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Something is Rotten in the State of Massachusetts: The Ongoing Saga of Safety Issues on the MBTA

January 22, 2020

Startling news has surfaced in recent weeks concerning safety issues on the MBTA. A Red Line train derailed on June 11 due to a broken axle, destroying much of the signal system at the JFK/UMASS stop and causing slowdowns throughout the entire line. This incident catalyzed what was apparently a long-overdue investigation on the many safety issues that plague the MBTA. The investigation was conducted by a safety review panel hired by the Fiscal and Management Control Board that oversees the MBTA, and it seems the Red Line fiasco was only the tip of the iceberg, the result of a culmination of many problems that have been affecting the “T” for years if not decades. The panel, comprised of Former US Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood, Former head of the New York City Transit Authority Carmen Bianco, and former administrator of the Federal Transit Administration Carolyn Flowers, concluded that the “T” is in a state of disarray. The three have varied attitudes regarding its rehabilitation. When Political Analyst John Keller asked Paul Regan, Executive Director of the MBTA advisory board if it’s safe to ride the “T” in a recent interview, he replied, “Yes it’s safe. It could be a hell of a lot safer” (boston.cbslocal.com)…not exactly the most reassuring statement.

The problem with the “T” seems to boil down to a general cultural issue among workers on all levels, with a pervading sense of hopelessness and fear amongst employees. The panel found, after conducting over 100 interviews and six focus groups, that many workers are hesitant to report problems, fearing retaliation and blame. There is a general lack of communication as well as a shortage of employees, and a “revolving door” of general managers (there have been nine different GMs over the past ten years) has only exacerbated these issues. In a recent board meeting, Bianco posited, “The longevity of a general manager is just about 13 months, hardly enough time to begin to put in place or to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the organization, to understand what’s the strategy we’re going to follow going forward.” (wgbh.org)

While MBTA workers and riders may hope this report was a huge wake-up call for MBTA officials and Massachusetts government leaders, the experts aren’t at a consensus. In the 66-page report, the trio of experts made 34 recommendations and suggested 61 corrective actions, several of which are purportedly already underway. General Manager Steve Poftak reported that he will be presenting a formal work plan this coming March, which will implement many of the recommendations made by the board. T leaders have already met with staff to discuss the report, and informational letters have been mailed to every single MBTA employee. “The T has plans to bring in 200 new engineering and maintenance positions in order to help balance new projects with daily upkeep. Seventy people have already been hired.” (boston.cbs.local) That being said, attendees of a December 9 Fiscal Management control board meeting reported pessimistic attitudes, mainly from Bianco. (wgbh.org) As for the issue of hostile work environment, Poftak states, “I want our employees to feel they can reach out to their supervisors, reach out to the control center, utilize the MBTA’s safety hotline, email me,” (wgbh.org). LaHood emphasized the need to reward good behavior, stressing that if an employee makes a mistake, they should be encouraged to report it.

Unsurprisingly, funding is also an issue that is being addressed as crucial to implementing change at the MBTA. Governor Charlie Baker revealed, “Many of the recommendations will require more investments and more manpower that’s why today’s report adds a new sense of urgency to the legislature to pass the $50 million that we filed for last spring in our supplemental budget requests to the legislature.” (boston.cbs.local). Additionally, the MBTA is requesting that $10 million of the current $127 million it receives from legislation be reallocated expressly for safety resources. While Bostonians can hope the MBTA will be salvaged, the system may be far beyond repair. If you or someone you know has been injured on, or has observed unsafe conditions or working practices on the MBTA, don’t hesitate to contact us. We will gladly administer advice, free of charge.
Additional Sources:

Boston Magazine

Boston Herald

Banker and Tradesman