Monday, July 22, 2024

An updated MBTA map on a red line train July 9, which is 475 days after the opening of Union Square Station on the green line extension. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The realities faced by T riders are grim, things such as This system is unreliable and What used to be a 15-minute trip now takes a half-hour and I’m going to be late for my appointment. For more than 15 months, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority didn’t seem interested in presenting a better reality among those, namely that it had expanded, opening a green line extension stop in Union Square (March 21, 2022) and five others through Somerville into Medford (Dec. 12).

Take a red line train anytime until several days ago and you’d see no evidence that there were six new stops on the green line – not miles away in Boston serving some area you’re unlikely to go, but opening up neighborhoods that expand opportunities and access right in Somerville and Cambridge.

For nearly 16 months, as trains trundled along, often throttled to one-fourth the speed we’ve been used to, you could spend the length of a T trip wondering what our transit agency was possibly doing that prevented it from updating maps to reflect its own accomplishments. Sure, there are hundreds of train cars (the T is buying 252 alone to replace its red line fleet) and 128 stops with potentially multiple maps, but there were also 475 days from the Union Square opening until a new map was spotted on the red line, or 285 workweeks for some of its 7,643 employees.

We asked about the T maps in late January, around 50 days since the opening of the E line to East Somerville, Gilman Square, Magoun Square, Ball Square and Medford/Tufts, and were told by MBTA deputy press secretary Lisa Battiston that “hundreds – possibly even thousands – of these maps exist within the system, and it can take time to update all of them,” though she was certain most maps were already updated or in the process of being updated. Seeing no evidence locally as the days, weeks and months ticked by, we asked again June 25: Why no updated maps on trains? We got an answer about stations instead. 

Instead of posting updated maps, the MBTA put up “exit” signs on T cars. (Photo: Marc Levy)

It took two emailed reminders that the question had been about trains, not stations, to get a reply July 6 that “the MBTA is working hard to remedy this signage issue … as expeditiously as possible,” with more than half of red, orange and blue lines updated by what was then seven months since the GLX stations opened.

As to the stations, a switch to applying printed maps to sheet metal instead of behind glass paneling “as part of a station beautification effort” had complicated procurement, and “the appropriate related materials did take some time to finalize,” Battiston said the next day. 

The MBTA’s Sign Shop prioritized “core stations and terminus stations” for installation first, and will “then install system maps line by line on the green line,” Battiston said, in an approach common for her agency’s communications: slow, complicated and barely half-explained, with requests for more information and context ignored in a drawn-out process that prefers monologuing mysteriously by email rather than having a clear dialogue by phone.

She noted that at least the green line extension stations had maps that included themselves – riders at, say, Gilman Square in Somerville could at least look at a map while they waited and see that Gilman Square was on it.

“It can take some time to update all of them due to competing priorities of staff,” Battiston said.

But what were those competing priorities? What has the T been doing instead of the dead-simple task of putting up maps, a skill it could have mastered since 1887?

MBTA priorities

We asked about some projects with more than maps in mind.

One thing we were thinking of: The current low in MBTA service, including train slowdowns, resulted in large part from a federal report saying U.S. funding was at risk because Massachusetts transportation officials had focused on long-term projects instead of such things as maintenance, staffing and safety. That came in August, between the openings of the Union Square stop and the Medford branch lines.

Just as the green line extension opened years late after being threatened by massive cost overruns, a $700 million overhaul of fare collection devices expected for 2020 is now inflated to $935 million and won’t even happen by a fallback date in 2024. Many are unsure that the new system is needed, or that fares are needed at all; systems around the world go without.

Armrests and exit signs

Specifically, we asked about two projects that the T has undertaken, including the black, squared-off metal bars spaced out along seating at stations, which transit officials call armrests and others call “hostile architecture” used to prevent rest or sleep among the unhoused. They began appearing in late 2020 and early 2021, an apparent priority for the MBTA even as it lumbered toward the current daily disasters of speed restrictions, train fires and derailments.

We also asked about those inane “exit” signs affixed to the roofs of trains in 2022, pointing vaguely forward or to the sides of cars in the direction of the doors that open and close to let people onto or off of the trains they’re riding. It’s a lot like posting an “exit” sign in an elevator.

We asked: “When were these installed, and how long did it take? Why were they installed? Who called for this initiative, and on what basis? Were riders expressing confusion to the T about how to get out of trains at stations? Have the exit signs been shown to have some utility – to be useful in some way?”

The MBTA didn’t even know what we were talking about, asking for more specifics: “Where exactly they are located, and which T cars you are referencing? Do you have or can you provide images of the exit signs?” A photo was sent of a sign from Sept. 12, which was 176 days after the opening of the green line extension’s Union Square station, which means there were transit crews on trains gluing useless exit signs to the roofs of train cars when they could have been gluing updated maps to the walls.

Instead of answering

As trains have slowed and bus service has been cut back, vehicle tracking has become ever more meaningless. Those vehicles, with their frequent announcements of problems and delays, are filled with people listening to headphones and earbuds, a situation dating back to the invention of the Sony Walkman in 1979, not to mention encountered by people who are deaf or hearing-impaired, yet T announcements are made by voice. Battiston said “the MBTA is working on this challenge,” and shared a tweet from someone excited to see diversion information finally making it into some in-car visual displays – in February of this year.

Requests for information on the expense and worker hours spent installing bench bars and exit signs were punted by Battiston to the state’s public records request process, where they were logged June 27 and June 28; the law says a response to a public records request must be made within 10 days, so the MBTA is in violation of the law.

The state Department of Transportation records center provides links to follow to “monitor the progress of your request,” where attempts to create a user to do that were rejected as invalid. Going further brought up an “unexpected error” page.

Instead of answering questions, then, the MBTA creates a “public records request” that it doesn’t comply with while inviting the asker to monitor progress on a system that doesn’t work – which is grimly funny when the questions are about the things the transit agency does instead of keeping its trains running and its riders informed.

New era, same approach

It would be nice to think that with new MBTA general manager Phillip Eng running things, all of this was moot, and we could just sit tight and wait for the Eng era to take hold and make things right. 

Yet in a June 26 hearing on Beacon Hill to a Joint Committee on Transportation, Eng gave contradictory answers about his approach to getting the T running safely and at top speeds again, and the legislators who were supposedly there for answers let it pass – like the MBTA buses we wait hours for just to see them go by without stopping. When a speed-restrictions tracker went live in mid-March, there had been 44 speed restrictions on the red line in the past 30 days, and at the time of Eng’s hearing things looked much worse, with 92 from the past 30 days; meanwhile, there were restrictions on 26 percent of red line track as of mid-March and three months later, it was at 21 percent – only a 5 percentage point improvement in three months, or 2.4 miles of track?

Eng’s answers were aligned with those from Battiston the same day: “Lifting speed restrictions is a dynamic process [and] the percentage of restricted track will fluctuate as track defects are rectified.” 

The response is confusing and borderline meaningless, and though the legislators failed to follow up with Eng, Battiston was implored: “Can you get on the phone with me to clarify and explain?”

There was no reply.