Video: Pyrotechnics preceded June derailment

Red Line lumbered on, car lurched, then crashed into sheds

A VIDEO OF the Red Line derailment on June 11 from the vantage point of the JFK/UMass Station shows the Braintree-bound train coming into view around a slight curve when a big flash occurs toward the rear of the train.

It’s not clear in the grainy footage what caused the flash but the train doesn’t stop. Over the next seven seconds the train continues on toward the station. When it passes by signal equipment housed in three wooden sheds under the Columbia Road bridge, one of the cars in the middle of the train lurches upward and bobs around erratically, clearly out of sync with the rest of the train.

About two seconds after the upward lurch, bright sparks, flames, or both belch out of the area where the signal systems were located as the sheds were smashed to pieces by the derailed train.

All in all, nearly 10 seconds elapsed between the first big flash visible in the video and the apparent explosions from the signal sheds. It’s hard to tell what the operator, seated on the right-hand side of the train, was doing, but it’s clear the driver remained at the controls. At the time of the derailment, another train was at the station headed in the opposite direction.

The video’s perspective shows the tracks heading north toward Andrew Station with part of the platform visible. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the video is that the few passengers waiting on the Braintree platform – with an eyewitness view of the derailment – barely move as the catastrophe unfolds mere yards away.

CommonWealth was able to view the video of the derailment and describe it on the condition that the magazine not disclose how the video was obtained. CommonWealth does not have a copy of the video.

Three weeks after the accident that sent one person to the hospital, the MBTA has not yet explained exactly how or why it happened, though General Manager Steve Poftak has assured passengers equipment has been tested and the system is now safe. The T has ruled out operator error, a problem with the tracks, or malfeasance. The investigation is centering on the train car itself, which went into service in 1969. Many of the train car’s parts are undergoing metallurgical analysis, which could take 60 days.

“Investigators are still working to determine the root cause of the derailment.  Components from the car are undergoing metallurgical testing as part of the ongoing investigation,” MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said.  “Having found multiple failures within the truck assembly, investigators have turned to the metallurgical analysis to help determine what was a symptom and what was the cause of the derailment.”

Photos after the incident show a car in the middle of the trainset tipped at an angle, so the top of the train is leaning away from the smashed-up signal sheds.

According to the MBTA, the 50-year-old Red Line car traveled for 1,839 feet while not properly on the track the day of the derailment, which was a Tuesday. For comparison, that’s about a third of a mile, the distance from the front of the Shaw Memorial on Boston Common to just inside the entrance to the Public Garden, according to Google Maps.

The damage to the signal equipment sheds will leave Red Line riders saddled with subpar service through the rest of the summer, according to the T. The electronic signals controlled sections of track stretching from Broadway Station, the second stop north of JFK, to Fields Corner, the second stop south on the Ashmont branch, and to the Neponset River area on the Braintree branch. While those signals are repaired, MBTA workers are directing the flow of trains and operating switches manually.

The derailed Red Line train busted up three signal sheds controlling a significant stretch of track. (Photo by Andy Metzger)

The Boston Carmen’s Union put some of the blame for the calamity on budget-trimming measures adopted by T management over the years. The union’s president, James O’Brien, said that if the MBTA hadn’t eliminated the second motorperson position on Red Line trains, the destruction of the signal equipment likely could have been avoided.

“You can’t make cuts to the operating budget year after year and expect to provide the same level of service and safety. MBTA management sacrificed safety in order to cut the T’s operating budget when it eliminated a second Motorperson on Red Line trains,” O’Brien said in a statement. “Had a second Motorperson been onboard that 50-year-old Red Line train, they would have seen the car derailing ahead and pulled the emergency brake, likely avoiding the damage done to the signal system electronics.”

The second motorperson had been stationed in the middle of Red Line trains before the position was eliminated roughly seven years ago.

O’Brien made a similar point after another high-profile incident in December 2015, when a Red Line train sped out of Braintree and traveled four stops without anyone at the controls.

While they have been mum on what exactly led to the June 11 crash, T officials have clued the public in on one area of concern by accelerating testing that can reveal structural flaws hidden within subway and trolley cars.

In the days immediately after the crash, T officials conducted ultrasonic testing on all of the Type 1 Red Line cars and found no defects. The Type 1 cars are the oldest cars on the system, and there were 68 in active service as of June. Ultrasonic testing sends sound waves into solid objects made of metal or plastic, and, without damaging the equipment, can find “evidence of cracks or other hidden internal flaws,” according to Olympus Corporation, which has an ultrasonic testing business line.

The Red Line cars undergo ultrasonic testing every two years, according to  Pesaturo, who said all of the other lines except one have been on the same two-year schedule. On the Orange Line, where the oldest trains are still about a decade newer than the oldest Red Line cars, the equipment undergoes ultrasonic testing every six months, Pesaturo said. Going forward, ultrasonic testing on the Red, Green, and Blue lines will be increased so they are all tested annually while the Orange Line cars will still be tested twice a year, Pesaturo said.

Production is also underway for new Red and Orange line cars that will replace the entire fleets, though the rollout of the first Orange Line cars in service has been delayed from late 2018 to this summer.

“The T is increasing the frequency of inspections on all Red Line cars while we wait for the delivery of 252 new cars, the first of which go into service in the spring,” said Pesaturo, who noted the new cars and upgraded signals are part of the T’s five-year, $8 billion capital investment program.

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.

Since the crash, the MBTA hired the firm LTK Engineering Services to review all derailments over the last two years, and it also tapped Ray LaHood, the former US transportation secretary, and two other former transit executives to review the MBTA’s previous derailments and safety practices.

Gov. Charlie Baker has also directed the MBTA to accelerate repair work, even if that means temporarily shutting down parts of service on nights and weekends, and announced his plans to devote $50 million in surplus state revenue towards the MBTA to hire workers.