Off the rails at the MBTA

Boston’s transit system has become national news. The trains have been barely functioning, reflecting the slow-moving natural disaster that is this year’s Boston winter. I just published this piece “Will the MBTA commuter rail ever run on time?”  for the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine.

The reporting was done before the weather hit, and the story was written and turned in during the first storm. That made the next couple of weeks nerve wracking for me, since suddenly the Globe and other local outlets were doing extensive coverage of the T system, and every day I fretted that my story would become obsolete. It did not.

But it can’t be fun for people to read this piece and realize that outside of some possible management techniques, these kinds of problems don’t have a quick fix.  I had talked with Keolis about what would happen when it snowed, and they seemed themselves to be curious. This winter is an outlier (you can’t really call snow a black swan, can you?). So it’s hard to say what it means. Would they have had anything like the problems they’re having in an average winter?

It defies explanation, this collapse. It just keeps getting worse, instead of better. Yesterday I had friends posting on Facebook about the evisceration of service between Boston and Worcester for the rest of this week, causing people to stand on platforms for an hour only to experience completely full trains. People are telling me their commutes have more than doubled. The MBTA has said it will not have service back to normal until March (granted, March is five days away).
What a fascinating train wreck of a story. I did not, in my reporting, ask how many locomotives need repair daily; apparently, it’s quite a few, since less than 70 percent appear to be operational right now. The Globe ran an editorial asking why things were so much worse here than in Montreal, which gets more snow. The answer lay in part with budgets: Montreal budgets $150 million a year for snow removal, Boston $18 million. But it isn’t clear that spending more would fix the problems. What should we spend it on, for instance? Snow melting equipment?
During my reporting I rode along on the rails in a modified Chevy Suburban, and watched how crews check some of the 655 miles of tracks to keep things from affecting the trains. We saw a fence bent over so far it likely nearly touched the trains going inbound to Boston, and areas where water was running alongside the tracks, despite relative dryness. In weather like that we’ve been having, I’m not sure that Suburban could make it down the tracks. I went through one of the main maintenance yards, but wouldn’t have imagined that the rolling stock would get stuck in so much snow. And yet that seems to have been the case. As a reporter, I’m not supposed to advocate for things, but I can certainly hope that everybody involved, from the unions to Keolis to MBTA administration, pulls together and helps the T recover from this, and quickly.
I also was on air talking about the problem on RadioBoston.

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