MBTA Inspection Woes Run The Gamut, Consultant Says

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2023/09/11/mbta-inspection-woes-run-the-gamut-consultant-says/

By Sam Drysdale
State House News Service

Poorly trained staff, a breakdown of communication between T leaders and employees, and missing documentation of inspections are among the reasons the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s tracks have deteriorated to the point where it is not safe for trains to operate at full speeds, according to a new report.

The first and primary cause of the rail’s state of disrepair is a lack of clarity about the roles and responsibilities of positions within the MBTA, especially those in charge of track inspections, the independent audit by Carlson Transport Consulting LLC says.

“Contributing to the situation is the limited track maintenance experience of individuals with track inspection responsibility, inadequate training for these individuals, the absence of a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for the visual and vendor inspections, and a vendor inspection process that does not adequately engage the MBTA individuals with front line responsibility for timely verification and action associated with track defects,” report author Charles O’Reilly wrote.

The secondary root cause, the review says, is that individuals were not “completely fulfilling the responsibilities” of track maintenance and safety standards for the Blue, Orange, Red, and Green Lines, which hundreds of thousands of people count on for reliable and safe public transit.

O’Reilly added that other factors, such as staffing, experience, and qualifications of other members of the T’s Maintenance of Way division, and the prioritization of Maintenance of Way against capital and other MBTA activities, also contributed to the state of the tracks that have caused slow rides across the system.

“Inconsistent inspection outcomes, such as missing documentation for verification of vendor identified defects and instances of previous defects not being verified in subsequent inspection cycles … are not a substitute for a [Standard Operating Procedure],” the evaluation says.

O’Reilly, a licensed professional engineer with more than 45 years of experience, was hired in March by the administration of Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey to conduct a review of the T’s track safety inspection procedures, record-keeping practices, and documentation of planning and implementation of corrective activities.

His review was designed to focus on, among other things, track inspections in the past 12 months, which would reach back to when then-governor Charlie Baker oversaw the T; automated data collection including geometry car and ultrasonic rail testing from the past two years; track inspection maintenance of way procedures; and oversight agency procedures. The $70,000 maximum contract was scheduled for 90 days and includes provisions to extend its duration if O’Reilly and the MBTA agree.

The report confirms what the T has known since it enacted a system-wide slowdown of all trains in early March, MBTA general manager Phil Eng said at a press conference on Thursday, September 7. Even as trains continue to operate with speed restrictions, Eng said repairs are being made.

“We’re going to be more efficient, more cost effective, and more productive. And really, that’s what the public deserves. At the same time, I have to balance the need to provide service to the riders while we’re trying to do the work,” Eng said. “How do you change the wheel while you’re riding the bike?”

The general manager said on Thursday that accountability for the troubled T “rests now with this leadership team.”

WBZ reported Wednesday, September 6 that no firings have been announced as a result of the MBTA’s failures.

“We still don’t know who was responsible for the missing documentation that led to the slowdown,” Jarred Johnson, executive director for the watchdog organization TransitMatters, told WBZ. “Are those folks going to face any kind of accountability?”

Asked by a reporter on Thursday, September 7 if anyone would be held accountable, Eng replied that responsibility for the T now lies with its current leadership team.

“This is not about a single person, this is about the organization,” Eng said. “And this is why one of the things that I want to do is to have clear lines of authority. One of the things we’re looking at, and we’ll have it in the near future, is how we are reorganizing different roles and functions, with the new leadership supplementing the existing leadership.”

Asked Thursday how he can turn the T around — a promise he made on his first day on the job — after a string of failures and broken promises from past general managers, Eng said, “This administration is committed.”

“I have taken these challenges on … and in those cases, many people said the same thing, ‘It’s insurmountable. Why did you take on those challenges?’ But really what it is about is rebuilding the team and empowering the team and letting them know that I have their back,” he said.

Eng brought on four new officials in August who are newly responsible for managing the quality of T stations, aging infrastructure, engineering, and capital planning, operations, and safety.

The MBTA first announced speed restrictions on March 10, and slowed Red, Orange, Blue and Green Lines to 10 to 25 miles per hour across the system. Since then, slow zones have been lifted on some areas of the rail, but remain on more than a quarter of track.

And the number of trains operating at slower speeds seems to be increasing.

According to MBTA data, only 23.6 percent of track was covered with speed restrictions on July 1, compared to 25.8 percent as of Thursday, September 7. On individual lines:  9.8 percent of the Red Line track where subways operated at slower speeds at the start of July has increased to 10.8 percent in September; and restrictions on 7.7 percent of the Green Line have increased to cover 8.8 percent of the track.

There were more speed restrictions added system-wide than removed throughout August, and each individual line except the Green Line ended the month with more slow zones than it started.

“When the conditions are at this state of disrepair in terms of the years of disinvestment,” Eng said, “if it takes us longer, it’s likely that those conditions will continue to worsen the longer we take. That doesn’t mean we’re not making progress, because we’re stemming the tide, but what’s happening is that it means as we continue to make those thorough inspections to ensure safety, that we’re finding these conditions are worsening.”

Eng said having to fight a moving — and worsening — target like this is why the T has opted for multi-week shutdowns, like April’s nighttime Blue Line closure and last year’s month-long Orange Line closure.

Subway service between JFK/UMass and Ashmont Stations and the Mattapan Line trolley will shutter for 16 days in October, which Eng has said will allow the T to accomplish six months of work in just over two weeks.

“We still have a lot of work to do, I don’t want to say we don’t, both infrastructure-wise but also organizationally. This is about changing the culture,” Eng said.

 

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