Thoughts on the Amtrak/MBTA Signal Debacle at Attleboro Station Last April

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A 13 year-old boy damaged an Amtrak signal system along the Providence/Stoughton commuter rail line back in April. According to reports, the boy threw an object at the signal, suffering third-degree burns to his legs and causing long-lasting delays for commuter rail customers using the Franklin, Providence/Stoughton, and Needham lines.

While delays are almost routine along these and other commuter rail lines, this one involved Amtrak and exactly whose responsibility it was to fix the problem left commuters scratching their heads. Historically, the Providence/Stoughton line has been plagued by delays due to anything from mechanical failures to signal problems. Quite often, the MBTA blames Amtrak for delays because Amtrak trains have priority over MBTA trains since they own and operate the rails in these sectors. Thus, if an Amtrak train is late it has a domino effect on MBTA trains. Moreover, if a technical issue arises along these routes, Amtrak is responsible for fixing it.

Which leads us to our story.

Because it owns the rails, Amtrak was responsible for fixing the signal that was broken in April. Still, customers were impacted by delays for over two weeks and got only vague answers from Keolis. A post from the MBTA Twitter account read, “The signal point was destroyed, so fr what we were told, approx a week-10 days as of right now.” Meanwhile in Attleboro, where the incident occurred, commuters had to be funneled into trains via step-stool, and at one point ice bags, which led to longer delays and greater inconvenience for agitated commuters.

Posts by the MBTA Commuter Rail Twitter account informed customers almost two weeks after the event that, “Signal issues…should be resolved in the next few days. A van is there to take riders needing assistance to the next station…two yellow stools to help boarding.”

Keolis and the MBTA were already on the hot seat for their inability to deal with the winter’s harsh weather; their response to the situation in April didn’t exactly improve their reputation.

You would think that the MBTA, Keolis and Amtrak would be in constant communication in the aftermath of the winter debacle. You would think that an issue impacting thousands of customers would be met with a more precise time estimate as to when repairs would be completed. You would think that the issue would be met with more pressure from Keolis to have the situation dealt with in a timely fashion. Think again.

Through a public records request, Pioneer asked for, “All email and written communications between Amtrak and the MBTA regarding delays on the Providence line since 4/17/15”.

But according to the MassDOT public records officer, “the records custodians have advised that after a thorough and diligent search of files, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority does not have existing documents responsive to your request and does not maintain this date in a specific database”.

This is difficult to understand based on the mutual dependency between the T, Keolis and Amtrak. They should be in constant communication, especially with large issues like the one that occurred in April. But the time it took to fix the problem indicates they probably were not.

No documents on this proposed communication? Either the MBTA didn’t look too hard or it isn’t doing its job. In either case, fundamental reform is needed to fix the T if we ever want to get to and from work on time.