Haverhill Commuter Rail Failure Last Week Adds to MBTA Storm-Related Woes

MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak. (Chris Lisinski/SHNS.)

Locomotive failures on the Haverhill commuter rail line during last Tuesday’s snowstorm helped stymie officials’ attempts to get people to leave their cars at home.

MBTA officials are taking a “hard look” at locomotive failures on the commuter rail system and recently-exposed Orange Line service problems, according to the agency's leader.

“We need to learn something from every one of these incidents,” MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak told WCVB’s “On the Record,” Sunday morning, citing the two areas as current focal points.

The problems came to light as public officials last week urged people to use public transit and stay off the roads during a snowstorm. Mechanical and power problems contributed to service woes on the Orange Line, leading the T to temporarily shut down of parts of the line, which riders count on for an average of 216,000 trips each weekday.

“We are taking a hard look at the number of in-service failures we have had this week,” Poftak said. "We obviously have not met our standards or our customers’ standards in terms of service on the Orange Line. And we’re going to take a hard look at those failures. There’s no common thread between all of them.”

Last  Tuesday, there were locomotive failures on the Haverhill and Providence lines, according to Keolis. After experiencing mechanical issues, a commuter rail coach also detached from its train during the morning commute Monday, Dec. 2, in an incident that system operator Keolis said was not weather-related.

Riders take an average of 121,000 trips per weekday on the commuter rail system, according to the T.

A spokesman for Keolis said the MBTA and the company are addressing mechanical issues with older equipment through an expanded locomotive overhaul program and the procurement of new bi-level coach cars.

A regular user of the MBTA system, Poftak said he hears complaints and support from riders at about a “50-50” split. “Obviously we’re only as good as our last service, or if people have had an issue they’ll let you know,” he said. “And it is helpful to hear this.”

While frustrated by the T’s opening act this winter, Poftak also expressed confidence. “We’ll be ready for the rest of the winter,” he said, adding that the T’s buses ran “quite well” last week.

New Cars Still Out of Service

Poftak also discussed the T’s decision to pull brand new Orange Line cars out of service, describing problems with those vehicles as “not atypical for the vehicle acceptance process.”

On Nov. 18, the T pulled the new cars out of service in response to noises emanating from the trains. The problem “has to do with pads that are the interface between the vehicle itself and the truck assembly that holds the wheels,” Poftak said.

Poftak could not specify when the new trains would be put back into service, saying they would remain out of service “until we resolve this issue.”

“We are going to get 404 of these vehicles. We want to make sure any issues we find -- we want to get them resolved early in the process,” he said.

Expressing confidence in a “technical solution,” Poftak said, “We have teams working on multiple streams.”

The problem was caught early and “did not progress into a safety issue,” he said, declining to speculate on whether it would have become a safety issue.

“Our priority is safety and durability,” Poftak said. “These cars should be in service for at least 30 years. We want to make sure that we make the right decision for the long-term health of the vehicles.”

House Democrats are poised in January to unveil a proposal to generate new revenue for transportation investments, even though Gov. Charlie Baker has been repeating his belief that the system is adequately funded and calling on the Legislature to pass his multi-year $19 billion transportation bond bill.

To address traffic congestion and MBTA shortcomings, Democrats are exploring a gas tax increase, higher fees for ride services, and other options that could make getting around Massachusetts more expensive.

Poftak pointed out that two years must pass between MBTA fare increases, the last of which occurred this year. Calling the MBTA’s capital budget “fully funded,” he deflected on the idea of a gas tax hike.

“Right now we have the revenue we need to operate the T,” he said, adding, “That is an issue I’m not prepared to take on.”

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