T called worse off now than during snowmageddon

Orange Line train catches fire crossing the Mystic River

THE LEAD CAR of an Orange Line train crossing the Mystic River caught fire early Thursday morning, prompting panic on board the train and the evacuation of close to 200 people, including one person who jumped from the bridge into the water.

The image of flames leaping out from underneath the train car followed by billowing black smoke was another devastating blow for confidence in the MBTA, which has been hit with one safety issue after another over the last six months.

The Federal Transit Administration is currently conducting a safety investigation of the T. A final report is expected next month.

Rick Dimino, the president of the business group A Better City, issued a statement on Thursday saying what many transit advocates have been whispering for some time – that the challenges facing the T are worse now than they were in 2015, when snowmageddon forced the shutdown of the subway system for several days.

“What the T is experiencing today is far worse and deserves a response that is commensurate with the current crisis,” Dimino said.

Dimino indicated he has no confidence in current MBTA management.

“To ensure the system is safe for riders, Governor Baker should immediately appoint a well-established expert in transit safety and complementary team to oversee the MBTA and implement all the recommendations from the Federal Transit Administration’s safety directives,” Dimino said. “This national expert and team would report to the governor and other elected officials to bring a credible, independent voice to address the real safety challenges and rebuild the public’s confidence in the MBTA.”

Gov. Charlie Baker, interviewed midday Thursday on Radio Boston, acknowledged the MBTA’s performance needs to improve.  “Stuff like this makes people crazy. It makes me crazy,” he said, referring to the Orange Line fire.

He was also asked about an  idea put forth at a legislative oversight hearing on MBTA safety on Monday by Rep. William Straus, the chair of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee. Straus said lawmakers need to think outside the box when it comes to the T, and suggested it may be time to abolish the MBTA and roll its functions into the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.

Baker noted that’s what happened with the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority roughly 12 years ago and might be something worth exploring with the MBTA. “That’s certainly a conversation worth having,” he said.

The train that caught fire was traveling southbound toward Assembly Station at about 6:45 a.m. when flames and smoke started coming from underneath the lead car. Video showing the incident from afar appeared to show sparking underneath the vehicle that then became flames and smoke.

Steve Poftak, the MBTA’s general manager, said an initial inspection of the vehicle suggests a metal panel roughly 1 by 6 feet riveted to the underside of the train fell off and came into contact with the electrified third rail.

Video taken inside the vehicle showed people kicking out windows and jumping down to the ground. Many passengers said they followed the orders of MBTA personnel and walked backward from one car to the next before exiting the last vehicle on the train.