Red Line Update

MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak called me this morning to brief me about the Red Line’s troubles and his response. Below is a summary of our conversation.

The Timeline for Service Restoration

Normally during rush hour, there are approximately 14 trains per hour. Unfortunately, at least through Labor Day, there will only be 10 trains per hour.

The derailed train did severe damage. It knocked out the most complex area of the signal system that controls the Red Line. To keep trains running, the MBTA has a crew of 48 people working to manually control the flow of trains through that area. Management feels that 10 trains per hour is the maximum pace that they can achieve safely using manual control.

Most of the parts in the damaged signal system date back to 1970 and are not available. Crews are picking through the rubble of the signal bungalow to salvage the parts that they can. Reconstructing a functioning signal system will take an unpredictable amount of time, Labor Day is an inside date, not an outside date for full speed restoration.

The MBTA already had a project in progress to fully replace the signal system on the Red Line. Unfortunately, the damaged area was the last area that was planned to be replaced, so that it does not seem possible to skip over repair and go to replacement. Moving to completely modernize the damaged area would take at least a year. So, at the moment, the goal is to repair the damaged signals and restore normal service sooner.

How did the Accident Happen?

The answer is not yet known with certainty, but the train appears to have derailed as a result of some kind of wheel or axle failure. Operator error and track/signal defects have been tentatively ruled out.

Investigators are examining the train car that derailed, but at this point there are lots of elements of the car that are broken. It isn’t easy to identify the part that failed among all the parts that were damaged because of the accident. Identifying the part that failed will require laboratory analysis by specialized metallurgists.

Press reports have noted that the car was placed in service around 1969, but the “trucks”, the wheeled units that the car rides on, were replaced in 2014, so age per se is not obviously the cause of the accident. As the manager noted: “If you replace the ax handle twice and the ax head three times is it still the same ax?”

The MBTA has retained an independent firm, LTK engineering, to complete the investigation in to this derailment and the other recent derailments.

What is the MBTA doing to assure that the Red Line is safe?

There are two different parts of the management process: On the one hand, day to day operations; on the other, capital planning — the repair, replacement and upgrade of the system.

In the short run, the MBTA is responding to accident itself by accelerating routine inspections of Red Line cars to identify any possible points of failure that might lead to a repetition of the derailment. All 68 of the other similar cars have now been inspected.

In the long run, the MBTA is following through on projects set in motion 5 years ago to completely replace the Red Line vehicle fleet and signal systems. These plans should come to fruition before the middle of the next decade.

I expressed that I had a lot of confidence in the MBTA’s leadership on the capital planning side — their efforts have been very ambitious and transparent and will, within a few years result in obvious improvements in service. The Red Line will be very different in a few years.

I said I had less visibility into and less confidence about the day-to-day leadership of the system: How good is the safety culture really? The manager took that question in stride and said that he understood the question, but honestly felt good about it. Not good about the recent incidents, but good about the safety consciousess he hears from workers as he is out and about every day.

He acknowledged the need for more visibility on safety issues at the MBTA board level and said that he had requested that the board form an independent board to review the safety culture. He recognizes that it is not enough to offer his personal assurances to the public — that independent observations are necessary.

More Information

For official updates, see the MBTA’s page about the Red Line incident. For much more information and perspective from me, please see this thread.

Published by Will Brownsberger

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

Join the Conversation


  1. My daughter commutes every day on Red Line from Quincy to Park St. & was very adversely affected by derailment. She & other regular users are concerned that fare hikes are going through despite reduction in services.

    1. Adjacent to Washington Street in Brighton between Brighton Center and the Brookline line, there are over 1200 additional housing units in various stages of being build in large projects, many smaller projects in the area are also in various stages of being built as well. The assumption is many tenants will be using public transit and personal cars won’t be necessary. If public transportation is unreliable, gridlock will become a serious issue. I can already imagine parking is going to become impossible!

    2. The comparison of all the broken pieces of the Red Line car to an ax with 2 parts is idiotic. Reasonable logic predicts that good has been attached to bad — or gerry-rigged— throughout that car over the years. How many more cars just like it are still on the tracks? “Safety culture” glosses over this troublesome thought.
      I write as a commuter between Alewife and Quincy for the better part of 20 years. It has become increasingly awful.

        1. Why do we need a third (paid, I assume) party, and who is “they?” Please don’t tell us that the MBTA is the “they” who will define “credible.”
          Who and where is the second party? What happened to its/our will and action?

          How about “we” politicians or “we” commuters? Why have “we” given the MBTA even more time and opportunity to explain its behavior away — and to get a fare increase? To pay the third party?

  2. This article is a good example of why I read your postings, it contains great information, succinctly put, that I don’t find anywhere else. Thank you.

  3. I wonder if they would consider running a few express trains, say from the JFK area South or North a number of stops, since that is the affected area AND might then allow for a local train to trail behind. The problem with the slow down is that the volume of passengers trying to board further down the line in both directions grows as the delays in the rush hour commutes mount. Interspersing some express trains might move trains through quicker.

  4. The fare increase should go ahead as planned. The extra revenue is needed
    to pay for the operating cost of the T. I understand why people are saying to freeze the fare increase until the Red Line is fixed. No, 2 separate issue. The financial health of the T is critical if we are to have mass transit in the Greater Boston Area.

  5. More like the ship of Theseus…or should we make that the subway car of Theseus??

    Of course, his ship just had to make it to Delos and back once a year, not shuttle back and forth from Alewife to Ashmont 10 times a day, every day.

    As an engineer, I think it’s important to do a “root cause” analysis of this accident, but even if the proximate cause of this event turns out to be a fluke, it can’t be good to be dependent on equipment (subway cars or switching systems) that go back to the 1970s. It sounds to be as if one way or another the root cause of this accident is delayed maintenance and replacement.

  6. This response in general and the timeline in particular is quite demoralizing. The capital plan for replacing cars and the signal system was started 5 years ago and will be completed 5-7 years from now? What about the plan and timeline for additional capacity given the development others have mentioned?
    I will look at the MBTA website to see what I can learn about their culture of safety, where I would expect to see data from routine monitoring. A general feeling based on conversations with workers is not evidence about the culture. An independent review is one step, but not the same as a system with measurable processes and results, including “near
    misses” and not just actual accidents. This report leaves me quite uneasy; perhaps I will find something reassuring on the website.

  7. I’m struggling to try to understand how complex a signalling system needs to be to control a slow moving train on a single track that comes by every 4 minutes at most. This is not air traffic control. This is not an open roadway. We’re on the verge of having self-driving cars. How complicated/expensive does a control system need to be to control a train that travels on a single track? How about we stop paying for police details at every road construction site and use the money saved to pay MBTA employees to manually signal the trains for a year while the modern system is put in place? What a giant waste of money it would be to rebuild the ancient system and THEN pay again to replace it with the modern signalling system.

  8. Thank you for this exposition of the realities of the situation we are confronting with the MBTA. Given the uncertainty of the extent of the limitations on already stretched Red Line service (their duration and the possibility of further accidents, if the recent derailments were not the result of an unusual or even unique concatenation of circumstances) it seems to me (independently of the rights and wrongs of the imminent MBTA fare increase) that employers and employees would do well to develop mutual understandings and make arrangements to mitigate the impact both on individuals and the organizations they work in of the increased length of time and unpredictability of commuting from home to and from work. Circumstances and requirements differ (hospitals, financial services companies, retail stores, hotels, restaurants, delivery companies, etc.) nevertheless they should all be concerned about the impact on the ability of and stress upon the staff required to enable businesses and institutions to operate if these staff have to spend more time and cannot be sure they will be able to arrive at work on time as expected and then return home reasonably predictably for the sake of other members of their households. Perhaps in some cases staggered work schedules can be arranged and employees can be assured they will not be penalized financially if they are late because of failures in the public transit they depend on and/or greater congestion on the roads that these failures provoke. Perhaps more at home working will be possible (although obviously this is not the case for staff at hotels, restaurants, retail stores etc.). We are collectively all responsible in some sense for the lamentable state of transport infrastructure, in the context of a general unwillingness over many years to contribute more resources to the public realm, so those of us who may be able to help should try to figure out ways to mitigate the harmful consequences of this failure, and the added financial and other costs that fall disproportionately on some segments of the working population as a result.

    1. I agree with the general point of Martyn Roetter opinions; in essence, that the MBTA is somehow conspiring to under perform in the area of maintenance of rolling stock and rail is half baked. I have replied in a previous conversation on the good senator’s website on the difficulties that a small transit system has in maintaining rolling stock with limited repair facilities (barns) and layover track; that is one aspect of the operational difficulties of the T.
      The point that MR makes the we, the commuters are not just victims also of the system’s failures but also part of the root cause is undeniably correct. Staggered work hours was a major component of a plan in the 1970’s by Gov. Sargent to improve traffic flow into and out of the city from the South Shore; along with car-pooling and the institution of an moveable HOV (high occupancy vehicles) which at that time was defined as vehicles with a minimum of 4 passengers.
      Even with the HOV lane proposed and instituted the plan fell with a thud; both business partners and commuters resisted the concept of staggered work hours and resoundingly refused to car-pool.
      The combined resistance of both elements in this plan remains…the HOV lane which is still operational and mechanized is now defined as 2+ passengers per auto and during rush hours is still underused. I have been on the road for the last 50 years working and have noted on a daily basis that on all major highways at all hours of the day, not just rush hours, 7 out 10 vehicles contain one person, the driver.
      Perhaps as MR has noted, since many more folks can now work remotely from home, car pooling and staggered work hours would be more readily enacted…but for the majority, sorry I doubt it.

  9. Time and money are needed to fix the MBTA. There is no quick fix. The MBTA has been ignored for a long time. People blame the Governor. If it was his fault, why haven’t the Democrats done anything? People want the Governor to ride the MBTA. Is that going to solve the problem? No. Time and money will solve the problem.

    1. We — both Red and Blue commuters— don’t blame the governor, but are shocked by recent news reports that suggest he was slow to visit the site and realize or admit just how old and junky this equipment is. If those reports and implications are wrong, then so be it. But now, here WE are. WE. Please be fair.

  10. Wow, this is a complicated issue for sure! Thanks for posting this. I’m sorry for all who are affected.
    It just feels like it should be a quicker fix but admittedly I know nothing about the nuts and bolts of servicing the rail system. Old stuff; newer stuff; some things work the same over time; some things change dramatically. But what about the commuters. What relief do they get? Are we thinking big enough when we talk about revamping our legacy system? Will we ever get to a standard of travel that is reliable?

    Thanks for sharing this Will! You’re the best!!

  11. Will,

    Thanks for sharing. I gave up on red line long time ago. It is not reliable ? slow and crowded.

    Can you double check it actually takes 48 person to do traffic control, while there is only 10 trains for hour?

    That does not makes sense to me. They might be working against each other. Do we have any kind of automation system? Or you spread them out at each station, manually guiding the traffic of subway.

    Does this ever make sense? Please comment.


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