a T spokesperson the same day that “lifting speed restrictions is a dynamic process [and] the percentage of restricted track will fluctuate as track defects are rectified.” The spokesperson, Lisa Battiston, gave an example of two speed restrictions recently improved to 25 mph from 10 mph, saying “while the track is still restricted, trip times are improving.” Trains travel at 40 mph normally.

Definitely just this, but also … that

Yet while Eng told legislators his policy might find ways to add safety measures to “a 10-mile speed restriction that’s safe for now,” his testimony also said the opposite.

“What I want is to make sure that when we go in, it’s not just a Band-Aid, that it’s something that we know will address the issue at hand but also address the root cause of the issue,” Eng told legislators. “Where we shut down the system, we need to make sure that when we’re done, we actually did what we set out to accomplish … when we tell the public that we’ve finished the work, they need to see the results. And what we don’t want to do is come back two months later to do more work.”

“If it means a little more work while we’re there, then let’s do it, right, because at the end of the day, going back in a second time is not helping anybody and certainly not helping the credibility of the T,” Eng said.

A request to Battiston for more information about the “dynamic process” was made Thursday but got no response.

Gentle questioning from legislators

Not many legislator questions about how to lower speed restrictions were answered, either. Eng and Choe stuck to their accomplishments so far, repeating that nine speed restrictions in the section between North Quincy and JFK/UMass have been lifted. Committee co-chair state Sen. Brendan P. Crighton captured the tone in telling Eng, “I certainly don’t want to relive history here. We don’t need to keep looking to the past.”

The transit system has been battling decades of disinvestment and decaying infrastructure; the Federal Transit Authority said last year the MBTA was operating unsafely for its staffing levels, and in March the T put speed restrictions in place over still more safety concerns. Trains that are supposed to run at 40 mph have dozens of restrictions in place to one-quarter that speed, and in some cases have run as slow as 3 mph.

A detailed accounting of what it will cost to get the T back to functioning smoothly has been in the works since 2022 and is largely complete, but transit officials won’t share it with legislators or the media, according to Streetsblog Mass. Eng promised legislators he’d have a budget request by the end of the calendar year, six months from now.

Little focus north of Boston

While discussing with legislators the lifting of speed restrictions on the red line South of Boston, Eng barely mentioned the Alewife line serving Cambridge and Somerville; looking at the MBTA’s speed-restriction dashboard on a recent day, of the 23 restrictions north of Park Street, there were 21 below 10 mph, including two restricted zones that cover more than half a mile.

The red line has the most speed restrictions out of any line, with an online tracker regularly showing more than 90 speed restrictions over the past month and as many as 97 over more than 10 miles of track. “We’re focused on the red line, because there’s a tremendous amount of delay,” Eng said, without details. “We want to do the ones that are the most impactful.”

Eng provided no timeline to fully remove speed restrictions, but said that only long-term closings can fully remove speed restrictions.

Slow-speed derailment

Construction work and long-term closings, such as an 11-day B line closing coming this month, will be more productive than past repairs, he said. Some legislators asked how to ensure construction won’t have to be repeated years down the line, and Eng assured that upgrades will be comprehensive, with upper-level safety oversight and a workplace culture of accountability.

The B Line closing comes after a train derailed at Boston’s Packard’s Corner in mid-June – inspiring legislator questions about the purpose of speed restrictions if a derailment was possible on part of the B line already running slower than 10 mph; Eng’s answer was indirect, saying inspections have been completed for all other lines and no other such incidents should happen again in speed-restricted areas.

He kept the inspection process vague, said the red line was a priority and cited needing more personnel to oversee the process.

Beyond speed restrictions

A large part of the discussion went beyond the tracks. Legislators were concerned about facility oversight, especially after a utility box fell on a woman at Harvard Station.

Asked about the inspection process for facilities, including how many employees are responsible for inspections and what an inspection actually covers, Eng didn’t answer either question and repeated that his goal is to create a “head of stations” position. Other than working to continue inspections, there was not a clear plan to keep facilities safe.

“Once that position is filled, we build out the inspection program off of what we have, but takes it to the next level,” he said. Eng wasn’t pushed more on this by legislators.