MBTA continues transparency efforts under Gonneville
‘We really are looking to pivot here as an organization’
THE MBTA under interim General Manager Jeffrey Gonneville continued its transparency push on Friday, revealing to the T board that a work vehicle derailment happened earlier in the day near Park Street Station and releasing new, detailed information on safety issues, speed restrictions, and the hiring of subway dispatchers.
“We really are looking to pivot here as an organization, and really being open about the challenges that we are working through and that we are certainly facing,” Gonneville said. “We may not have all of the answers right now, but I want to be very clear we are working on developing those solutions and fully recognize that we owe our customers who are relying on the system every single day those answers that they certainly want and deserve.”
Gonneville said there will be situations where the T doesn’t have the answers. “Yet know we are aggressively working to develop those solutions,” he said.
The MBTA last May stonewalled for four days questions about a series of construction vehicle derailments on the Blue Line. Yet on Friday Gonneville reported on the derailment of a work vehicle near Park Street Station at 4 a.m.
No injuries occurred, but the incident prompted the T to run replacement bus service between Harvard and Broadway stations from the start of service until 8 a.m. “That’s a very challenging shuttle for us on a weekday,” he said.
Gonneville also reported on equipment failures Thursday on the Orange Line near Wellington Station and on the Green Line at Brookline Hills. Both required bus replacement service.
The interim general manager also unveiled new features on the MBTA’s website showing progress in addressing safety issues raised by a wide-ranging audit conducted by the Federal Transit Administration and also disclosing speed restrictions.
The speed restriction data indicate 8.7 miles of track, or 6.5 percent of the total, are covered by 70 restrictions, which range from 10 miles per hour or lower to 18 miles per hour to 25 miles per hour. The data is currently presented in pdf form but will soon come in an interactive format, Gonneville said.
“Obviously, these are issues that people care about, that we care about, and that we use to track and manage internally, but now also giving that information out publicly is what we’re looking to do,” Gonneville said.
One of the key findings of the Federal Transit Administration audit was that the operations control center overseeing service on the Red, Orange, and Blue Lines was severely understaffed, with employees working 16-to-20-hour shifts with little time off between shifts.
The T responded in June by cutting back service on the three subway lines to Saturday levels to bring operations more in line with existing dispatcher levels. The T also launched a recruiting effort to hire more dispatchers, complete with $10,000 signing bonuses.
On Friday, the MBTA spelled out clearly for the first time the progress it has made in boosting staffing levels at the operations control center, even though its new staffing target shows just how bad employee levels there were before the Federal Transit Administration ordered changes.
Kat Benesh, the acting deputy chief operations officer, said the T had 15 dispatchers working in the control center in June 2022, when the Federal Transit Administration raised concerns about low morale and fatigue.
At the time, Benesh said, the control center had a budget calling for 18 dispatchers – 16 for regular duty and two backups.
Benesh said the new staffing goal is 32 dispatchers, more than twice what the T had in June 2022. Of the 32, Benesh said, 27 would be for regular duty and five for backup. She said the minimum staffing level is 24.
Currently, Benesh said, the MBTA has 26 dispatchers available – 21 on staff and five on loan. She said three more are in training.
The T is also limiting dispatchers to a maximum of 14 hours of work per day with at least 10 hours off between each shift.
Benesh did not say whether the current staffing levels are sufficient to eliminate the previous service cuts, but she indicated the operations control center is no longer the driving force behind the service cuts. She said the availability of vehicles and vehicle operators are also factors.
“Although not yet at target staffing levels, we are transitioning to a point where increasing Red, Orange, and Blue Line service levels is not solely dependent on heavy rail dispatchers,” her presentation said.
Under current MBTA rules, dispatchers can only be drawn from the ranks of drivers of the subway trains, which limits the pool of candidates the T can draw from. Gonneville said the agency is looking at the possibility of discontinuing that practice, hiring from the outside, and training new recruits in-house.
The low staffing levels last June surprised MBTA board member Bob Butler. “It’s amazing we were running the system the way we were a year ago, and to look at this, it’s kind of scary,” he said.
Gonneville’s transparency efforts at the February meeting of the board follow close on the heels of the January meeting, where he explained in great detail ongoing problems with CRRC, the Chinese manufacturer of the T’s new Red and Orange Line trains. Gonneville said no trains had been shipped from the company’s Springfield facility since last June, giving the manufacturer time to work out manufacturing problems, and no Red Line shells had been shipped to Springfield from China.At Friday’s MBTA board meeting, Gonneville said six shells will ship from China to Springfield in mid-March and another six will follow in late March or early April. He said beginning in May CRRC will begin shipping four to six car shells every month.
Gonneville said four completed Orange Line cars have been shipped from the Springfield assembly plant to the Wellington car house in Medford this month, including one whose carrier disabled on I-495 in Chelmsford earlier this week.