Here's why the T is so slow, according to a new report

We answer the basic questions about the report with insights shared by Stacy Thompson of the advocacy group LivableStreets and Boston Globe transportation reporter Taylor Dolven during a conversation with WBUR's Radio Boston.

A new independent report commissioned by the MBTA found that insufficiently trained track staff and a lack of clear roles around maintenance contributed to a massive backlog of repairs that culminated in the end-to-end speed restrictions that affected the entire subway system in March.

At the time, T officials said they didn't have the confidence in prior inspections and repairs to allow the subway cars to move at normal speeds. Why this happened was the subject of a report published on Aug. 30 by Charles L. O’Reilly of Carlson Transport Consulting LLC. The T made it public on Sept. 7.

We answer the basic questions about the report with insights shared by Stacy Thompson of the advocacy group Livable Streets and Boston Globe transportation reporter Taylor Dolven during a conversation with WBUR's Radio Boston.

What was one major finding of the Red Line slowdown report?

One finding was a lack of a codified system explaining track maintenance processes at the T.

"There's nothing in writing that said, 'OK, we found something wrong, now this is the process to fix it,' " Thompson said. "That was all held in people's brains ... Many of those folks retired, and that knowledge wasn't handed down to the next person."

As an example, Dolven highlighted the failure by T staff to act on data gathered by so-called geometry cars. These are machines that are deployed to inspect tracks for problems that humans could miss. However, people at the T then have to verify whatever the cars detect and determine what to do next, such as an immediate repair or a slow zone until a repair is made. As the report revealed, this crucial verification step wasn’t happening for the last year.

Because of this, the MBTA was unaware of more than 100 problems on its tracks, Dolven said. It turned out that subway cars were moving over parts of the system at full speed when it was not actually safe to do so. This major blind spot prompted Jeff Gonneville, interim general manager at the time, to slow down the entire system out of an abundance of caution.

How did the T realize 30% of the system required slow zones?

Human verification eventually did happen and by the end of March the T determined that about 30% of the system needed slow zones.

“Thirty percent — that doesn't happen overnight,” said Thompson. “We're probably talking of years of potential negligence …”

But it seems like there are more slow zones, not less, since March. Why is that?

While the T has made progress in eliminating slow zones, crews in charge of inspecting the track every day report that the "picture is worsening," Dolven said.

"What the general manager has said is that conditions are just deteriorating at such a fast pace because maintenance has been neglected for so long that the picture of safety today is not the picture of safety tomorrow," she said.

What changed in the last year that prompted the T to inspect the state of its tracks? 

“The big difference is that the Department of Public Utilities, which is the department that is tasked with safety oversight of the MBTA, started doing its job," said Thompson.

A previous safety report, found that the Department of Public Utilities wasn't properly staffed and not conducting timely reviews of the T. That's changed.

By the end of ex-General Manager Steve Poftak's tenure and the beginning of Jeff Gonneville's tenure, staff began reviewing the documentation and noted that something was wrong.

Are these issues new?

Not exactly. As Dolven explained, "this is not the first time the T has been warned about these exact issues." She pointed to reports produced in 2009, 2019 and 2022 that revealed similar problems of insufficient training and worsening tracks. The 2015 snowstorm also raised these concerns. What is new is how these longstanding problems came to bear on the relatively new problem of extensive speed restrictions, particularly on the Red Line.

Who's to blame?

It's hard to say. And the general manager said as much in his comment when the report was released that the problems are systemwide and that accountability falls on the current leadership team.

"If you're actually trying to connect the dots, the people who are in the building today — not entirely, but many of them — the folks who would have been responsible, are not the ones who were there when the problem started in the first place," said Thompson.

There have been a series of departures and retirement in the last few years. In some cases positions that existed 10 years ago were done away with, or replacements did not have a clear understanding of what the job previously entailed, she said.

The report also concluded that the T operated without a director of maintenance of way for nine month, according to Dolven. That position directly oversees the department that "performs critical work to ensure the track is as safe as possible so that trains can run at their intended speed," according to the T's website.

What can be done to address the problems outlined in the report?

Thompson said the problems can be mitigated by better training and documentation.

"There should be a healthy level of redundancy. Everything should be over-documented. You should be able to find a manual for everything. Everyone should be trained until they can't see straight," she said.

This segment aired on September 12, 2023.