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T to cut trains in severe storms

New winter plan aimed at reducing delays, shutdowns

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / November 4, 2011

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The MBTA intends to run fewer trains in severe winter weather as part of a plan revealed yesterday to avoid a repeat of last winter, when the T drew harsh criticism for stranding thousands of riders in the snow and cold because of equipment failures and track problems.

The truncated schedule will have the greatest impact on customers on the commuter rail, which runs less frequently than subway and bus service but is more likely to be hampered by snow and ice, with nearly 400 miles of exposed track. A problem on one train or track section can cause cascading delays. On multiple days last winter, three of every four commuter trains were late, and some stalled for hours.

Now, 23 percent of commuter rail trains will be canceled in advance - to try to allow workers and equipment more breathing room to keep up with storm fighting while giving remaining trains a better chance of arriving on time. Buses and subways will see less dramatic reductions.

The change is a first for the T but follows similar measures taken by some peer agencies, including D.C.’s Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, whose winter schedule T officials studied.

“What we learned from last year is trying to maintain a full schedule will be difficult for us in a severe storm, both on subway and commuter rail,’’ said Jonathan R. Davis, acting general manager of the MBTA.

Commuter rail rider Jeff Bellin of Salem said the idea of running less service when the roads are most dangerous is infuriating.

“Instead of cutting back on service, they should be adding service,’’ said Bellin, an actor who rides the Newburyport/Rockport Line when he works in Boston, and whose wife, a state employee, uses it daily. “If the reputation is out there that the T is unreliable, that it’s uncomfortable, you’re going to be more likely to have people using alternative methods, which is going to make road conditions and accidents even worse.’’

Davis said he hopes customers will be understanding, particularly if the T does a better job of providing real-time information about problems and conditions.

Transportation woes last winter were compounded by communication issues, which included website crashes amid heavy storm traffic and difficulty relaying real-time information to customers about storm delays, cancellations, and reroutings - meaning passengers logged frozen and uncertain hours at stations before learning if or when their ride was coming.

There is no specific snowfall amount or temperature reading that will trigger the winter schedule. Instead, T operations officials will confer on a case-by-case basis, asking riders to turn to a new website, mbta.com/winter, where they have posted the foul-weather schedules and created a clearinghouse for winter transit issues. A redesigned home page and mobile website are supposed to make it easier for riders to find useful information quickly.

The cash-strapped MBTA has invested about $800,000 to purchase or lease the first additions to its snow-fighting fleet in years and reassigned employees to make more people and equipment available to clear snow from station platforms, parking lots, bus stops, and tracks.

The T’s commuter rail contractor, the privately held Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co., has similarly invested about $500,000 in equipment, including two jet engine-powered snow blowers and a steam-cleaning system to remove the hardened ice and encrusted snow that cause wheels and axles to jam. It also shrink-wrapped and elevated nearly 500 cables that provide power from the locomotives to the coaches, to keep out moisture and keep them from hitting packed snow.

The T’s new equipment includes 20 handheld snow-melters, three plow trucks and spreaders, and a specialized, self-propelled work vehicle for the Green Line. That vehicle will mean crews no longer have to trudge in with ladders and heavy equipment whenever a snow-laden tree collapses on the overhead lines that power the Riverside branch; a memorable six-hour shutdown last winter could have been cut in half with this vehicle, said Michael A. Turcotte, the T’s assistant general manager for engineering and maintenance.

Both MBTA and commuter rail officials said they are making more employees available not just to clear snow and repair equipment but to aid with customer service, and they intend to do a better job communicating with each other as well as with the public.

“The people are prepped, the supplies are there, and we think we’ll have a better response than we did last year,’’ said Hugh J. Kiley Jr., commuter rail general manager.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.