Baker announces 30-day Orange Line shutdown
Officials say painful service interruption will accelerate safety, maintenance work
GOV. CHARLIE BAKER announced Wednesday that the MBTA’s entire Orange Line will shut down for 30 days in order to accelerate repairs. It will be the longest shutdown of an entire line in MBTA history, and Baker said it will let the T do the amount of work in 30 days that would have taken five years to complete with only night and weekend shutdowns.
The news of the shutdown comes as the system has been plagued with problems, including a recent fire on the Orange Line that had passengers climbing out a train window and one leaping into the Mystic River. The Federal Transit Administration has come in to do its own safety review.
Baker, speaking at a press conference at the Orange Line’s Wellington Station in Medford, said the MBTA will “take full advantage of this opportunity to deliver far better service and a more modern infrastructure for its riders.”
The system will shut down at 9 p.m. on Friday, August 19, and will resume Monday morning, September 19.
The T will also continue with plans to replace the Orange Line fleet, and Baker said by the end of the 30 days, the Orange Lane will be made up “primarily” of new cars.
MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said all these projects were already planned for the future, but the shutdown will accelerate and combine the work. The work will address safety concerns identified by the FTA review related to track maintenance.
“We’ve taken the time to listen to riders, sympathize with their frustrations, and we’ve heard them loud and clear that they want bold action to improve the MBTA at the pace they deserve, and we know that we can’t wait,” Poftak said. “So part of this shutdown is about not waiting. It’s about making the necessary improvements and making them now.”
While Poftak acknowledged that the level of service disruption will be unprecedented, he said, “We’re doing this because it’s the fastest, most efficient way to deliver the benefits to our customers.”
Normally, it takes two to three hours to set up equipment and two to three hours to remove it. Poftak said an overnight shutdown gives workers just a couple of hours to work. By keeping the system closed, workers will have continuous access to the tracks, which should make their work more efficient.
Baker said there is a “constant tension” between train operations and the hours needed to work on the tracks. He said this initiative was planned in conversation with the FTA, but he denied that it was in direct response to any particular incident, like the train fire. “We’ve been talking about trying to come up with a faster way to do work on the Orange line for a while,” he said.
Asked whether the state will have enough workers, Baker said existing workers will be more productive since they do not have to constantly set up and remove equipment, and the state has contracted with private companies to perform much of the work. Poftak said current Orange Line staff will help with the construction, in areas like flagging and directing customers to alternative transit.
The state does not plan to increase service on the other subway or bus lines.
Poftak added, “For folks that have the ability to work from home, we encourage you to do so.”
While Baker said there was a desire to start work this summer when ridership is low, the disruptions will still be in place when both K-12 schools are area colleges return to session in September. Poftak said the administration will reach out to schools and individuals to make sure people are aware of the available alternatives.
Currently, Orange Line ridership is just under half of what it was before the COVID pandemic, providing around 101,000 passenger trips a day.
Transportation Secretary Jamey Tesler called the project “a win for our riders” because it will let the MBTA speed up maintenance and repairs.
Transit advocates and some elected officials were not seeing it that way.
Rick Dimino, president and CEO of A Better City, was particularly critical of having the shutdown in place as students and workers return to the Boston area in September. “This is a time to encourage transit use, not shut down a vital rapid transit line.” he said. Dimino suggested shutting down the line in August, but using only night and weekend shutdowns in September. He also said the public needs to hear more about alternative travel options “because right now, this plan is insufficient and incomplete.”
US Rep. Katherine Clark, whose district includes the northern end of the Orange Line, said, “It is outrageous that years of underinvestment have left the MBTA with this decision of last resort just to ensure basic safety for riders.” Clark said the service disruption “will upend the lives of those who have already been hit hardest by the pandemic and its economic fallout,” and called for “a clear, comprehensive plan” to serve the riders who rely on the Orange Line.
Josh Ostroff, interim director of the transportation advocacy coalition Transportation for Massachusetts, said the shutdown has the potential to provide major improvements, but also to create significant difficulties for riders. The advocacy group called for a mitigation plan that includes free service across all alternative options for Orange Line riders, including shuttle buses and commuter rail, reduced pricing across the system, bus priority on local streets, and frequent public updates.
Baker could not immediately put a cost on the project, but he said the MBTA has plenty of capital money to work with.There are no plans for any other full-line closures, but Poftak said there may be a shutdown of parts of the Green Line at some point in the future.