Derailment probe now focused on train itself

Rail safety review planned; calls to delay fare increases rejected

MBTA GENERAL MANAGER Steve Poftak said on Monday that the agency’s investigation of last week’s derailment on the Red Line is now focused on the train itself, having ruled out operator error, foul play, and infrastructure issues.

Poftak also said he welcomed an independent broader safety review of rail operations that will be coordinated by the Fiscal and Management Control Board and involve the recruitment of national experts.  The idea for the broader review came about after discussions between Poftak, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, and Joseph Aiello, the chairman of the control board.

The T is also accelerating ultrasound checks of all rail vehicles in the wake of the derailment and taking apart the Red Line rail car that derailed to look for clues as to what caused the incident.

Although Poftak has insisted repeatedly over the last week that the T is safe to ride, Pollack said she appreciated the general manager’s efforts to reassure the public. “It’s hard to say we don’t know what caused [the derailment] but you’re safe,” she said.

The Red Line train derailed last Tuesday at about 6 a.m. as the train was entering the JFK/UMass station. Poftak said the third car on the six-car train derailed and traveled about 1,837 feet not properly on the rails. The derailed car was built in 1969, overhauled in the 1980s, and most recently inspected on May 3.

The T was able to rerail the car and resume service, but travelers on the Braintree branch of the Red Line initially had to switch trains at JFK/UMass. That switchover was eliminated over the weekend, but trains are still running 20 to 30 minutes behind schedule because the derailed  train knocked out three signal installations at the station. Signal systems automatically tell train operators when it is safe to move ahead; with the systems down, train operators are being alerted manually by T workers, which leads to stop and go traffic on the Red Line.

Poftak said the T is still not sure how long it will take to restore the signal systems. Those systems were slated to be replaced in their entirety as the T prepares to introduce new Red Line vehicles over the next few years.

At a joint meeting of the control board and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation board, there were calls for eliminating or delaying the fare increase coming July 1 in the wake of the Red Line derailment.

Joe Sullivan, the mayor of Braintree and a member of the MassDOT board, said his community and other communities on the South Shore have been deeply affected by the derailment at the JFK/UMass station. “When there’s a derailment, there’s a loss of confidence,” Sullivan said. “We have to be responsive to what is happening. What is happening is a loss of confidence.”

Sullivan suggested one way to be responsive to riders would be to eliminate the fare increase scheduled to take effect July 1. The mayor, a former state legislator, said the Legislature might be willing to provide funding that would offset the loss of fare revenue

Chris Osgood, the city of Boston’s chief of streets, urged control board members to delay any increase in fares until service is restored to normal. He said it’s not fair to increase fares when service is deficient. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh made a similar request on Twitter, even though he voiced support for the fare increase twice last week.

Walsh also weighed in for the first time on what type of governance the T should have when the Fiscal and Management Control Board is due to disband next year.

“Boston is most impacted by the failures of the @MBTA. It’s our residents, our workers & our commuters who feel the pain. Yet we do not have a seat at the table when decisions about the T are made. I’m calling on the @MBTA to reinstate a local seat on the oversight board,” he said.

Pollack said there may be a need for the T to make an “appropriate gesture” to its Red Line riders, but “I don’t think it involves a fare adjustment.”

After the meeting, Pollack elaborated. “I think the requests to delay the fare increases are just an expression of frustration in the wake of the derailment. I’m totally sympathetic to that level of frustration. I just think that the fare increase is the wrong target for that frustration,” she said. Pollack noted that there were seven Green Line derailments in 2016, but there were no calls then for delaying that year’s fare hike.

Aiello, the chair of the control board, said he did not favor putting a hold on the fare increase but he said he is open to some other measure to recognize the ordeal commuters are facing. “I’m not quite sure what the correct response to that is,” he said.

Brian Shortsleeve, a member of the control board, asked T officials if they needed more money to deal with issues surrounding derailments.

T officials indicated they will have their hands full spending the money that is currently available to them. Shortsleeve, a former general manager at the T, likened the situation the T faces to rebuilding a plane’s jet engine while the plane is in flight.

Pollack stressed that funding was not the issue at the T. She said the T is slated to spend $8.3 billion on capital projects over the next five years and another $1 billion is available if needed. She also remarked that she thought no other transit authority in the country receives as much money from the state as the T does.

Jeffrey Gonneville, deputy general manager of the T, also addressed an issue raised in a Boston Globe story last week – that the T has one of the worst derailment records in the country. Gonneville said there has always been a small number of derailments each year at the T, but 56 percent of the derailments over the last six years (29 of 52) involved nonrevenue or maintenance vehicles.

Of the derailments involving in-service vehicles, Gonneville said most have occurred on the Green Line, with a strong uptick to seven total on the Green Line in 2016. Since 2016, there were three in 2017 (two on the Green Line and one on commuter rail), five in 2018, (one on the Red Line, two on the Green Line, and two on commuter rail ), and five so far in 2019 (one last Tuesday on the Red Line, two on commuter rail, and two on the Green Line, including one in the last few weeks).

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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.

Gonneville reviewed each of the derailments since 2017. Five involved human errors, three were weather-related, two were blamed on infrastructure issues, one involved a vehicle problem, and two remain under investigation.

The T has hired LTK Engineering Services to review all derailments over the last two years and provide a report within the next three months.