BOSTON (SHNS) – As the MBTA struggles with service delays and prepares to suspend downtown Orange Line service for three upcoming weekends to work on tracks that were part of last year’s month-long end-to-end shutdown, Gov. Maura Healey said the new general manager plans to name at the T will be charged with making sure that “these things stop happening.”
But a meeting of the MBTA Board of Directors that started just after Healey’s comments Thursday morning highlighted that any person the new governor taps to run the beleaguered public transit agency will have their work cut out for them. And comments from the interim head of the MBTA suggested that it will be months before Healey’s new general manager is even on the job.
The T announced this week that the Orange Line will be shut down in both directions over a nine-station span between Ruggles and North Station this weekend, Jan 28-29, and the weekends of Feb. 4-5 and Feb. 18-19 “[b]ecause of the continued demolition of the Government Center Garage by private developer HYM Construction.” But it also gives the T a chance to “perform additional track work, including the replacement of rail fasteners between Back Bay and Ruggles stations,” the T said.
In its announcement Thursday, the T said that “additional weekend diversions will be necessary in the coming months to accommodate the ongoing work” at Government Center. The T also announced upcoming service changes for the Green Line, Red Line and Haverhill Line on the commuter rail and on Thursday was advising Orange Line delays of up to 15 minutes, saying riders “will experience longer wait times while we operate with a reduced fleet.”
“Well, look, this is why I prioritized a new GM. We’re moving through that search very quickly. I want to get the best possible person and team in place so that these things stop happening,” Healey said Thursday morning in Newton when asked about the latest shutdowns. “Obviously, we come into a situation where there’s a lot of work to be done. There are real issues operationally, particularly when it comes to workforce, but this is exactly why we prioritized getting the GM in place.”
Hiring a new general manager was on the new governor’s to-do list before Healey won the November election. Three weeks into her tenure, Healey has been staffing up across her Cabinet secretariats but has kept the Baker administration’s team in place at the MBTA and at MassDOT generally, including temporary hold-over Transportation Secretary Jamey Tesler and Interim MBTA GM Jeff Gonneville.
Healey told reporters Thursday that hiring a new GM for the MBTA is a “weeks, not months, scenario.” In December, her transition team retained Krauthamer & Associates, which it called the “premier transit search firm in the field,” to run a wide search for the next head of the T.
But in his report Thursday morning to the MBTA Board of Directors, Gonneville made a few references to himself being in the position for the coming months.
“In my role as the interim general manager, certainly as the next several months go by and as we are transitioning to permanent general manager here at the authority, there are a number of items that I know the T has to remain focused on,” Gonneville, a veteran of two decades at the T, said. “Again, it’s my job to ensure that we remain focused on making improvements in these areas.”
He said he would bring a detailed list of “transitional priorities” back to the board at its next meeting (scheduled for Feb. 23) and later in the meeting mentioned that he hoped to present the board with a schedule of upcoming planned service disruptions – the T calls them “diversions” – within the next 60 days.
Gonneville said he is working to put together a schedule of all service diversions for the next eight months to a year, though he claimed the T is “not planning any major full line shutdowns.”
T officials have long claimed that an effort that began under Gov. Deval Patrick to buy new Orange Line and Red Line cars will increase the system’s capacity and allow the agency to run more frequent and reliable subway service. The MBTA has contracts with Chinese rail company CRRC, worth nearly $900 million, for the replacement of the entire Red and Orange Line fleets with 404 brand-new vehicles.
So far, 78 Orange Line cars and 12 Red Line cars have been delivered to the MBTA. But the new cars that have been put into passenger service have routinely been pulled back off the tracks as the T has discovered faults with the manufacturing or materials.
CRRC was originally expected to deliver all 152 Orange Line cars by January 2022 and all 252 Red Line cars by September 2023. In the fall of 2020, the T announced the completion dates were delayed until April 2023 for the Orange Line and September 2024 for the Red Line, and Gonneville told the board in September (in his deputy GM capacity) that the last Orange Line cars would be delivered to the T in summer 2023 and the final Red Line cars in summer 2025.
He pushed that timeline back even further on Thursday. Now, he said, the schedule from CRRC “lays out that all the Orange Line car delivery would be completed by December of 2023 and the Red Line car delivery in September of 2026.”
But even that schedule, which was given to the T “in about the fall time period,” seems unlikely to be met and a new one is expected to be delivered to the T in late February, Gonneville said.
“We feel pretty strongly here at the MBTA, and CRRC also acknowledges, that they will not be able to meet this production schedule,” he said. “They are in the process right now of working through what we refer to as kind of an updated and realistic and achievable schedule.”
Delivery of new cars was suspended in July 2022 “to address manufacturing related issues” but Gonneville said the T expects to approve the delivery of new cars starting in February. Citing factors like inflation, a lack of future work in the pipeline at CRRC’s Springfield plant, and tariffs on the Chinese manufacturer, Gonneville said that CRRC “more than likely” will only be able to deliver four cars per month while the contract requires them to deliver eight cars each month.
“The T at this point has not given any contractual schedule relief to CRRC. So when you look at the contractual delivery schedules … those are the dates the cars are supposed to have been delivered to us,” he said. “And the clauses in our contract right now do require that all cars, that there is a $500 per day per car penalty that CRRC would owe us as we progress forward with this particular contract.”
Gonneville did not explicitly say that the T intended to fine CRRC for the late delivery of cars and later in the meeting recommended “that the team needs to really take a step back and take a fresh look at this contract” with the goal of “evaluating different strategies” that the agency could use to ensure that the T gets safe and reliable new cars as quickly as possible.
Healey has also pledged to hire a new safety chief at the T in her first 60 days as governor (by March 6). On Thursday, she did not say what her safety team would do differently than the current team under chief safety officer Ron Ester.
“I don’t know all of what the previous efforts have been,” Healey said. “I can tell you what my team is going to do. We’re going to make sure that we’re inspecting all of the buses, rails, trains — people in the state need to know that their transportation system is safe and reliable, and that starts with with getting that team in place.”
(Chris Lisinski contributed to this report.)