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Slow zones remain on MBTA, more than a month after Orange Line shutdown

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MBTA Orange Line cars at the Wellington train yard in Medford. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
MBTA Orange Line cars at the Wellington train yard in Medford. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

John Whitty, an Allston busker who frequently rides the MBTA, noticed one big change after the recent month-long shutdown of the Orange Line: shiny new cars.

Whitty, who uses an electric wheelchair, said the new trains have ramps that make it much easier to glide aboard.

“The new trains are nice,” Whitty said at Downtown Crossing, an acoustic guitar resting on his leg.

Lots of passengers are raving about the long-awaited cars rolling out onto the Orange and Red Lines.

Even better, the MBTA says service is mostly back to normal after lengthy shutdowns of the Orange and Green lines. T officials say the service disruptions allowed T workers to complete five years worth of maintenance in just 30 days.

But many passengers initially were frustrated when the lines first reopened in September, because the transit agency put in place a number of temporary slowdowns to give the new tracks time to settle. MBTA officials said the slowdowns would last days, but some wound up lasting for weeks.

In addition, the T has since established some new slow zones in places where it identified additional problems during the slowdown. The agency says those new speed restrictions slow could remain through the end of the year, as they crews work around the clock to replace aging ties and rails.

“I know that it has been inconvenient for our customers and I regret that, but I have also seen progress,” said MBTA general manager Steve Poftak at a recent MBTA board meeting.

MBTA data confirm the Orange Line service is generally back to pre-shutdown levels, according to the nonprofit Transit Matters, which collects and analyzes the information from the T.

But not everything is getting better. The data show delays on the Red Line also have reached some of the highest levels since the derailment at JFK/UMass station three years ago.

Jarred Johnson of Transit Matters said he’s frustrated the T hasn't provided more updates about problems on the Red Line. “We’ve had no answers on what the timeline is for any repairs or for any work to resolve those slow zones,” he said.

Transit Matters said it hasn’t been able to process service data yet for the Green Line, where the T shut down five stations for a month and other stations for six briefer periods.

But many passengers have noticed new cars. The MBTA says the shutdown gave workers time to replace many older trains, something that required training and inspections, as well as software updates. So far, the T has rolled out 78 new cars on the Orange Line.

“I love the new cars,” said Julie Johnson, who rides the Orange Line on weekdays from Ruggles to Downtown Crossing stations. “It's so beautiful. So neat. I'm a clean freak, so these are nice.”

She especially liked the new rigid plastic seats, instead of the old stained fabric seats that were harder to clean. “This is the best!” she said.

But the T still awaits more than 300 more cars for the Orange and Red Lines. Those are part of a massive order of train car shells from China, which are outfitted by a firm in Springfield before going into service in Boston.

Largely thanks to the pandemic, the T is a year and a half behind schedule on receiving the rest of its 152-car Orange Line order.

On the Red Line, just 12 of the 252 cars ordered have been received, and only one is in service.

And Johnson said the service isn’t any better now than it was before the shutdown. It takes her roughly the same time to ride downtown.

“I think it was pretty much the same,” she said. “I don't see any change whatsoever.”

Still, Johnson at Transit Matters hopes new leadership at the MBTA could make further improvements, including resolving the remaining slow zones.

He noted that the T’s general manager, Poftak, is stepping down in January, and a new governor will appoint his successor.

Johnson said he hopes the new GM can find ways to finally fix the issues without another lengthy shutdown.

This segment aired on November 14, 2022.

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Simón Rios Twitter Reporter
Simón Ríos is an award-winning bilingual reporter in WBUR's newsroom.

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