Opinion: The MBTA should start service later.

As many are aware, the T is in a crisis right now.  Crumbling infrastructure and major safety incidents have led to degraded service, and unfortunately, the MBTA is still under the assumption that weekend ridership doesn’t exist – that its ok to shudder half of the network over a weekend in the name of “repairs”.  Or to shut down an entire rapid transit line for a month to fix slow zones, only for it to be slower an entire MONTH after it reopened.

The incoming administration has to do something to fix the broken system, but I’m here to argue that month-long shutdowns and degraded weekend service are not the way to do it.

Honesty and Transparency:

In order for any of this to work, to avoid declining ridership, and to keep public opinion of the T favorable, they need to be up front and honest about what work they are doing, and be the first to admit when things don’t go to plan.  After all, they provide a public service.

The T has had a long history of vague-transparency and trying to cover things up, like last years blue line shutdown where 3 work trains derailed, but the T didn’t share that information for weeks.  Or the ongoing red line shutdowns that shudder the northern half of the red line, leading to 15-20 minute headways, because they only store 4 trains north of the city.  Many cities store trains in tunnels when preparing for a shutdown, while the MBTA only stores them in dedicated tail tracks – why they refuse to store more I have no idea.

The orange line shutdown was a great example of the agency being both super transparent and annoyingly vague.  Before the shutdown, the MBTA was doing a phenomenal job advertising the shutdown and making sure everyone knew what was happening… getting everyone prepared for a month of nightmare-commutes.  After the shutdown, the T repeatedly told the public that the slow zones would only be in place for a week… then another week… then another week… they they changed the definition of a slow zone…

Close the System Earlier and Push Back the Start Time:

As I’ve previously stated, I am generally against weekend shutdowns, and I am strongly against “surge” shutdowns.  It forces riders to come up with an alternate route in order to make it to work on time – one that people may switch to if service is too unreliable.  Ideally, all of the necessary work should be done during the overnight windows, like most international systems.

The FTA report highlighted the fact that when you factor in the amount of time it takes workers to set up and clean up MOW (Maintenance of Way) equipment, there are less than 2 hours available for actual repairs to be made – an insufficient amount of time to make substantial repairs to the system.

The start of service should be pushed back in order to support system-maintenance.  Instead of ending service at 12:30 PM, the system should start closing up closer to 10… and it should open an hour later – permanently.  Pushing this back would allow more maintenance to be done more regularly, ideally stopping the upward trend of slower service.  It would encourage the MBTA to make proactive repairs instead of pushing it off until its dire.  It would put buses on the road at lower-demand times instead of weekends, allowing for quicker replacement services.  Pushing the start time back would even allow stations to be cleaned NIGHTLY, instead of in random surges.

A chart showing weekday 1 bus ridership.  As you can see, cutting into the 10:00PM-5:00AM ridership would have the lowest impact. (Thanks Heli!)

Tie this in with an overnight bus scheme, allowing people to get around the city 24/7, the service cut would have a net positive impact!

Having a regular & pre-planned maintenance windows would also make it significantly more economically viable to hire more maintenance workers instead of constantly contracting it out – making this move great for taxpayers.

Incompetence-Proof (ish):

The aforementioned blue and orange line shutdowns also had another side effect – rushed work.  When tons of work is crammed into a specified time slot, it encourages work to be rushed to meet the deadline.  Not saying its done maliciously, but I’d like to think the MBTA would like to avoid the PR-hit, get it to a state where you can kinda-sorta run service, then slowly fix it during the overnight windows (wonder where I’ve heard that before…)

Having regular maintenance windows let the T pass off work until later, therefore giving little reason to rush work.

One final note: Managing a large-scale 30-day shutdown requires loads of manpower.  Creating a plan of all of the work they aim to cover, the maintenance workers they need, and managing a large-scale shuttle bus service is not easy work.  The FTA report highlighted that the departments related to capital-projects are already stretched thin for staffing, and adding a mega-shutdown to their workload just isn’t routinely feasible.


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