Red Line train goes 4 stops without operator

Pollack: 'We failed our passengers today'


A 51-year-old Red Line motorman who saw his train exiting Braintree Station without anyone at the controls early Thursday morning quickly alerted MBTA personnel at the station, officials told reporters.

Operating in what’s known as “bypass mode” to move beyond a faulty signal, the train did not have its collision avoidance system engaged, MBTA Chief Operating Officer Jeff Gonneville said Thursday afternoon. Trains ahead of the driverless train on the line into Boston were moved out of the way and power was shut down bringing the train to a stop outside North Quincy Station, officials said.

“We failed our passengers today,” Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack told reporters at an afternoon press conference. Saying safety is the MBTA’s primary responsibility, Pollack said, “Something happened that should not have been able to happen that put our passengers in danger. I am personally and professionally very gratified that in fact no one was harmed, but what happened today is unacceptable, and it will be investigated and changes will be made to ensure that it doesn’t happen.”

MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said the operator is a 51-year-old man who has worked for the T for more than 25 years, and Pollack said he is on administrative leave. Pesaturo said the train brushed against the operator as it left the station.

While noting much of the circumstances are under investigation, Pollack said the trains are designed to travel no more than 25 miles per hour when in bypass mode. Officials said the train, which left Braintree right after 6 a.m., had about 50 passengers on it and nine minutes elapsed between the time officials were alerted to when the train came to a stop.

The MBTA was unable to communicate with the passengers during the incident, but there were no reported injuries, Pollack said.

Among the questions officials are hoping to answer through the investigation is whether the operator’s area of the vehicle was in correct condition, said Pollack, who said, “Operator error is the current focus of the investigation.”

Pollack said one element of the investigation is to determine whether a cord was wrapped around one of the train controls.

“This train was tampered with, and it was tampered with by someone who knows what he was doing,” Gov. Charlie Baker said earlier in the day, after the incident.

The entire train set was impounded and will remain impounded for the investigation, said Pollack, who said the MBTA, Transit Police, the Department of Public Utilities, and the Federal Transit Administration will meet Friday morning.

“There was a signal issue that made it necessary for the operator to request and receive from the operations control center permission to put the train into bypass mode,” Pollack said, explaining why the motorman left the vehicle to put the train in bypass mode.

Pollack said trains are put into emergency bypass mode “only when there is a signal problem,” and she said bypass is used regularly and safely.

Gonneville said to put the train in bypass mode an operator is required to use two brakes before exiting the vehicle.

Red Line vehicles have been operated by one person since 2011, said Gonneville. He said the Blue Line has been operated by one driver since the late 1990s and Orange Line trains have had a single operator since 2009.

“If safety procedures are followed properly there is no safety problem with operating trains with a single operator,” Pollack said.

“If a second person was on this train, they would have been equipped with the knowledge and ability necessary to safely bring this train to a stop,” Boston Carmen’s Union President James O’Brien said.

The Red Line trains have a collision-avoidance system, but that was not engaged on the train in bypass mode.

“With the train being in emergency bypass, the dispatchers made it necessary to clear the line ahead of this train before they then killed power to stop this train,” Gonneville said. He said MBTA officials knew within about one minute that the train had left the station without anyone at the controls.