Last week, the T said that the Green Line extension, the first expansion of the T’s subway system since 1987 which fully opened last year, “has always been narrow,” but has somehow become so narrow that it is dangerous for trains to travel at full speed, prompting more than a dozen speed restrictions along the tracks.
Experts say narrowing of tracks over time is unheard of.
Graham Currie, professor of public transit at Monash University in Melbourne, said in his 30 years of working on light rail systems around the world he has never seen tracks narrow.
“It is exceptional to find one case of track narrowing,” he said. “Something’s wrong with the construction approach.”
Last week, the T’s top infrastructure official told members of the agency’s oversight board the Green Line extension “didn’t meet construction standard.”
Lisa Battiston, a spokesperson for the MBTA, said Tuesday that track gauge, or distance between the rails, “less than 56 1/8 inches requires a 3 mile-per-hour speed restriction.” She declined to answer questions about what the track gauge was at the time the Green Line extension branches opened last year and what the narrowest track gauge is now.
Eng declined Tuesday to share anything he’s learned about how the brand new tracks deteriorated so dramatically in the less than 10 months both branches have been open.
“Sharing bits and pieces of things at this time really doesn’t add to the full review that I want to do,” he said when asked if T officials knew about problems with the tracks before the project opened last year. “I think it’d be premature for me to say what I’ve seen and what I haven’t seen.”
Advocates said more answers should be forthcoming from the T.
Jarred Johnson, executive director of the advocacy group TransitMatters, said there was a mismatch between the rider struggle and the T’s opacity.
“How does the administration think that riders don’t deserve an explanation?” he said. “The tenor of the board meeting and the communication out of the governor’s office and the T does not comport with what it’s like to be a rider on this system.”
Questions also remain about how and by whom the Green Line extension was certified as meeting safety standards before it opened.
Last week, Maria Hardiman, spokesperson for the T’s state safety oversight agency, the Department of Public Utilities, said that the DPU, MBTA, and FTA had certified the Green Line extension met relevant safety standards before it opened. Hardiman clarified her statement Friday after more questions from The Boston Globe, saying the FTA project management oversight contractors performed a “readiness for revenue service report” prior to the branches opening.
Federal regulators on Tuesday said that, according to the law, the Federal Transit Administration “does not provide a safety certification,” according to a spokesperson for the agency.
“FTA’s role in project oversight is to ensure the project sponsor (in this case, MBTA) has processes and procedures in place to build and manage the project,” said an FTA spokesperson in an email.
The MBTA certified the track system, including track gauge, the FTA spokesperson said, and the DPU concurred with the MBTA’s safety certification.
“It is the responsibility of the transit agency to establish engineering and operating standards to reflect its unique operating environment, including track gauge for rail systems,” the FTA said. “FTA is working with its project oversight contractor regarding the track gauge issue and is following up with the MBTA on their action plan.”
That plan can’t come soon enough for riders who waited 30 years for a Green Line extension only to see it become barely usable less than a year after opening.
“How did an agency that 35 years ago was able to . . . build the Red Line extension at the same time as they built the Orange Line become an agency that can’t ensure tracks are wide enough for trains to run on?” said Johnson. “We’re missing that.”