“I’m going to do the math,” said Travis McCready, who sits on the MBTA Board of Directors. He had just learned that there were six people in the process of training for 32 dispatcher jobs.
The training course takes 10 weeks. “That puts us well into 2023 to get to our intended number,” he concluded.
The dispatcher shortage forced the T to reduce the frequency of subway service last month in order to comply with a directive from the Federal Transit Administration, which is investigating several serious safety issues at the MBTA. The reduced subway service is the biggest impact on riders so far resulting from the FTA’s investigation. It’s a schedule that has been inconveniencing and frustrating hundreds of thousands of commuters who may have to wait more than 20 minutes during rush hour to get on more crowded Blue, Orange and Red Line trains.
The FTA found that some dispatchers were working 16-hour, even 20-hour shifts, and deemed the work schedule unacceptable. The T had to reduce the weekday service to a weekend schedule to match the number of dispatchers they have on staff, capping workers at a 14-hour shift.
Officials initially suggested the regular T schedule would resume within a few months. But training time and a lack of qualified applicants now appear to be a major hurdles in resuming normal schedules.
Aisheea Isidoe, assistant general manager at the Operations Control Center where the dispatchers work, told the MBTA Board of Directors at a Tuesday meeting that the 10-week training can only accommodate six trainees at a time. That’s how many people can fit in the control center’s dispatch room where the training takes place at one time.
McCready asked if there was a way to shorten the training time; Isidoe responded that it was once was a six-week session but more training was needed. Transportation Secretary Jamey Tesler suggested running parallel courses to train more people simultaneously.
But beyond training, Isidore warned that it’s also a question of qualified applicants. She cautioned that many people do not make it through the entire 10-week training course, so the number in training does not mean they all will be eventually on the job.
She told the board there are efforts underway to bolster the ranks. Since significant previous experience is required, Isidore said there’s a push to bring back recent retirees and former dispatchers who have been promoted to other positions. The pay starts at more than $100,000 a year and there’s a $10,000 signing bonus as an incentive. Only 26 of 107 recent applicants met the minimum requirements for the position.
So, it appears that unless something changes dramatically, subway riders will be waiting longer than they thought for their trains to arrive on time — perhaps even until next year.