BOSTON — The sleek facility about a block from the Broadway MBTA station looks new.
But it’s not. Aside from the facade, everything inside the building, which used to be an abandoned subway tunnel, is almost 100 years old.
“[It's a] very difficult thing to do, to take a 1918 tunnel and bring it up to, at that time, 2013 code,” said Randy Clarke, the T’s senior director of security and emergency management, showing off the transit agency’s state-of-the-art emergency training center in South Boston.
Just a few years ago, he says, the building was covered with graffiti and served as a hideout for homeless people.
Now, after a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, it’s the only emergency training center of its kind in the country.
“This train would be just like anything you would see in service,” Clarke said, showing a decommissioned Green Line train. “Everything from door control, to your gong, your radio. All that type of thing gives you a full perspective of how a Green Line train would work.”
There are two trains and a bus inside the old tunnel: Blue and Green line cars taken out of service, and the prototype Silver Line bus used 10 years ago.
The facility is used to help MBTA employees, police officers and firefighters simulate emergency situations.
To that end, it has a special effects panel that can, at the push of a button, change the lighting, generate smoke, or provide sound effects like gunshots, explosions and screaming crowds.
“Someone might be standing there and waiting for a normal exercise to begin,” Clarke said. “And all of the sudden there’s something like that? You get in the moment fast.”
Before the center was completed in June 2013, almost all emergency training was done in the classroom. Either that, or the MBTA had to shut down subway tunnels to simulate an emergency, affecting overnight maintenance when the T is out of service.
Now, the T can regularly conduct real-time exercises. And cameras placed inside the vehicles and around the mock stations set up underground allow trainees to review their performance.
The tunnel serves other purposes as well. It’s been used for MBTA employees to show their families what they do on the job, and as an orientation center for people with disabilities who ride the T.
Clarke says the MBTA is still feeling out the tunnel’s capabilities. It’s only nine months old, and he says there’s still a lot of potential.