Red Line Update (6/21)

Please see also 7/26 update further below.

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.

Update, July 26

In a conference call with elected officials on July 26, General Manager Poftak and his team reported on progress in repairing the damaged signals on the Red Line. The bottom line is that we will be fairly close to normal service by early in August.

The basic idea of train signals is to assure safe separation of trains by preventing a train from entering a “block”, a stretch of track, before the train ahead has left it. Repair crews have salvaged as much as possible from the damaged signal bungalows and have repaired, tested and placed in service the signals controlling two out of four affected blocks and now expect the third block’s signals to be fully tested and back in service by August 5. The remaining block involves additional complexity and the repair date is uncertain.

For the final block, they are working on two uncertain strategies simultaneously: (1) to repair the old signals; (2) to procure and install entirely new signals. It is soon to evaluate how long either strategy will take. The new signal contract was already underway before the crash happened, but the intention was to do the remaining block last. They have resequenced the contract to address it first, but fabricating the new signals is a more-or-less one-off process and the new schedule is not yet determined.

While signals are not working, T workers need to control the flow of trains manually and this is slower than the automated method. Under normal rush hour conditions prior to the crash, customers could expect trains coming through roughly every 4.5 minutes. That went down to 6 minutes after the crash. Trains are running a little better than that now, but will be down to every 5 minutes or a little better by early August. It’s uncertain when we’ll get back to 4.5 minute rush hour headways.

Note that on weekends and evenings, the frequency may be considerably lower to accommodate repair work. I boarded the Red Line at Fields Corner this Sunday afternoon headed inbound and the advertised spacing was 17 to 28 minutes. I had just missed a train and my wait was at the low end of the range.

In the long term (approximately four years), when the new cars and signals are all in place for the Red Line, we will be down to 3 minute headways, which will amount to a huge improvement over pre-crash normal conditions.

Published by Will Brownsberger

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

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42 Comments

  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!

      1. I understand how increased density might be frustrating to people who have lived here a long time, but the jobs are here in the city. If housing didn’t go up around here it would have to go to the periphery, which would mean more cars plugging up more streets and generating more air pollution.

        At least with units built close in there are options. I don’t know what could be done with the B line other than maybe more efficient traffic light signaling and better green line cars (coming soon?) or more frequent ones. But in a pinch, MBTA could add buses. Brighton Ave. has that great dedicated bike / bus lane now. I avoid rush hour, but at least when I bike down it, it’s nowhere near capacity. It could hold a lot more buses and bikes, and the cars don’t seem slowed down by being restricted to one lane. How hard could it be to run a bus from Brookline Village across Washington Street and then down the 57 route to Kenmore? (Note: even at my late rising commute time, I often see 57 buses so full they can’t pick up the people waiting near St. Elizabeth’s, so another bus taking that route might help in other ways.)

        And the great thing about Brighton, if you’re healthy enough, is that walking to Kendall Square or Downtown Boston is not out of the question — you know, if the B line gets really frustrating as sometimes will happen.

    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?

            1. Can we just contract the people who run Tokyo’s JR Metro? There are people out there who know how to operate a transit system.

  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.

      1. I believe this non-3rd rail is a problem through out the system. I can remembe
        when it was called “RAPID TRANSIT”.

  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.

    1. I tend to agree. Why 49 workers are needed is not at all clear. But it’s not a single track, it’s a double track with a big junction controlled by switches that need to be manually thrown. Trains should proceed slowly, which to me indicates that headway between them might be reduced, such that more than 10 trains could run. Has a Red Line train ever rear-ended another one? What’s the reason for this overabundance of caution?

    2. Completely agree. There is a ton on money wasted on union driven police details which could help fund many other needed programs. And it would also give many teenagers and high school graduates, entry into the work-a-day world.

  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.

    Thanks

  12. Two questions:
    1. Why didn’t the operator feel something wrong and stop sooner?
    2. Why isn’t critical infrastructure like the switch bungalow better protected by a guard rail or something?

  13. Sadly our Subway system is not only long out of date but also needs to be enlarged. Like NYC we need express trains which means larger or more tunnels running through Boston. We also need to expand the service like putting a commuter rail station at riverside station as an express route to Boston. Extending the Red line out to the Bedford Lexington line to reduce congestion at Alewife and provide service to Arlington , Lexington and Bedford.

    It’s not just an aging system – it is a system that is too small as well

    1. Given that the commuter rail parallels the Red Line for at least part of its length, and that a deal to locate a commuter rail stop at Alewife was finalized between developers and the T more than 30 years ago, and that Red Line improvements are still four years away while new commuter rail stops can be built in a year or less (see Yawkey Station, Boston Landing, etc.), why is there still no push by our elected officials at the state and local levels to make this happen? We have more than 3000 new residential units at Alewife, plus plans for at least 2000 more by 2030, plus millions of square feet of new commercial space planned. Can’t we get a simple train platform built to serve all those new residents and commuters???

  14. I worked in the private sector all my life. The private business culture is always breakdown and divide the big problems into smaller more manageable ones. This would translate to breaking up the T into smaller parts. The T would be trains and trams. The bus system would be broken up into RTAs along shared bus routes, like Watertown, Belmont, Waltham and Cambridge. Etc.
    The biggest flaw in the MBTA is it is an authority, mandated by law so by definition there is no incentive to be efficient. This is where the legislative process come into play. Create a transportation infrastructure authority to disperse funds and oversee the proper use of them. The T as we know it now would become a service delivery agency. If we did that 20 years ago we would have sidestepped a lot of the systemic problems today. This cesspool of corruption known as the big dig would have come out a lot differently.

    1. My experience with RTAs is with the Springfield one. They’re pretty good at running on time (Springfield traffic is a simpler problem?) when I take them, but examples of the way they are “efficient” is to not clean the seats and to stop running the B7 to Eastfield Mall, a place with a movie theatre, early Saturday evening.

      I’d be concerned that the bus part of the system being separated out would make it underfunded (like today’s RTAs) because the T would be what everyone would talk about and apply pressure on officials about. IIRC there’s a divergent racial break down between bus ridership and rail too. Unless you’re way more optimistic than I am (and if so, take a look at Chelsea why don’t you), that might cause underfunding too.

      Divide and conquer is a good way to attack a well defined problem, but I want the planners to look at the system for the whole region with the ability to trade off between adding rail and adding bus routes. Or, like this weekend while the C line was being worked on, I’d like them to have their own buses to sub in for out of commission track. That’s got to be cheaper than subcontracting Peter Pan or that other intercity busline they sometimes use.

      If anything the transit system here is too fragmented with all these goofy little private bus companies running for universities and business councils, with buses that pass by mostly empty while I’m waiting for my late or overcrowded MBTA bus. I assume those are all operating at huge losses because they’re an employee perq or private university selling point (or it’s part of the culture of both types of institutions to want to save their people from having to interact with folks not of their own kind — e.g. you know Harvard has its own private freecycle now, among other things). Not what I’d call efficiency.

      I also work in the private sector and can’t tell you how many times managers complain of we underlings being stuck in “silos.”

  15. Hello, thank you for this summary. I am wondering why the green line derailment, which while it did not knock out service for days/weeks, was still a significant safety failure, has been knocked so completely out of the discussion? Downplaying that accident, even if it was caused by a different issue – driver error – keeps the conversation focused on only part of the problem. Please explore the issues on the entire system.

    1. They have retained safety auditors to look at the several derailments that have occurred system-wide, including the Green Line event.

      The Red Line is getting extra attention in the press because the derailed train did so much damage and has continued to hold up commuters.

  16. What an absolute joke! We went through a bad period quite a few years ago now and were told that the problem was the faulty signal system on the Red Line but that all the money being spent at the time to correct the matter would ensure smooth operation in the future. That never happened. So is the problem with the MBTA outright corruption or just massive incompetence? Or perhaps both? I have traveled in a number of third world countries where public transportation is better.

  17. It is apparent that current MBTA leadership needs to hire some good people with an outside perspective on operational and infrastructure improvements and record of innovation. Johnson Todd is the current COO and has been employed with the MBTA for 23 years. Maybe it is time to consider hiring externally someone who has a fresh outlook and a track record of sussess making system improvements? Here are some lists of the best subway systems in North America and the world.
    https://www.businessinsider.com/best-subway-public-transit-north-america-2017-10
    https://citi.io/2017/08/30/top-10-best-subway-systems-of-the-world/

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