THE MBTA says it intends to hold its contractor responsible for fixing rail ties placed too close together on the Green Line extension to Somerville and Medford, but the transit authority’s general manager said the problem should have been fully uncovered and addressed as much as a year before the $2.3 billion project started carrying passengers.
At a confusing press conference on Thursday that raised almost as many questions as answers, MBTA General Manager Phillip Eng said it appears the prefabricated plated rail ties for the Green Line extension were made to incorrect specifications and then installed. A plated rail tie consists of a wooden tie with steel plates on either end for holding the rail in place.
Eng said the problem could have been caught in April 2021, more than a year before the Green Line extension opened, and again in November 2022, shortly before the Medford/Tufts branch of the line opened. In both instances, repairs were made to widen sections of track but the broader problem was not addressed.
Eng himself ordered similar repairs to portions of the Green Line in September and early October to remove 3 mile-per-hour slow zones implemented because of narrow rails. On October 11, he issued a statement saying the T had removed all of the speed restrictions on both branches of the Green Line extension.
On Thursday, however, he said the problem is much broader. He said recent scans indicate 50 percent of the rail ties on the 1-mile Somerville branch of the Green Line extension and 80 percent of the rail ties on the 3.4-mile Medford-Tufts branch now need to be fixed by removing the steel plates and repositioning them on the rail ties.
Eng said the rails are supposed to be 56 ½ inches apart, with a plus or minus tolerance of a sixteenth of an inch. He said the MBTA’s most recent rail scans are finding the width between the rails varying from 56 1/8 inches to 56 3/8 inches. He said as the width gets closer to 56 1/8 inches remedial action must be taken, either by slowing trains down or widening the tracks.
What’s puzzling is why the width of factory-made rail ties would vary so much. One would expect all of them to be the same, except at curves where a wider gauge is required. The implication is that the rail ties are getting narrower with use, which is very unusual because typically the distance between rails tends to widen, not contract, with use.
Even as he raised concerns about the narrow tracks, Eng said the Green Line extension is safe for riders now.
The general manager said the T’s contractor, GLX Constructors, has come up with a plan to address the problem, which is being reviewed now. He indicated the contractor will pay the cost. “This is not something the public should be paying for,” Eng said. He did not provide an estimate for how long the repairs would take, when they would be completed, or how riders would be affected.
Gov. Maura Healey issued a statement placing the blame on the administration of Gov. Charlie Baker. “I share the public’s frustration and disappointment at the revelation that senior MBTA officials under the previous administration knew about issues with the Green Line extension tracks years ago and did not disclose them to our administration or address them on their watch,” Healey said. “The people of Massachusetts deserve better. I applaud GM Eng for uncovering this and taking swift action to hold people accountable and demand a work plan from the contractor to fix the narrow gauges on their own dime. The MBTA is committed to fixing this and delivering the service that riders deserve.”
Eng said he didn’t have any indication that his predecessors kept the problem a secret for political reasons. “All I know is that I believe the team could have been more proactive,” he said.
John Dalton, who oversaw the Green Line extension project as a consultant working for the MBTA, said he was not aware of any widespread problem with the rail ties other than what he has learned from recent news reports. “I’m proud of the work the MBTA did on that project,” he said.
Eng said an investigation conducted by the MBTA found the problem of narrow rail first surfaced on April 23, 2021, when an inspection conducted by a Somerville contractor named Terracon “failed” track inside the Medford train yard at points where the track curved. “Widened gauge section of yard track found to be pre-plated too narrow,” the report said, noting that specs for the curve called for a width of 56 7/8 inches and the actual width was narrower.
According to the Terracon report, the distribution list for the document included two officials at Consigli Construction Co., nine at GLX Constructors, and two at Terracon. No MBTA officials were listed.
Eng said more action should have been taken at that time. “While those conditions were addressed, I believe that at that time it was the appropriate time and should have been when the project team and the design-builders should have taken a look at why those conditions existed,” Eng said.
Eng said a rail scan in November 2022, shortly before the track to Medford/Tufts was scheduled to open, provided another opportunity to address the broader problem. He said a geometry scan of the track identified 29 locations where the gauge was less than 56 1/8 inches. The scan also identified significant portions of the Green Line extension where the gauge was narrow but not dangerously so. Repairs were made at the 29 locations but again the broader problem was not addressed.
Eng said the decision was made to address the problem as part of the punch list process at the end of construction. He said it typically is harder to correct the problem at that point because of the greater impact on riders.