Runaway Red Line train’s safe stop brings Baker’s praise

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BOSTON — Halting a runaway Red Line subway train with 50 passengers aboard with no injuries drew praise for the two Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority workers who performed the feat from the T’s control center last Thursday, stopping the driverless train in north Quincy by shutting off the power to the third rail.

“You two performed in exemplary fashion, made a whole series of strategic decisions, executed them perfectly and turned what could have been a far more dangerous circumstance into something that – while it was temporarily messy for a lot of the people involved – did not lead to any sort of significant, even minor, disaster,” Gov. Charlie Baker told the MBTA employees, Mark McNeill and Ainsley “Lee” Saunders, during a ceremony in the governor’s office Monday. Both received formal citations for their performance.

The incident began early Thursday in Braintree when the Boston-bound train’s driver got off to make an adjustment, apparently without setting the brakes and also after tying open the throttle control, according to reports last week. The driver was struck by the train as it rolled away, although his injury was described as minor. Braintree is the last stop on the Red Line’s southern end.

The six-car train reached speeds of as much as 25 miles an hour and sped through four stations as McNeill and Saunders worked to clear the tracks of other trains and then shut down power to the section where the runaway was traveling. It coasted to a safe stop.

The signing of citations for Saunders and McNeill took place on the same day that the entities investigating the event are expected to report their findings. The driver was set to go before a disciplinary hearing Monday as well.

Multiple reports have indicated the operator rigged the controls and failed to set the brakes before stepping off the train to switch it into bypass mode, so it could move past a malfunctioning signal, which also disengages the collision-avoidance system. The trains are designed to have a maximum speed of 25 miles an hour in bypass mode.

The closest train to the runaway was leaving Wollaston — three stops up the line from Braintree — when the call came in to the operations center, MBTA General Manager Frank DePaola told reporters. North Quincy, where the train came to a rest is one stop past Wollaston.

“Within a minute of the train leaving the station without an operator, Lee receives a call from the train-starter down at Braintree. He was told that there was a runaway train moving north without any operator and no way to stop it,” DePaola said.

He said Saunders notified his supervisor, McNeill, and the two assessed the situation.

“They had to look to see if there were other trains on the track, which there were. There was a train heading north — just leaving Wollaston at the time — so they told those trains to express. Don’t stop at any more stations so that they could create some spacing between the driverless train and the trains with drivers and passengers on them. Once they opened up enough space they then killed the power for that section of third rail,” DePaola said.

Saunders, who attended the ceremony with his wife and daughter, started working for the T in February 2000 and has worked in the Operations Control Center for the past decade. McNeill, who attended with his fiancée, has been in the center since 1987 after joining the MBTA in October 1982.

“The T has had a really rough year. It started with the snow; it ended with this — hope that’s the last of it,” Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said. Saying most of the people who work for the T “work really hard,” Pollack praised Saunders and McNeill for remaining calm during the incident and for their “level-headedness and quick-thinking.”

Baker entered office right ahead of a series of snowstorms that knocked out rail service on outdoor parts of the system and completely shut down subway operations during the worst of the snow. The T has since wrestled with a structural deficit of $242 million projected in fiscal 2017 and the surprise $1 billion hike in the estimated cost of an expansion of the Green Line into Somerville and Medford.

“I just think it’s important when things in government work well, we need to highlight that as well,” said Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, who said there are “many things every day across our state — our government — that work.”

Encountered on a sidewalk after the ceremony, Saunders said the event in the governor’s office was “very nerve-wracking” and it was “excellent to meet the governor.” Saunders declined to give his own account of the incident.

Written by Andy Metzger