Hundreds stranded below in another T breakdown

Passengers wait hours before walking on tracks

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By Laura J. Nelson and Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / July 13, 2011

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CAMBRIDGE - More than 400 commuters were left stranded for hours aboard packed, muggy subway cars near Porter Square Station yesterday, triggering a carefully choreographed evacuation by foot through MBTA tunnels and spawning hours of delays across the Red Line.

When a six-car train broke down about 9 a.m. in a tunnel just south of Porter and the train sent to rescue it also faltered, 447 marooned passengers waited at least two hours to be rescued. The cramped quarters and lack of cellphone service fostered an initial sense of helplessness, which then gave way to resigned camaraderie among the commuters, who shared bottled water and swapped stories about the haircuts, meetings, and job interviews they had missed.

The last passengers emerged blinking from the tunnel about 12:30 p.m., 3 1/2 hours after the first train broke down.

“We all just took it in stride,’’ said passenger Tanisha Janbaptiste, 22, who came up Porter Square Station’s escalator laughing with friends she made during the ordeal. “We said we should get ‘T’ tattoos to show we were all in this together.’’

This latest Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority breakdown rang with frustrating familiarity: Two months ago, a Red Line train screeched to a halt just short of the Davis Square stop in Somerville and remained frozen in place for 2 1/2 hours.

An initial review of yesterday’s episode found an air leak in the train’s brake system, MBTA general manager Richard A. Davey said, but the agency was still investigating last night whether that caused the failure.

The T has systemwide maintenance needs of about $4 billion, including a backlog of track, vehicle, station, and power demands that require $700 million in investment annually just to keep from getting worse, said Brian Kane, budget and policy analyst for the MBTA Advisory Board, which represents cities and towns served by the T. But the T has rarely spent a sufficient amount on maintenance, even while investing in politically popular expansion projects, Kane said.

Davey said it was too early to determine whether yesterday’s problems could be chalked up to the T’s aging fleet and infrastructure and its financial constraints. But Kane said it was likely, given that even the newest Red Line cars date to 1994 and are five years overdue for a midlife overhaul.

“Three trains in two months - that’s pretty bad,’’ Kane said. “We’ve been saying that these breakdowns were going to start happening more and more frequently, because we’ve ignored the needs of the fleet.’’

Yesterday, the T received a radio call at 9:11 a.m. about a six-car train halted in a tunnel between the Porter and Harvard Square stops, Davey said. A second train, which the T intended to use to push the immobile train into an empty berth at Harvard Square, arrived from Alewife about 15 minutes later.

But the second train sputtered and quit, also for unknown reasons, Davey said. When it temporarily revived, crews attempted to pull the combined 12-car set back to Porter, but the rescue train stopped again six minutes later, prompting a call to evacuate, Davey said.

“Notwithstanding that this was not a good day for the Red Line, I think our response under the circumstances was pretty good,’’ Davey said. “Our customers were informed, our crews were walking through the train to make sure folks were comfortable, the air conditioning was on most of the time - that was a priority.’’

At 10:33 a.m., engineers cut power to the third rail, which killed air conditioning in the cars, said MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo. The third rail powers subway cars through electric currents, and stepping on the metal while it is live carries a risk of electrocution.

“Until they cut the power, it was pretty tolerable,’’ said Sean Williams, a Cambridge firefighter who responded to the stuck trains. “Then it got pretty darn hot.’’

Temperatures ticked higher as T employees corralled passengers into a single-file line and shepherded them through all 12 cars of the connected trains, down a stepladder, and onto the train tracks, where temperatures hovered near 100 degrees.

Firefighters, who shed their heavy coats, lit the way with handheld lights along about 1,000 feet of track to the platform, passengers said.

Commuters cut a path between the rails and steered around transformers. Passengers in the front car of the first train waited 3 1/2 hours, 2 without air conditioning.

The evacuation ended at 12:17 p.m., Pesaturo said. There were no injuries.

Devaki Raj, 21, of Porter Square, said she watched one passenger put her hand into a clump of bat guano on the tunnel wall during the trek.

Sawdust thrown by T employees soaked up much of the moisture, she said, although the ceiling was another issue.

“I definitely caught a few drips,’’ said Raj, who missed her midterm review at PA Consulting Group. “This whole outfit is going to the laundry.’’

Other passengers said seeing the inner workings of their public transportation system was interesting, though perhaps not worth the wait.

“Well, that was fun - I got a free tour of the subway!’’ said Mary White, 60, of Porter Square, as she looked for a shuttle to Downtown Crossing.

The T attempted to keep trains running between Harvard Square and the Braintree and Ashmont terminal stations but replaced service between Alewife and Porter with 25 buses from routes as far-flung as Chelsea, Revere, Brighton, and Dorchester. The T sought to lift buses from routes with relatively frequent service - eight or nine buses an hour, instead of two or three - which meant some drivers had never navigated the maze of streets between Porter and Alewife, said David Carney, bus operations director.

To help, the T tried to run buses in pairs, with an experienced local driver leading a less experienced one; short of that, an MBTA inspector in a car led the way.

Until they got aboveground, stranded passengers had no cellphone service. The tunnel, at 200 feet underground, is the deepest point of the subway system, said transit police Lieutenant Commander Robert Lenehan.

That meant newly unemployed Brennan Molina, 28, of Davis Square, could not call an MIT office to say he would be late for a job interview as an administrative assistant.

“What could I do? We were all in there,’’ Molina said, shrugging. “There was a lot of waiting, and a lot of, ‘We’ll be getting you out of here soon.’ ’’

That rueful acceptance was nearly universal, sparking a serendipitous relationship a few cars down. Morgan Bickle and Sravish Sridhar, engineers with technology company Kinvey, met an employee from a start-up company. The three talked for two hours about collaborating on a smartphone application that would tell users the best route from point A to point B, taking into consideration, of course, unexpected delays.

“This was actually the perfect place for a meeting,’’ said Bickle, who describes himself as “a code whisperer.’’

The group planned to meet again last night to hash out specifics.

The Holmans, a family of four, were headed to the zoo when the train broke down. Emily Holman, 33, said passengers lent their iPhones to keep her son, Liam, 3, and daughter, Dorothea, 2, entertained with the popular touch-screen game Angry Birds. The kids saw exploring the tunnel as an adventure.

“But I think we’ve had enough adventures for one day,’’ Holman said, as her husband and Liam dashed off to find a bathroom. “We’re headed home.’’

Laura J. Nelson can be reached at Eric Moskowitz can be reached at