AMID CONSTANT TALK of the crisis-ridden MBTA, where slow zones have reduced the speed of trains at some points to a crawl, and passengers can endure interminable “headway” waits of 15 or 20 minutes between trains, one might at least expect an answer to the most basic question: When can users of the system expect a return to normal service, with speeds and intervals between trains back to standard levels?
It turns out, no one will say.
As frustrating as the T’s collapse has been for those who must rely on it, making the situation bleak to the point of near-resignation for some is the lack of projected end date for the misery.
“I have become increasingly frustrated,” said Jarred Johnson, executive director of the advocacy group TransitMatters. Calling the situation “demoralizing,” he said, “I think we should start holding this administration accountable. It’s been seven months [since Gov. Maura Healey took office] and we have no sense of when we’ll get rapid transit headways back.”
There is no doubt that T General Manager Phil Eng walked into an enormously complicated challenge, the result of years of neglect and poor management, when he arrived on the job almost four months ago.
Service levels had been reduced on subways lines because of a shortage of dispatchers to safely oversee operations. And in March, a month before Eng took over, then-interim GM Jeff Gonneville ordered a slowdown of trains across the system when he said there was not proper documentation that defects uncovered by regular inspections had been fixed.
Despite the launch of efforts to scan tracks and fix any problems that are found, the share of MBTA track subjected to the slowdowns hasn’t budged. According to the T’s data dashboard, 25 percent of the track across its four lines was operating with speed restrictions yesterday, the same share as on April 1.
With the frequency and speed of trains making the term “rapid transit” often seem more like a cruel joke than dry descriptor, the timing of the T’s collapse could not be worse for post-pandemic efforts to get workers to return to downtown Boston offices, something that is vital to the regional economy.
“People don’t mind the office, they don’t mind working downtown,” said Brian Kane, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, which represents the 176 cities and towns serviced by the agency. “It’s the commute that stinks. It’s the worst part of their day.”
At this point, he and other advocates say, the least the T could do is give riders a sense of when they can expect things to return to normal.
“It’s entirely reasonable to ask that question,” said Kane.
But the T is not giving an answer.
Asked what the timeline is for lifting the slow zones and restoring normal headway intervals, T spokesperson Lisa Battiston cited Eng’s presentation last month to the MBTA board of directors and his appearance yesterday on WBUR’s “Radio Boston,” where she said he addressed the issues.
But Eng provided no timeline for restoration of normal service at the board meeting. In his radio appearance yesterday, he was pressed twice by host Tiziana Dearing for some timeline on lifting slow zones on the Red Line, but did not provide any firm target dates.
Meanwhile, Healey, who brought on Eng and has vowed to get the T back on track, also punted when her office was asked whether passengers are owed a timeline of when slow zones will be lifted and normal service intervals restored.
The Healey administration “understands how frustrating they are and is committed to providing the public with as much information as possible,” spokesperson Karissa Hand said in a statement about the slow zones. “The T is working hard to improve travel time, and they have made progress, but this is an aging system suffering from decades of underinvestment and deferred maintenance, which is why the number of speed restrictions fluctuates.”
Johnson, the TransitMatters executive director, said the Healey administration is not approaching the T’s problems with enough urgency or sense of their magnitude. “The scale of our problems against the ambition coming out of this administration – they’re so mismatched,” he said. “Riders’ patience is wearing thin.”
Without clear targets for normal service restoration, it is of course hard to judge the T’s performance.
“I guess they’re taking the underpromise and overdeliver approach right now,” said Kane.
He said confidence in the T’s ability to deliver was badly shaken by last year’s one-month shutdown of the entire Orange Line. “We were told, we’ve just got to shut down for a month, folks, and everything will be great,” Kane said, then breaking into laughter over the irony of trips on the line now taking longer than before the closure.
Jim Rooney, president and CEO of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, said he’s giving Eng “more rope” to get his plans in order.
Eng was “right out of central casting for what I was looking for in a T GM,” Rooney said, citing his background as an engineer. “The guy walked into a village with 20 different fires. He’s putting out fires on a daily basis, so I’m giving him a little more time. But I think it’s a reasonable question they should attempt to answer,” Rooney said of a timeline for getting things back to normal. “It’s a method of building trust and confidence and getting the patience and good will they need to do the work.”
Jim Aloisi, a former state transportation secretary, agreed that Eng was the right guy for the job. He said he’s also willing to give him “a little bit of leeway” in the wake of Eng’s announcement last week that he’s bringing on a new team of four top managers to help execute a turnaround plan for the T.
Aloisi said he hates to think that we’ll go through the fall without a clear timeline for that turnaround, but he’s willing to give Eng until the end of the year. “I think it’s fair to say, starting in 2024, give us clear metrics to hold you to and we’ll hold your feet to the fire,” he said.
Aloisi said the system’s beleaguered riders deserve that. Though setting out a clear timeline obviously presents risk for Eng, he said, it can also aid his efforts. “There’s a danger in that, because we hold you to the milestone. But as a management tool it can be pretty effective,” he said of the expectations it would set for those in the agency.