Slow zones across 27% of MBTA subway system

New interactive map shows the breadth of the problem

INTERIM MBTA General Manager Jeffrey Gonneville on Thursday offered no timeline on when slow zones covering 27 percent of the subway system will be lifted, and said repair work will take place at nights when the system is shut down, on weekends, and in some cases by shutting down portions of subway lines at 8 or 9 p.m.

Gonneville placed speed restrictions on the entire subway system on March 9 after T officials discovered a breakdown in the required documentation for addressing rail defects uncovered by rail scans conducted in February and March.

Gonneville told the MBTA board Thursday that ordering speeds of 10 to 25 miles per hour across the entire system was a “very conservative” decision that he believed was necessary given the uncertainty about how big the problem was.

The interim general manager deployed MBTA and third-party teams to review the scans and check whether repairs were actually made. On March 20, the T lifted the last of the universal speed restrictions and substituted speed restrictions on smaller sections of the various subway lines. Speed restrictions are used to enhance safety when there are problems with the track.

An interactive dashboard posted on the MBTA website Thursday indicated 36.8 miles of track, or 27 percent of the subway system, are now subject to slow zone restrictions, meaning trains must operate at speeds less than 40 miles per hour.

A subway map on the dashboard shows icons representing the three types of speed restrictions (less than 10 miles per hour, 10-25 miles per hour, and more than 25 miles per hour) blanketing the system.

The most are on the Red Line (120), followed by the Green (65), Orange (40), and Blue (10). According to the dashboard, 86 speed restrictions were in place 30 days ago and 175 were added and 40 cleared over the last 30 days.

It’s still unclear how many restrictions are in place because track repairs were identified but never made. Gonneville said investigations are ongoing to find out why the defects were not addressed properly and how to prevent such lapses in the future.

Gonneville didn’t go into detail about the nature of the repairs needed to repair the defects, but said a great deal of the focus in the coming weeks will be on stretches of track on the Blue Line and the Braintree and Ashmont branches of the Red Line. The T released a rundown of service changes and replacement bus service starting in April.

The MBTA checks for track defects using four methods. Geometry scans, which are conducted two times a year on the Red, Orange, and Blue Lines and four times a year on the Green and Mattapan Lines, check for proper track and rail alignment.

Ultrasonic scans identify flaws in the rail. Optical scans identify flaws on the surface of the rail. And track walkers, as Gonneville called them, walk the tracks two to three times a week looking for problems.

Gonneville indicated the scans turned up some defects on newly installed track. He didn’t say where, but a large amount of track on the Orange Line was replaced during a month-long shutdown on the line last year.

MBTA board member Chanda Smart pointedly asked Transportation Secretary Gina Fiandaca whether she was satisfied with the T’s handling of the situation, which she said amounted to “terrible subway service.”

Fiandaca said she fully supported Gonneville’s response. “This was not a decision that he made lightly, but it was in the best interest of the safety of our riders and our employees,” she said.

In the public comment period prior to the start of the virtual meeting, a man who identified himself as David from Somerville said the subway situation is “totally absurd.” He urged T officials to come clean about what’s wrong and what is needed to fix it.

“Give us something we can advocate for,” he said. “We’re all getting tired of the whack-a-mole approach.”

Jarred Johnson, the CEO of the advocacy group TransitMatters, criticized the MBTA’s board for its lackadaisical approach to overseeing the transit authority.

“This board is failing riders, full stop,” he said. “The system is in crisis but I’m afraid you would not know that by watching a board meeting.”

He criticized the board for not engaging with transit advocates and for continuing to meet virtually.

The board took office with the goal of having fewer meetings and giving management more leeway than the previous board, which was called the Fiscal and Management Control Board.

“I don’t think anyone would suggest that the hands-off approach has been successful,” Johnson said.