The MBTA announced Friday afternoon that it plans to slash subway service dramatically starting June 20 until it can hire enough dispatchers to resume normal service in line with Federal Transit Agency safety directives.
An FTA investigation revealed this week that the T’s control center, akin to an air traffic control tower for the agency’s three heavy rail subway lines, is so short-staffed some dispatchers are working 20-hour shifts with only four hours between some shifts. On Wednesday, the FTA ordered T officials to immediately rectify the situation as part of a package of four emergency safety directives stemming from that investigation.
Shortly after noon Friday, the MBTA announced that weekday service on the Blue, Orange and Red lines – equivalent to trains every five, seven and 11 minutes, respectively – will be slashed nearly in half, to Saturday service levels. That will mean Red Line trains will only arrive every 14 to 15 minutes, Orange Line trains every 10-11 minutes during rush hour and Blue Line trains ever seven to nine minutes, with higher frequencies before 9 a.m. when the many service-sector workers in Lynn, Revere, Chelsea and East Boston use the line to commute to work.
“If you’re not a regular @MBTA rider and want to understand how devastating this is, imagine if @MassGovernor announced that because of safety concerns half of all highways lanes in MA are now closed indefinitely,” former transit advocate and state auditor candidate Chris Dempsey wrote on Twitter.
“With a limited number of dispatchers, these new timetables allow the MBTA to schedule dispatchers in compliance with Federal Transit Administration directives, and continue delivering service in a safe and reliable manner,” the T said in a statement. “If dispatch capacity permits, there may be days when the MBTA can increase the number of trains in service. And as soon as sufficient dispatch capacity exists, the MBTA will revert to its previous level of service.”
The T said it is “exploring multiple options” to add more dispatchers to its control center, including an “aggressive” recruitment campaign with bonuses and potentially hiring back former dispatchers.
In its emergency orders this week, the FTA criticized the state Department of Public Utilities, which is charged with overseeing the MBTA’s safety record and is overseen by Gov. Charlie Baker as part of the executive branch. One FTA official said the agency “has not fully exercised its authority over the MBTA to help work on safety culture,” and must ramp up its oversight. The MBTA also has its own chief safety officer, Ronald Ester, who reports to General Manager Steve Poftak.
The T carries nearly 680,000 people every weekday, roughly 259,000 of whom ride the three subway lines hit with the cuts according to April data, the most recent available on the transit agency’s public performance dashboard, and ridership has substantially increased over the last six months. The transit system is seen as vital to ensuring commuters can reach workplaces around the metro area and preventing crushing traffic on its roads.
Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce CEO Jim Rooney, himself a former MBTA deputy general manager, excoriated Baker in an interview with the Boston Globe Thursday for his recent handling of the MBTA, saying the governor has focused too much on “the inputs instead of the outputs.”
“In business, if you have a project or a division that is failing the way the T is, and you call the person running that project into your office and his answer was, ‘Yeah, but I spent a lot of money,’ that’s not the right answer,” Rooney said.