Safety allegations raise control board issues

Why did official’s firing never surface at public meetings?

THE MBTA’s FISCAL and Management Control Board is widely viewed as a government success story – five, unpaid gubernatorial appointees who have brought public scrutiny to the inner workings of the state’s troubled transit authority.

But the allegations made by former MBTA chief safety officer Ronald W. Nickle suggest the board is far from perfect. Nickle claims he was fired by the T in March for identifying safety hazards and pushing leaders to be more transparent about derailments, electrocutions, track problems, excessive overtime, and other incidents.

Gov. Charlie Baker said on Monday that he supported T management’s decision to fire Nickle, suggesting the T has a strong rebuttal to Nickle’s claims. But the incident should factor into the Legislature’s deliberations about how to replace the control board once its term expires next year. The big question: How can the T’s chief safety officer be fired and no one on the control board asks why?

Safety reports are delivered to the control board every three months. According to the T’s website, Nickle delivered a fairly innocuous safety presentation on January 14, and then Nancy Prominski, the chief environmental health and safety officer, took over for the briefings on April 29 and June 24. There was no mention of Nickle’s departure.

In the wake of the Red Line derailment on June 11, which elevated concerns about safety at the MBTA, Nickle appears to have reached out to the Boston Globe. The newspaper reported on his firing on Sunday and then followed up on Monday with a story on Baker’s support for the T that included a copy of an 88-page statement/complaint Nickle delivered to the Federal Transit Administration on May 1.

In the statement, Nickle details his concerns about safety practices at the MBTA, including poorly supervised construction work on the Green Line extension, shoddy workplace practices, a Green Line derailment earlier this year, and the runaway Red Line train out of Braintree station in 2015.

The runaway train went five miles without a driver before coming to a halt. Nickle said he investigated the incident and uncovered systemic problems, but was pressured to redact some parts of his report. Nickle quotes Jeffrey Gonneville, the T’s deputy general manager, warning him to tread cautiously. “Now Ron, things right now are very intense as you know. You want to be very, very, very careful, Ron, we can’t have the public learning about this and we don’t want to upset Brian,” an apparent reference to Brian Shortsleeve, who was the T’s chief administrator at the time and now serves on the control board.

After a number of problems surfaced with the Green Line extension construction work, Nickle conducted an unannounced safety audit and found “what I would classify as a complete breakdown in on-track safety protocols.”

He noted Algonquin Gas contacted him complaining about Green Line contractors working in close proximity to high-pressure gas lines without Algonquin approval or oversight.

A repairman at the T’s Wellington facility was electrocuted last December, so Nickle said he conducted an unannounced safety inspection there in February. He said he uncovered all sorts of safety issues, including repairmen who were working double shifts (16 hours straight). He responded by launching a safety shutdown.

“I am certain that my discussing the electrical safety electrocution incident with regulators is the reason for my dismissal, as [top MBTA officials] wanted to impair my ability to discuss safety concerns openly with regulators,” he said in his statement.

Nickle said he investigated a Green Line derailment on the Riverside Line on February 5, the day of the New England Patriots parade. Nickle said he was concerned that T officials were more focused on restoring service than dealing with the underlying safety problems, which he said turned out to be a case of defective track maintenance.

“I believe the DGM Gonneville and his investigators wanted to misrepresent or omit the specific findings out of fear that MBTA would come under criticism by regulator or the public for the failures of MBTA to properly grind the rail, and to identify the track defect condition, which would require a Corrective Action Plan,” he said in his statement.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

“Based on my seven and a half years at MBTA, I have personally observed, determined, and found numerous instances of latent or hidden construction and manufacturing safety defects, omissions, failures or errors in design, engineering, construction, assembly, hardware, software, and manufacturing systems leading to safety critical hazards, events and mishaps,” Nickle said in his statement.

It’s difficult to assess the veracity of Nickle’s claims, but the whole debate about safety is one worth having – in public. The control board has done a great job over the last four years of forcing the MBTA to confront its challenges openly, but it’s clear the board is not a true oversight agency. Board members prod and push, but they rarely grill T employees and prefer to keep dirty laundry private. Is that the right approach, or do we need a more independent board?