Documentation breakdown blamed in T subway slowdown

Speed back to 'normal' on Red, Orange, and Blue lines

MBTA INTERIM General Manager Jeffrey Gonneville said a failure to properly document whether or not track defects identified last month had been addressed prompted him to order a slowdown of trains across the entire system Thursday evening.

The breakdown came to light earlier this week when a state safety inspector examining work on the Red Line between Savin Hill and Ashmont asked the MBTA for documentation of repairs made in the wake of geometry car tests conducted in February.

Gonneville said geometry car tests involve a mechanized piece of machinery that scans the rail tracks for defects not visible to the naked eye. He said such defects could overly narrow spacing between rails or a slight twist in the rail itself. He said the inspector wanted the backup documents on what problems had been discovered and what had been done to address them.

“What they were looking for was that supporting documentation,” Gonneville said of the inspectors from the Department of Public Utilities. “In this particular instance, in these particular cases, not just here but also globally throughout the system, there are some documentation inconsistencies and some areas where the documentation doesn’t exist.”

Why that documentation doesn’t exist or exists in an inconsistent form is the focus of an investigation, Gonneville said.

Faced with the possibility that repairs had not been made or mitigation efforts not initiated, Gonneville said he dispatched six engineering teams to inspect the tracks. He also ordered a systemwide slowdown of trains to 10 to 25 miles per hour. Lower speeds are used by the MBTA to mitigate the possibility of an accident on problematic track.

Gonneville was cautious in describing what risks riders might have been exposed to. “The track is a necessary part of our infrastructure,” he said. “The risk that we would run is that there could potentially be some form of incident with our trains.”

Gonneville said he set the systemwide subway slowdown in motion at about 5:30 p.m. Thursday. It was announced to the public at 10 p.m.

As of Friday morning, the global speed restrictions on the Red, Orange, and Blue lines were lifted, although localized speed restrictions in many areas remained in place. The top speed on subway lines is 40 miles per hour.

Global speed restrictions of 10 to 25 miles per hour remain in place on the Green Line and the Mattapan Line. Gonneville said track inspections should be completed by Monday.

The MBTA is already struggling to address a slew of safety issues identified by the Federal Transit Administration, to fill hundreds of job openings, and to repair and update aging infrastructure. The failure to do the proper followup on track inspections is yet another reminder of how much work remains to be done at the transit authority.

Gonneville, who has pushed for greater transparency during his time as interim general manager, said the MBTA is at a turning point in a number of ways.

“We are an organization right now that is at a generational moment,” he said. “We are an organization that has to pivot within its culture.”