It’s Not Easy Being Green (Line)
ART BY PHOEBE MCMAHON
“Screech. Halt. Pause.” Over the intercom, a dreaded announcement comes on stating the train has stopped temporarily and will resume shortly. This experience was common over the summer of 2023, a period of many fixes and adjustments for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), colloquially known as the T, meant to improve the transit system. With frequent rail closings, substitute shuttles, and slow zones increasing travel time by up to 30 percent, unfavorable public opinion and bad press continue to haunt the transit system. The last few weeks have added even more fuel to the fire of the MBTA as a whole: the new extension, not even a year old, has recently shown a major infrastructural issue, with the rails being installed too closely together. As a result, 80 percent of the rails along the Medford/Tufts part of the Green Line Extension (GLX) need to be replaced. Along with this news comes the revelation that MBTA officials had knowledge of the misplaced rails as early as April 2021.
The proposed solution for this error is 10-14 days of work from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. on the rails and shuttle buses as a substitute. General Manager of the MBTA Phillip Eng says the process should be quick. “It’s not months, it’s not years to address this,” Eng said to the MBTA Advisory board in October of 2023.
This is not the only issue that the MBTA has dealt with in the past few years. In fact, it seems that no rail is safe from decline. Specifically, riders on the Red Line have been dealing with a plethora of slow zones, which are zones of track where the subway cannot exceed 10 miles per hour. Both the Red and Green Lines have the most slow zones in place right now, with some slow zones along the Green Line limiting speed to three miles an hour. Due to these slow zones, the average speed of the Red Line is 40 percent reduced, running 13 miles per hour as opposed to 18 miles per hour, and a total of 43 minutes are added to the commute time of the entire system.
The Red Line subway stations themselves have also been facing disrepair, including falling ceiling tiles and two fires underneath the subway cars. That’s just this year: in 2022, the Orange Line caught on fire on tracks over the Mystic River, putting 200 passengers at risk and even causing one person to jump into the water for safety. These hazards are more than just time delays—these are matters of passenger safety. While these instances did not ultimately result in harm to any passenger, there have been malfunctions that have. In April 2022, a man was killed by the Red Line, and in May 2023, a man fell under a Green Line trolley and was fatally injured at the North Station stop. The GLX also took a year longer to open than projected. The opening of the Medford Branch was projected to be in December 2021, but supply chain and labor shortages delayed the opening year. Despite the time delay, the issue of the tracks being improperly spaced was not disclosed to the public nor was it addressed in construction.
Although public perception of the T has improved over time, many riders remain critical of the system, with 24 percent of respondents rating the T’s quality as “poor” as of October 2023, according to a University of Massachusetts Amherst poll. These ratings reflect the significant impacts of the T’s issues on Tufts students and the greater Medford/Somerville community. Riders rely on transit to get on and off campus and commute to work or internships, “I would take the Green Line to work every Sunday, but it was always extremely slow… I would be late to work multiple times and therefore got paid less,” said sophomore Lorin Sleet. A trip into the city from Medford could take anywhere from 24 to 40 minutes, while it’s a 20 minute drive by car. This variance in travel time depends on a few factors: the time it takes for trains to arrive—7-18 minutes depending on what time of day you take the T; the presence of slow zones depending on which branch you take into the city; and how long your train lingers in a station.
With the unreliability of the T, riders are now having to choose between driving their own car or rideshare against public transit. Time considerations aside, there also is not a guarantee that your station will be open. Recent issues with pantographs along the Green Line have led to sudden midday closures of lines. Unlike other station closures that are announced with weeks’ notice, these pantograph-related closures are often announced on X before any news coverage. So even if riders do decide to take the T, they may unexpectedly end up having to walk to a different station, adding additional time to their commute.
Riders of the T are not the only ones taking issue with it, as higher-ups have weighed in on the state of the transit system. During a safety inspection, the Federal Transit Authority (FTA) issued a special directive that required new tracking and training. There’s additional pressure on the MBTA beyond the local level. One month ago, the FTA issued a new set of safety requirements for the T to adopt. This set of requirements is meant to help ensure worker safety, as between April 2023 and September 2023, four MBTA workers were involved in near misses, meaning a train barely missed hitting and injuring them. This is not the first call to order from the FTA; since their first survey of the T last year, the FTA has required that the MBTA implement safety improvements, or else risk having funding pulled from the T system. According to their first report, there are “several areas where [the] MBTA is not meeting its own written requirements.” As a major source of funding of the MBTA, FTA’s requests take “leading priority,” said Eng, meaning that the MBTA has to focus on fixing problems that the riders don’t directly see such as worker safety requirements.
With all this work ahead, the MBTA needs money, and the ridership isn’t making enough profit to fund the light rail system. The MBTA just received a budget of $2.7 billion for 2024, but with the asterisk that this amount might not be enough to fix all the issues the T has. Some of this financial woe comes from the post-pandemic rider numbers and the lower-than-expected fare revenue. The MBTA has yet to see its pre-pandemic levels of riders matched. The number has been slowly rising, but this year, the growth declined, potentially due to speed restrictions. Currently, the ridership is increasing once again, potentially due to the gradual but noticeable removal of slow zones along all of the transit lines, but this increase is not seen equally throughout the lines, as the Red and Orange Lines are still below 50 percent of their pre-pandemic ridership.
Despite these obstacles, it does seem as if the new faces in state government are recognizing and working towards fixing the T’s problems. Governor Maura Healy recently increased the salary of T workers in hopes of attracting more workers to join the Massachusetts transportation system and stay with it. According to the Boston Globe, there has been a 13 percent attrition rate for employees over the past year, partially due to the nature of the “very stressful career,” according to Eng. He appears to be prioritizing the Green Line’s most pressing issue and has fired two head managers of the GLX extension for not informing others about the rail misplacement. In regard to other issues, he has stressed the importance of transparency on behalf of the Transit Authority and his belief in the power of the MBTA. Eng has set his sights high for the future, saying that “moving forward, we will be innovative, open to new ideas” with entertaining a Red/Blue Line connection. Riders hope that future sight doesn’t blindsight where the MBTA currently is.
When considering the T, the phrase two steps forward, one step back comes to mind. The transit system is currently in the midst of a step backward, but with the increased funding and Eng’s optimism, it seems that a step forward is not too far away for riders. In fact, as of November 2023, a section of the Red Line has had its slow zones removed after a month of closure, and public reception has been positive about the commute time along the Ashmont branch of the Red Line. The T certainly has its challenges and is likely to face more—but this recent fix bodes well for the T’s future and the potential of an efficient and reliable public transport system once more throughout Boston.