MBTA officials say they’re making progress in addressing safety and staffing issues that have seen subway frequencies slashed, disrupting trips across the Boston area.
Dispatchers are now expected to work shorter shifts and take mandatory breaks under a rule change the agency rolled out after federal investigators warned that the T’s stretched-too-thin workforce posed a major safety hazard.
Almost exactly a month after the Federal Transit Administration ordered immediate changes at the MBTA, higher-ups at the transit agency on Thursday outlined new policies in place and other steps they have taken to address problems with operations control center staffing, runaway train prevention, delayed maintenance and lapsed certifications.
FTA investigators said the control center was so shorthanded that dispatchers regularly worked 16-hour shifts and sometimes worked 20-hour shifts with only four hours off. During a safety subcommittee meeting Thursday, MBTA officials said those schedules are uncommon in the rest of the industry and had been in place at the T for years before the federal probe.
A new MBTA rule limits dispatchers to working 14 hours in a 16-hour period featuring mandatory one-hour breaks, which operations control center deputy general manager Aisheea Isidor said lines up with shifts worked by MBTA bus operators and motorpersons.
Three former dispatchers who had been promoted to other roles returned to perform dispatcher work on a temporary basis, and Isidor said officials are also exploring the idea of bringing back retirees. The T continues to hope a “hiring blitz” that could feature a $10,000 signing bonus will attract more workers to fill gaps in the control center.
“We’re in the process of building out additional staffing plans, trying to figure out what it will take to run the OCC,” Isidor said. “We’re working on mid-term and long-term staffing plans.”
Other corrective actions the MBTA announced Thursday include exploration of a pilot program to deploy “blue flag” safety procedures in rail yards, development of a personal protective equipment compliance checking program, and prioritizing repairs on tracks with speed restrictions.
On Sunday, the agency shut down Orange Line service between North Station and Ruggles to replace about 500 feet of rail along a sharper curve, which officials said allowed the T to lift a speed restriction in the area from 10 miles per hour to 25 mph. MBTA officials expect to complete additional work planned in the area by October, at which point they can increase allowable speeds to 40 mph.