One day after an Orange Line train caught fire, causing passengers to frantically flee the smoking subway car atop a bridge, advocates on Friday called on political leaders to take urgent action aimed at preventing the next T catastrophe.
Instead of waiting for the results of the Federal Transit Administration’s safety inspection of the MBTA, advocates want the governor, the Legislature, and the T to ramp up pressure on the manufacturer of long-delayed new Orange and Red Line cars and rapidly speed up repairs of the system’s old infrastructure.
Advocates want to see the same urgency from political leaders, including Governor Charlie Baker and lawmakers, that they say those politicians showed after the 2015 snowstorms shut down the T.
“What’s going on today is in many ways much worse, this isn’t mother nature,” said Rick Dimino, president of the business group A Better City. “[The response] pales in comparison to what was put in place in 2015. That’s inexcusable.”
On Thursday, Baker said he welcomes the FTA inspection and pointed to the T’s recent on-time performance and investments his administration has made in repairs. MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak has said the T is working closely with the FTA on corrective actions.
On Thursday, a side panel fell off the 42-year-old Orange Line train car and touched the electrified third rail, causing flames and smoke as the train traveled across the bridge over the Mystic River connecting Medford and Somerville. Around 200 passengers evacuated; some kicked out windows to escape, and one jumped off the bridge into the water below and swam to shore. No one was injured.
The MBTA has known about the vulnerability of these side panels for years. In 2016, one fell of an Orange Line train at State Street Station, causing a similarly chaotic evacuation. The T found the fasteners connecting the panel to the body of the car were deteriorating and vowed to inspect them physically, not just visually, every few months.
Poftak said the car involved in Thursday’s fire was last inspected on June 23.
The old Orange Line cars, put into service from 1979 to 1981, never had a mid-life overhaul. In 2014, the MBTA selected a Chinese company that far underbid competitors to build an assembly factory in Springfield and deliver hundreds of new Orange and Red Line cars to the MBTA. Those deliveries are far behind schedule.
So far the T has received 78 of 152 new Orange Line cars and 12 of 252 new Red Line cars, according to MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo. The T expects all new Orange Line cars to be delivered by summer 2023 and all new Red Line cars by summer 2025, Pesaturo said.
The company, CRRC MA, has said the COVID-19 pandemic and supply chain issues are causing the delays.
Former secretary of transportation Jim Aloisi said the governor needs to investigate what’s going wrong with the deliveries and bring someone on to lead the effort to speed them up. Aloisi wants to see an MBTA plan by next week to repair and upgrade all of its aging infrastructure in three years. He wants to see the Legislature loosen restrictions on procurement so that the T can make selections based on best value, rather than lowest bidder.
“We have to pay a premium now to get the best and get it quickly,” he said. “It’s not something we should jump up and down for joy about, but it’s a crisis.”
Goalposts for when T service will be safer and more reliable are desperately needed, said Jarred Johnson, executive director of TransitMatters, an advocacy group.
“Have some kind of marker out there that lets people know, have some kind of faith,” he said.
The FTA began its inspection of the MBTA in mid-April, days after a man was dragged to death at Broadway Station by a 52-year-old Red Line train. The agency cited a pattern of safety incidents. Though the FTA’s final report isn’t expected until August, the federal agency has already pointed out several problems that the T has long known about: an understaffed operations control center, repeated runaway train incidents, uncertified workers, and tracks in disrepair.
The MBTA cut service on the Orange, Red, and Blue Lines in June after the FTA found that the T didn’t have enough subway dispatchers and was forcing some to work 20-hour shifts.
Aloisi wants to see Governor Baker, state Senate President Karen Spilka, House Speaker Ronald Mariano, and others meet with US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg to come up with a plan to restore more subway service.
“A high-level political effort to get the FTA to acknowledge the negative impacts on equity and emissions and work with the T to find an optimal solution that is not perfect so that we can get service levels back by Labor Day,” he said.
In the meantime, Catherine Gleason, Public Policy Manager at LivableStreets Alliance, wants the T to offer fare-free days or discounted fares to riders who have to endure the longer wait times and safety concerns.
The Legislature is still debating whether or not to include a mandate that the T create a discounted fare for all people with low-incomes in its final infrastructure bond bill. The Senate included a low-income fare in its version, but the House did not.