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When the MBTA launched its online slow zone tracker in March, Interim General Manager Jeff Gonneville struck an optimistic note, writing that he expected that “over time, this platform will demonstrate the progress we’re making to remove speed restrictions.”
Six months later, there has been little sign of progress.
According to the dashboard, Red Line riders are experiencing commutes worse now than when extensive repair began in late February, with the pace of track shutdowns set to remain steady in the coming months.
On Feb. 25, the date of the first Red Line track work diversion of 2023 — a shutdown between Alewife and Kendall stations — the “total slow zone time” recorded by public transit advocacy group Transit Matters’ slow zone tracker was 40 minutes, meaning it took 40 minutes longer than normal to get from one end of the Red Line to the other.
Seven months later, with 15 weekend shutdowns and 18 evening shutdowns implemented so far for “improvement work across the MBTA system,” and several more scheduled to come in October, the Red Line’s total slow zone time has not decreased from February, but increased.
At the beginning of September, the Red Line took twice as long to traverse the full extent of its aging, speed-restricted track as in February — forcing riders to endure slower commutes and longer wait times on the platform.
Though slowdowns have declined somewhat over the last two weeks, in interviews with The Crimson, T administrators, riders, and advocates all reported a lack of visible progress.
“I would say there hasn’t been any real tangible improvements,” said Seth M. Kaplan, a volunteer at Transit Matters. “A lot of us at Transit Matters are like, ‘Oh, it couldn’t, it couldn’t possibly get any worse.’ And then somehow it does.”
Hannah R. Wolfe, a clerk at the Harvard Book Store who commutes to work on the Red Line, said the MBTA is “flailing.” Wolf said she felt the shutdowns have only made the T worse. “It blows my mind,” she said, referencing the scale of shutdowns.
Lindita M. Veli, a Harvard Undergraduate Dining Services’ worker in Dunster House, said the delays have only worsened her commute: She has to leave her house an hour and a half before work begins to arrive on time.
“It’s a lot of hours,” she said. “It’s not comfortable for us.”
Veli added that some days, she simply has to Uber to work.
In a statement to The Crimson, MBTA General Manager Phillip Eng wrote that he welcomes resident feedback, acknowledging that the T has “more work to accomplish along the remainder of the Red Line.”
“Ultimately, we will restore public trust and ridership by delivering improvements riders will notice,” he wrote in an emailed statement. “I pledge to keep listening, taking action on feedback, and being accountable to riders.”
A litany of publications and advocacy groups — including the Boston Globe and Transit Matters — have described the T as in “crisis,” set off in the summer of 2022 when the Orange Line underwent an unprecedented monthlong shutdown and the Federal Transit Administration forced the T to take emergency measures to ensure safety and track maintenance.
Since then, the T has been forced to make service cuts and initiate extensive inspection, repair, and maintenance across dozens of miles of track — an effort that appears to have met more setbacks than progress over the last year.
In March this year, a routine inspection exposed issues with the T’s documentation of track defects, forcing the system into a brief “global slowdown,” keeping trains between 10 to 25 miles per hour and dramatically increasing the number of slow zones.
Just this month, the FTA issued new emergency orders on workplace safety after warning the T that its working conditions brought about “a substantial risk of serious injury or death of a worker.”
The warning came after several near-misses of track workers by oncoming trains, including two incidents between Harvard and Porter stations where workers tried to signal to the approaching train to stop — but it didn’t. The letter added that the workers were able to reach the operational control center in time to avoid a collision.
Last week, the FTA again chastised the T in a letter from Chief Safety Officer Joe DeLorenzo, after they discovered the T had not complied with the emergency orders and had continued sending lone workers to do track work. DeLorenzo called that “a direct violation” and threatened to withhold federal funding or institute more restrictions on work at the T.
Thomas P. Glynn III, chair of the MBTA Board of Directors, said that significant progress had been made within the MBTA administration, though he conceded there was little to show for yet “from a rider perspective.”
“The ingredients are there for optimism,” he said, referencing the April arrival of Eng as general manager and significant staffing changes Eng had made among T executives in recent months.
Glynn added that “short-term pain” like partial shutdowns would be necessary to realize any improvements.
“It’s gonna take a significant amount of time to get things back on track, to line up the budget, the personnel, and performance so that the service is as good as it once was,” he said.
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