MBTA cites progress in dealing with FTA safety directives

Full subway service unlikely to resume before Labor Day, possibly later

MBTA GENERAL MANAGER Steve Poftak said the agency is making solid progress in dealing with the four safety directives issued by the Federal Transit Administration, but he cautioned that reduced subway service levels are likely to remain in place until Labor Day and may even be extended depending on hiring at the operations control center.

The T said corrective action plans have been submitted for two of the directives already, a third is due Friday, and the fourth is due next Wednesday.

One of the directives required the T to address the issue of fatigued and overworked dispatchers in the subway operations control center. The T responded by implementing a fatigue management system, cutting back subway service to reduced Saturday levels, and launching a hiring blitz to recruit 10 to 15 new dispatchers.

Poftak said the T has shifted three former dispatchers who had moved on to other positions at the transit authority back to the operations control center temporarily. The agency also has recruited 90 applicants for the dispatcher job from within the authority (dispatchers must come from the ranks of subway operators), four of whom began their 10-week training course earlier this week. Poftak said the training course is rigorous, and there is no guarantee every recruit will finish.

The general manager said it is unlikely regular service on the subway system will resume before Labor Day and it could take longer.

“We will extend it beyond Labor Day if we don’t feel we have adequate staffing numbers to safely provide the service,” he said. “We are going to prioritize safety and prioritize the fatigue management system.”

Poftak said he has seen no evidence of a dropoff in ridership because of the reduced service levels.

Poftak said creating a good work environment at the operations control center is a top priority. “This is an important process to make the MBTA safer,” he said. “We were obviously not adequately staffed at the operations control center. This is something I regret personally. We were asking too much of too few employees.”

Progress is also being made on the other directives, Poftak said. He said all subway employees have been recertified on safety protocols and a system is now in place to alert employees and management when recertifications are needed.

The T has issued new procedures for overseeing trains in train yards to avoid collisions and runaway trains.

The T is also taking steps to speed up maintenance work, particularly addressing speed restrictions on a stretch of track on the Orange Line between Tufts and Back Bay stations.

The T said a 500-foot section of the track has already been replaced, allowing speeds in the area to rise from 10 to 25 miles per hour, enough to cut trip times by 1 minute. The T said once all the other track work is finished this fall the speed will rise to 40 miles per hour.

To accelerate the maintenance effort, the T is repairing broken repair equipment, procuring additional repair vehicles, increasing maintenance staffing, and laying plans to shut down subway service more frequently to allow more time for repair work.

Poftak said the T’s responses to the FTA’s directives have all been coordinated with the federal agency. “We have been talking to them throughout the process and getting their feedback,” he said.

The general manager said the FTA feedback so far has been positive, but he said federal officials may suggest changes as the work continues. He wouldn’t rule out the possibility of new safety directives and said other safety recommendations are likely in the final report the agency is expected to issue next month.

“This has all been constructive,” he said. “This will make the MBTA safer and the customer experience better.”