December has been a dour month this year for the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority. The MBTA (aka the T) recently got two consecutive black eyes for risky service on its Red Line subway trains.
On December 9, evening Red Line service was suspended when a woman was struck and killed on the tracks at Downtown Crossing. On December 10, an inbound six-car train from Braintree ran riot when a train operator tied off the throttle, flipped a bypass switch to override a stop signal, and either disabled or neglected to set the brakes. The train, carrying 50 passengers, ran uncontrollably along the tracks with no driver at the helm. Both incidents were a one-two blow to the already beleaguered reputation of the state’s dense and disperse network of subway, commuter rail, and bus and ferry services. A map of the T, creepily nicknamed “the spider,” exhibits the system’s sprawling and enigmatic layout.
The December 10 runaway train incident had local and world news media scrambling for coverage. But the downtown Red Line tragedy on December 9 received scant or no attention. The victim was only described as a 42-year old woman. Had she fallen off the platform or been the victim of an assault? Was she a T employee? The only information piped over the T’s public announcement system was that train service had been suspended due to “a medical emergency.”
The evening of December 9, Red Line passengers at Kendall Square/MIT were instructed to take shuttle buses to Harvard Square or the JFK/UMass station. T personnel were not present to give passengers direction to shuttle services. It was after 8 p.m. and the night was getting chillier. Stranded passengers waiting outside Kendall station finally texted friends and family for a ride home or piled into taxi cabs or private car services.
Somehow, during a T emergency, T workers fade from the scene. December 9 and 10 were no exception. Those who remember the February 2015 winter snow storm were also its victims, stranded at subway, bus and commuter rail stations when the T unexpectedly stopped running. Before service shutdown was announced, T workers had left their stations or were no-shows for work.
Riders who have coped with the T over their lifetime know its infrastructure is ancient and barely dangling by a cable. Although new subway cars and buses have been brought in and stations have been added or renovated, the infrastructure remains frail because of aged moving parts and old tracks. Many pieces cobbled into the system are literally antique. They might do better in an antique shop but are needed to piece the vehicles together or hold them in place. Less period parts are often imports and sometimes not found to be the best fit.
T personnel turnover is rampant from bottom to top. T “bosses” have come and gone or been asked to go. T employees who staff the booths, trains and buses have jokingly been described as “graduates of the (unaccredited) School of Rudeness.” Passengers who turn to them for destination directions are blown off with either silence or brusque treatment. Some out-of-towners from other countries might receive insults instead of answers to their travel related inquiries.
Safety is not an issue because there is very little of it. The T Orange Line has seen physical altercations committed by youthful gang members. On the Green Line, passengers have evacuated more than once from trains because of electrical fires. Arguments and fights have broken out between bus drivers and passengers. Passengers themselves have behaved aggressively towards other passengers and T personnel. Armed and unarmed scuttles have broken out between passengers on city run buses and trains. Depending on where one is going, some train and bus stops are more susceptible to unwanted incidents than others.
The T occasionally attempts to solicit rider feedback through printed surveys. But the most telling feedback is from riders who have suffered injuries or doses of insults followed through with injury. Anyone who has a beef with the T can e-mail the T’s website. But paper surveys are easier to tally because the T can be overwhelmed with online complaints and a log of accident reports.