It has been a very bad week for the MBTA.  Two train derailments injured dozens and massively inconvenienced hundreds of thousands of people. 

As I write, no one seems to know yet how long it will take to repair critical signal systems that the derailed train destroyed. Red line riders may have to endure diminished service and extraordinary rush hour crowding for days or weeks.

While expediting repairs, the MBTA has rightly brought in an outside consulting team to review the events.  The legislature will take great interest in the results of that review. 

For me, here is the big question:  What will that review reveal about the work force and operational management of the MBTA?  We knew that from time to time scheduled bus trips simply don’t happen because an employee doesn’t show up. We know that the MBTA’s derailment rate is high.  We knew that a terrifying runaway train incident was triggered by an operator disabling a safety device.  Investigators have already concluded that the recent green line derailment was operator error. 

While safety is always nominally the number one mission of any transit agency, how strong is the safety culture really?  Are line managers overextended and under too much pressure to deliver timely service with inadequate staffing?  What do these incidents say about employee morale and discipline?

As legislators, we tend to focus less on operational conditions, which are hard to evaluate from outside, and more on the issues of system repair and service expansion.  My impression has been and remains that the MBTA’s board and leadership team have been doing a very good job in turning around a state of physical system decay that was produced by decades of inadequate investment.

The MBTA’s board has greatly improved the transparency and efficiency of the capital planning process.  They are spending more each year than ever before (almost doubling capital spending since FY16 (plan over actual — see also audited financial statements and analysis by Commonwealth Magazine) and they are doing so creatively and with careful attention to project management.  They are not just replacing ancient tracks, power, signal systems and vehicles.  They are asking how they can upgrade performance as they go. 

With the spending already programmed, we can expect a 50% increase in people-moving capacity on the red line over the next 6 or 7 years.   If longer-term plans can be sustained, we can expect a 100% increase on the Green Line over 10 to 15 years.  Work is happening on so many fronts that I get as many angry calls and emails about night noise from MBTA construction crews as I do about service delay incidents. 

The MBTA board is also asking the visionary questions about what service expansions we can achieve to take the region through the next century of growth and climate change.  In every neighborhood that I represent, people are complaining about cut through traffic and high congestion.  Supporting the MBTA’s long-term improvement process with funding and governance improvements is a central legislative priority.

We will need to keep raising the capital spending level in the future, but the MBTA’s capital program may be as aggressive as it can be for the next few years  (see FMCB discussion of June 10 at 1:21). Right now, the money is in place and the real constraint is management capacity.  The MBTA has been taking steps to expand management capacity by adding high level staff and consulting resources to run major projects. The MBTA board is putting heavy pressure on MBTA management to find ways to expand throughput on the myriad of smaller maintenance project (see FMCB discussion of June 10 at 1:38). 

But we may not be spending enough on the operational side.  MBTA management has been committed to living within its means and has been locked in a necessary struggle with unions about how to control pension costs.  I hate to contemplate the possibility that operational discipline has deteriorated during that struggle.

We will keep asking questions over the weeks to come. 

Note: The photo for this piece was taken by a staff member on my team running late for work in a previous delay incident — the alert reader will notice cold weather garb.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

48 replies on “MBTA Troubles”

  1. Thank you for being so involved on transportation issues. As you noted: “But we may not be spending enough on the operational side.” We need additional revenues for the MBTA to operate effectively. There was a minuscule gasoline tax approved a few years ago and a provision to automatically adjust that tax to inflation was defeated by referendum the following year. While that didn’t preclude the Legislature from periodically raising the tax to meet the growing need for transportation revenue, such action has not occurred. The Baker Administration took office with the mantra of “Reform Before Revenue” and was given the reforms that it requested with the creation of the Fiscal and Management Control Board almost four years ago. Yet, there has been no new revenue for operations other than that generated through fare increases. While the Capital Budget promises a lot, the system cannot function well without appropriate revenue for day-to-day operations.

    1. Well said! Time to get $$s from our neighbors from the north and west who use our infrastructure and don’t pay for it.

    2. Looks like additional revenue will be needed but why go after the automobile drivers to obtain such revenue as there tax contributions should go for road and bridge repair. How about going to the state’s general treasury for the money or have the state kill some programs that are not meeting their goals and use that money for the MBTA?

  2. I agree that one simple way to fund the MBTA so it modernizes and tries to keep pace with rising volume of riders is for the tax on gasoline to be increased. No one likes to pay more for gas, but it’s a fossil fuel and we should encourage alternative use of public transportation in every possible way.

  3. The green line derail raises questions About the work force and the role of the union in addressing issues of working safely. Other industries provide examples of constructive union management partnerships.

  4. Thank you for addressing the issue. It’s a crucial safety concern in such a congested city as Boston. Do we need a terrorist to injure people when our transportation system is so poorly managed? Is that last accident a priority for our govenment?

  5. Or we are wasting money in the operating budget by (for example) preferring to spend on repairing 40 year old escalators in Harvard Sq that are often out of service and do not come to the plaza grade rather than allocate capital to replace them with ones that come to grade during the time when Cambridge is reconstructing the entire plaza except the decrepit headhouse and escalators.

    1. Jan, it’s disingenuous to point at a minuscule project that you might disagree with to distract attention from decades of deferred maintenance, chronic underfunding, and subsidizing driving and SOVs (single occupant vehicles) at the expense of all else, not to mention unduly shifting a large amount of debt from the Big Dig onto the MBTA. This is a problem due to years of neglect at the state level.

      1. I agree with Kathleen. This fiasco is the direct responsibility of our elected officials who have been derelict in their duties when it comes to adequately funding public transportation infrastructure and equipment. I have lived in Boston since 1991 and have watched our state government kick the transportation problem down road for 28 years. The timeline of an additional 10-15 years outlined in this update is a recipe for economic disaster. If workers can not get to their jobs because of a lack of adequate transportation infrastructure and the solution is still another 10 years away – who in their right mind is going to put up with living in greater Boston dealing with this nightmare for the next decade? Many of the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Medical (STEM) professionals have lots of options and can easily find employment elsewhere. They can and will move on to greener pastures derailing the Massachusetts economy.

        1. Tony, I could not have said it better myself. I am a professional who works in Copley Square and lives in Watertown–it took me an hour and a half to get home from work on the bus last week. Approximately 130-150 people were waiting for a bus with 38 seats, and this happens all the time. It wasn’t raining, it wasn’t snowing, it wasn’t some other invented “disaster”.
          The traffic is increasing because public transportation in this city is a joke; if I can’t work here, why should I pay so much to live here? Why should my employers have to deal with people being late all the time through no fault of their own? It’s bad business that leads to lost business.

  6. Will, I see you on the bus often. This shows in a concrete way that you care about and understand only as a regular rider can how transportation issues change our lives and livelihoods.
    I wish we saw more legislators commute the way their constituents do, and I’d love to hear the Governor commit to riding the Commuter Rail from Swampscott regularly.

  7. Simple solution, just pass a law that requires all elected state officials to use the MBTA to commute back and forth to all legislative business.

  8. Thank you for your thoughtfulness as always Senator. I would add that one of the ways the MBTA has always struggled has been communicating with its passengers. We are willing to put up with a lot more, when presented with honest and timely information.

    From a management perspective I thought that GM Richard Davey was excellent at that, reaching out to passengers on multiple forms of media and soliciting feedback at every turn.

    In general, if conductors and station attendants were better informed about current situations and able to relay that information to the passengers, it would make enduring these increasingly frequent delays a lot more tolerable.

  9. The Alewife-bound crowd at Downtown Crossing and Park Street was pretty much as bad as your photo. There were nearly 1000 people waiting at Downtown Crossing, and many of them were giving up on the red line as trains arrived already packed with people.

    My wife and I are young voters in our 20s, and the performance of the MBTA makes a huge difference in our lives. We commute from Watertown to Downtown every day.

    Thank you for your work and attention on this!

  10. As a long time rider on the MBTA and also as the aged son of a railroader of The New York Transit Authority, I recognize how frustrating commuters and occasional users of this public transit system can feel when there are continual rush hour delays and operational breakdowns. More capital investment in infrastructure is always a good idea; and seeking to place blame on employees and supervisors is an easy solution; but…my father many years ago pointed out to me an underlying cause for the operational difficulties that the MBTA has to deal with and I have never seen or heard it discussed in the public arena. The MBTA is a very small, busy train/rail/trolley system with approximately 78 miles of running rail and very little (to none) layover rail which requires virtually all rolling stock to be up and running daily. Layover rail is a place to park trains off the main line. For a comparison, the NYC transit system has approximately 840 miles of running rail and many maintenance yards in four different boroughs with many more miles of layover track where trains can be parked and put back in service as needed. Also, there is no express track anywhere in the MBTA between inbound and outbound directions, so if a malfunction occurs anywhere basically that line is shut down
    That is why the Boston system has to shut down at night so that maintenance work can be done and the NYC system runs all night. Certain neighborhoods clamor for late night service; not realizing that they are riding trains and trolleys that are getting perhaps not sufficient inspection and service.
    So this overview sheds a little more light on what is not a very obvious aspect of our public transportation system. And because the MBTA and state government know this; both are hesitant to discuss this in the public domain because it is not a easily solved problem.

    1. I don’t disagree with any of the issues, but lack of late or overnight service could also be addressed by busses that run along the same route.

    2. FWIW, there is a lot of public discussion of layover facilities for bus and commuter rail ( haven’t heard as much on subway). Unfortunately, siting new facilities is a huge challenge — land is expensive and neighbors don’t want the noise.

  11. Has anyone done a study as to how many dollars it would cost to update or replace the trains, subway cars, and infrastructure upgrades, and then operational costs it will take to get the MBTA up to date? It bothers me to see people asking for more money to fund the MBTA if we do not know how much it will actually take.

    1. The capital side has been very much studied and it is all very visible in the MBTA board meetings. Please see the links in the main post.

      The costs on the operating side are more a subject of collective bargaining. The transparency does not seem as great, although that perception may be a result of my primary focus on the capital side.

  12. What is to discuss? It is an entirely Government run train, the most arrogant and impervious of all monopolies. Thus, as Will so accurately points out, the only “solution” to even the most appalling demonstrations of sloth, greed and incompetence will be “more money”. Now of course money may well be wasted yet again on a “study”, duly provided of course by expert campaign contributors and palm-greasers, but we can in advance, rest assured, even before their extravagant bills are paid, the “study” will come to the ineluctable conclusion: more money. Yes, some deluded folks will cluck and coo and bicker over the various possible ways in which others hard-earned money is so grossly and incompetently wasted, but, rest assured, conditions will, against any objective measures, ever decline. And, in one or ten or one hundred years, the T and its enablers will be back here, again and again, to hose the taxpayers for…more money. (Thoughts of a now 50 year MBTA user.)

  13. Nobody in the state legislature cares as they all have private parking stops and top leadership just cares about their salary increases to boost their
    Pensions up to 80%
    No private sector employees have any chance of a pension today never mind the 80%

  14. The prosperous economy of the Boston region has generated serious traffic problems everywhere, roadways and absolutely the MBTA subway system. All those wealthy professionals moving in causing housing costs to explode are behind the transportation problem also. There are very few financial options with the middle class which is not your father’s middle class. The low income population is already being dangerously stretched. Time to increase the tax rate for those top tier types that are behind the problem: they have the means that others do not.

    As for the threat that they will not come to this area if the taxes are higher? Frankly, the problems generated are not worth keeping them coming at this rate.

    I kind of like Governor Charlie, but my vote in the next election will be heavily determined by funding for infrastructure, and in particular the MBTA. Right now, Charlie is not doing it for me.

  15. Privatize the MBTA. Very few people in the private sector get generous benefits like 80% pensions and healthcare. The benefits and pay don’t seem to get good performance, so eliminate them..

  16. ” MBTA management has been committed to living within its means and has been locked in a necessary struggle with unions about how to control pension costs. I hate to contemplate the possibility that operational discipline has deteriorated during that struggle.”

    Hmm. Not quite sure what you are suggesting here, Will. So what, exactly, are you suggesting?

    1. . . . not sure myself. Basically wondering whether the leadership team is doing as well on managing the people side of the business as they have at managing the capital investment side.

  17. Your advocacy for public transit makes it clear that you put your money where your mouth is and actually use the T. Thank you for recognizing that we need to increase operational funding.

  18. I appreciate that you are addressing these issues. A few things. First please look into addressing the hiring process at the MBTA. From what has been printed it seems the process to hire people at the T is long and drawn out. Are there any legislative actions that can be taken to speed this up so we can hire the right people? Next can the T consolidate certain administrative functions with other parts of the state. One idea would be to have parts such as HR, accounting, payroll etc merge with MassDOT equivalent. Does it make sense to merge Transit police into State Police? As far as additional funding for the T goes I fully support this (congestion pricing similar to NYC or maybe increased gas tax) but I think there is still a lot being left on the table. For example in Japan they have stands, atms, and vending machines at every station inside and outside. Why can’t we have vending machines at every station including outdoor ones such as Reservoir? It isn’t much but it will bring in more revenue that can be used to pay for things such as improved lighting. Next can we better utilize some of the existing real estate. South Station for example has a very large roof could the T working with the leasing company for building and put solar panels on the roof similar to what MassDOT has done along parts of the Pike?

  19. Perhaps the T should put a hold on new construction/expansion until they can keep the present system operating properly.

  20. I do appreciate hearing from you, that the .BTA’so primary focus is on the “State of good repair.” This is the cornerstone of safety.
    I have enjoyed using the T for many, many years, and lucily without incident. From 1997until 2006 (9.5 years), I rode the 71 bus week days, while attending Harvard. It served me well.
    I am pleased you are giving your attention to matters of importance concerning maintenance, repairs and upgrades, and of course safety. While readin the responses, I couldn’t help but be attracted to Alfred J. Carbone’s observation and insights. He is knowledgeable and has made some very good suggestions.
    Also, The recent derailments and employee errors are of grave concern. I am pleased these issues are being addressed wholeheartedly by MBTA and your committee, and finding cause and solutions and funding are in the forefront of your agendas. Thank you for your updates and for your commitment to improving our transportation system.

  21. I haven’t read all the comments and skimmed through the article quickly this morning while getting ready for work but have many thoughts of the MBTA as a rider. Until a few years ago was a regular MBTA green line, red line and bus rider. Out of frustration, caved in and opted to drive to work.

    I’ve had so many negative experiences as a rider from delays, major rudeness and unprofessional behavior of drivers, filthy buses and subway cars, and over heated stations in the summer time.

    I understand it will take money, however it needs to be spent in the right way. I’m afraid much of the money will go right to the pensions for the likes of Mike Mulhern and people like him who have milked the system dry.

    Also the MBTA problems are not a democratic or republican problem as it was equally incompetent under Deval Patrick. At least Charlie Baker is taking responsibility and not just trying to sweep it under the carpet as previous administrations have by saying the T isn’t that bad.

    The green line system is way too old and out of date. When there’s a home Red Sox game and one is trying to get home to Allston or Brighton waiting for the B line will take forever as there are thousands and thousands of riders waiting and filling the subway cars. The stations need to be much bigger, the cars need to be able to hold more passengers, there need to be fewer stops with much smoother travel.

    What I would like to see done is have the pro sports teams, the colleges and universities, and the financial institutions all show a more vested interest in investing and fixing the mbta. I would like to see the MBTA completely privatized, even if it means a higher cost for passengers, we just want reliability and professionalism. There’s nothing more frustrating than waiting, waiting and waiting only to be greeted by a driver with a nasty rude attitude onto a bus or subway car that smells of filth with trash. I think the mbta should adopt a no food policy. I see McDonalds and Dunkin Donuts bags on the floor of the train, people spilling food; it’s downright disgusting. In cities such as Philadelphia and Washington DC, who also don’t have perfect public transportation, at the very least they have much nicer drivers and customer service and their buses and trains are actually clean.

    My thoughts are all over the place in this post. To whoever has to ride the mbta today or any day, good luck and may you reach your destination in one piece with as little stress and hardship as possible.

  22. The fundamental business model of the T is broken and the whole concept needs to be reviewed from the 100,000 foot level. No one in their right mind would design a system without redundancies. The MWRA even knows this. They are a state agency yet we have no problems with them. Look into the MWRA for management solutions of why they are doings things right, and port this over to MBTA. My observations is the MBTA is over reaching their operational capacity. The MBTA should be broken up and divested of all their bus routes and focus on “steel wheels on steel rails”. The bus system be taken over by RTA’s that will function independently. If the MBTA dies, it will not take down the entire state transit system. (yes there will be issues) but the problem contained. This is what the private sector does, and market forces kick in to right the ship.

  23. Is there really nothing that can be speeded up? You mentioned that the T is hiring more people to oversee capital projects. Could an increase in those positions, combined with a willingness to spend money on construction overtime, get things done more quickly? Another way to quickly improve service would be more dedicated bus lanes. If all the energy devoted to bike lanes had been devoted to buses, we would be better off.

  24. I am fascinated by the people who believe that the privatization will somehow solve, or at least reduce, the MBTA’s problems. There are many examples of the errors and inefficiencies of the private sector; they simply don’t make the news because private companies can tell investigators to shove off unless they can get a subpoena. Worse, the private sector needs to make a profit to pay investors, not simply break even. British railroads have been privatized to satisfy Tory promises to their voters; there are fewer trains and the service on them is worse. The MBTA contracted out commuter rail to a private firm; the results have not been good.

  25. Hi Will,
    Thank you for writing this article about the MBTA. Other than the Fair Share Amendment (2022?), what other ways could the Commonwealth of Massachusetts raise revenue to fund the MBTA consistently? The people of Massachusetts need a functional public transportation system that is accessible, affordable, and safe!

  26. I am concerned that the T’s lack of imagination and skill on how to manage many necessary capital projects at once will: 1) delay projects that are needed to achieve a state of good repair of the system; 2) prevent, delay, or minimize upgrades of parts of the system that are well out-of-date; 3) make it difficult to contend with unexpected problems that arise (e.g., the current Red Line signal problems caused by the derailment: and 4) cause the T or DOT to delay or deep-six essential expansions of the system (e.g., the Red Line – Blue Line connector at Charles St.). I am wondering if the T or DOT should take a page from the playbook that MWRA used when it was managing many capital projects to complete the Boston Harbor clean-up on time and under budget. It brought in a separate experienced and well-staffed project management team to plan and oversee the large capital projects, thus allowing existing MWRA staff to continue to work on smaller projects and operations and maintenance. If the T has not done that, why not?

    I think it is also worth mentioning that the T is able to vastly increase its capital spending only because the T’s funding formula was revised by Governor Patrick and the legislature a year or so before Gov. Baker took office. There is general acknowledgement that even more funding is needed for the system (DOT’s excuse for not wanting more funding is that the T cannot manage so many projects well; it has not claimed that additional funding is not needed). Unfortunately, Governor Baker, like many of the R. governors before him, won’t spend any of his political capital on getting the state transportation programs the funding they really need. When will the D.’s in the legislature step up again on this?

    1. No need to blame Baker as this is a problem that has roots back at least 20 years.

  27. The long-standing neglect of T maintenance has created a culture of “work arounds” that typically bypass safety (the Red Line incident). The situation has been exacerbated by a system of patronage that often places the wrong employee in the wrong job, particularly in management. It is very difficult to dislodge such a system and culture, even with more money.

  28. We should definitely find more revenue to enhance operations of the MBTA. Here are some options that have been tried elsewhere:
    1. Albany NY- a tax on real estate transactions
    2. Portland OR- a payroll tax
    3. Seattle WA- a sales tax
    I am working from memory here, based on research I did twenty years ago or more, but this is what I recall.

  29. So, in addition to the Red Line problems, we are now going to have accessibility problems with the 71 and 73 buses! I live not far from Watertown square and work in town; should I start to plan for a full hour-and-a-half commute now?

  30. Regarding operations and the workplace culture, I wonder how much consideration is given to the perspective of front end employees. Does anyone ask bus drivers what slows them down? What intersections are often blocked? As mentioned in another post, when funding and staff are inadequate, employees devise workarounds to keep managers happy.

  31. Thanks for your insight, Will.
    Aside from the funding issue, we also need to focus on operation efficiency.
    Pouring more water into a leaky bucket (MBTA is a perfect example) don’t yield much good unless we fixed the bucket first.
    I simply don’t understand why rolling out new Red/Orange line cars would take another five years. Can MBTA explains why it would take so long when those cars are manufactured right here in Springfield and passed most of the tests already? Especially when the existing fleet of cars leaks/derails/catches file/cannot open/close doors so frequently in operation, why would it take so long.
    Can we benchmark their operational efficiency against other metro-rail systems? such as the metro/subway systems in Tokyo and Hong Kong? For one example, Hong Kong subway system is always on time, reliable, clean. And they can make a profit.

    Thanks again

  32. It’s not simply revenue that’s needed here. It’s city planning for people who want to live close and work in a vibrant city community. Not for Gambling tourists or Corporate Executives relocated from Connecticut and New York. I hear Jim Aliosi explain (as an “expert”- he sort of helped us get into this mess) tell everyone we need to raise downtown parking rates and inevitably transportation infrastructure costs, but he never says – we need affordable housing downtown, if not for the whole metro area. This is the legacy of unfettered real estate development. I live in Belmont but frankly the $100- $150 yearly increases to our rent to be “market” rate will drive us out. I see thousands of new apartments going up downtown, in Watertown, in Medford, in Belmont, in Cambridge, in Quincy 400- 750 square ft spaces start at $2500 and go up from there. These are not 2 income rentals, Condos start at $750,000 (plus fees!) these aren’t affordable even with 2 over minimum wage jobs (as my wife and i have) (not executives here) . The unfettered real estate development market fuels this whole crisis. If people lived downtown near where they worked- commuting and transportation infrastructure replenishing costs would be lower. Unfortunately the Massachusetts Legislature is the partner of “Luxury Development”, not the partner of affordable housing, it’s the partner of Gentrification, not neighborhood retention and they have conspired to dump the working people (those who make less than S100,000 a year) to the MBTA stressed suburbs and the backed up on the pike -suburb-burbs. Sure,I ‘d love to live in Somerville, nearethere the new Greenline will serve me well, but i can’t afford to. Our next move will most likely be out of the area (been here for 35 years), which is a reality I am trying to wrap my head around. Massachusetts does not care who is bearing the burden of so many “Luxury” Apartments which built into these ‘unperceived’ associated city transportation infrastructures (who was that transportation secretary? oh Jim Aliosi.). – The working people, who serve the Universities, Health Industries, Tech Industries, and the supporting groceries, convenience store, gas stations, etc, can’t rent or buy a ‘home’ near their employment and are forced to commute near their place of employment. Massachusetts industries, historically, built housing for workers who created and built a community around the industries. (Granted, these were almost indentured servant-style workers before unions became a political force) but we don’t promote this idea, and there is no community in Luxury Condos enclaves like Seaport. Boston is a beautiful city but it’s financially inhospitable for people who would be willing residents, if only they could afford to live there.

  33. If our goals are to reduce traffic, particularly cut-through traffic, and increase ridership, I have difficulty understanding how the current pricing structure and scheduled increases are designed to provide incentives that work toward those ends. We want to increase ridership, so we increase prices?

    1. Just a note regarding a comment above about other metro systems turning a profit: I don’t believe we should expect the transit system itself to make money, that isn’t its job. It’s job should be solving the problems of transit, which in turn better enables other entities to turn a profit.

      1. Did MBTA solve any problem of the transit with subway cars doors can’t open/close, derails, leaks, catches fire, freezes out of work and derails? They can never solve any problem

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