Feds clamp down on safety after 5 'near misses' between MBTA employees and trains
Federal regulators ordered the MBTA to overhaul its strategy for keeping crews safe when they are on or near subway tracks following five "near misses" between trains and workers, plus a separate employee injury, in the past five weeks.
The Federal Transit Administration wrote to T officials on Tuesday mandating "immediate action" to address several glaring issues its inspectors identified in the policies and practices designed to prevent trains from getting too close to — or striking — individuals out in the field.
MBTA officials will face new requirements to submit plans and documents for FTA review, in some cases every day, and must craft and implement an expanded safety training program. Some work to provide additional training is already underway at the T after state regulators flagged similar issues last week.
In the letter published Wednesday, FTA Chief Safety Officer Joe DeLorenzo said the MBTA has made "clear progress" in the wake of his agency's sweeping safety investigation last year, but he warned that ongoing failures in so-called right of way procedures are a major hazard.
"Given recent events, the results of FTA's on-site inspections, reports from [the Department of Public Utilities], and the MBTA's backlog of maintenance work which necessitates continued track access for work crews, FTA finds that a combination of unsafe conditions and practices exist such that there is a substantial risk of death or personal injury," wrote DeLorenzo, who is also the FTA's associate administrator for transit safety and oversight.
Starting at the beginning of service on Thursday, April 20, the MBTA will be barred from allowing crews onto the subway right of way unless officials provide the FTA with a daily compilation of relevant paperwork, including planned work requiring right of way access as well as forms detailing where and when workers will enter and exit the track area.
The FTA will "conduct no-notice inspections" to monitor compliance, DeLorenzo said.
Effective Monday, April 24, the MBTA must also provide the FTA with evidence that T higher-ups analyzed the number of work crews that can be safely allowed onto the tracks, reviewed worksheets used to track and monitor personnel, and examined communications processes for crews in the field. The MBTA will need to impose a cap on work crews for each line and keep it in place until federal regulators determine that "sufficient improvements" have been made.
By Friday, May 5, the T will need to show the FTA that it audited radio discipline to improve communication between dispatchers, supervisors and workers on the tracks. MBTA officials must also complete a "rules compliance and safety work plan" laying out long-term fixes they will make to ensure right of way safety.
Workers must be trained with newly revised, expanded materials to access the right of way starting June 15.
"Those near misses are things that we know are avoidable," new MBTA General Manager Phil Eng told reporters on Wednesday. "We're looking at policies, procedures, processes on how we do this so we don't have them happening again."
Eng said nearly 1,000 engineering and maintenance workers are retaking a "safety refresher class" to comply with a similar directive from the Department of Public Utilities, the state-level agency in charge of T oversight.
The DPU ordered two separate "safety standdowns" in the past few weeks related to right of way issues, which required the MBTA to provide immediate training before resuming standard operations.
On March 24, DPU Director of Rail Transit Safety Robert Hanson ordered all MBTA employees and contractors who will access the right of way to participate in safety briefings before gaining access to the track area. And on April 13, Hanson issued another letter requiring engineering and maintenance employees to take an in-person, four-hour refresher course about right of way safety.
In the April 13 letter, Hanson said his department "continues to be extremely concerned with the number of near miss incidents and adherence to [right of way] access procedures by the engineering and maintenance team."
Eng told the T's board of directors that the safety training "places an emphasis on those incidents that resulted in the breakdown of communication and the ensuing near misses."
"As of today, nearly 800 employees have completed the retraining exercise since April 14. Further, we redirected all supervisors and managers on their oversight responsibilities to ensure that processes and procedures are adhered to," he said.
The new general manager, who started on April 10, added that he took a right of way training course himself on his third day.
"I am also accountable for all of the above, and I intend to be out on the right of way to personally see what we need to do and what we can do to continuously improve further as part of our safety procedures," he said.
The FTA's letter landed less than a week after MBTA officials disclosed at a subcommittee meeting that the agency experienced several serious near misses in the past month. Trains came close to workers on March 13, March 21, March 24 and April 7, the Boston Globe reported.
Last Friday, the day after MBTA Chief Safety Officer Ron Ester briefed the subcommittee on the recent events, the T "experienced its fifth [right of way] near miss in just over one month," the FTA said.
A worker also sustained injuries last Thursday while working on overhead Blue Line wires. DeLorenzo wrote in his letter that the employee was on the subway right of way "in a location where access had not been requested or granted" in violation of T safety protocols.
After a nearly unprecedented investigation last year, the FTA identified major safety risks across the MBTA fueled by staffing shortages, communication failures and a pattern of underinvestment in deferred maintenance. Regulators in the midst of that probe ordered a "safety standdown" due to the agency's failure to prevent runaway trains, a move that required immediate additional training.
"While we recognize MBTA's clear progress in many areas since the 2022 [investigation], ROW near miss events continue to occur," DeLorenzo wrote in the FTA's new letter.