Keeping Rail Transit Safety Oversight on Track

By Member Christopher Hart

The Tremont Street Subway in Boston began service in 1897 as the first subway tunnel in North America. That subway tunnel was the beginning of the now complex rail transit system that is commonly known as the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), or “the T.” With an average of 1.3 million passengers riding its heavy rail, light rail, trolleys, buses, and ferryboats each weekday, this is one of the busiest transit systems in the country.

Member Hart with NTSB and MBTA staff at the MBTA rail operations center

I recently had the opportunity to tour the MBTA system and learn how such a complex legacy system is managed. I also heard about the collaboration that has developed between the MBTA and its safety oversight body­—the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities (MDPU). I often used the T years ago when I was in law school, so it was very informative to see how the system has grown and changed in the intervening years.

Improve Rail Transit Safety Oversight is on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements to promote our recommendations addressing oversight of rail mass transit operations. It is critically important that rail transit systems be adequately monitored to maintain and enhance safety and to help ensure that small problems can be caught before they become big ones; our accident investigations have shown that an important part of that monitoring is effective safety oversight. This visit to the MBTA allowed us to observe some of those safety programs and their oversight.

Massachusetts is one of four states (the others being California, Colorado, and New York) that has the authority to compel a rail transit agency to comply with system safety program plans, Federal Transit Administration requirements, and state regulations or requirements. This authority has fostered a collaborative relationship between the MBTA and the MDPU for rail transit safety oversight. These two agencies are in regular contact about rail transit decisions; this open relationship enables faster resolution when issues arise and comprehensive planning to help prevent disasters from occurring.

Member Hart and Steve Hicks, MBTA Chief Mechanical Officer – Rail

It was very interesting to see the behind-the-scenes operations that keep everything running smoothly. We received comprehensive briefings from both the MDPU and the MBTA to better understand the system’s history, past and current safety challenges that the agencies face, and plans to improve safety systems and extend the service to serve more of the traveling public in the Boston area.

We also toured the MBTA Emergency Operations Control Center and learned how transportation and law enforcement officials work closely during major planned events, such as the Boston Marathon, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and the fireworks displays on July 4, and during unplanned emergencies, like weather events or disasters, to safely move as many people as possible under unusual circumstances.

Our MBTA guides took us underground to the new Emergency Training Center, built in former streetcar tunnels, to see where all MBTA operators, first responders, and law enforcement personnel receive emergency simulation training on heavy rail, light rail, and bus equipment and facilities.

Vehicle and equipment maintenance and upkeep are also part of good safety oversight and are needed to spot any actual or potential problems that may arise, diagnose them, and determine and implement a solution to keep everything running smoothly. To get some idea of that part of the operation, we toured the Orient Heights Car House and learned about the preventative maintenance program that helps ensure all cars are operating efficiently and safely.

On the second day of our tour, we rode the Green Line to get an in-depth look at this oldest subway line in the country. MBTA and MDPU personnel shared their progress toward implementing Positive Train Control—another item on our Most Wanted List—on this line, whose age, signal system, and street‑running sections present operational complexities and risks that the MBTA’s safety programs and oversight continuously seek to address.

The MBTA and the MDPU share the goal of providing and maintaining a reliable, safe transit structure to move the people of Boston safely and efficiently. We enjoyed and appreciated the opportunity to visit and learn so much about this legacy system. In the coming years, we plan to reach out to other mass transit operators and their regulators to learn, first hand, what they are doing to build safer systems and prevent future accidents, injuries, and fatalities.

 

 

 

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