MBTA General Manager Phillip Eng wants a better T. But he’s aware of what he’s up against, with aging infrastructure, a string of safety problems and a strained budget.
“I saw that in my first six months,” he tells me. “You fix two [speed] restrictions, and two more pop up. It’s just too much work to be done in the night.”
After being plagued by slow trains and a series of dangerous incidents, with riders getting trapped in doors, Eng says the T is trying to fix things and hoping for a better year.
But that is a big job: The MBTA is in the middle of a major upgrade, which includes shutdowns of significant portions of their system one by one while crews work to fix tracks and get trains up to speed. That includes a massive shutdown of the Green Line, which came to an end earlier this week, and another coming to the Red Line between Alewife and Harvard next week. Eng said the shutdowns will have a positive long term impact.
“I can assure our riders that during this last diversion that took place in January — and I appreciate everyone's patience — what they will experience over time is the stabilization of our schedules,” Eng said. “Time between trains should improve. There is more work ahead.”
Riders have shown frustration with diversions. Eng said he’s experienced the diversions himself in his commute, switching from the Green Line to the Orange Line at North Station to get to the MBTA’s headquarters at 10 Park Plaza.
“I see, and I observe, and every diversion that we do, we're looking to see how we can improve upon that,” Eng said. “The worst thing we can continue to do is have bad service, slow service.”
People occasionally recognize him on the T, he said.
“I will have to say, the folks have been supportive. They have told me how important the T's success is to them. And that makes it even much more important to me to make sure that we continue to deliver for the public,” he said.
Riders also share their frustrations with him.
“When people are still finding their ways, there's always a little frustration. I understand that,” he said. “But we're also focused on improving communication to our riders: Real-time announcements, real-time information. If an incident occurs, we want them to know how long it will take for us to respond and address. This way, they can make real, informed decisions on how to use the T or to find other routes if necessary.”
Along with rider frustrations, the MBTA is also facing worker safety concerns. On Jan. 8, a worker had a “near miss” incident on the Green Line, in which workers were on the tracks while a train was running.
Eng attributed at least some of the safety incidents to increased reporting.
“I think what you're seeing is our employees speaking up to share these occurrences and perhaps what was happening is that not every single incident was being reported before,” he said.
He also spoke with a woman who had her leg caught in the door of a Green Line train.
“Every one of these incidents we've addressed short term, we've taken measures on our own to implement technology where a train cannot enter an area,” he said. “And in other places, we have implemented new procedures. So all of these things are what the new leadership team is taking into account as we continue to build in better processes for our employees, but also for the public.”
As a pandemic-era pilot of fare-free bus service on some routes within Boston comes to an end, Eng said he’s been looking at ways to make fare more affordable to low-income riders.
“But I also know that I have to look forward to the future and making sure that I put us on the road to be much more fiscally balanced year to year,” Eng said. “And there's a long way to go. But I'm really excited about the support that I've gotten to date, and I really thank the governor and administration for all of that.”