MBTA lets a lucky few in to see its brain center

General manager Richard Davey (second from left) gave riders a peek behind the curtain at the T’s Operations Control Center. General manager Richard Davey (second from left) gave riders a peek behind the curtain at the T’s Operations Control Center. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)
By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / April 8, 2011

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Eight floors above High Street, six runners-up in the MBTA’s GM for a Day contest filed out of an elevator yesterday and were beckoned down a hall to the Operations Control Center. A door opened, and they found themselves where few riders ever go: the control room above the T’s main dispatch center, with a two-story wall of blinking maps and larger-than-life video screens — 17 live feeds, from 800 system-wide cameras — spread out before them.

Jaws dropped. “How close can I get?’’ asked Nathan Wahl, 22, of Brookline.

“Make yourself at home,’’ said Sean McCarthy, director of the Operations Control Center. “You guys are the guys that didn’t win? Hopefully, this will be a small consolation.’’

It was more. The tour and an ensuing 90-minute luncheon with general manager Richard A. Davey, was the second of what Davey intends to be monthly roundtables with the 173 people who did not win the first GM for a Day contest in February. It is part of a larger effort to pull back the curtain on the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

Though the contest attracted scorn — one person added the caption, “who would want that job, even for a day?’’ to the online photo of the winner, Somerville graduate student Timothy Fleck, seated at Davey’s desk — it also drew a lot of entries.

“I want an insider’s look,’’ wrote Wahl, a nanny who rides the Green Line four times a day. “The MBTA has saved me as often as it has frustrated me. Everyday I use the T, and though I am thankful, I take for granted the service it provides.’’

Davey, a year and two weeks into a job with a history of chewing up its occupants, acknowledges the T’s challenges: chiefly, a $3 billion backlog of needed repairs and upgrades and a debt burden that siphons money from day-to-day operations.

Then there are the daily surprises: a snake on the Red Line, an employee trapped in a shaft at Charles/MGH, another tunnel fire caused by trash or old wiring spliced too many times.

Short of miracles, Davey and his team are promoting transparency and advancing low-cost improvements. They want employees to treat riders as customers, taxpayers as owners. And Davey wants feedback, a lot of it.

He is a frequent tweeter, communicating with riders and signing off as RAD, and he is thinking about holding a systemwide Saturday open house to let the public tour normally off-limits places like Transit Police headquarters and the Everett repair shop.

Yesterday, he caught a 6:30 a.m. commuter train to Salem for his 20th “Join the GM’’ session, to gather customer feedback, met with Representative John D. Keenan at a diner to discuss a new parking garage and the performance of the Newburyport/Rockport Line, and returned to Boston in time to chip away at some work and meet the latest batch of runners-up at noon.

The lunch discussion was wide-ranging, covering topics such as the challenge of pleasing riders who want express trains, as well as those who want to stop more frequently, and which bus routes lose vehicles when a subway line breaks down and needs substitute busing.

He told them about an experiment with four-car trains on the Green Line, starting this weekend, to try to accommodate the wall-to-wall crowds before and after Red Sox games, though it might test the power lines.

“Let’s be clear: If it fails, it’s my fault,’’ said Davey, who was joined by Green Line chief Deb Gies and other managers. “If it’s a success, it’s Deb’s.’’

Davey believes that the system people love to hate — search for MBTA on Twitter — is also something to celebrate: America’s First Subway, moving nearly 1.3 million travelers a day by subway, bus, trolley, train, boat, and van, usually without incident.

“The T is like the Red Sox. The symbol is ubiquitous, everyone has an experience, and . . . almost all of our customers care about our success,’’ he said. “As we all do with the Red Sox, even though they’re 0-5.’’ A few minutes later, the Sox fell to 0-6.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at