FTA orders T to address “serious safety issues” immediately

'Runaway trains,' poorly run control center cited by agency

THE FEDERAL TRANSIT ADMINISTRATION ordered the MBTA on Wednesday to immediately address a series of “serious safety issues” that couldn’t wait until a final report on safety problems at the T is completed this summer.

The FTA’s five directives, dealing with staffing levels in the MBTA’s control center, general safety operating procedures, delayed critical maintenance, lapses in employee safety recertifications, and deficient oversight by the Department of Public Utilities, paint a picture of an agency that is failing to address basic safety issues properly and acknowledge its shortcomings.

For example, the FTA said, there had been five runaway train events in MBTA train yards since the beginning of 2021, including two in May 2022 after the FTA launched its safety review of the agency in April.

The federal agency also said the MBTA’s operations control center, which oversees the entire subway system, is understaffed and poorly managed.

“MBTA has created a management process whereby OCC staff members are required to work without certifications, in a fatigued state, and often fulfilling multiple roles at once,” the FTA said.

An MBTA spokesman said the agency is developing immediate and long-term mitigation measures to address the concerns raised by the FTA. T officials also said all rail transit employees will be fully certified as of this week and noted employees in the operations control center had been certified as of May 20.

In a press release, the FTA tried to reassure passengers about riding the MBTA, but the reassurance was based on the assumption that the problems being highlighted will soon be fixed.

“FTA underscores that transit riders in the Boston area should not interpret the special directives issued today as a reason to avoid the MBTA subway or light rail. Rather, FTA’s actions provide system-wide measures to fix longstanding issues with the agency’s overall safety program and culture,” the press release said.

A series of safety incidents in 2021 and 2022, including a passenger death, several injuries, six derailments, an escalator breakdown, disabled trains, and defective switches, prompted the FTA to launch a safety review of the MBTA in April. It was only the second time the FTA has launched such a review.

The directives issued Wednesday are particularly troubling because safety has ostensibly been a top priority of the agency since December 2019, when a panel of three safety experts excoriated the MBTA for lacking a safety culture. The T subsequently embarked on a major effort to improve its safety practices, hiring more safety personnel and spending heavily in that area.

Even so, the FTA said Wednesday, the MBTA has failed to address all of the findings in a safety audit the federal agency conducted in October 2019. The FTA said seven of the 16 findings in that audit, dealing with accident investigations, corrective action plans, and rules compliance, remain open.

The five directives issued Wednesday are summarized below. Each directive requires the T to respond quickly – within 24 hours to 30 days depending on the issue. The FTA said it would be monitoring how the T and the Department of Public Utilities respond. The agency said its staffers also plan to meet with T personnel regularly until the problems are addressed.

Engineering and maintenance: The FTA applauded the commitment of the MBTA’s engineering and maintenance team, but said the team is understaffed, lacks quality data on the status of the transit authority’s infrastructure, and doesn’t have adequate resources or sufficient access to track to perform a pro-active maintenance and inspection program.

The FTA noted the T has a $2 billion annual capital projects program, but spends just over $70 million a year on what it called “safety-critical maintenance of way activities.”  The lack of resources means the T focuses almost exclusively on the most serious problems, leaving lesser issues to fester until they become serious.

The FTA said repair work is hampered by lack of equipment (the Green Line work train has been out of commission for eight months) and restriction on track access. The FTA said the engineering and maintenance team can access defective track for up to 2.5 hours a night even though “the maintenance needs of the system are far greater than those addressable in the short night-time maintenance windows.”

Between January 1, 2021, and April 29, 2022, the FTA said, the backlog of defects detected in MBTA infrastructure has grown, with almost 10 percent of the T’s subway track and two miles of its light rail track left to operate under speed restrictions.

“FTA inspected track on the Orange Line south of Tufts Medical Center Station that has been subject to speed restrictions since 2019,” the directive said.” FTA found that portions of track displayed evidence of excessive wear and defects. These conditions were, in turn, managed through gauge rods, some of which showed signs of corrosion.”

Runaway trains: The MBTA reported five instances of runaway trains in rail yards, one of which, in December 2021, injured three employees. The FTA’s investigation revealed that the T does not have specific procedures for handling the movement of trains with suspected defective brakes, a situation that creates ideal conditions for runaway trains.

“Failure to properly secure disabled trains, including trains with insufficient brakes or propulsion systems, and failure to properly secure disabled trains in yards and maintenance facilities is a significant safety risk,” the FTA said.

Operations control center: The FTA said the MBTA’s operations control center is not adequately staffed and its employees are often not up to date on safety certifications.

The FTA said the T’s own records showed that 13 of 16 subway dispatchers and six of 11 supervisors had not completed safety recertifications. Records also showed four subway dispatcher and two supervisor jobs are unfilled.

“MBTA’s hours of service requirements, which allow dispatchers and supervisors to work up to 20 hours on with only four hours off, corroborated by recent safety concerns reported by employees regarding mandated overtime in the OCC, do not ensure that OCC dispatchers and supervisors are properly rested,” the FTA said. “As noted above, staffing shortages exacerbate challenges in the OCC, particularly for heavy rail dispatchers, who must regularly work 16-hour and occasionally 20-hour shifts to ensure coverage.”

“While FTA is mindful that these practices are the product of systemic staffing shortages, MBTA must nevertheless fulfill its duty to operate the OCC and the system safely,” the FTA said.

Safety recertifications lagging: The FTA said documents reviewed in late April indicated large numbers of MBTA rail transit employees were not recertified in safety procedures. The Green Line had the highest level of non-compliance, with 41 percent of operators, 26 percent of inspectors, half of supervisors, and all yard masters not recertified

Ninety-five percent of operators were certified on the other subway lines, but 25 percent of Orange Line, 14 percent of Red Line, and 33 percent of Blue Line supervisors were out of compliance.

The FTA said it is concerned that the lack of recertifications may be contributing to the operating problems the agency is facing. Two Green Line trains recently crashed at Government Center. The investigation into the crash is still ongoing, but T officials say they have no explanation for why the operator of the train that caused the crash ignored a red stop light.

Department of Public Utilities: The FTA said the state agency charged with monitoring safety efforts at the MBTA needs to step up its game. An FTA audit of the Department of Public Utilities in October 2019 issued 16 findings of non-compliance, of which seven still need to be addressed.

“The fact that those seven findings remain open gives rise to concerns regarding the DPU’s ability to effectively oversee the MBTA’s compliance with its own practices and procedures,” the FTA said, adding that the DPU “must exercise more robust oversight authority given MBTA’s ongoing safety events and compliance issues with its own safety procedures.”