The Runaway Red Line Train Story Gets Crazier by the Hour

The train was tampered with. Wait, no—it was 'operator error.' And there was a cord involved. Wait, what?

Already in the midst of a rotten week, the Red Line experienced an unusual incident Thursday, in which a train left Braintree station around 6:08 a.m. and proceed four stops to North Quincy without an operator. The runaway train was only stopped once MBTA personnel de-powered the third rail, injuring one employee in the process. None of the 50 or so passengers aboard Ghost Train™ were hurt.

In the immediate aftermath, the MBTA said its investigation was focusing on a safety device inside the train cab that may have been tampered with, while Gov. Charlie Baker told Herald Radio it was an “isolated incident.”

“This train was tampered with, and it was tampered with by someone who knows what he was doing,” he said.

By Thursday afternoon, transportation officials had come to a different conclusion: operator error. A 51-year-old motorman watched as his train left Braintree in “bypass mode”—often used to move past faulty signals, which have been plaguing Braintree station lately—with its collision avoidance system disengaged, according to MBTA COO Jeff Gonneville. The operator, a 25-year veteran of the MBTA, was placed on administrative leave.

“We failed our passengers today,” Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said at a press conference. “Something happened that should not have been able to happen that put our passengers in danger. I am personally and professionally very gratified that in fact no one was harmed, but what happened today is unacceptable, and it will be investigated and changes will be made to ensure that it doesn’t happen.”

But by Friday, a source close to the ongoing investigation told the Globe the operator had not only failed to set the brake before exiting his train to manually engage bypass mode, but “tied a cord around the throttle.” The controller on the roughly 50-year-0ld train includes a lever, which, when depressed, causes it to accelerate. When an operator lets go of the lever, the train stops. Because the lever was apparently tied down, the train kept going.

This sounds a lot like cruise control, which—and we’re no experts here—probably shouldn’t be used on passenger rail.