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Slow zones aren't going anywhere and will need repairs, T says

An MBTA Green Line train rides on the tracks beneath McGrath Highway in Somerville during testing runs of the Green Line Extension. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
An MBTA Green Line train rides on the tracks beneath McGrath Highway in Somerville during testing runs of the Green Line Extension. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

MBTA trains will continue operating slower than usual for the foreseeable future as officials turn their attention from a lack of documentation to fixing numerous track defects, which will require temporary shutdowns over multiple nights and weekends in April.

Two weeks after officials opted to slow the entire system because they did not have confidence in prior inspections and repairs, the T offered the clearest look yet at the frustrating speed restrictions that now appear bound to remain in place for at least several more weeks.

The MBTA on Thursday published an interactive dashboard providing a new level of detail about slow zones, listing not only the share of each subway line subject to reduced speed limits but also the location, length and age of each of the 221 restrictions currently in place.

Altogether, 36.8 miles of MBTA subway track or 27% of the core system faced slow zones Thursday, a slight increase since Monday. That's a threefold increase over the 7.5% that had slow zones on Feb. 28, when the T was still producing static monthly reports on the topic.

Gonneville said Thursday that, as the work of reexamining track continues, crews are finding areas that will need additional maintenance in order to resume operating at full speed.

"There is some work that is short-term work, and that short-term work is going to be done by our in-house crews, and there is more work that is going to be longer or more permanent repairs that can be made to the system in order to be able to also begin to lift these speed restrictions," he said.

MBTA officials did not offer a specific forecast of how long commuters will need to deal with heightened speed restrictions, which add more headaches for riders who have dealt with reduced service frequency on the heavy rail system for more than nine months.

Betsy Taylor, the board's chair, told Gonneville at one point during Thursday's meeting she hopes he will keep the panel informed about the "timeline on when the necessary corrective actions can be implemented."

"We need to understand, as the public needs to understand, how long this will take," Taylor said.

"I understand," Gonneville replied without offering any specifics.

The latest upheaval stems from oversight work performed by the state Department of Public Utilities.

DPU inspectors visited a stretch of Red Line track on March 6, and a day later, DPU Rail Transit Safety Director Robert Hanson wrote six letters to the T ordering corrective actions to fix problems identified.

On the evening of March 8, Gonneville said, the DPU requested documentation stemming from "geometry scans" MBTA crews performed to examine other areas of track for possible defects. The T realized the next day that something was amiss, according to the interim GM's account of events.

Weekend, Evening Shutdowns On Tap in April

The diversion schedule MBTA officials rolled out Thursday features a wide range of weekend and evening shutdowns that will force riders off trains and onto buses.

To provide workers with more time to conduct repairs needed in the slow zones, the T will deploy more "early access" closures that involve shuttle buses replacing trains from around 9 p.m. through the end of service for the day.

While all four subway lines are affected, Gonneville said the Blue Line — 77% of which faced speed restrictions Thursday — and the Red Line's Braintree and Ashmont branches are particular areas of focus.

On the Red Line, trains will not run between Braintree and JFK/UMass stations on the weekend of April 1-2. Trains will stop running around 9 p.m. between North Quincy and JFK/UMass between April 3 and April 6, and a similar evening "early access" closure will hit the stretch between Park Street and JFK/UMass between April 18 and April 20. Buses will also replace trains between Kendall/MIT and JFK/UMass for two consecutive weekends, April 22-23 and April 29-30.

The T scheduled a pair of evening diversions on the Blue Line. Trains will be replaced with buses between Government Center and Orient Heights from 9 p.m. to the end of service April 10-13 and again April 24-27.

Orange Line service will be closed between Back Bay and North Station on April 1, April 2 and April 8. On the same days, the Green Line will be replaced with shuttle buses between North Station and Government Center. Those changes relate to work to demolish a private Government Center garage.

"How Did We Get to This Point?

The crisis at the MBTA has ramped up the pressure on Gov. Maura Healey, who is more than two weeks past her self-imposed deadline to name a new "transportation safety chief" and has neither hired a permanent general manager nor executed her authority to replace some members of the MBTA's board.

Other than Transportation Secretary Gina Fiandaca, the entire panel consists entirely of Gov. Charlie Baker appointees.

"I think what the public needs to see is a T that's working, they need to see trains running on time, they need the slow zones to go away. The slow zones are there for a reason, because it's dangerous to have these trains operating, again on the country's oldest railway, at higher speeds when there are identified safety issues on the track. And so that's why we have the slow zones," Healey said Wednesday in a live radio interview on WBUR. "But I think what the public needs to see is they need to see action, they need to see the trains literally moving on time."

The public comment period at the start of Thursday's meeting featured blistering criticism aimed at the board and MBTA management, which in both cases mostly feature holdovers from the Baker administration.

"Please excuse my bluntness: this board is failing riders, full stop," said TransitMatters Executive Director Jarred Johnson. "I appreciate and understand the amount of time you all have given over the past year and a half, and I know this is not easy. However, neither is being a T rider these days. The system is in crisis, but I'm afraid you wouldn't know that by watching a board meeting."

One commenter, who identified himself only as David from Somerville, called the current slowdowns "absolutely absurd" and implored officials to offer commuters simpler explanations.

"Stop thanking us for our patience, stop acknowledging our frustrations, stop saying 'out of an abundance of caution' and tell us in clear, plain language precisely what the issues are, how they happened, and what the plan is to fix each of them," David said.

During the meeting, Gonneville ran through a technical explanation of the recent inspection work.

Gonneville said teams are still working to verify whether defects are in place in each area flagged by prior scans using specialized equipment. Those crews are measuring things like "the gauge of the rail or the spacing between the running rails themselves," he said.

Board member Chanda Smart, whom Baker tapped two days before he left office, said during Thursday's meeting that the combination of slow zones and problems with delivery of new Red and Orange Line trains has resulted in "terrible subway service."

"The question for the secretary is: is she satisfied with the way MBTA management is being held accountable for allowing the system to degrade to such a poor condition?" Smart asked.

Fiandaca did not answer the question directly and instead used the opportunity to defend Gonneville and his team, saying his response "was in the best interest of the safety of our riders and our employees."

Smart kept pressing.

"What I'm referencing more so [with] accountability is — how did we get to this point, who was overseeing that and if they're responsible for overseeing the future work? Because there's a deficit there," she said.

Again, Fiandaca did not directly answer the question at hand.

"General Manager Gonneville, you've outlined the corrective actions and the steps that you're taking that you're verifying the work that's been done. There's nothing more important to you and to me than the safety of our transit system," Fiandaca said in response to Smart's second question. "You've got third parties that are verifying this work, and the speed restrictions will be lifted as we're able to confirm that the work has been done and that these rail lines are safe."

Jumping in to talk about accountability, Gonneville said the MBTA's safety department is doing its own review to figure out what went wrong, and the T is also in the process of contracting with an unnamed independent entity to "conduct a similar, parallel investigation."

"We have to allow a full and thorough investigation to go through and to ensure that we are making the right and thoughtful decisions as we go forward with this," he said. "But I want to be very clear: there is a level of accountability here that we will need and we will evaluate."


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