Boston’s subway was running at less than half speed because it lost critical track inspection paperwork, an official said Friday.
At 10:20 p.m. Thursday night, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which operates the T subway system among other entities, announced on Twitter it was instituting a systemwide maximum speed of 10 to 25 mph “following findings by the Department of Public Utilities during a recent site visit of the Red Line between Ashmont & Savin Hill.” The T typically operates with a maximum speed of 40 mph. It is very rare for a transit system to institute a blanket speed restriction outside of extreme weather events.
During a press conference Friday morning explaining the bizarre move, MBTA interim general manager Jeff Gonneville said the slow speed restriction was implemented because inspection crews could not find paperwork verifying that necessary track work had actually been done, so the MBTA leadership decided to slow down the entire system out of an abundance of caution.
According to Gonneville, the MBTA had conducted a track geometry inspection in February, which uses advanced computer vision and software systems to inspect track for issues not easily visible to the naked eye. Gonneville was vague on exactly what the problem was, but mentioned “documentation inconsistencies” or instances where “documentation did not exist” which worried officials enough that they instituted the slow speed restriction until they could verify all the defects detected by the track geometry inspection had actually been fixed.
“Essentially, from the review our team did in our engineering and maintenance division, at this time we did not have confidence in either the documentation was, one, there, or that the documentation that was available supported that these defects had been mitigated,” Gonneville said.
Gonneville also revealed that the slowdown order began to be implemented around 5:30 p.m., in the heart of rush hour and almost five hours before customers were notified. When pressed to explain the delay, Gonneville said the agency was focused on safety first. He didn’t respond to a follow-up question about why the agency couldn’t both slow down trains and notify customers at the same time.
This screw up is the latest embarrassment for a storied but perennially maligned transit agency. Before this snafu, 7.5 percent of the T’s track mileage was under slow orders for track defects. A recent Federal Transit Administration investigation found the MBTA has severe deficiencies in safety, staffing levels, and training. The agency is embroiled in an ongoing spat with rail car manufacturer CRRC over the quality of its new fleet. Staffing shortages, delays, and service interruptions have created daily headaches for Boston commuters.
Gonnevile said the blanket restrictions have been lifted on the Red, Orange and Blue lines, although as of this writing the MBTA website is still issuing “High Priority” alerts to customers of speed restrictions on all lines. When asked what exactly the issue with the paperwork was, Gonneville declined to answer but vowed a “full and complete review” of the circumstances that resulted in the slowdown.