T shuttle buses couldn’t keep up

Too many passengers, gridlock hindered replacement service

THE MBTA DEPLOYED 94 of its own buses along with 15 supplied by the Yankee Line to shuttle the thousands of passengers stranded when a Red Line train derailed at the JFK/UMass Station Tuesday morning, but the effort was thwarted when demand for seats far exceeded the supply and many of those who did make it on to the buses ended up stuck in gridlocked traffic for between one and two hours.

The massive shuttle operation had as many as 68 buses operating at any one time and a total of 94 over the entire rush hour period. A T spokesman said in an email that 83 of the 94 buses used in the shuttle operation were pulled from existing routes, meaning service elsewhere suffered to deal with the impact of the derailment. Typically, the T deploys about 800 buses overall during the morning rush hour, the spokesman said.

The Red Line derailment spurred widespread calls for a quicker turnaround at the T and condemnation of Gov. Charlie Baker’s claim that “we’re headed in the right direction.”

Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, in a tweet, suggested the governor was wrong. “Is there any daily @MBTA commuter who agrees with @CharlieBakerMA that service is moving in the right direction? Anyone? Has anyone ever seen the Gov taking public transit? Even 1 time?” she asked.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh on Tuesday tweeted that the Red Line derailment and an earlier one last Saturday on the Green Line were unacceptable. “We need answers, solutions & more funding, and we need it now,” he tweeted.

On Wednesday morning, after conferring with state Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, Walsh was more measured. He said Pollack had assured him the T would be working properly on Wednesday when the city was hosting a Red Sox game in the afternoon and a Game 7 Stanley Cup game during the evening between the Boston Bruins and the St. Louis Blues. But the mayor acknowledged there are no guarantees.

“I don’t think anyone can give 100 percent assurance it’s not going to happen again, but certainly it was concerning to me because it was a Tuesday, commutes were brutal, people were taking the train and stranded at stations,” Walsh said.

The mayor said he supported the MBTA fare hike, which takes effect July 1. “But you have to have more reliability,” he said. “We just have to do better. Certainly I know the governor is frustrated. I was frustrated yesterday. It strains our city streets. It strains people’s ability to get to and from work. There’s a lot at stake here, so we’re going to continue to work at the T and push the T, the general manager there, to make sure the improvements happen. We need to get money into the infrastructure right now. I know the governor allocated $8 billion in a bond bill. The MBTA needs to start moving the projects forward, quite honestly.”

Some wondered whether Boston traffic cops should have done more Tuesday morning to help ease the gridlock. Walsh said there wasn’t enough notice after the derailment at about 6 a.m. “How do you expect on a Tuesday morning at 8 o’clock when we’re at cross walks and schools and making sure kids are crossing the street and all of a sudden the T goes down,” he said.

The mayor and other officials confirmed city and MBTA officials have protocols in place for emergencies (they were prepared to deploy traffic cops for the Wednesday rush hour), but the mayor said it was unclear if any protocol could have dealt with the shutdown of the Red Line, the T’s busiest subway line.

Chris Osgood, Boston’s chief of streets, said the Red Line derailment showed just how vulnerable the city’s transportation system is to a breakdown. “Yesterday morning underscored what we all know, which is that the Red Line is a critical transportation asset in our city and we see the implications of what happens when it’s not working,” he said.

The MBTA restored a semblance of full service on Tuesday evening, but it will be some time before all the kinks are worked out. The train that derailed knocked out a number of installations that house signal systems that track trains and control switches.

“Without the signal system, each Red Line train must be given permission to proceed from one station to the next with personnel along the tracks physically directing trains’ routing,” an MBTA press release said. “This manual process is necessary to allow trains to safely move along tracks, though it does take an additional amount of time and trains will continue to operate at reduced speeds and proceed slowly in affected areas.”

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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.

The loss of the signal system also means train-tracking information for GPS apps and the MBTA’s countdown clocks is not available.

The T shutdown service on the Braintree branch of the Red Line for three hours Wednesday so repair workers could begin their work. The derailed train was removed Tuesday night.