Winter weather is a given in Boston. So is the challenge cold weather poses for its public transit system. Equipment freezes and fails to work resulting in service disruption and delays. When temperatures fell into the teens last week, an old, weak cable started to smolder. Power to the green line was shut down for three hours, and rush-hour passengers were forced to slow down. 

That wasn’t the only time passengers were inconvenienced last week. The T says there were 19 service disruptions total on the red, orange, green and blue lines during last week’s cold snap. And that’s progress. Two years ago there were more than double that many during a similarly biting three-day snap.

Last week’s Green Line shutdown coincidentally happened as Governor Deval Patrick was proposing a billion dollar a year transportation plan.

For commuters, fixes won’t come soon enough. For the T, they’re not waiting to make changes.

Keeping up with maintenance

Since last week’s massive service disruption, the T’s Power department has put together a crew dedicated solely to testing DC cables throughout the system. Previously the T only checked cables sporadically. It now plans to do systematic nightly tests of the power system in an effort to find and fix faulty cables before rush hour.

But these procedures will not fix the well-known, fundamental problem. 

"As hard as we try we cannot keep up with the  maintenance," says MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo. "We’ve got the oldest subway in America. We have limited resources. We have limited manpower."

Pesaturo says that there’s three billion dollars worth of deferred maintenance needed, including the overhaul of aging buses, replacement of old train cars and the repair of bridges. To keep equipment in what’s called “a state of good repair," maintenance needs are rated, and funding is used to tackle the most important ones first.

Maintenance in progress

At the Wellington Station Car Shop, several maintenance projects are underway. There are at least three orange line trains being worked on at once. Some are being inspected, others are having their static convertors replaced. One train is even lifted off the ground, as sheet metal workers repair the doors. 

“We have difficulty sometimes finding parts for these old vehicles,” says MBTA Director of Vehicle Maintenance Joe Keefe. That’s because, just like the needle on your vintage record player, some parts just aren’t made anymore. The Orange Line Cars are 33 years old.

“What we do on a regular basis is try to re-engineer some of these systems with current technology in order to keep the fleet running," says Keefe.

It’s Steve Hick’s responsibility to oversee such reengineering. Hicks says recently static converter failures on the orange line were becoming a problem. When a static converter fails, the lights go out and the doors don’t work. That means the car needs to be removed from service. In an attempt to fix the problem, Hicks worked with two engineers to create a frontend protection that would prevent power spikes from shorting the converter.

“That’s being implemented right now, so our failures have already fallen off from the peak -- approximately four months ago they were up to eight -- and we’re already down to four and its trending down.” 

To keep the fleet running, Hicks says the cars undergo inspections every twelve thousand miles. 

“Right now we are running 12000 miles typically every 60 to 65 days per vehicle,” says Hicks.    

Keefe says that once they find an issue on one train, they survey the rest of the fleet. "They were all built around the same time, with the same manufacturing process," says Keefe. "Our experience tells us if we have the issue on one train we’ve got it throughout the fleet." 

And so it seems, maintaining the MBTA is like running on a treadmill: As soon as one repair is done, another is needed.