On the T with MBTA GM Rich Davey

I don't often travel on the T after 8 for various reasons, all unrelated to the number of notices I get via the T-Alerts emails about delays. Last Thursday evening it was an unavoidable affair, but it was certainly  fruitful. MBTA General Manager Rich Davey, another person, and I were all heading home after the joint MBTA-MassDOT Developers event, Where's The Bus? 2.0 and we got stuck on a southbound Red Line train at Charles-MGH due to a broken down train at Park Street. Our idle chatting turned into an impromptu interview with the new GM nearly 11 weeks into his appointment.

The Red Line

A spillover discussion with another person from the meeting about the audible noise of square wheels on our train as it pulled into the station led to the first topic of the night: the mid-life overhaul of the 30 to 40 year old cars currently operating on the Red Line. It wasn't clear if this was something he intends to do or if this was a cost-cutting measure in place of ordering new rollingstock for the Red and Orange Lines.

One of the bigger questions asked was whether there had been follow-up metrics gathering and action regarding the introduction nearly a year and a half ago of the seatless cars to the Red Line, dubbed Big Red. It turns out that not much has been done about them, beyond introduction to the system. I shared my observation of the cars being run too early to really be effective at adding capacity. GM Rich Davey will be looking into the subject and I look forward to mention of it sometime soon.

The Green Line

Recent tweets I've seen by passengers waiting for trains after Red Sox games prompted me to ask Mr. Davey about three car train operation on the Green Line. It turns out that when he was first appointed, he had inquired himself and was told the reason three car train operation wasn't possible was because the MBTA had made some sort of semi-permanent commitment to some entity to run two car trains. I have been unable to find such supporting evidence, but am willing to believe such a crazy policy exists. The GM expressed similar sentiments.

In light of this, he has put forth a commitment to increase throughput on the Green Line and push forward with three car train operation with the installation of a dedicated light rail line supervisor to the Green Line, removed from the burdens of dealing with the organization’s three heavy rail lines. Further, the MBTA has plans to implement positive train control (PTC) to add capacity while increasing safety. PTC would give operators at the MBTA operations centre and the drivers themselves with exact positions of each train on the line, which in turn would allow trains to run much closer to each other while maintaining a generous margin of safety with fail-safe computer systems that would halt a train if it were to come too close to another.

Mr. Davey then mused about the MBTA's options as far as traffic mitigation along the central corridor between Kenmore and Boylston, where the Green Line sees 4 lines consolidated to one inbound and one outbound track. He played with the idea of having a second level built under the main tracks to accommodate E trains, which split from the main line west of Copley, and eliminate the grade-level crossing west of Copley, the site of many derailments and a major choke point for the Green Line. Unfortunately, any lower level for the Green Line was destined for the Silver Line, which is now an underserved Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line, would not be able to coexist with the Green Line unless it were properly converted to light rail; something we both sighed at.


Toward the end of our conversation, I brought up how he had found out about the new signage I had put up in the system (Chris Dempsey, former member of the MassDOT Developers team, mentioned he had seen them himself on the subway). From that, he expressed intent to unify signage across the system and alluded to the meeting I will be having with another former member of the MassDOT Developers team, Josh Robin. This led me to further suggest unification of signage not just on platforms but also within the trains. We'll see where that goes.


The last thing we discussed before our train finally pulled out of Charles/MGH was the recent acquisition of motive power for the commuter rail, possible electrification of the lines, and more immediately, the acquisition of Diesel Multiple Units for more frequent and reliable operation. Electrification is still a ways off and would cost billions to implement, but it would provide real change that would certainly trump investments in the massive Big Dig project. Also not clear on this, but DMUs may be being purchased for testing on the commuter rail.

Another thing Mr. Davey noted about DMUs was the additional motive power that would be added to the system if DMUs were acquired - this would increase the amount of heavy maintenance that would be needed to support such a fleet, in contrast to the few diesel engines that pull the fleet today. There are several benefits to running DMUs, but proliferation of DMUs is severely hampered in the US by the FRA's backwards and largely unnecessary regulations of rail stock. ('Mister Transportation Secretary LaHood, tear down these laws!')

More immediately, Mr. Davey revealed that the MBTA/MBCR was close to sealing a deal with CSX, the massive freight rail operator who owns much of the track in the US east of the Mississippi River and has repeatedly stood in the way of improved regional and commuter rail in the northeast. The deal is to hand over to the MBCR/Commonwealth certain stretches of track to improve operational flexibility and reliability.

We eventually pulled into Park Street and Mr. Davey alighted from the train. I would've certainly appreciated more time to talk railway operations, but from what time I had, I gleaned a good deal of information about the GM's projects and a real sense of commitment from Mr. Davey to improving the system. I look forward to seeing the same energy from him and his team a year out from his appointment.

General Manager Rich Davey is now on Twitter @MBTAGM and will be regularly tweeting behind-the-scenes info about the MBTA.