MBTA’s Unsafety Culture

In February, the Boston Globe revealed that an engineer for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) had ten license suspensions and multiple stops for drunken driving on his record. If he wasn’t safe behind the wheel of an automobile, the newspaper asked, how could he be considered safe at the throttle of a commuter train carrying hundreds of people?

MBTA initially denied it was aware of the engineer’s record, something the Globe quickly disproved. The MBTA then said that this employee was a rare exception who somehow slipped through the cracks, possibly, no one said aloud, because his father was a judge.

Challenge accepted, said the Globe, which filed public records requests on the driving records of the agency’s other engineers. It turns out that a few more others also have poor driving records.

In fact, 85 percent have at least one driving infraction. Scores have two or more. At least six have been labeled “habitual traffic offenders.” One had his license suspended 39 times and been twice convicted for drunk driving.

Technically, these engineers are employees of Keolis, a French company that has the contract to run MBTA’s commuter trains. But Keolis inherited the employees from another company when it took over the contract in 2014.

Under MBTA union rules, it is difficult to dismiss an employee whether they work for MBTA or for a contractor such as Keolis. But Keolis is far from innocent. When its vice president of safety warned the company that engineers with poor driving records left the company open to serious liability issues, rather than dismissing the unsafe engineers, the company fired the vice president.

The Globe admits that driving a train is very different from driving a car. But it found experts who agree that people who are reckless behind the wheel of a car are also likely to be more reckless when driving a train.

For example, it found one engineer who had ten traffic tickets who also had violated safety rules as an engineer at least eight times. In fact, the previous operator of Boston’s commuter trains had fired him for those violations — but Keolis rehired him.

While it would be easy to pin all the blame on Keolis, the reality is that the MBTA puts new construction over safety. In 2009, a state report found that the agency had a $3.2 billion maintenance backlog and wasn’t even fixing problems that posed an “imminent danger to life or limb of passengers and/or employees.” Since then, the maintenance backlog has grown to more than $7.3 billion while MBTA is spending $2.3 billion building a new light-rail line.

Everyone pays lip service to “safety first,” but if an agency’s leaders don’t make safety a priority in actual practice, its employees won’t either. MBTA is clearly short of funds to manage the system it has, much less an expanded one, and long-term safety has been one of the sacrifices it has made to keep the wheels rolling in the short run.


3 thoughts on “MBTA’s Unsafety Culture

  1. Henry Porter

    “The MBTA board last year awarded … Keolis an eight-year, $2.68 billion contract to operate the system, …. The deal has a four-year option that could bring its value to $4.26 billion. The contract includes a so-called no excuses clause that allows Keolis to be fined up to $12 million a year for subpar performance.”

    Keolis gets $918,800 per day to do whatever it does. The highest penalty it can be assessed for the worst possible performance amounts to 3.6 percent or 13 days’ pay per year. It would be hard to find a sweeter deal.


  2. LazyReader

    “Under MBTA union rules, it is difficult to dismiss an employee”

    “It’s impossible to negotiate with the government” No, that quote isn’t attributed to any famous conservative like Newt Gingrich or Ronald Reagan, those were the words of George Meany in 1955, the former president of the AFL-CIO, one of the nations largest labor unions. While the founders of the labor movement viewed unions as a means to get workers more of the profits they help create, the government on the other hand their workers however don’t generate profit. They merely negotiate for more of your tax money. When they “strike” they strike against the taxpayers they’re meant to serve. Franklin Roosevelt considered this unthinkable and intolerable. It also means voters get no final say on public policy anymore. Instead whom they elect, must negotiate with unions. Meany was not alone, up thru the 50s unions agreed….that collective bargaining had no place in government, but starting in Wisconsin in 1959, states began to allow it. Back then it used to be “You go work for the government” the pay sucks but there are perks, you cant get fired and the benefits are generous. Now when you include salary and pension obligations they make 2-3 times the nations median income. The influx of dues and members hanged the tune about unions in the public sector and they spread and encompassed the nations major public roles, teachers, transit, etc. Ultimately no mayor or governor has any real power to stop them, the contract is signed almost immediately upon introduction into office it’s that or risk pissing off the states most powerful political donors. The writings on the wall and we foresaw the effects of a heavy handed government public sector and it’s lack of finances to pay for a growing pool of retiring government workers who still think they can collect six figures from age 50 onward. And the executive branch that signs off on this has no real concern cause they’ll be out of office by the time contracts are up for renegotiation or worse when the liability becomes a burden.

    2nd they have no incentive to fight decadent spending anyway, neither do average people. Say the government passes a small 500 million dollar raise to support their government workers. That’s a lot of cash but since the total cost is spread among so many taxpayers they only see a 5 cent tax increase, a nickel. The taxpayer get’s dinged for five mesely cents, really has no incentive to be outside all day protesting it. Would you spend all day protesting yelling at the top of your lungs over a nickel a year? That’s why government always grows bigger, whenever there’s a proposal that boosts spending, the group that benefits fight for it, meanwhile the taxpayer shrugs the extra nickel.

  3. JOHN1000

    Guaranteed – if (more likely, when) a disaster is caused by one of these employees, or due to dangerous conditions not being repaired, the media, unions and politicians will blame the taxpayers for not giving the MBTA more $.

    The worst thing that will happen to those at fault is that a few people will start taking their pensions earlier.

    I wish I was wrong on this, but…

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