Report Questions Red Line Safety

Originally published in the Harvard Crimson

November 6, 2009
Sofia Groopman (Reporter, Harvard Crimson)

The Red Line of the T, which serves as a primary mode of transportation for Cambridge residents and Harvard students, is currently in danger of a potential train derailment, according to a report released Wednesday.
The investigation, which was commissioned by Governor Deval L. Patrick ’78 in August, found that leaking water has caused the concrete slabs holding the train tracks to decay and shift out of place in the stretch of the Red Line that runs between the Harvard and Alewife stations.
Additionally, although the trains used on the Red Line are generally considered to have a 25-year lifespan, 74 of the route’s 218 trains are 40 years old and should have been replaced 15 years ago.
These urgent issues are two of the over 50 high-concern safety-related repair projects that the T system will not be able to address this year due to a lack of funding, the report noted.
"There is abundant evidence that the service and safety issues that plague the MBTA [Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority] are considerably worse than is commonly understood—and are becoming critically worse," said the report.
David F. D’Alessandro, the primary author of the report and the former chairman of John Hancock Financial Services, said during a press conference Wednesday that he would personally avoid riding certain portions of the Red Line.
David Luberoff, the executive director of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston and an expert on the city’s transportation system, said that the report’s findings are "serious" and "sobering," as "the Red Line is a hugely important part of the Boston transportation network."
Despite the investigation’s findings, Massachusetts Department of Transportation spokesman Colin B. Durrant said that the T is "absolutely" safe to ride.
"While there are safety concerns, we believe it’s a safe system," Durrant said. "Everybody there at the MBTA is working to ensure the safety of riders everyday."
He added that the governor himself rode the Red Line yesterday to emphasize his faith in the safety of the T.
Yet the governor’s symbolic action did not allay the fears of all local residents traveling on the Red Line yesterday.
"It’s pretty dangerous," said Michelle Hwang, a student at Bunker Hill Community College. "It should be corrected, developed, and changed."
In addition to showing his trust in the safety of the T, Durrant also said that Patrick plans to address the safety issues raised by the report, noting that the governor has asked Secretary and CEO of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation Jeffrey B. Mullan to "re-prioritize projects based on safety concerns." Patrick has also asked D’Alessandro to review the plan that the MBTA and the Department of Transportation devise to remedy the T’s problems.
In addition, Patrick requested that Mullan find the MBTA a new leadership team, as the organization remains in transition after MBTA General Manager Daniel A. Grabauskas resigned in August.
D’Alessandro’s report suggests that the underlying problem with the MBTA system is that it is drastically underfunded, forcing the organization to put aside certain safety projects to pay for other expenses. According to the report, the problem began in 2000, when the state decided to make the MBTA “financially self-sufficient” by providing it with a fixed annual subsidy instead of paying the MBTA’s expenses at the end of the fiscal year, as had been done in the past.
Over the last eight years, this set subsidy has proven insufficient by a total of $558 million.
The shortcoming in funds is partially due to an unforeseeable doubling in the price of fuel and utility costs in the past decade, but Luberoff noted that some of the initial cost predictions seem strange nonetheless, particularly the governmental assumption that health costs for workers would not increase over the eight-year period.