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MBTA cuts weekday service on Red, Orange and Blue Lines to weekend levels

An MBTA Blue Line train at Orient Heights Station. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
An MBTA Blue Line train at Orient Heights Station. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

In a dramatic move, the MBTA plans to slash train trip frequency across most of its main subway system for the summer, downscaling service in response to a staffing shortage that federal overseers this week said poses a safety risk for riders and workers.

MBTA officials announced Friday that a new weekday schedule on the Red, Orange and Blue Lines would take effect with the start of service on Monday, adding several minutes of wait time in between each trip.

On each of the three lines, the changes will effectively implement a Saturday schedule every weekday.

The dramatic reshaping of the system, which is likely to slow down travel for the tens or even hundreds of thousands of commuters who use the trio of subway lines every weekday and create more crowded conditions on vehicles and platforms, will continue "through the summer," the T said.

Officials said they plan to return Red, Orange and Blue Lines to full service levels "as soon as sufficient dispatch capacity exists."

Red Line trains today run every nine to 10 minutes during morning and evening peaks, every 10 to 12 minutes during off-peak hours, and every five to six minutes on the central "trunk" between Alewife and JFK/UMass stations.

The new schedule will increase those "headways," or gaps between trains, to about every seven to eight minutes on the Red Line trunk and roughly every 15 minutes on both the Ashmont and Braintree branches.

Orange Line weekday service will slow from every six to seven minutes during peaks and every seven to eight minutes outside of the peak to every 10 minutes in the morning, 11 minutes in the evening, and gaps of about eight or nine minutes in the middle of the day.

Blue Line trains usually run every five minutes during the morning and evening rush in the summer, close to that fast in the afternoon, and a slower pace of every nine to 10 minutes in mid-morning. Those headways will jump up to seven minutes from the start of weekday service until 9 a.m. and then eight or nine minutes for the remainder of the day.

The new schedule will not change plans on the Green Line or weekend service for the Red, Orange and Blue Lines.

The announcement landed two days after the Federal Transit Administration ordered the MBTA to take immediate action to address "continuous safety violations" inspectors found since they launched a probe of the agency in mid-April.

Insufficient staffing at the MBTA's operations control center, where crews monitor and manage the movement of subway vehicles through the system, was one of four major areas of concern for the FTA.

Federal inspectors said the operations control center was so shorthanded in April that dispatchers were regularly required to work 16-hour shifts and sometimes 20-hour shifts followed by only four hours off. Several dispatchers and supervisors also failed to renew certifications after they expired, though MBTA officials say they addressed that problem in May.

"Taken together, MBTA has created a management process whereby OCC staff members are required to work without certifications, in a fatigued state, and often fulfilling multiple roles at once," the FTA wrote. "MBTA's failure to ensure that personnel within the Operations Control Center (OCC), including train and power dispatchers, are trained and certified, properly rested, and concentrating on one role at a time is a significant safety risk — one that is compounded by inadequate procedures."

The federal response mandated MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak and MBTA Chief Safety Officer Ronald Ester to submit signed forms by Friday attesting that all workers scheduled for dispatcher and supervisor shifts next week have "sufficient time off to recover between shifts" and are not stretched too thin across multiple responsibilities.

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In response, MBTA officials opted to scale back the amount of service the Red, Orange and Blue Lines run to match the current staffing capacity at the operations control center.

The agency wrote in its press release that it is exploring "an aggressive recruitment campaign, offering bonuses, and potentially hiring back former dispatchers" to bulk up the number of boots on the ground.

The impending headaches for riders could renew pressure on the Legislature and Baker administration to rethink how the state funds the MBTA, a topic Beacon Hill has had virtually no interest in tackling in recent years.

"This is the outrageous result of decades of austerity," Cambridge Rep. Mike Connolly tweeted Friday. "And while it would be easy to look at this situation and call it a final, grand condemnation of the Baker Administration and reflective of a lack of legislative oversight and investment in transit, to be fair, we had big snowstorms in the winter of 2015, an unexpected setback."

The Transit is Essential coalition, which features advocacy and community groups including Transportation for Massachusetts and the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, called the service cuts "disappointing but not surprising to the riders, advocates, and employers who for years have been calling on state leaders to fully fund the system our region deserves."

"Short-sighted underinvestment in the day-to-day staffing and operations of the MBTA must end now. The FTA report is crystal clear: the T needs more people and resources," the group said. "Governor Baker must take responsibility for the MBTA and prioritize meeting the FTA deadlines and restoring service as swiftly as possible — while the legislature must act now to ensure the MBTA has the personnel and infrastructure needed for safe, reliable service into the future."

House Speaker Ronald Mariano did not respond directly to the T cuts on Friday, but said the FTA's investigatory findings are "extremely alarming" and should give the MBTA a path "to make long overdue changes."

"The T has a troubling history of failing to maintain its assets and prioritizing the capital plan to the detriment of its operations, which are essential to an efficient transit system," Mariano said. "In 2015, at the request of Governor Baker, the Legislature established the Fiscal and Management Control Board. This action granted an unprecedented level of authority solely to the Baker Administration. However, issues around public safety and reliability have only worsened."

Mariano also referenced the House's 2020 vote in favor of increasing taxes and fees and using the revenue to invest in transportation uses. That bill never emerged in the Senate for a vote after the pandemic upended Beacon Hill, and neither branch has pursued the topic in the 2021-2022 session.

"It's absolutely critical that improvements that are made to the T aren’t just patch work, but rather long-term solutions that will ensure the safety of workers and riders so that all residents of the commonwealth can be confident in our public transportation system," Mariano said. "I'm hopeful that this oversight effort will result in tangible improvements for Massachusetts residents."

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