T still investigating Red Line derailment

Most train service restored Tuesday afternoon

MBTA OFFICIALS had few answers about what might have caused a derailment that wreaked havoc on Tuesday morning commutes and they offered no estimates about when Red Line service might return to normal.

Late Tuesday afternoon, the MBTA tweeted that Red Line service had resumed between Ashmont and Alewife, and it is phasing out the shuttle bus service. Travelers will be able to take trains between JFK/UMass and Braintree, but they will need to transfer at JFK/UMass.

A Quincy-bound train derailed on its way into the JFK/UMass station in Dorchester at about 6 a.m. – causing one injury and contributing to widespread delays that appeared to extend throughout the metro region.

“We’re still working to re-rail the train. We are still in the preliminary stages of conducting what will be a very thorough investigation,” MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak told reporters near the scene of the derailment on Tuesday afternoon. The T has also hired consultant LTK Engineering Services to conduct a review covering the past two years looking at every instance when trains in passenger service have derailed. Poftak said Tuesday’s was the fourth passenger service derailment this calendar year. Tuesday’s crash followed close on the heels of a Green Line derailment on Saturday that injured 11 people. Poftak said the two recent derailments appeared unrelated.

The system-tangling crash was clearly frustrating to Poftak, who has spent the past four years in various official capacities seeking to improve the MBTA following the devastating winter of 2015 when historic winter storms knocked out service. It must have also tested morale throughout the T workforce, too. On Tuesday afternoon, with the damaged train behind him, Poftak put a bold face on the dispiriting news, saying that he still considers the transit system safe.

“I use the system every day. I believe it’s safe,” said Poftak, who also acknowledged that he and T customers – who will need to pay higher fares starting in three weeks – are both frustrated by the situation.

News of the transit snafu reverberated through the State House where lawmakers were busy holding hearings on a slew of legislation. Rep. Jennifer Benson, a Lunenburg Democrat who co-chaired a big hearing held by the Committee on Health Care Finance, said she wasn’t sure exactly why her drive in was “particularly bad” Tuesday morning, but it wasn’t entirely the fault of the T. Benson said she took Memorial Drive where traffic was delayed by a “flock of geese.”

It was clear even to the untrained eye that the June 11 Red Line derailment was significant. (Photo by Andy Metzger)

In Dorchester, the position of the 50-year-old subway car – which was underneath the bridge that carries Columbia Road across the tracks – will complicate its removal. Even to the untrained eye it was clear that the crash caused significant damage. The train car was heeled over to the right and some of its wheels were completely off the track and rutted in the ballast stones.

T officials were working towards getting it out of the way by Tuesday night and Poftak predicted the train would be removed from the area by Wednesday afternoon, and he declined to give even a ballpark estimate about when service would be back up and running. Hours later, the T announced that much of the rail service had been restored. The crash also damaged signal equipment, and T workers are unable to assess that damage until the train is out of there, Poftak said.

Tuesday’s crash appears “wholly unrelated” to the Saturday derailment and Transit Police have ruled out foul play, Poftak said. He also said the crash wasn’t related to earlier signal problems at the station, and declined to speculate about whether the crash would have occurred if the Red Line car was new.  The Red Line car that crashed was one of the older ones, dating back to 1969. The Chinese state-owned railcar manufacturer CRRC has been hired to build 252 Red Line cars and 152 Orange Line cars, which should help the T provide more efficient service.

The crash also exposed some deficiencies in the T’s shuttle bus operations. It took one CommonWealth journalist one hour and 45 minutes to travel five stops inbound by shuttle bus on Tuesday morning. It took me one hour to travel the five stops by subway and shuttle bus from Park Street to JFK/UMass on Tuesday afternoon.

Some riders aboard those shuttle buses were exasperated, and drivers weren’t always clear on what to do. After a Transit Police officer told one bus driver not to pull all the way through Andrew Station and instead make a stop at the curb, the driver described how other T workers had told him to go through the station and complained, “Nobody’s on the same page.”

“Shuttle buses are a replacement for the Red Line but obviously they don’t have the same capacity and they operate in the same traffic that everyone else is operating in,” Poftak said. “Right now we’re working with our partners – with the city of Boston – to make sure that we have as much coverage as we can get to get those buses flowing through, and we’re also actively working on additional service.”

Boston Police agreed to help the shuttle buses move through the city streets during the evening rush hour, according to the T.

Four years ago and early in his first term, a series of debilitating blizzards focused Gov. Charlie Baker’s attention on the MBTA. Under Baker’s leadership the T has received more public oversight in the form of the Fiscal and Management Control Board and put greater emphasis on maintenance spending, but the governor has resisted calls for higher taxes or other revenues to further supplement the T’s roughly $2 billion budget, even when those calls have come from the control board. Putting more money into the T was a big part of Democrat Jay Gonzalez’s campaign against Baker last fall, but the Republican handily defeated his challenger, taking 66.6 percent of the vote.

Gus Bickford, the chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, suggested Baker deserves some blame for Tuesday’s crash.

“If the governor thinks the system can run just fine as it is, then it’s fair to ask if the problem lies with his ability to manage it,” Bickford said.

In a Tuesday morning tweet, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh lent his voice to the chorus calling for more funding.

“This week’s @MBTA derailments are unacceptable. We need answers, solutions & more funding, and we need it now,” Walsh said. “It is imperative that we have a public transportation system for Boston residents and surrounding communities that is safe and reliable.”

Jim Rooney, the president and CEO of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and a former top T official, wrote on Twitter: “Our failing public transit system & traffic congestion in & around Greater Boston are at crisis levels & impacting our region’s competitiveness. This week’s incidents are yet another reminder that we need major & urgent investment, prioritization of projects, and a plan…#NOW.”

Richard Dimino, president and CEO of the business group A Better City, said the recent derailments are a stark reminder that Boston and the region don’t function if the MBTA doesn’t function. “They are also a symptom of a larger problem reaching crisis proportions: decades of neglect and under-investment impacting our whole transportation system – including not just the MBTA but also our roads, bridges, and regional transit. The business community, riders, public officials, and other stakeholders must come together this year to find real solutions, including new revenue, to bring forth the modern, comfortable, and convenient system Massachusetts residents deserve and are demanding.”

At an event in Springfield on Tuesday, the governor touted recent investments in maintenance on the T, blamed Saturday’s derailment on a trolley driver who was “going too fast,” and deferred questions about Tuesday’s derailment to the transit agency, according to audio provided by the governor’s office.

Poftak said he had spoken to the governor, who wants a thorough investigation into the causes of the crash.

Meet the Author

Andy Metzger

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

“The governor obviously wants this system to run safely, but I think he also understands that we are making a tremendous amount of investment in this system, and we are headed in the right direction,” Poftak said. “I think he also wants to be sure that we turn over every rock to make sure that we understand why this happened, and to the extent that there are root causes that we can mitigate, that we mitigate them.”

Workers were on the scene at JFK/UMass on Tuesday afternoon scoping out the derailed 50-year-old Red Line car. (Photo by Andy Metzger)