Trouble on the T: Boston transit braces for another winter

AP News
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Posted: Dec 02, 2015 9:21 AM
Trouble on the T: Boston transit braces for another winter

BOSTON (AP) — Bostonians like to think of themselves as hardy. Last winter, their transit system was anything but.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, known as the T, is spending more than $83 million in a race against time to winterize an aging system that was badly exposed during an unprecedented stretch — even by New England standards — of heavy snow and bone-rattling cold.

Heaters that were supposed to keep the electrified third rail from freezing failed; traction motors shorted out after ingesting too much snow; and outmoded snow plows simply couldn't keep up with the winter bombardment. Workers trying to shovel out miles upon miles of track became an enduring image of futility.

The brutal weather left a mark on nearly every aspect of the system, which includes subways and commuter trains, buses and ferries. Most affected were above-ground trains. Entire branches of rapid transit in greater Boston shut down for weeks, and service on the 394-mile commuter rail network was often cut by 50 percent or more. Operations weren't fully restored until the end of March.

It seemed an endless nightmare for commuters like Daniel Dain, an attorney from Needham who prefers commuter rail but often drove to Boston out of frustration and necessity, enduring epic traffic jams. Or Jamie Klufts, a Boston University graduate student at the time who didn't own a car and had no other option for getting to class, "unless you wanted to walk."

The breakdowns also revealed far deeper problems at the T, prompting a managerial shake-up and contributing to public skepticism that undid Boston's short-lived bid for the 2024 Olympics. Newly elected Republican Gov. Charlie Baker convinced lawmakers to derail the T's autonomous governance structure and named his own management control board to oversee the system.

Many analysts blamed the collapse on chronic underinvestment in the nation's fifth-largest transit system, which boasts America's first subway tunnel, opened in 1897. The T's own bleak figures conservatively point to a $7.3 billion state of good repair backlog and an annual operating deficit that could top $400 million by 2020.

While even some of the system's harshest critics are impressed by the scope of the winter resiliency plan, many experts also recognize it as only a temporary fix.

"It doesn't change the fact that we still have ancient rolling stock and we need upgrades on the power and signal systems," said Paul Regan, who heads an advisory board that represents the interests of 175 cities and towns served by the system. "They break down every day, and not a snowflake has fallen yet."

The newest trains on the Red Line were built in 1994 and the oldest in 1969; Orange Line cars went into service between 1979 and 1981. A Chinese company has been contracted to build new cars, but the first ones aren't expected on the tracks until 2019.

A panel of outside experts assembled by Baker warned the T could become insolvent due to a "severe imbalance" between costs and expenses, while also citing myriad other shortcomings, including lack of customer focus and unusually high employee absentee rates.

Even after winter, the bad news kept on coming. A court-mandated plan to expand Green Line service to Somerville and Medford was thrown into jeopardy after its projected cost rose by up to $1 billion. It seemed the T couldn't catch a break, much like hapless "Charlie," doomed in a popular 1949 song "to ride forever beneath the streets of Boston" because he lacked the correct change to get off the subway.

For now, officials are focused on the immediate challenges another harsh winter could bring.

New third-rail heaters are being installed and nearly 40,000 linear feet of the third rail itself has been replaced, said Frank DePaola, whom Baker named general manager after the resignation of transit veteran Beverly Scott. The T has doubled its supply of traction motors and rolled out new pieces of snow-clearing equipment. Forty new commuter-rail locomotives could help avoid past situations when the system dropped below the minimum 65 locomotives needed to run on time and on schedule.

Officials have also promised to improve communications with riders who regularly complain of a lack of real-time information about delays and cancellations.

The control board, meanwhile, has outlined a list of potential longer-term budget fixes that could include reducing the workforce through attrition and early retirement, eliminating late-night service on weekends — and raising fares.