Orange Line commuters face crowded buses, COVID fears

MALDEN, Mass. — Ronnie Foster doesn’t own a car. Fortunately, he lives minutes from the Oak Grove MBTA Orange Line train station. Only Wednesday, there were no trains -- only buses.

“The MBTA has problems,” Foster said. “No one ever said the MBTA was perfect. I mean they’re machines. They break down -- the trains, the tracks.”

The tracks, for sure, are broken this time -- after a new Orange Line train derailed near Wellington Station at low speed Tuesday. Repairs will take about three weeks and forced the MBTA to run bus shuttle service between Oak Grove and Sullivan Square.

Wednesday morning, commuters got their first taste of the bus-for-train trade-off, and it was a bitter cup of coffee to swallow.

“Ridiculous,” one woman said. “You can’t get on the bus because they’re crowded. You’re not six feet apart so how am I being safe?”

Another T rider complained he was forced to add another 45 minutes to his commute because of the change.

On Twitter, one commuter wrote: “@MBTA is gonna end up being the hotbed of new Covid cases!! The shuttles from Oak Grove to Sullivan Square and vice-versa are soo packed!”

In response, the MBTA said it had no immediate plans to provide additional bus service, but would look at ridership and crowding and make adjustments if necessary.

Whatever crowding is taking place on this temporary shuttle bus service is something other T riders have been dealing with for months, said Stacy Thompson, executive director of the policy group LivableStreets Alliance.

That’s because ridership has increased following an easing of pandemic restrictions -- but cuts to MBTA service have not gone away.

“Not everyone is feeling the impact but where they are felt it is catastrophic for the people who depend on public transit,” Thompson said. “We’ve cut entire bus lines and reduced service on other bus lines. These are buses that go to health centers. That help seniors get to grocery stores.”

The service cuts have meant making some uncomfortable choices during a pandemic, Thompson says.

“If you have trains running every five minutes and you’re trying to get to your job and a train pulls up and it looks pretty full you can make a choice to wait for the next train,” she said.

But now, the trains aren’t running every five minutes.

“Your options are, show up late for work. lose your job or risk your life,” she said.

Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone said some of the cuts the MBTA made were reasonable -- but some went too far. And he’s heard plenty of complaints about it.

“Over the past few months, they’ve cut their budgets. I’d argue that is and that’s been the wrong approach,” Curtatone said. “How can you truly have a safe and equitable reopening from the pandemic without reliable, uncrowded buses?”

Curtatone cited the example of a Somerville resident, eligible for a Covid vaccination, having to travel to Fenway to get it.

“You have to get on that transit system that’s not working and they cut service back on,” he said. “And in Somerville just to get to Fenway it would take you over an hour before you stand in line. It’s not even unfair. It’s unjust. It’s cruel.”

Curtatone advocates using aid money from Washington to restore MBTA service.

“Let’s roll back the austerity budget of the MBTA,” he said. “Reverse the budget cuts and get the region back to work and back to school safely. Put in the service that we need. This really makes no sense and it’s really causing harm to people.”