Communication is a huge problem for the T

Update 10/28/23 – The T’s transparency is noticeably better. There’s definitely still a backlog (none of the incidents covered in this post have been addressed), but they’re definitely making steps in the right direction.

What do the 30-day orange line shutdown, the blue line harbor tunnel shutdown, and the green line extension all have in common? They were all major infrastructure projects that overstated the scope of the work, had poor communication, and resulted in additional delays for the public.

The MBTA has a huge hole to dig itself out of to regain rider trust, speed up the system, improve reliability and improve safety; that means many more shutdowns in the coming weeks and months for maintenance.  Riders need to trust that work is being done, and that it’s being done to the highest standards so that it will last for years to come.  If issues do arise, the MBTA needs to be the first one to admit them; waiting around for the Boston Globe to figure it out isn’t going to cut it any longer.

The Lechmere Viaduct:

In May of 2020, the MBTA shut down the East Cambridge viaduct for green line extension construction.  They strengthened the structure of the viaduct so that newer, heavier type 10 trolleys could use the viaduct without issue, upgraded the power systems, tracks and signals.  Despite being shutdown for 2 years straight, well beyond the anticipated timeline of 1 year, the viaduct reopened in March of 2022 with a speed limit of 10 miles an hour… on a fairly straight section of track.

In September 2022, concurrent with the Orange line shutdown, the T shut down the green line extension for a month to make adjustments to the overhead wires on the viaduct, which it claimed would allow the agency to increase the line-speed to 25 miles per hour, notably short of the 40 miles per hour that the viaduct was supposed to support.

Last month, the MBTA began shutting down the extension on weekends to replace the tracks on the viaduct – the same tracks it already claimed to have replaced just 2 years prior, offering little explanation as to why the supposedly new tracks were bad, other than claiming that, “When the work was being done in 2021, the rail still had useful life, so it wasn’t fiscally responsible to replace it at the time,” 1

Now, a more than a month after the work to upgrade the track on the viaduct ended, the speed restrictions remain in place while the MBTA remains silent about when the speed restrictions may be lifted.

The Orange Line Fiasco

In early August 2022, the MBTA had a plan: they were going to shut down the orange line to address 5 years worth of maintenance backlogs.  The shutdown would fix the orange line for good and remove the slow zones that plagued part of the line.  This was going to be the future of infrastructure repairs; surges to clear up years of deferred maintenance.2  Except, as anyone who was in eastern Massachusetts at the end of 2022 can tell you, it didn’t exactly accomplish everything that it was supposed to.

Initially, after the shutdown ended, the T claimed that the orange line would resume regular speed after 5 to 7 days to allow the tracks to settle.  Weeks after that initial settling period passed, Poftak (former GM of the T) was sitting at the State House being grilled by Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, maintaining that all 6 slow zones targeted during the shutdowns had been lifted.  Just a week earlier, Erik Stoothoff stated that speed restrictions remained in place in a few areas where more work was needed post-shutdown, directly contradicting what Poftak had said at the congressional hearing.3

Here’s where the communication really started breaking down: at the congressional hearing, Poftak asserted that the T defines a slow zone as an area of track with a 10 mph-or-less speed restriction.  Stoothoff stated differently, insisting that slow zones have different speed restrictions.  The claim that takes the cake, however, is after apologizing for poor communication after the shutdown, Joe Pesaturo suggested that a slow zone doesn’t necessarily mean trains were operating at a slower speed through an area, rather meaning areas that were operating at full speed but would have soon needed speed restrictions.

The Blue Line Shutdown

In April 2022, the MBTA planned to shutdown the blue line for two weeks to repair the tunnels that cross under Boston Harbor into East Boston.  Everything seemed to be going well until I kid you not, 5PM on the Sunday before the line was scheduled to reopen, the T announced that they needed to extend the shutdown.  Initially, it supposed to be 5 extra days, but it ended up needing an additional 9 days.

During the initial 2 week shutdown, two derailments occurred.  They were both minor events – the T promptly notified the DPU and rerailed the construction vehicles within a few hours.  The MBTA’s initial press release on May 8th – the day the shutdown was scheduled to end – was vague and provided no details about the two derailments that happened. Lisa Battiston, the deputy press secretary, drafted a more detailed announcement, but was asked to remove information by Steve Poftak, who needed to run it by the Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation and the Baker Chief of Staff. The DPU planned to release a statement revealing three derailments, causing panic at the MBTA. Battiston sent another draft response to the governor’s office, but was instructed to send less information. Ultimately, none of the draft statements with derailment information were ever released by either the MBTA or the DPU.

On May 12, the MBTA sent out another announcement, informing the public that the shutdown would need to be extended to May 18th, vaguely mentioning that “a derailment occurred”

Finally, four days later at a press conference, Poftak admitted that 3 derailments had occurred – after hours of back and forth between members of Bakers administration, the DPU, MBTA managers and MBTA spokespeople.4

A Call to Action

Unfortunately, the MBTA’s opaque-at-best communication leaves alot to be desired.  Unfortunately, its filled with broken promises, discrepancies, miscommunications and flat-out lies.  From gaslighting the public about the green lines slow zones, to changing the definition of a slow zone based on the day to avoiding naming derailments in press releases, the MBTA has a communications problem that isn’t going to solve itself.

When Philip Eng was appointed as General Manager of the T, Lieutenant Governor Driscoll stated that, “He [Eng] understands that the success of our public transportation system relies on the trust of the public, and that transparency, communication and reliability are the keys to earning that trust.” 5

For example, 4 months ago during a reddit AMA, Taylor Dolven, one of the transportation reporters for the Boston Globe, stated that Eng had “requested a work plan for eliminating slow zones from the staff” and vowed to make it public. To this day, no such plan has been released by the agency.  The recent sporadic communication surrounding the Lechmere viaduct happened under Eng.

I’d like to see the MBTA come out of its comfort zone a little.  When things go wrong, I’d like them to take a rider-focused approach and post details about repair efforts, what went wrong, and what they are doing to mitigate it – rather than waiting for the Boston Globe to figure it out and send in 15 FOIA requests.

WMATA & LA Metro are great examples of transit agencies that don’t feel like there’s a brick wall between incidents & public comms.  For example, after realizing that they weren’t delivering the service that was promised on the red line, WMATA canceled and rescheduled the track work while they reviewed what went wrong.  In direct contrast, whenever construction work happens on the Government Center Garage and green line service is suspended at Haymarket, headways north of the city average north of 20 minutes between Medford trains with no sign of any efforts to improve headways.

LA Metro, on the other hand, put together a very informative thread informing riders what went wrong and what the agency was doing to fix the overhead catenary system.  This thread is very thorough and well documented – imo, better than what the MBTA usually puts together.  Where this thread really shines, however, is the last tweet where they acknowledge peoples suggestions and thanked people for them.

It really doesn’t take that much to improve communications, and I’d like to see the MBTA step up to the level that many other agencies are at – or even beat them at their own game.

The Conclusion

This post isn’t aimed at any of the MBTA press staff named throughout the post, nor am I saying that things can’t go wrong during maintenance.  This post is meant to convey the message that the T needs to value its riders higher & address any incidents or issues that impact riders – from as simple as a few disabled trains clogging up the orange line to a string of derailments during tunnel maintenance.

As always, thanks for reading my long transit ramble!


  1. I didn’t see general contact info so am posting a comment. I saw that you shop sells stickers, but you should sell t-shirts with the fantasy maps. I’d throw money at you for a New Haven map shirt! And I would think that edgy gift shops and bookstores would love them!

    • Sorry about the missing contact info – working on wrapping up a site refresh. The T shirt suggestion is a great idea; just enabled it on the fantasy map listings 🙂

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