Dispatcher Availability No Longer All That's Holding Back MBTA Service

There's still no clear indication when the MBTA will restore weekday rapid transit frequency

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When a federal investigation last year uncovered an exhausted, shorthanded staff of dispatchers coordinating the movement of heavy rail through the MBTA's core subway system, the agency's leadership responded by slashing weekday service to weekend levels on three lines.

T officials said at the time the Red, Orange and Blue Line cuts would continue "through the summer" amid an aggressive hiring campaign to staff up the operations control center. "And as soon as sufficient dispatch capacity exists, the MBTA will revert to its previous level of service," they wrote in a June 17 press release.

Now, eight months after those cuts went into effect and with the dispatcher workforce on the verge of achieving the current "target minimum," there's still no clear indication when the MBTA will restore weekday rapid transit frequency and officials have added other factors into the mix.

"We've successfully been aggressively pursuing a hiring campaign and other initiatives to increase both our dispatcher capacity and improve their quality of life," MBTA Acting Deputy Chief Operating Officer Kat Benesh told the agency's board Friday. "While we're still keeping a close eye on our overall dispatcher levels, we are transitioning to our rapid transit service levels really being driven by vehicle availability and motorperson staffing."

Benesh briefed the board on the operations control center conditions the Federal Transit Administration found last year and hiring efforts undertaken since then.

Historically, the T relied on a force of 16 permanent dispatchers and two spare dispatchers, which Benesh said functioned "basically like pinch hitters," to manage the Red, Orange and Blue Line.

In June, when the FTA published interim findings of its safety probe, the operations control center had only 15 rapid transit dispatchers total. Federal investigators said at the time some dispatchers were required to work 16- or 20-hour shifts followed by only four hours off, creating safety risks.

"That was leading to fatigue, overwork and thus obviously low morale," Benesh said Friday.

The agency has since limited OCC dispatchers to a maximum of 14 hours worked per day with at least 10 hours off between shifts, plus a guaranteed break each shift, Benesh said.

"These actions together have allowed us to really improve the quality of life, ensure that folks are working a reasonable number of hours, that they're getting breaks because it's such an intense job, and that it's sustainable for folks to want to be dispatchers," Benesh said. "We really have made a lot of progress on this front."

Benesh told the board an analysis of the T and its needs settled on new recommended staffing levels for Red, Orange and Blue Line dispatchers. An upper goal of 32 workers -- broken down into 27 permanent dispatchers plus five spares -- would allow the T to be "best in class," while 24 dispatchers is the "target minimum."

"That allows us to have a level of coverage that we've never had before that also really improves our ability to support those overnight [maintenance] activities the general manager was talking about, which are so crucial to the health of the infrastructure of the system," Benesh said.

Officials rolled out several steps to attract more dispatchers, including a $10,000 signing bonus that will remain available through March, open houses and outreach to potential candidates. Historically, only existing MBTA employees qualify for dispatcher jobs, and Interim General Manager Jeff Gonneville said the agency is exploring the idea of hiring externally for the role.

As of Friday, the operations control center had 21 permanent heavy-rail dispatchers employed, five who were performing those duties while "on loan" from other MBTA departments, and another three in training, according to Benesh.

While that puts the "nerve center" department close to the baseline staffing level she described, Benesh also indicated hitting that minimum will not be enough to prompt a reversal of service cuts that have slowed weekday travel times for hundreds of thousands of Boston-area commuters since last summer.

"We are transitioning to the point where increasing Red, Orange and Blue [Line] service is not solely dependent now on our heavy rail dispatchers, but also our vehicle availability and staffing of operators and front-line management," Benesh said.

She did not provide more details on the vehicle and front-line operator pressure points, nor lay out a timeline for when the conditions will support restoring service.

Members of the T board did not ask Benesh or Gonneville about the apparent shift in what will be needed to reverse service cuts. Instead, they heaped praise on MBTA staff for the presentation about operations control center hiring and policy changes.

"It's awesome to look at this. From where we were a year ago, it's incredible," said board member Bob Butler. "It's amazing that we were running the system the way we were running it a year ago, and to look at this, it's kind of scary, as we all know."

Fellow board member Mary Beth Mello said the T "made tremendous progress over the past year."

"I know the public doesn't always see that, but it's a very difficult thing to run a transit system with this many modes and with this aging infrastructure. Your focus on state of good repair, your focus on hiring, your focus on safety, your focus on reliability, takes a lot of effort and takes a lot of money," Mello said. "I think it's really important for the public to know about all the work that's going on in those arenas. We know we still have problems, we have many problems, but you're working very carefully and hard with your team and all the men and women at the MBTA to make progress."

"The more you can have this transparency and increase the awareness of the public about what goes into running this system will be much appreciated, because people obviously don't understand it, and why would they? It's a very intricate enterprise," Mello added.

Other than new Transportation Secretary Gina Fiandaca, the MBTA board still consists entirely of Gov. Charlie Baker appointees more than a month into Gov. Maura Healey's tenure. Mello, Butler and board member Scott Darling serve coterminous terms, meaning they remain on the board until they are replaced or reappointed by the governor.

Gonneville, who long served as deputy GM before Baker tapped him in December to serve on an interim basis, will hold the top job until Healey is ready to make a permanent pick, a process she said in late January would be a matter of "weeks, not months."

The T on Friday also launched two major public-facing reports about critical issues in the spotlight in recent months: its work to fix problems the FTA identified, and slow zones that drag down travel times.

The FTA dashboard tracks the MBTA's progress on mandatory corrective action plans, which covers work on track maintenance, preventing runaway trains, safety certifications, workforce issues and more.

Gonneville called the dashboard "a large step forward for this agency."

The other public report makes clear for the first time the scope of speed restrictions in place across the MBTA, an issue the T targeted -- and claimed to have achieved at least some success -- with a month-long shutdown of the entire Orange Line last summer.

According to the data published Friday, a total of 8.7 miles of MBTA subway and trolley track had mandatory speed restrictions in place as of Jan. 31, the majority of which were on the Red and Orange Lines.

The Orange Line was home to 24 separate speed restrictions in January, covering 2.9 miles or 13.1 percent of the line's tracks. On the main Red Line, excluding the Mattapan Line, there were 27 restrictions in January, covering 3.8 miles or 9.1 percent of the track.

Allowable speeds varied in those slow zones, with the Red and Orange Line limits falling as low as 10 mph in some areas. The slowest of the slow zones was on the Green Line, where a stretch of the D Branch westbound between Kenmore and Fenway can only go 3 mph -- a speed that the Boston Globe pointed out earlier this week is slower than the average adult runner.

"Obviously, these are issues that people care about, that we care about, and that we use to track and manage internally, but now also giving that information out publicly is what we're looking to do," Gonneville said.

For the next couple of months, the speed data will be published in a PDF form, and the T will transition to an interactive dashboard by early April, Gonneville said.

"That interactive dashboard is going to be impressive. From what I understand and what I'm being told by the team, we may actually be one of the leaders of transit systems, at least large transit systems in the United States, once this dashboard is done and completed," he said.

Copyright State House News Service
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