T to lift Orange Line speed restrictions by January

In letter to Markey, Poftak explains holdup after shutdown

THE MBTA intends to lift speed restrictions on the Orange Line by the end of December and start posting average subway travel times on its website at some point this winter, according to a letter MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak sent to US Sen. Ed Markey on Tuesday.

Poftak had promised Markey more information on Orange Line speed restrictions and average travel times at an October 14 hearing in Boston with fellow Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

At the hearing, Markey had questioned why the advocacy group TransitMatters was able to track average trip times on subway lines but the T wasn’t.

Markey also slammed Poftak for failing to notify riders that Orange Line speeds would not recover as quickly as promised after a 30-day shutdown of the line for repairs and for not telling riders when all speed restrictions would be lifted.

In his letter, Poftak did not specify precise dates when the remaining slow zones on the Orange Line would be eliminated; instead, he said the work would be completed in October, November, or December. At the hearing he had refused to give a date for completion of the work, saying that would put pressure on workers in the field to complete the work even if that was not possible.

“The MBTA has made significant progress in lifting speed restrictions, with most other restrictions scheduled to be lifted in November and December,” Poftak said in the letter.

Markey issued a statement early Wednesday saying the release of the information was “an important first step towards rebuilding trust in the T.” He also urged the MBTA to provide similar information about speed restrictions on the other subway lines.

“As we emphasized during the hearing, clear and transparent communication must be a top MBTA priority in the months and years ahead,” Markey’s statement said. “The public must be able to reliably plan their lives around their commute, and not knowing how long their trip may take—or how long until their commute speeds up—can have real-world consequences for hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts residents. As a result of the commitments we obtained from Mr. Poftak, T riders will now have additional critical information they need to make informed decisions about where and how they live, work, and travel.”

At the end of the 30-day shutdown of the Orange Line, Poftak said all the planned work had been completed and riders would notice a speed increase after a shakedown period of several days. Instead, travel times increased and his explanations for the longer rides were hard to follow.

In his letter to Markey, Poftak said the T’s maintenance of way department decided at the end of the 30-day shutdown to “continue the momentum of the surge and began addressing other areas of priority along the Orange Line, utilizing many of the resources available from the previous work. This additional work included transitioning between new and existing construction and replacement of additional rail and tamping. As a result of this additional maintenance, speed restrictions have remained in place longer than originally anticipated.”

Poftak said work now is focused on five stretches of the Orange Line.

At the Jackson crossover, for example, Poftak said rail ties embedded in concrete were replaced, allowing the speed to increase from 10 miles per hour to 25 miles per hour. Poftak said more work on embedded ties will be performed over the next two months, allowing speeds to increase to 40 miles per hour.

Poftak said the so-called Tufts curves saw extensive work during the month-long shutdown, with worn rail replaced and rail fasteners called Cologne Eggs installed. Poftak said an 18 mile per hour speed limit is currently in place to reduce degradation of the eggs, and that additional fasteners will be needed to increase speeds to 25 miles per hour. A 40 mile-per-hour speed is not possible because the track slopes downward in that area, Poftak said.

Between Community College and the Sullivan flyover, Poftak said, the speed limit will remain at 25 miles per hour until “recently identified” rail defects are fixed.

In the section between North Station and Community College, Poftak said, the speed has fallen from 25 miles per hour prior to the shutdown to 10 miles per hour now. Poftak said the restriction is in place because of excess rail being stored along the tracks. He said he expects the speed to return to 25 miles per hour after the rail is removed later this month.

The general manager said rails and ties were replaced during the Orange Line shutdown on the stretch between Assembly and Wellington. He said inspections conducted after the work was completed indicated additional work was needed to raise the existing speed of 25 miles per hour. He said that work should be completed by mid-November, but did not say what the speed limit would be when the work is finished.

Poftak said even with the work over the next several months there will be occasional slowdowns for regular maintenance work. He also warned that significant work will be needed in the future on signal systems and stations to bring the line into a state of good repair.