Why Red Line commute is taking longer

Human workaround subbing for broken signals, switches

YOUR RED LINE COMMUTE is taking up to 20 minutes longer these days because a team of roughly 50 MBTA employees is filling in for automatic switches and signals severely damaged during a derailment June 11 at the JFK/UMass Station.

The fairly expensive human workaround runs from Fields Corner to Broadway on the Ashmont branch of the Red Line and from just north of North Quincy to Broadway on the Braintree branch of the line. Even though the workaround is confined to those stretches, the 20-minute delays there tend to ripple up and down the line.

When the Red Line train derailed on June 11, it wiped out three wooden sheds that stored signal and switch equipment for that stretch of the line. While the T tries to restore automated service to the area – a process that could run through the beginning of September – a team of employees is filling in, acting as gatekeepers who maintain safe spacing between trains.

Under normal circumstances, Red Line train operators receive signals from devices on the tracks that tell them when it is safe to move forward and at what speed. With the signals systems knocked out, the train operators are in the dark about what’s ahead on the track, and the trains themselves can only operate in what is called “emergency bypass” mode.

The workaround system for the most part uses a station-to-station approach with T employees communicating train movements and locations via radio devices.

At each of the affected stations, a T employee stands at the end of the platform holding a seven-foot pole with a red flag on the top. The train operator pulls up to the employee on the platform who uses the pole to trip a manual hold at track level on the train. Once the employee hears from central dispatch downtown that the train ahead has cleared the next station, the manual hold is removed and the train proceeds ahead in emergency bypass mode to the next station.

The MBTA’s human workaround on the Red Line consists of people at station platforms and drivers of trains. (Photo by Bruce Mohl)

The process is repeated at each successive station until the train emerges from the stretch of track lacking functioning signals equipment. Once that happens, the automated system takes over again.

The derailment also damaged the automatic switching equipment covering the area just north of the JFK/UMass station, where trains coming from Andrew shift on to tracks serving either the Ashmont or Braintree Lines and trains coming out of JFK/UMass move on to the single track leading into Andrew.

The switches now have to be operated manually, and with employees on the tracks handling that job the speed of the Red Line trains has to be reduced from the usual 40 miles per hour to 25 miles per hour or less.

All this happens 20 hours a day seven days a week, said Norman Michaud, assistant general manager of rail operations.

At any given time, it takes about 16 employees to carry out the workaround – 50 total to handle all the shifts. Michaud said the workers are drawn from within the authority, typically inspectors and chief inspectors from the various subway lines as well as training department instructors and operations control center dispatchers.

Salaries of the employees vary, Michaud said, but they generally make $40 to $45 an hour on flat time. The employees would have been paid anyway, so the Red Line workaround doesn’t increase the T’s overall costs. But the workaround does divert resources away from other areas, at a daily cost of about $13,000 a day.

Meet the Author

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.

Michaud said work crews are trying to restore normal switch and signal operations, and delays should decrease incrementally as work is completed. But currently there’s little that can be done to speed up the manual process.

“What you see is kind of what you get right now,” he said. “We’re operating as efficiently and as safe as we can.”