Scathing report says ‘overwhelmed’ MBTA neglected day-to-day safety, putting riders at risk

BOSTON — The Federal Transit Administration on Wednesday issued a scathing report on the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority that indicates the “overwhelmed” and “overworked” agency prioritized long-term projects at the expense of day-to-day operations, putting thousands of riders at risk.

The MBTA’s focus left the agency with too few workers, too little training, and weak safeguards, the FTA said in a thorough 90-page report.

“The FTA found that an organizational focus on capital projects has diverted management attention and resources from the agency’s operations and maintenance, allowing the agency to operate a level of service that is not adequately staffed,” federal officials said in the report.

The report added that poor employee training, subpar supervision, and lack of preventative maintenance all contributed to the MBTA’s ongoing transportation crisis.

“The combination of overworked staff and aging assets has resulted in the organization being overwhelmed, chronic fatigue for key positions in the agency, lack of resources for training and supervision, and leadership priorities that emphasize meeting capital project demands above passenger operations, preventive maintenance, and even safety,”” federal investigators said in the report.

“Those things are frightening to hear about,” said an MBTA rider.

“I just feel like if the work was put in with maintenance at first and things were bad and they didn’t do all this, stuff would have gotten done,” said another rider.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities has been ordered by the FTA to oversee the implementation of four special directives issued to the MBTA that address findings in the report:

  • Category 1 – Managing the impact of operations, maintenance, and capital project requirements on the existing workforce
  • Category 2 – Prioritization of safety management information
  • Category 3 – Effectiveness of safety communication
  • Category 4 – Operating conditions and policies, procedures, and training

“DPU must take action to increase its technical capacity and its ability to oversee the MBTA’s corrective actions to address the pattern of safety incidents and safety findings concerning workforce management, prioritization of safety management information, effectiveness of safety communication, and operating conditions, policies, procedures, and training,” federal officials said.

Safety data showed the MBTA experienced a “higher overall rate of reportable safety events” and a “higher rate of derailments on both heavy and light rail modes” between Jan. 1, 2019, and April 2022.

The MBTA is about 2,000 workers short of running the transit system at full capacity, but the staff that is currently in place is still expected to “do their jobs,” FTA Associate Administrator Paul Kincaid said during a news conference that followed the release of the report.

“I think there have been decisions made along the line over years that have prioritized things other than safety and I think our report indicates that,” Kincaid said. “Our goal in working with the MBTA and the DPU is to stop that.”

Kincaid added, “The people of Massachusetts who ride the train, the people who work on the trains, deserve an organization with a culture that prioritizes safety above everything else, especially right now because as long as it has taken to get the T to this point, it’s going to take a fair amount of time and unfortunately a fair amount of patience on the part of the riders of the T to get it to what we call a ‘state of good repair.’”

The MBTA is still recovering from the impact of funding cuts from 2015 to 2019 to its operations and maintenance budget which resulted in a reduction in hundreds of millions of dollars and hundreds of positions, the FTA noted in its report.

In response to the report, MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said “the MBTA’s number one priority remains safety for both our riders and our employees. We are grateful to the FTA for their recommendations as we build on numerous actions and initiatives already in place across the organization to strengthen our safety management. Under the leadership of Katie Choe, I am confident that through the Quality, Compliance, and Oversight Office, the MBTA will be better positioned to address the challenges it has faced and implement changes to the organization and system to provide a safer and more reliable T.”

Poftak added that the MBTA “has either implemented or began the process of implementing half” 53 total actions that his agency was ordered to carry out.

The FTA launched its safety management inspection back in June after a rash of dangerous incidents on the MBTA, including the death of a Boston man who was fatally dragged after getting stuck in a Red Line door in April. In January, a Wilmington woman died when a commuter rail train hit her car. It was later determined that the crossing gate failed to close at the intersection.

The FTA later ordered the MBTA to implement safety policies related to operating control center staffing, general safety operating procedures, delayed critical maintenance, and lapses in staff safety certifications.

In July, Poftak said the overhaul was going well.

“Following the FTA’s initial safety review, the MBTA was asked to implement changes to the system to improve the way it is run and operated,” Poftak said. “I am pleased that the MBTA has completed many of those updates and continues to make progress on many more. These recommendations will make the T safer and more reliable for both our riders and our employees. Over the coming weeks, we will continue to work closely with these safety experts to improve the MBTA system.”

Just days after Poftak’s remarks, a packed Orange Line train transporting commuters on a bridge that runs over the Mystic River in Somerville caught fire, sending hundreds of people scrambling for safety. About 200 people were forced to evacuate the train, including a woman who jumped into the river and others who climbed through smashed windows.

Later that month, the FTA ordered a “safety stand down” following a parade of runaway train incidents. The order forbade workers that had not completed a safety briefing from operating trains in MBTA railways and storage areas.

In response to the stand down order, the MBTA cut back service on multiple subway lines and subsequently shut down to the Orange Line for 30 days to implement track upgrades.

Read the FTA’s full report below:

This is a developing story. Check back for updates as more information becomes available.

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