‘Operator Error’ Investigated After Red Line Train Traveled Without One

An MBTA Red Line train barrels down the tracks on its way to Braintree Station on Thursday morning, after another train left the station without an operator. The T is investigating. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
An MBTA Red Line train barrels down the tracks on its way to Braintree Station on Thursday morning, after another train left the station without an operator. The T is investigating. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

 Updated December 10, 2015, 5:30 pm

An MBTA Red Line train left Braintree Station Thursday morning without an operator, in what the state transportation secretary called “an unacceptable breach of our responsibility to keep our riders safe.”

The train, which was carrying about 50 passengers, was halted remotely by T officials who killed power to the third rail. It had traveled some nine minutes, and coasted through four stations, before it came to a stop.

No passengers were injured, the MBTA said.

The incident happened just after 6 a.m. Thursday on an inbound train.

“The train operator was unable to start the train and was cleared by the MBTA operations control center to undertake a bypass [procedure, which allows the train to move in the event of a signal problem],” Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said in an afternoon news conference. “The operator exited the train to undertake that procedure, and while the operator was not on board the train, the train left the station.”

Pollack said the operator reported the incident, and there was an “immediate response.” The MBTA cleared the subway line ahead of the operator-less train before shutting off its third rail power source.

Just beyond North Quincy Station — four stops beyond the Braintree point of origin — T personnel boarded the train and moved it up one stop to the JFK/UMass station, where passengers were told to disembark.

Pollack said the current focus of the transit agency’s investigation is on “operator error” and, in particular, whether the train’s brakes were “properly deployed.” The operator has not been named, and has been placed on administrative leave, pending the outcome of the investigation.

The description of the incident offered by the transportation secretary differed somewhat from the one the governor gave four hours earlier.

In a midday briefing, Gov. Charlie Baker had said that an “inspection of the train determined that some of the controls had been manipulated.”

That followed “an initial report that a safety device within the train’s cab may have been tampered with,” according to an earlier MBTA statement.

The Red Line uses one operator on its trains; it had used two until 2011. Pollack stressed that one operator is sufficient and safe for the trains.

But, she stated plainly: “We failed our passengers today.”

The MBTA and transit police are investigating the incident.

Pollack said: “Changes will be made to ensure it doesn’t happen [again].”

A T spokesman said in a morning email that an operator suffered a minor injury at Braintree Station, “where he was brushed by the side of a train.” WBUR’s Fred Thys confirmed it’s the same operator who’s now on leave.

Before 10 a.m., the T said regular service had resumed on the Red Line.

Also Thursday, the embattled transit agency announced it was ending several contracts associated with the Green Line extension project.

The announcement came as the T looks for ways to cut costs so that the project can continue and move forward.

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