Attention, Passengers! Better Communication on T May Be Impossible to Achieve

Friday, October 28, 2016

Late Wednesday afternoon, while my fellow prisoners of the MBTA were smashing their way out of a smoke-filled train at Back Bay station on the Orange Line, I was four stops away at State Street, having flashbacks to the brutal winter of 2014-15, a time when I did not descend into the tube without expecting to be delayed, stranded and ignored.

At about 4:40 p.m. on Wednesday, a motor on a train pulling into Back Bay began filling with smoke due to what the T later described as a “propulsion issue.”  There was a fire of some sort, which, one T official said, “caused a large arc and an explosion.”  The fire “also caused trash to catch fire, creating an exorbitant amount of smoke,” that official said.  (Yes, there’s almost always enough trash on the T tracks to catch fire.) Three people, overcome by smoke, were taken to the hospital.
Boston Magazine had an irreverent account of the episode up on its web site in no time, God bless them. 

“The real story,” the magazine said, “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.”

I entered State Street station a few minutes after 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday.  Everything seemed ordinary.  My wife and sister-in-law were planning to pick me up at the northern terminus of the Orange Line, Oak Grove station, between 6:45 and 6:50.  We were going from there to Stearns and Hill, a restaurant in Melrose.   State Street to Oak Grove is about an 18-minute trip when the T's at maximum efficiency.  I had a cushion.
Soon there was an announcement over the public address system that, “Due to an earlier emergency at Back Bay station, service on the Orange Line between Haymarket and Jackson Square has been suspended.”  Since I was going the other way, I felt relieved.  About a minute and a half later, the same message was broadcast on the PA.  Ninety seconds after that, we again heard the same message. 

I noticed the platform was filling up around me.  Consulting the flashboard over my left shoulder, where the arrival time of the next train was usually posted, I found nothing but the time of day.  Worry began churning in my stomach.  More people kept arriving.  I was being subsumed by the crowd.  “Let’s hope everyone stays calm,” I thought.
The PA would not stop with the due-to-an-earlier-emergency-at-Bay-Bay-station stuff while never addressing when the northbound train would arrive, or even if another northbound train would show in State Street this evening.  The T was flunking Communications 101. 

I’d been in this movie before.
At 6:29 p.m., a northbound train finally arrived.  Amazingly, it was not too crowded.  Every seat was occupied but there was standing room. 

At the next stop, Haymarket, the waiting crowd was larger than it had been at State Street.  The doors opened and people poured into every square foot of space.  We moved on to North Station, where the crowd was so large people were standing, stopped, on every step of the staircases down to the platforms. 
The doors opened.  Some persons onboard advised their would-be fellow passengers solemnly that there was no room.  The front line of would-be’s pushed forward anyway, with the result that everyone was compressed into a snuggly-tight, submarine-shaped humanity sandwich.  It was a test of our ability to follow the biblical command to love our neighbor.  If forbearance and mutual respect pass for love in such a situation, as I believe they do, everyone on my car passed.

The train pulled into Oak Grove a few minutes after 7:00 o’clock.  It took ten minutes to find my wife and sister-in-law in the dense, confusing, honking mash-up of cars waiting outside the station.  The jam created by scores of frustrated family-chauffeurs-of-the-moment was one of those inevitable byproducts of an emergency in a confined and thronged public space. 
On Thursday, Governor Charlie Baker told WBZ NewsRadio, “The T probably has some issues it needs to pursue with respect to training.”  He said, “There were some protocol issues there (at Back Bay station).  Normally, when there’s an incident like that, the operator is supposed to make an announcement about it, and explain to people what’s going to happen next.  That didn’t happen.”

Shortly thereafter, the president of the Boston Carmen’s Union, James O’Brien, released a statement that had been prepared for him by the union’s big-time Boston media consultant, O’Neill and Associates.  Here it is in full:
“An MBTA operator jumped out of his cab to evacuate riders, manually opening as many doors as he could while faced with the danger posed by an active fire.  We are disturbed that Governor Baker, today, has chosen to publicly blame that operator despite his heroic actions.  The Governor’s blame is nothing more than an attempt to deflect from the real issue: our MBTA trains are falling apart as a result of decades of neglect and lack of investment.  We are thankful the riders, and the operator, are safe.”

There was a one-sentence post-script, titled “Background,” to that statement.  It said: “Many years ago, MBTA trains had two operators per train.  In a situation like this, one operator could have kept passengers informed while the other worked to manually open the doors.”
I hope that doesn’t mean the Carmen’s Union will resist new training and new rules on handling emergencies.  Management is to blame for poor or non-existent training and rules, but labor is ultimately responsible for protecting the lives and safety of train and bus patrons.

If this situation can’t be improved, I’d be in favor of issuing large ball peen hammers to every T rider until every failure-prone rust-bucket on the Orange Line is replaced with one of those state-of-the-art cars now under construction at the China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation's new factory in Springfield.  Riders could take hammers from racks upon entering stations and return them to racks when exiting their destination stations.  Next time there’s propulsion-issue-related chaos in the underground, I want a fighting chance.



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