MBTA pulls all new Orange Line cars after ‘battery failure;’ says another up escalator reversed direction with passengers on it

Taylor Dolven, Matt Stout, and Samantha J. Gross | The Boston Globe | June 21, 2022

The MBTA pulled all of its new but troubled Orange Line trains out of service this week after a “battery failure” on one of the cars, officials said Tuesday, the same day that Massachusetts legislative leaders announced they will hold a rare oversight hearing of the beleaguered agency.

The new Orange Line car was not in service at the time of the incident early Monday morning in the Wellington Yard, according to T spokeswoman Lisa Battiston. The removal of the new cars is the latest safety-related setback for the agency, which reduced subway service this week in response to a finding by federal transit officials that it does not have enough dispatchers in its operations control center to safely manage the system.

Responding to questions from the Globe late Tuesday, Battiston said that on Sunday at the Chinatown station an “escalator malfunctioned and reversed direction from up to down” with about 10 passengers on it. She said no injuries were reported.

Amid the litany of woes, Senate President Karen E. Spilka and House Speaker Ronald Mariano ramped up the pressure on the MBTA Tuesday, and announced that the Legislature’s transportation committee will hold a hearing “in the coming weeks” to better understand what federal transit officials last week described as a dysfunctional agency.

The announcement was a direct rebuke of Governor Charlie Baker, whom legislative leaders said asked for, and received, control of the MBTA more than seven years ago. Legislators also simultaneously moved Tuesday to set aside hundreds of millions more dollars for the system to address what they called “ongoing safety concerns” raised by the Federal Transit Administration’s inspection of the T.

Last week the FTA said it found dispatchers working 20-hour days, staff with lapsed safety certifications, runaway trains injuring workers, and no prompt plans to fix track sections that are in disrepair. In response, the MBTA said beginning Monday it was running fewer trains on three subway lines — effectively using a weekend schedule on weekdays — because it didn’t have enough dispatchers to safely staff its operations center.

“The FTA’s findings and the MBTA’s subsequent service cuts don’t inspire any public confidence in our transit system,” Mariano and Spilka said in a joint statement, noting that in the wake of the record-setting winter of 2015, the Legislature afforded Baker authority over the agency.

Baker names the T’s board of directors, and his administration’s Department of Public Utilities is responsible for directly overseeing safety at the MBTA.

“It has since been the administration’s responsibility to keep up with maintenance and manage an efficient system that customers can rely on,” the legislative leaders said. “Given the FTA’s interim findings and alarming directives, there is an increased need to better understand the agency’s shortcomings and help restore public confidence.”

Spilka, speaking to reporters Tuesday morning at an unrelated event, said she has not yet spoken to Baker about plans for an oversight hearing.

“The governor is in charge of the T,” Spilka said after delivering a speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. “He asked to be in charge of it in 2015. We gave it to him. He has all the tools there, hopefully, to know what is being funded and what is not being funded.”

A spokeswoman for Baker said he supports the T’s decision to slash service to address the FTA’s findings, as well as its plan to offer a $10,000 bonus to recruit more dispatchers. But Baker aides did not directly address legislators’ criticisms, instead noting that his administration has dedicated billions of dollars to fund new tracks, cars, and signals “to make up for decades of deferred maintenance by state government.”

“The administration shares the Legislature’s goal to make the T as safe as possible,” said Anisha Chakrabarti, a Baker spokeswoman.

As the FTA continues to investigate safety at the T with final findings expected in August, problems persist. Monday’s removal of all new Orange Line cars is the second time the agency has pulled them off the tracks in the last six weeks due to safety concerns. The agency is also keeping its new Red Line cars out of service while it works to determine the cause of the battery failure.

“Initial reports indicate the battery failed, which dislodged the battery cover from an external underside compartment of the vehicle,” Battiston said via e-mail. “The damage to the battery and this external part of the train where the battery is located is significant enough to warrant the decision to remove” the new cars from service.

In May, the MBTA found that bolts on some of the new cars’ brake systems had been improperly installed. At the time, the MBTA said it had 64 new Orange and six new Red Line cars in service; trains are made up of six cars.

The MBTA is still waiting on delivery of hundreds of new Orange and Red Line train cars from a Chinese company first contracted in 2014 that are supposed to replace the older cars like the one involved in the April death of a Red Line passenger who was dragged to death when his arm got stuck in a train door.

The new cars, with their sleek, clean interiors and helpful digital navigation screens, have been highly anticipated as the T continues to use cars that are more than 50 years old.

And the ascending escalator’s reversal on Sunday came after a similar malfunction of an escalator at Back Bay station in September that injured nine people. That escalator remains out of service, too.

Still, House leaders signaled they do intend to pump more money into the T. The chamber on Tuesday released its version of a $10.4 billion borrowing bill that includes $400 million to address public safety concerns raised by the FTA’s “interim and final findings.”

The language also requires the T to work with the DPU and the Department of Transportation to identify which projects are funded with the cash.

Senator Brendan P. Crighton, the chamber’s chairman for the Joint Committee on Transportation, said he expects a hearing to happen by the end of July — when the Legislature’s formal session ends — but hopefully “much sooner than that.”

Problems at the T have been festering for months. It’s been beset by a series of incidents, including crashes, malfunctions, and the death of Robinson Lalin in April, who ran alongside a Red Line train with his right arm trapped between closed doors before he lost his balance and was dragged to his death. It culminated in a nearly unprecedented intervention by the FTA earlier this year. This week’s reduction in service, which came with just three days notice, was also a symptom of a more systemic malady, the Globe reported: Even as the T has added new positions to its books, hundreds of safety-related jobs across the system, including in the operations control center, remain unfilled.

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