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.