Once again, delays leave MBTA riders out in cold

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / January 26, 2011

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A day after equipment failures left thousands of people shivering on platforms in subzero weather, the MBTA stationed extra mechanics and supervisors throughout the system, ran trolleys and subways overnight, and idled commuter rail locomotives, so that they would all be ready to start in the freezing cold yesterday morning. But thousands of commuters were again left waiting.

The problems were somewhat fewer than Monday, when 63 percent of morning commuter rail trains were delayed and 23 rapid-transit trains and trolleys stalled on the tracks by midday, delaying others behind them. By the same time yesterday, 45 percent of commuter rail trains were delayed, and nine Red, Orange, Blue, and Green line vehicles had been declared disabled.

And while the temperatures were better yesterday — low teens in Boston in the morning rising to low 30s by the afternoon — the less-punishing cold presaged a coming storm. A weather system moving up from the South could dump as much as a foot of snow on parts of the state later today and into tomorrow, forecasters said.

Trains fare better in snowstorms than in the dry Arctic weather that started the week, buses less so. The storm could force dozens of buses onto alternate snow routes to avoid steep, icy streets, and delay countless others in sluggish traffic — adding to what has already been a challenging winter for commuters, with above-average snowfall and below-average temperatures.

“I think for our customers, most certainly, this has just been a tough winter,’’ MBTA general manager Richard A. Davey said. He added that the “perfect rush hour’’ he set as a goal when he started last March has remained elusive, with well over 1,000 buses and trains, many of them decades old, and more than 600,000 riders every morning and again every evening.

Davey said yesterday’s performance was better than Monday’s, with fewer and shorter delays. “Smooth sailing,’’ Red and Orange line rider Tina Mello agreed via e-mail, a day after her commute from Quincy Center to Oak Grove took 2 1/2 hours. instead of its usual 25 minutes.

But scattered improvements provided little relief for customers who found themselves waiting again yesterday.

“There’s sort of a combination of frustration and disgusted resignation, and I think people are just sick of the excuses,’’ said Paul Massari, who rides commuter rail from Salem to Boston’s North Station and bikes the final leg to his job in Cambridge.

Massari said he has not had an on-time train in two weeks. Monday and again yesterday he said he waited about 15 to 20 minutes beyond the posted time for his inbound train, a hassle made more frustrating in the bitter cold. His wait was further aggravated, he said, when neither online service alerts nor the countdown sign at the station gave accurate information.

“To have trains that come on time and get you to work on time doesn’t seem to be a lot to ask, but for some reason it doesn’t seem to be something that [they] can deliver consistently,’’ said Massari, who works as a writer for Harvard University.

Extreme cold is notoriously hard on public and private railroads. Engines sputter, air hoses break, track switches freeze, gate arms at grade crossings fail. On Monday, Amtrak canceled many of its trains between New York City and Albany. The freight railroad Pan Am’s weather issues yesterday morning delayed 11 trains on the MBTA’s Haverhill commuter rail line, where the freight company controls dispatching, according to the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad, the private company that runs commuter rail for the T.

“What you’re seeing in Boston and certainly what the MBTA is experiencing is what other agencies go through when extreme conditions present themselves,’’ said Greg Hull, director for operations and security for the American Public Transportation Association, a transit industry organization. “From what I understand,the MBTA is taking every possible avenue . . . to ensure that services are being provided. But, without question, the conditions are going to impact the timeliness.’’

Davey said the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has worked around the clock to try to keep its aging fleet running in frigid conditions and will continue to do as much as possible to maintain service through a winter that meteorologists say shows no signs of abating soon. Davey also said the MBTA has held up well against its sister cold-weather cities this year. But he recognized that delays of even a few minutes can seem extraordinary when the temperature is well below freezing.

“A five-minute delay or even a five-minute wait that’s on time can still be piercing to the bone,’’ Davey said yesterday. “I got a tweet from someone this morning about the 506 train’’ — the 6:30 a.m. from Worcester to South Station — “asking where it was, and it seemed to be exclaiming that it was very late. And then I called [the operations center], and it was three minutes late.

“I think if it was 65 degrees in June, I probably wouldn’t have received that kind of question,’’ he added.

Blogs and social media such as Twitter and Facebook have given people an amplified and immediate voice for airing service concerns. The T has taken a pounding on Twitter lately. Hardly unusual yesterday were tweets such as: “1 hour and 45 mins later, I’m finally walking into my building. #mbta you’re the worst. Ever.’’ and “MBTA I really . . . hate your gutts [sic]! We are in a fight!’’

Stuart Spina of Chelsea, chairman of the advocacy group the T Riders’ Union, said the breakdowns are understandable, given that the equipment was not designed for subzero weather.

“But when you look at the fact that the Orange Line and the Red Line have regular breakdowns on sunny days in August and when you look at the T’s maintenance backlog of about $3.5 to $3.75 billion, it kind of makes you wonder,’’ said Spina, adding that better communication would go a long way.

Davey agreed. Service alerts and arrival predictions for the commuter rail have been less reliable than for the rest of the system, but commuter rail contractor MBCR has to relay that information to T operations before it is posted.

The MBTA plans to cut out the middle man in the next few days. And the T has also taken steps to disseminate information more quickly through other channels, such as, if its own website falters, as happened during the Jan. 12 nor’easter, Davey said.

Commuter rail is measured more precisely than bus, trolley, and subway service, with less frequent trains, a more rigid schedule, and a private contractor.

Yesterday, 108 of 242 commuter rail trains scheduled to run by noon arrived at their final destination on time, defined as less than five minutes late; 26 were delayed at least 20 minutes, including six that were more than 40 minutes late. The spotty performance is well below the 86 percent on-time rate posted for all 2010 and the 79.9 percent for this month prior to Monday, said Scott Farmelant, an MBCR spokesman.

The comparatively milder 30-degree air helped with last night’s return trips, and the T turned its attention to the storm expected to hit later today.

“We’re turning our immediate attention back to snow fighting,’’ Davey said, “preparing for what looks possibly to be another difficult general commute on Thursday and preparing, I hope, for folks to use public transportation, as opposed to driving.’’

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at