The MBTA’s Leadership Is “Defeated, Helpless and in Some Cases Hopeless”

So states a damning new report on the state of the T, which paints a picture of an organization in disarray where "safety is not the priority."

Photo via Boston Fire Department/Twitter

A “debilitated” safety department. Employees silenced by fear of retaliation. Unanswered requests for safety equipment. Maintenance crews stretched thin. A total lapse in organization-wide communication. These are just some of the revelations surfaced by a damning new report on the MBTA’s safety culture published Monday. Most worrisome, though, is what the report pinpoints as the “overarching reason” why safety measures at the agency have fallen to the wayside: Its leadership is a mess.

Compiled by an external panel of transportation experts, the report concludes that the recent derailments and breakdowns riders have noticed on the T are symptoms of the fact that “safety is not the priority at the T.” Problems are everywhere. “In almost every area we examined, deficiencies in policies, application of safety standards or industry best practices, and accountability were apparent,” the report reads.

The safety review panel behind the report, comprised of former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, former FTA Administrator Carolyn Flowers, and former New York City Transit President Carmen Bianco, first convened in June, shortly after the disastrous Red Line derailment that destroyed signal bungalows at JFK/UMass and crippled service for months. To complete their comprehensive analysis, the panel participated in over 100 “collaborative discussions” with MBTA employees and partner organizations at all levels, hosted focus groups, and conducted site visits across the system.

The report is a flashing red warning light. While the T is “relatively safe” for now, according to the report, deep-seated issues within the transit authority require immediate attention. A 7-page executive summary of the 63-page report, which you can read here, reveals that the MBTA’s simultaneous budget tightening and project acceleration has created a serious safety deficiency at the agency. The summary focuses heavily on the MBTA’s subway services. The commuter rail is “performing well” comparatively, likely because the system is beholden to the stricter regulations of the Federal Railroad Administration.

Leadership turnover is the root of many of the problems, the report claims. Since the beginning of the decade, there have been nine new general managers at the MBTA, and little to no time has been invested in onboarding them or introducing them to safety practices, the report says. Leadership was also bogged down by excessively frequent meetings—the panel writes that they “cannot overstate how detrimental” preparations for these meetings are to the “overall safety and operational performance of the organization.” Additionally, the revolving door at the GM’s office has led to confusion surrounding what maintenance and inspections need to be performed, and some preventative maintenance and quality control inspections have thus been omitted or even dropped. This, according to the panel, is a critical issue—and may even be the reason why riders have seen so many service disruptions recently.

Morale also seems to be an issue with the MBTA’s higher-ups. The panel’s interviews with staff revealed that leadership “feels somewhat defeated, helpless and in some cases hopeless” in the face of over-exuberant cost- and staff-cutting.

In turn, employees across the system have lost faith in the abilities of the MBTA’s leaders. The panel claims that multiple employees told them first-hand that they reported safety issues multiple times, only to have their requests go unanswered. Routine upward and downward communication at the organization is basically nonexistent, and employees told the panel that leadership has not attempted to open any channels of communication with them. An “overwhelming number” of MBTA workers are not even able to receive electronic communications—the only channel (outside of a “safety hotline” that does not seem to be taken very seriously) by which they can communicate with agency leaders.

Employees feel there is a “culture of blame and retaliation” at the MBTA, and fear of discipline discourages employees from sharing safety concerns in the field with higher-ups. This tracks with allegations earlier this year from the MBTA’s former top safety official Ron Nickle, who says he was fired by the agency for flagging safety concerns. “It is likely that many safety issues today go unreported” because of this issue, the panel concludes.

Leadership has also failed to support the MBTA’s safety department, the team that should be guiding the organization’s day-to-day safety initiatives. According to the report, the department is “somewhat debilitated” in what they can accomplish, as it is “grossly understaffed” and lacks any subject matter experts.

What’s missing, it seems, is a comprehensive strategic plan for making a safer work environment. Instead, the organization has focused its attention and resources on its capital acceleration program, the initiative that has become well-known among riders for shuttering large portions of the Red, Green, and Orange Lines over the weekends for large-scale repairs. Over-emphasis on this program has been “detrimental to Operations,” the panel claims. “The result is sharing of critical operational resources and stretching those resources to serve multiple functions,” the panel writes. “For example, the maintenance crews are being flexed between daily operational support requirements and the accelerated capital program. This has had an adverse impact on the ability to support system maintenance repairs and safe delivery of services.”

The panel makes six policy recommendations that are intended “to move the organization to a place where safety is a priority and is culturally integrated into every aspect of their mission.” They include establishing better safety performance indicators, identifying the areas where maintenance is being deferred, implementing stronger data collection, and strengthening the MBTA’s leadership team with “more seasoned” transit professionals.

MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said in a statement that the MBTA has already begun implementing many of the recommendations laid out in the SRP’s report. “This has been a constructive and collaborative process that focuses on the highest priority of the T, the Control Board, and the SRP: Making the T a world leader in transit safety while we provide reliable, dependable, attractive service every day to our 1.3 million riders,” he says.

Given the disarray the report found at the top levels of the agency, that’s not necessarily reason to think that things will get better any time soon.