Red Line meltdown juxtaposed with on-time discussion

Numbers overall good or improving, but is T measuring correctly?

ON A DAY when the Red Line experienced a meltdown, the MBTA’s oversight board had a lengthy discussion about on-time performance, including the development of a new way of measuring when a train or a bus is on time.

The meltdown on Monday came at 8:07 a.m., in the middle of the morning rush when a crowded Red Line train came to a stop on its way into Harvard Station. The operator began doing some trouble-shooting and a T staffer was dispatched to climb under each car and check the braking systems. When they couldn’t figure out what was wrong, a second train was brought up to push the disabled train into Harvard station so passengers could get off.

But just as the second train was preparing to push, it also stalled out. T employees inspected that train, and this time they were able to figure out the problem and fix it. But it wasn’t until 8:50 a.m. that the trains started moving again, a lengthy delay that stranded the passengers on the two trains and left people crowding platforms up and down the Red Line. As a Reddit chain proclaimed, “Red Line is fucked.”

Jeffrey Gonneville, the deputy general manager of the T, brought up the morning’s Red Line disaster before briefing the Fiscal and Management Control Board on the T’s on-time performance. Generally, his report was positive, with the Red, Orange, Blue, and Green lines – as well as paratransit and ferries – meeting their on-time performance goals from September through February. On-time performance was a little spotty on commuter rail (it missed its target two of the five months) and bus (the Silver Line met its target while key bus routes just missed theirs). The only major disappointment was local bus routes, which never came close to their target.

The on-time performance target varies from service to service and the measurements also differ. For example, the goal for the Red, Orange, and Blue lines is 90 percent on-time performance, meaning 90 percent of the passengers wait the scheduled interval between trains or less – at peak it’s 9 minutes on Red, 6 minutes on Orange, and 5 minutes on Blue. All three exceeded those levels on average between September and the end of February, with the exception of the Red Line in October.

The Green Line’s on-time goal is less stringent — 75 percent during peak periods, when headways are 6 minutes or less. The Green Line met its target each month.

For bus, the on-time standard is whether the vehicle leaves a stop within three minutes of the scheduled time. The standard for the Silver Line and key bus routes, which handle the bulk of the system’s bus passengers, is 80 percent. The Silver Line met the standard all five months while the key bus routes just missed it all five months.

Gonneville said T officials are exploring the development of a new metric for measuring on-time performance and hope to unveil it this summer. Instead of measuring whether a passenger waits less than the interval between trains, the new measure will assess whether the passenger’s actual trip time matches the trip time on the schedule.

Gonneville said the existing system counts a passenger as being on-time if they entered a station and a train arrived within the allotted time. But he said many passengers, particularly on the Orange Line, enter a station and are unable to board the next train because it is too full.

Kat Benesh,  the T’s chief of operations strategy, said the transit authority is working hard to improve on-time performance by reducing the number of dropped trips and route delays. For buses, the number of dropped trips has fallen about 50 percent over the last year, dropping from just over 4,000 in February 2018 to just over 2,000 in February 2019. “It’s a tremendous story,” Benesh said.

Benesh said the chief cause of dropped bus trips continues to be a shortage of drivers, a situation that arises when more drivers fail to show up for work than expected.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

On the subway system, the number of dropped trips has remained fairly steady, hovering between 1,000 and 1,500 per month over the last year.

The other big on-time performance concern is delays during the trip, which Benesh dubbed “run-time deficits.” She said the bus system and the Green Line are both plagued by run-time deficits caused by traffic congestion and overly long stops caused by overcrowding.

The T currently plans to hire 45 more bus drivers and 18 new operators on the Green line to reduce dropped trips and run-time deficits in fiscal 2020, which begins July 1.