MBTA cutting back service on subway lines

Action taken to comply with federal safety directive

THE MBTA said on Friday that it intends to comply with a Federal Transit Administration directive on inadequate staffing levels in its operations center not by adding dispatchers but by cutting back service on most subway lines through the end of the summer.

The T said it intends to aggressively recruit new dispatchers who could handle the workload of existing weekday service levels but indicated that process will take time. In the meantime, the T said, service on the Red, Orange, and Blue Lines starting Monday will revert to less frequent Saturday levels. Weekend service levels on the three lines will remain unchanged, as will Green Line service.

“With a limited number of dispatchers, these new timetables allow the MBTA to schedule dispatchers in compliance with Federal Transit Administration directives, and continue delivering service in a safe and reliable manner,” the T said in a press release.

The dramatic turn in events was set in motion in April when the FTA, worried about a series of safety events, including the death of a passenger, dispatched a team to scrutinize the MBTA’s safety practices.

On Wednesday, the FTA issued a series of five directives calling on the T to address a number of “serious safety issues” immediately rather than wait for the agency’s final report in August.

One of the directives dealt with the T’s operations center, where inadequate staffing levels were requiring dispatchers to work 16 to 20-hour shifts. The FTA said four of 18 existing subway dispatcher positions were vacant, along with two additional postings that had been requested but unfilled. The FTA said two of the 11 supervisor positions were vacant and supervisors and management personnel were often forced to cover dispatcher shifts.

“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 in its directive.

The directive requires the operations control center to make sure its employees are trained and certified properly, provided the opportunity for proper rest between shifts, and not required to fulfill multiple roles within one shift.

The FTA on Wednesday gave the MBTA 48 hours to come into compliance and remain in compliance for at least six weeks.

In the short-term, the T said it will comply with the directive by reducing service levels. The lone exception will be the July 4 holiday, when service will be restored to current levels. The transit authority also said it intends to recruit new staff for the control center by offering bonuses and rehiring former dispatchers.

“If dispatch capacity permits, there may be days when the MBTA can increase the number of trains in service,” the T said in a press release. “And as soon as sufficient dispatch capacity exists, the MBTA will revert to its previous level of service.”

Saturday service levels mean trains will arrive at stations less frequently, requiring typical waits of an additional 3 to 5 minutes depending on the line. On the Orange Line, for example, weekday trains currently arrive every 6-7 minutes at peak periods and every 7 to 8 minutes off peak. The Saturday level of service, which the T intends to adopt during weekdays starting on Monday, calls for trains every 10 minutes in the morning, every 11 minutes in the evening, and every 8 to 9 minutes midday.

Ridership on the Red, Orange, and Blue Lines has been slowly rebounding from COVID, but it remains at 50 percent of pre-pandemic levels on the Red and Orange Lines and 56 percent of pre-pandemic levels on the Blue Line.

James Aloisi, a member of the board of TransitMatters and a former state secretary of transportation, said the lower service levels are likely to have an impact on ridership, which in turn could depress the T’s fare revenue and weaken the transit authority’s financial position.

He also said the T will soon have more FTA directives to comply with and still more once the agency comes out with its final report in August. Aloisi urged the Legislature, Gov. Charlie Baker, and municipalities in the T service area to come together to provide additional funding to the transit authority and address the T’s hiring problems.

“There’s a lot that can be done and maybe this is the wakeup call people need,” he said.