Brian McGrory

T leaves them in the depths

By Brian McGrory
Globe Columnist / May 13, 2011

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If Hell really is an eternity stuck underground in a sweltering place of no escape, then hundreds of passengers on an MBTA Red Line train must have been bracing for Satan himself on Wednesday night.

An outbound train came to an abrupt halt several hundred feet short of the Davis Square Station in Somerville at 6:38 p.m., then sat, and sat, and sat some more. It didn’t move again until two hours and one minute later, when frazzled T workers finally made the decision to pull the disabled cars backward to Porter Square in Cambridge, and passengers climbed the steps to gulp fresh air.

It turned what is normally a 30-minute ride from downtown Boston to points west into an occasionally frightening but more often mind-numbing 2 1/2-hour odyssey during which passengers had no ability to communicate with the outside world, no access to restrooms, and virtually no information on their fate.

“We’ve been held up before, but never like this,’’ said Susan Piland, a T loyalist who commutes on the Red Line each day to her job at Northeastern University. “The passengers were unbelievably calm and cool about it, but as the hours ticked by, you wanted to get out of the tin can really bad.’’

At one point, passengers were told to stand up and prepare to disembark the cars for a walk through the dark tunnels to the Davis Square Station, but that plan was scuttled with neither notice nor explanation. At another point, passengers felt loud mysterious jolts from the rear of the train, causing the cars to lurch forward before rolling slowly backward — apparently not the result the T wanted.

Passenger Lucy McGowan stressed that she believes the T typically does a solid job on her daily commute, but she said: “Every 5 minutes they would come on the PA and say: ‘Thank you for your patience. We are sorry for the inconvenience. We’ll be moving momentarily.’ It kind of became a joke.’’

The epic breakdown has received little attention thus far, mainly because so much else went wrong on the MBTA Wednesday afternoon, specifically a disabled train near South Station that caused lengthy and widespread delays across an already beleaguered commuter rail network. But in many ways, this 2 1/2-hour ride to Cambridge rivals the famous 4-hour commuter rail journey to Worcester on February as a touchstone for commuters in a season of episodic misery.

By late yesterday, T officials acknowledged the problem, elaborated on the cause, and apologized for it — profusely. They blamed a defect in the third rail, causing a shortage of power to propel the train. Compounding it, they said, were prolonged attempts by T workers to push the six-car train up a small grade to the Davis Square Station with 600 passengers aboard rather than tug it back to Porter Square.

“In hindsight, the personnel in the control center should have made the decision to tack on and pull it back, instead of making the decision to push it,’’ said Joe Pesaturo, a T spokesman. “That only led to more problems.’’

Pesaturo said that MBTA general manager Richard Davey has ordered a full report on the incident and, in a separate e-mail, added: “We apologize to all of the passengers who were impacted by this significant disruption, and we’d like everyone to know that subway staff will examine every element of what occurred, and learn from this incident as we strive to offer customers the service they deserve.’’

But until then, passengers described an almost surreal scene beneath the streets of Somerville in which the train, which was noticeably tilted toward the outer edge of the tracks, sat in silence, without air conditioning, as riders joked among themselves, read books (entire chapters, as it were), and stared blankly out the windows at the dark walls a few inches away.

One witness said her car received no updates whatsoever because the public address system didn’t work. A rider in another car described frequent announcements remarkably void of any information, sometimes accompanied by heavy static or boomed so loud that people covered their ears. It was a night in which little went right.

“I don’t like to badmouth the T, because I know they try hard and I rely on them, and I want to trust them,’’ said Allison Tanenhaus, who lives near Davis Square just for the convenience of riding the T. “But it was 2 1/2 hours stuck on a car that was 200 feet from the station, and we didn’t have an intercom.

“So, stale air, really tired, not really knowing what was going on, and the end of the day,’’ Tanenhaus added. “It would have been better on the way to work.’’

Piland described a scene in which sweating, red-faced T workers rushed from car to car in their attempts to get things moving. Somewhere, a compressor flipped on for a few seconds, providing a fleeting blast of fresh air. People, she said, joked with one another about rationing one person’s cough drops and another rider’s bottle of water.

“It was a miracle that I didn’t have to go to the bathroom at some point, or that anyone else didn’t have to go,’’ she said.

Perhaps most trying in an era of constant and instant communication was the sense of complete isolation from the outside world. Cellphones didn’t work in the tunnel. Piland’s husband, she said, was just a few minutes from calling security at her workplace when she finally got free.

“In an age when you’re used to sending a text message or an e-mail, it was really something to not be able to,’’ McGowan said.

In her case, she was due to pick up two teammates after work and drive to a playoff game in a local soccer league. When she didn’t respond to messages from friends, they got there on their own. Asked how the team did while she sat underground, she glumly replied, “We lost.’’

Finally, just about two hours in, T workers rounded up passengers and brought them to the rear cars. A so-called rescue train then pulled the disabled cars inbound along the outbound tracks to Porter Square and, ultimately, freedom.

“I’m usually pretty tolerant of things going wrong,’’ said Tanenhaus, “But this was really out there.’’

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at