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Massachusetts lawmakers hold oversight hearing to address MBTA safety concerns

A Red Line train at Park Street Station. On July 18, Massachusetts lawmakers held an oversight hearing to discuss recent MBTA safety problems. SERENA YU/DFP FILE

Massachusetts legislators questioned state transportation officials on the MBTA’s safety protocols Monday, July 18 after an inspection by federal authorities found “longstanding issues with the agency’s overall safety program and culture.”

MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak and Massachusetts Department of Transit Secretary Jamey Tesler testified in front of the Massachusetts Committee on Transportation to discuss the safety problems that led to a string of accidents — some deadly — in the past three years and an intervention by the Federal Transit Administration.

“No one should have to fear for their personal safety when boarding an MBTA train,” said State Sen. Brendan Crighton, senate chair of the Joint Committee on Transportation.

In a series of reports released in June, the FTA found that the MBTA’s Operations Control Center was “significantly understaffed,” resulting in an inadequate number of personnel who were overworked. According to the administration’s report, rail dispatchers were regularly required to work 16 to 20 hour shifts, with as little as four hours off.

Poftak said the agency has implemented a “fatigue management plan” — along with an increased hiring effort and a $10,000 sign-on bonus to attract new rail dispatchers — to address these concerns.

Tesler said in his testimony “decades of under- or disinvestment in the [MBTA] system” are to blame for the agency’s current challenges. 

From 2010 to 2015, the agency spent less than $3 billion on repair and expansion, he said. In the years since, the MBTA has spent $8 billion on these efforts and is continuing to increase its maintenance budget.

“Catching up on decades of underinvestment and deferred maintenance will take time,” Tesler said. “It cannot and will not happen overnight.” 

A 2019 Safety Review Panel Report, commissioned by MBTA leadership, noted a lack of communication and teamwork between employees and a workplace “culture of blame and retaliation” that inhibited MBTA employees from raising safety concerns. 

The report quoted employees in focus groups saying, “I stopped calling Safety — after the third time I gave up,” and “I just go to the customer and tell them to tweet the situation, and it gets done. They listen to the customer before their own employees.” 

The MBTA has created employee town halls and promoted an existing safety hotline that allows employees to submit comments and concerns anonymously to start addressing the agency’s internal communication issues, Poftak said.

“I’m pleased to report we’re actually getting more calls about issues to the safety hotline than when we started,” Poftak said.

Poftak said he views more calls to the safety hotline as a “positive,” because it shows employee confidence in the anonymous reporting system.

In addition, Poftak said riders who want to report issues should tweet @MBTA, so public information officers who monitor the Twitter account’s mentions can answer riders’ questions and provide assistance.

The 2019 safety review panel report also found that the agency takes over 100 days to hire a single employee. The MBTA has started to “reengineer” its training process to adapt to the current job market, Poftak said.

“We’ve got to be more nimble and more competitive,” Poftak said.

Rep. William Straus, House Chair of the Joint Committee on Transportation, said when it came to safety features, leadership was “dishearteningly absent.”

“It’s ultimately about leadership, meaning setting the tone, and communicating with employees in a way that… you’re not going to be penalized if you help identify and correct safety problems,” he said.

Both Poftak and Tesler said changing the agency’s culture would be a long-term project.

“It’s a big battleship to turn around,” Poftak said.

The FTA’s inspection of the MBTA was ongoing, as of the July 18 hearing. FTA Administrator Nuria Fernandez told U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren at a July 12 hearing in Washington that the FTA will issue its final report in August.

“We’re still waiting on the full report,” Sen. Crighton said in an interview after the Massachhusetts hearing. “I think the next committee hearing will have an opportunity to dive more into that.”

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