The good news is that the MBTA says Orange Line service has been fully restored for the evening commute Monday.
The bad news is that the agency has a culture problem around safety, according to general manager Steve Poftak.
During the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board meeting Monday afternoon, Poftak addressed the construction accident that resulted in no core Orange Line service Monday morning and cascading disruption for commuters across the system.
The transit agency began a series of weekend Orange Line closures this past weekend between Sullivan Square and Tufts Medical Center stations, in an effort to accelerate improvements to the system. However, Poftak said that a collision Sunday night between two contractor vehicles between North Station and Community College injured one worker and delayed the “buttoning up” of the construction work. There were also “unforeseen site conditions” that contributed to the delays, which persisted through the morning rush hour, he said.
“Decisions were made that did not allow us to open up service this morning, and we are still in the process of closing up the work that was supposed to occur over the weekend,” Poftak said during the early afternoon meeting.
Poftak apologized to commuters for the resulting Monday morning rush hour chaos. Riders were forced to cram onto the shuttle buses that were sent to replace train service or transfer to nearby — and similarly crowded — Green Line trolleys. Poftak said the MBTA also had to pull buses from service to be Orange Line shuttles, so a number of regular bus routes saw “degraded” service. The MBTA also used commuter rail trains to provide service to several Orange Line stops.
“I want to offer apologies not only to riders on the Orange Line, but also folks on the Green Line, where we significantly tested the capacity of that line, as well as our bus riders,” he said.
While the service between Sullivan and Tufts was still closed at the time of the noon meeting, Poftak said they expected the work to be finished before commuters headed home Monday evening.
“We do expect service to be restored before the evening rush,” he said. “Obviously it was a great disruption to our riders.”
Shortly before 2:30 p.m., the MBTA announced regular Orange Line service had been restored.
“We appreciate your continued patience following this morning’s diversion extension caused by a medical emergency,” the T tweeted. “At this time, work on the Orange Line has been completed and safety tested. The diversion has been lifted, and regular service has now resumed across the Line.”
We appreciate your continued patience following this morning's diversion extension caused by a medical emergency.
At this time, work on the Orange Line has been completed and safety tested. The diversion has been lifted, and regular service has now resumed across the Line.
— MBTA (@MBTA) October 21, 2019
The agency is still investigating the sequence of events that caused the accident, so Poftak said he wasn’t ready to discuss what could be done to prevent similar events in the future. But he did suggest the MBTA might “adjust” their workload expectations during the weekend shutdowns, if necessary. The repairs — which will continue each weekend on the Orange Line through Nov. 10, before the MBTA closes downtown Red Line stations on most weekends through mid-December — consist of replacing tracks, as well as fresh paint and signage for stations.
In the wake of the accident, MBTA officials cited a need to review their standards for contractors and expedite the investigation. Poftak also said their management team had lost touch with their employees, particularly around safety issues.
“I’ve allowed a dynamic to develop, where as a management team we are focused on these meetings and it comes, at least for us, at the expense of a focus on operational performance and contact with our workforce,” he said. “And that is something we’ve got to find the right balance as a management team as to what we’re doing.”
Poftak said they had taken some “small steps,” such as visits with MBTA workers to get feedback.
“Our frontline employees understand a lot about this system, and we can learn a lot from them,” he said. “It is a small but necessary step to regaining the trust of these employees. And that’s the trust that we as managers will respond in a timely fashion when they bring safety issues to our attention.”
Poftak added that they agency needs to build on its efforts so that regular communication between employees and management is “systematized.”
“We need to create a culture that embodies safety in a way that is meaningful for all employees,” he said.