Here’s What Happened on the MBTA Last Night

Smoky chaos on the Orange Line and delays on the Red Line have left commuters with lots of questions.

Orange Line

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Update 3:21 p.m.: It looks like some good is coming out of the national and international attention being paid to last night’s smoky incident at Back Bay. Stuart Long, the commuter who shot a widely-shared video of the emergency evacuation at the T stop, has been granting the rights for TV news agencies to use his footage in exchange for donations to support ALS research. He tells Boston he’s raised $500-600 so far.

“I have participated in the ALS walk for the past 4 years, and this year I fell short of my goal,” he wrote in a message on Twitter. “I thought I could put the funds to good use, and help out the ALS Association.”

Earlier: Some called it the MBTApocalypse. Others called it just another day in a system that Bostonians can never quite be sure will work like it’s supposed to.

Last night’s chaos at Back Bay station was another reminder that not only might you not make it to work on time if you take the T, you might actually end up carrying your co-passengers through a window, and hacking up smoke.

It was also a good case study for how a combination of small failures on the MBTA (a malfunctioning engine, a bundle of trash) and big ones (a heaping backlog of repairs) can bring mayhem and disarray to the city in a matter of minutes. And as the scene inside Bay Bay station makes its way into national and international headlines (and not to mention with winter creeping closer by the day) it’s left riders with lots of frustrations about how the city and the state are handling this old, error-prone system of ours.

Here’s what we know about what happened yesterday. The T says that around 4:40 p.m., there was a “propulsion issue” that caused smoke to pour into the station when the train’s motor overheated. A T official tells the Herald that a fire “caused a large arc, and an explosion. It also caused trash to catch fire 
creating an exorbitant amount of smoke.” There were no serious injuries reported, but three people were taken to the hospital for evaluation after smoke inhalation.

The real story, though, is the footage that emerged from what happened: Panicked passengers scrambling to escape an Orange Line train by smashing through windows and crawling out of them. One video of the chaos had been retweeted nearly 2,000 times by Thursday morning, and by the early evening had been featured in at least one national news outlet. “This is the picture of Boston we are sending to the world,” tweeted Steve Koczela, MassINC president.

Others, including members of Boston’s City Council, were also expressing their rage online last night.

Council president Michelle Wu called the video “terrifying & unacceptable” in a Tweet, adding, “How often does this have to happen before @MBTA makes real plan & investments to fix infrastructure, expand service??”

City Councilor Josh Zakim replied, saying: “It’s enough already. Time for @CharlieBakerMA to commit to real investment in our #PublicTransit system!”


Mayor Marty Walsh renewed calls to fund fixes at the T with new revenue, calling the agency’s problems a “revenue issue.”

“It concerns people, and I think that what we need here is a comprehensive plan to move the T forward. We’re talking about an old system with a lot of old vehicles,” Walsh told reporters Thursday, according to the Globe. He added: “We have to get a little creative here and maybe do some type of tax with an end in sight, so you have something in place.”

Elsewhere, others were seeing delays on the Red Line due to a disabled train at Alewife. And commutes around the city were impacted by both of those problems, as images and videos surfaced of packed T platforms well past rush hour.

Yesterday and today, people were tweeting about last night’s meltdown like it was a psychological trauma:

It didn’t help that there were delays again this morning, with the Orange Line once again the center of attention: a “track problem” at Wellington and a disabled train at Tufts Medical Center. It gave riders yet another reason to vent.

Some, though, saw the bright side.

There was more T news to surface this morning. As the Herald notes today, despite that backlog of more than $7 billion in needed repairs, the T hasn’t yet spent even half of its repair budget so far this year. And the Globe reports on a shakeup in the HR department after the trouble agency lost $600,000 due to errors in a billing system that overcharged or undercharged employees, as well as $9 million missing from outside partners who weren’t paying their bills.

The conversation about all of this is likely to continue at least tomorrow, while the scenes from the Orange Line are still fresh in commuters’ minds. The T’s fiscal and management control board meets on Friday to discuss its “strategic plan.” They can expect an earful.