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As Summer Fades, The MBTA Prepares For Winter04:14

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Contractors place insulation stands below a section of new third rail on the Red Line (Jack Lepiarz/WBUR)closemore
Contractors place insulation stands below a section of new third rail on the Red Line (Jack Lepiarz/WBUR)

It's almost 90 degrees on a Sunday afternoon. There's barely a cloud in the sky and crews out here on the stretch of the Red Line between JFK/UMass and North Quincy stations are working without any shade in sight.

This work is in preparation for when the temperature gets much lower — below freezing to be exact.

Crews are in the process of repairing crucial elements of the MBTA that failed last winter. On the Red Line, the big problem was 40-year-old third rails (power sources for the trains).

"The new third rail has got a crown on it. It tapers off to allow any sort of water to run off it," said John Martin, director of the T's Power Systems and Maintenance Division. "Now, the existing rail we have — it's got a flat spot and there just wasn't enough power, basically to keep the ice off of it."

On the Red Line, Martin said, old third rails couldn't keep up with the heavy snowfall. On the Orange Line, the problem wasn't the third rails themselves, but the system that heats the rails to prevent ice build-up.

An old third rail just south of the JFK/UMass stop on the Red Line. (Jack Lepiarz/WBUR)
An old third rail just south of the JFK/UMass stop on the Red Line. (Jack Lepiarz/WBUR)

"All the old stuff is being being torn out. They come in next, they lay all the pipe, they come in after that, they lay all the wire in, then they're going to come in and lay all the heat strip along the third rail."

All of this work is being done on nights and weekends as part of the governor's nearly $84 million Winter Resiliency Plan.

It's also all being done right next to the still-running commuter rail.

"This is always a little freaky when you see these coming at you," Martin said as a commuter rail train rushed past.

What the work means for riders is that, except for Columbus Day weekend, shuttle buses will be running between JFK/UMass and Quincy Center stations every weekend until Nov. 1.

On the Orange Line, the project means shuttle buses replace trains north of Sullivan Square station Sundays through Thursdays after 8:45 p.m.

But even with the repeated closures, MBTA Interim General Manager Frank DePaola says not all work will be done by the first snowfall.

"The work we're doing is we're replacing almost 11 miles of third rail. We won't be able to complete it all this year before this winter," he says. "We're hoping to get well into Quincy."

But workers are making progress. They have replaced nearly 20,000 feet of third rail out of a target of 39,000.

The goal is to keep key portions of the above ground system running — get people from Quincy to Boston and vice versa. So far, the repairs are on schedule, and DePaola said he's confident the T will be able to avoid an unplanned, system-wide shut down like the one it had last year.

"The event that caused the shutdown was the third rail being encapsulated in snow ... that we couldn't get off in any other means other than manually chipping and shoveling it off. We feel that the work we're doing on the third rail will prevent that from happening."

The T is taking other steps like adding new pieces of heavy snow moving equipment. It also plans to pre-treat the rails with a non-corrosive de-icing compound.

But the MBTA may still need targeted shutdowns in major snowstorms.

"Midday for example, when ridership is low, we may just shut the system down to send out this heavier equipment to do the bulk of the clearing so that we're not exposing our vehicles to be snowplows — which contributed to some of the traction motor problems we had last year," DePaola said.

Crews will be out working on the rails as long as they can — but fully expect to be back out in the spring of 2016 doing even more work to make the T as winter-proof as possible.

Workers inspect new third rails on a stretch of the Red Line between JFK/UMass and North Quincy stations. (Jack Lepiarz/WBUR)
Workers inspect new third rails on a stretch of the Red Line between JFK/UMass and North Quincy stations. (Jack Lepiarz/WBUR)

Jack Lepiarz Reporter and Anchor
Jack Lepiarz is a reporter and anchor at WBUR.

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