Eng: MBTA knew years ago that Green Line Extension was too narrow

Local News

Half of the Union Square GLX branch and 80% of the Medford branch needs to be fixed, MBTA General Manager Phil Eng said Thursday.

MBTA General Manager Phillip Eng spoke to reporters during a press conference where he offered an explanation of what went wrong with the Green Line Extension. Jessica Rinaldi/Boston Globe Staff

The MBTA knew as early as April 2021 that parts of the Green Line Extension were too narrow, an issue so widespread that the T now needs to widen roughly two-thirds of the almost brand-new rails, General Manager Phil Eng said Thursday.

The $2.3 billion Green Line Extension opened just last year, making it the newest part of the T system.

Earlier this fall, the transit agency confirmed that narrow track gauge was to blame for speed restrictions that slowed GLX trolleys to a 3 mph crawl. While the T lifted those slow zones last week, Eng said in a press conference that half of the Union Square branch and 80% of the Medford branch now needs to be regauged. 

“That does not mean that the trains are running today unsafely,” he added. “It means that we’re going to have the GLX constructors regauge the track to bring it back to what the project called for.”

  • Report: Brand new Green Line Extension riddled with defects

  • Green Line Extension back at full speed after MBTA addresses narrow tracks

Eng, who took charge of the MBTA earlier this year, said he only recently found out about the gauge issues. He explained that a review of project records found that GLX construction crews and inspectors first identified an instance of “tight gauge” back in April 2021.

“While those conditions were addressed, I believe that at that time, it was the appropriate time and should have been when the project team and design builders took a look at how we had those conditions exist,” he said.

In November 2022 — when the Union Square branch was already running and the Medford branch was about to open — crews found 29 spots where the gauge was too narrow and made repairs, according to Eng. The same inspection also identified “significant portions” of both branches “that had tight gauge, but not restrictable gauge, meaning you could run trains safely,” he said. 

That, too, was an opportunity for the MBTA to address track conditions prior to the GLX opening, according to Eng. Instead, he said, project leaders ultimately decided to address the issues later “as part of a project close-out.”

The team “could have been more proactive and should have been more proactive,” Eng asserted. 

Why are the tracks defective?

The T is still reviewing what caused the narrow gauge, but Eng said he believes the problem stems from the fabrication of the rail ties and pre-installed plates — the wooden supports underneath the tracks and the metal plates anchoring them.

According to The Boston Globe, regauging the tracks will involve unscrewing bolts from the tie plates, filling in the holes and drilling new ones, and securing the plates at the correct gauge. 

Internal emails obtained by the Globe showed members of the MBTA’s track department asked Green Line Extension manager John Dalton to fix not only the areas with the most narrow gauge — which would have required speed restrictions — but also thousands of other spots where the gauge remained outside construction specifications.

The tracks were deemed safe when local, state, and federal officials gathered to cut the ribbon on the Medford branch last December because workers scrambled in those final days to fix the most serious problems, Eng told the Globe

The Green Line Extension. – David L. Ryan/Boston Globe Staff, File

What’s next for the GLX?

Thursday saw a shakeup in leadership for the GLX project, with Eng tapping Chief of Capital Program Support Maureen McDonough to serve as acting Green Line Extension program manager. T spokesperson Joe Pesaturo also confirmed that two individuals with senior roles on the project are no longer employed by the T, though he did not identify them.

During the press conference, Eng said the team that built the GLX has offered a proposal for bringing the gauge back within the project requirements. 

“The goal is to make sure, now that we’re aware of this situation, that they’re addressed timely, addressed properly so these situations aren’t continuing to repeat,” he said, later adding, “It’s not going to be years; it’s not going to be months. The proposal that we have is weeks.”

Eng also suggested that the public should not be asked to foot the bill for repairs, asserting: “This is not something that the public should be paying for.”

In a statement, Gov. Maura Healey praised Eng for “uncovering this and taking swift action to hold people accountable and demand a work plan from the contractor to fix the narrow gauges on their own dime.”

Like Eng, Healey took office after the GLX had already opened; former Gov. Charlie Baker and then-MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak saw the project through to fruition. 

“I share the public’s frustration and disappointment at the revelation that senior MBTA officials under the previous administration knew about issues with the Green Line Extension tracks years ago and did not disclose them to our administration or address them on their watch,” she said. “The people of Massachusetts deserve better.”

Originally posted 2023-10-20 16:13:10.