New T GM promises to prioritize safety, reliability and staffing

The MBTA’s new general manager has officially started his new role.

Phillip Eng kicked off his first day on the job by riding the T. He told reporters he took the Blue Line from Orient Heights to Government Center and transferred to a Green Line train to Park Street.

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Eng said he chatted with riders along the way.

“I had a nice mix of folks that have been riding regularly, visitors that are visiting Boston as well as future employees,” he said.

Eng joins the T after spending four decades working in transportation in New York. Before officially taking the helm of the nation's oldest public transit system, Eng said he has “been having many discussions with staff over the last few weeks, getting up to speed on a number of key issues.”

Those issues include a spate of safety and reliability problems as well as staffing shortages. Eng said he considers all of those issues priorities as he settles into his new role.

When it comes to staffing, Eng said a key strategy will be speaking with employees across the agency.

"That's important to me because if we're going to hire more people, I need to know what they like about their jobs," Eng said. "I also need to know what's challenging about their jobs because that's what we want to be able to tackle, right?"

Eng also planned to tour a bus maintenance facility in Dorchester and meet with workers there.

As president of the Long Island Rail Road, Phillip Eng, talks to evening rush hour commuters at Penn Station, April 17, 2018, in New York. (Mary Altaffer/AP)
As president of the Long Island Rail Road, Phillip Eng, talks to evening rush hour commuters at Penn Station, April 17, 2018, in New York. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

Eng's first day on the job came one year to the day after passenger Robinson Lalin was dragged to his death by the malfunctioning door of a Red Line train. The fatal incident was part of the impetus for a federal safety report calling for changes at the MBTA.

"To people who have lost faith in the T, I tell them: stay tuned," Eng said. "The real thing is, you have to believe, you have to have a vision, and we do. I know the people at the T, the ones I've been speaking to, know we can turn it around. I'm going to demonstrate that we can turn it around."

MBTA Deputy General Manager Jeff Gonneville, who served as the T’s interim leader after former GM Steve Poftak stepped down in January, said he will help Eng “get up to speed” at the agency and “help him tackle and address a lot of these key issues that we want to do in order to ensure the system is safe and that the system is reliable.”

“That's going to be my focus,” Gonneville said.

Transportation advocates are cautiously optimistic about the T’s future under Eng, who is credited with improving performance times on the Long Island Rail Road during his tenure there.

Stacy Thompson, the executive director of the nonprofit Livable Streets Alliance, said what T riders need from the transit system's new leader is simple.

“At this moment, I think riders really want someone who will help make sure the T just moves, just truly shows up on time, gets them to where they need to go,” Thompson said. “And I think that Philip Eng's general skills align with that desire.”

MBTA Advisory Board Executive Director Brian Kane said improving the T’s performance will take time, but he said he’s hopeful it will get better under Eng’s leadership.

“I think that Mr. Eng will come in and make changes that may be difficult," Kane said, "but if we give him enough leeway and time and expectations are managed, this could be the beginning of something great.”