Eng announces shake-up in MBTA leadership, including new safety chief

MBTA General Manager and CEO Phil Eng announced top-level staffing changes and a department restructuring in an email to agency staff on Friday.

In the letter, Eng said he has used his first several months as general manager to "assess how to better position" the MBTA through department changes and permanent appointments.

"If we invest in our workforce, it’s a sound investment for the T and a great investment for the people we serve," he wrote, ahead of the announcements.

Eng appointed Ryan Coholan, former chief railroad officer of the MBTA, as the new chief operating officer of the agency. Coholan will take over for Acting Chief Operating Officer Erik Stoothoff, who will return to his previous role as deputy chief engineer.

Eng also appointed Tim Lesniak as the transit system's chief safety officer, filling a role held by Ron Ester until he resigned in August. No reason for Ester's resignation was given.

Maintaining safety on the MBTA has been a critical problem for the agency in recent years. A number of train derailments, fires and 'near-misses,' where trains and trolleys nearly struck construction workers on T tracks, have drawn scrutiny from federal transportation authorities.

The T also plans to create executive director roles for the commuter rail, water transportation, rail, bus and paratransit services, according to the email. Eng wrote that the new directors will be responsible for "all aspects of the safety, service, quality, and reliability of their service." The letter did not provide a timeline for these positions.

MBTA Advisory Board executive director Brian Kane said the restructuring is a “positive development” for the T and expects the changes will bring greater stability to the troubled transit system.

Kane also said the moves show a commitment by Eng to improving the T for the long haul. “He’s setting the table to be here for a long period of time and that’s heartening,” Kane said.

Stacy Thompson of the nonprofit LivableStreets said she was “very pleased” by the management changes.

“Now there are clear leadership structures internally where we'll know if something goes wrong, who was responsible for those challenges,” she said.

Thompson said she is looking forward to seeing what new policies and protocols come from the changes.

“Once you have the team in place, and you have those processes, it's easier [for the T to] say, this is when we can expect the red line cars to show up," she said. "This is when we can expect track work to be done.”

Eng additionally announced new appointments to the administration division of the transit agency, along with a restructuring of the capital division.

This article was originally published on September 22, 2023.