After spending nearly $84 million on a Winter Resiliency Plan, the MBTA suffered an epic weather-related failure duriing Boston's first cold snap.
At least four separate instance of "rail issues" disrupted the system throughout the day Tuesday.
According to the T’s Twitter feed, the trouble began just after 8 a.m. when a "rail issue" shut down travel between JFK/UMass and Ashmont stations. The T then said that there was a northbound delay at Savin Hill Station, also a "rail issue." A "rail issue" caused a derailment on the Commuter Rail and just before 1 p.m., "rail issues" at Central Square caused severe delays on the Red Line.
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Officials said they think the weather played a factor in the rail malfunctions.
“The exact cause remains under investigation, but it is believed to be related to the extreme drop in temperatures from fairly mild to bitterly cold,” MBTA spokesman Jason Johnson said in an email. “Such a drop can be very stressful on a running rail. A joint bar, similar to a brace, was installed to preserve the integrity of the rail until permanent repairs are made tonight.”
Tranist advocates blamed a lack of maintenance for the problems.
“The system has not been maintained at all,” TransitMatters Director Jeremy Mendelson said. “Service quality has declined over the years, the many cuts and fare increases have not improved. This is an infrastructure problem. The issues today were nowhere near each other and there isn’t even any snow. These issues are all preventable and it is a result of them not being adequately funded."
After torturous delays last winter, the MBTA told Bostonians that they were well prepared for this season, having winterized much of the system and replacing some 10 miles of Red Line third rail.
In September, Gov. Charlie Baker crowed, "We are far better prepared for this winter than last year.” Baker's office did not return a call for comment yesterday.
A T official defended the resiliency program, citing operations that didn't go wrong Tuesday.
"While there were isolated incidents involving broken rail, there were no problems with switches or heaters, a credit to the months of winter resiliency program work preparing for the winter season," Johnson said. "Subway trains, for example, were stored in maintenance facilities and tunnels last night and operated with almost no issues despite the bitterly cold weather. Commuter Rail locomotives also performed very well this morning, making hundreds of trips without delays."
A metals expert said the "rail issues" represent a maintenace problem, not a weather problem.
“This infrastructure that keeps things running has to be malfunctioning if the rails are in trouble from the cold,” MassArt welding, blacksmithing and metal casting professor Matt Hinchman said. “These rails have been used for decades are incredibly durable. If it did malfunction like that, that’s suspect. There is plenty of wear and tear on these systems, but that’s something they need to be on top of.”
Hinchman said that the stress and the weight on the rails of the most traveled train line should not be a factor, even as ridership continues to grow.
“I doubt that riders are the issues,” Hinchman said. “Most metals should be able to maintain these temperatures. Large metal components need room to expand and contract. These are designed with flexibility in mind. That fluctuation is something that is always taken into consideration. As a city, we have to support the infrastructure better and this is an example of why.”
Mendelson, the transit advocate, gave the T poor marks for its performance as the system prepares to raise fares.
"The planned fare increase doesn’t inspire any confidence in riders," Mendelson said. "They seem to fix the most immediate crisis and then pray. We have a continuously broken system that can’t seem to plan for winter, which is unacceptable. Pulling buses off of their normal lines to have shuttles is unacceptable. But their crisis management is a juggling act.”