Grabauskas Retrospective; What Now for T?

Say what you will about Dan Grabauskas; he is a political survivor.  The public servant who reformed the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles resigned under pressure from Governor Patrick and his appointee James Aloisi today, nearly a year short of the end of his five-year term as general manager of the MBTA.  The Democratic governor will have his chance to appoint a successor, but the bitter partisan flavor probably will linger with voters for some time.  The tab for buying Gov. Patrick an extra nine months of direct control of the MBTA: $327,487.  I hope that turns out to be a good investment, but at the moment it’s not so clear that Messrs. Patrick and Aloisi gave taxpayers a good deal.

In 2005, Grabauskas took the job of general manager with a clear vision.  The T would treat riders like customers; the system would be reliable, clean, courteous, and safe.  But mainly clean.  And accessible; inaccessibility “impacts not only on the disabled, but on parents with children in strollers, as well.” Grabauskas professed to be a neatnik; he was particularly concerned about the condition of elevators and escalators.  He apparently believed that if he made the T a comfortable place to be, riders would flock and revenues would soar.  And, of course, he wanted to control costs.

So four years later, how did he do?

Grabauskas never shrunk from the gaze of his “customers,” for example writing a regular Q+A column in the free daily paper Metro, and appearing more than once on WBUR public radio.  He was determined to keep riders safe; he initiated random, highly visible police screening checkpoints.  He committed to spending hundreds of millions of dollars to make the T more accessible, installing announcement screens and elevated platforms on the Green Line.  He resisted union contract demands and agreed to wage increases only after being overruled by a labor arbitrator.  The T renovated the Charles Street station and installed a new train control system on the Red Line that permitted more frequent service.  And there is the electronic fare system.

The list goes on.  Grabauskas was nothing if not engaged in the goings-on at the T.  Perhaps one can disagree with him on policy matters — for example it might be reasonable to question the wisdom of a having a broke organization with heavy capital needs spend hundreds of millions of dollars in an effort to meet the unique requirements of less than 0.1% of T riders — but the man demonstrated integrity and dedication to his “customers.”

But many things never changed.  Yes, the trains still are slow and late.  Yes, the escalators have at times been scandalously unreliable.  Yes there still are door-openers on the  Red, Green, and Orange Lines.  Yes, Kenmore Station still is under construction nearly five years later.  No, Dan Grabauskas does not commute to work on the T.  Yes, the T still is broke.

No Cell Zone

No Cell Zone

But none of those were the reasons that Governor Patrick and his appointees gave for the reasons they had lost faith in Grabauskas.  The breakdown occurred, they said, because two Green Line drivers in two years apparently had ignored traffic signals for different reasons, and Grabauskas was not in Washington, D. C. when the NTSB released its report on one of the accidents.  And there was a power outage on the Green Line.  That’s it.  Never mind that Grabauskas nearly overmanaged the aftermath of the Government Center Green Line collision by banning cell phones from drivers.  And never mind that he was on an unpaid budget-related furlough at the time the NTSB report was released.  And never mind he is not the T electrician.

No matter; Grabauskas is out, but to Gov. Patrick’s likely chagrin, the former T general manager emerges from the tussle virtually unscathed.  That isn’t true for the Governor and his appointees.  The termination looks like short-term political retribution — at taxpayers’ expense.

Unfortunately, the real loser here looks to be the T.  The authority is leaderless at a critical time where the patchwork of agencies is being reexamined and when the modes of transportation finance are in flux in a way they have not been in memory.  The Governor has made noises time and again that he is a friend to transit.  Now he has an opportunity to go from words to action.

Elevator & Escalator Project

Former location of Unit 323, Ashmont Station

Former location of Unit 323, Ashmont Station (demolished in 2006)

At the end of 2007, the MBTA operated 167 escalators in 50 transit stations.  The MBTA believed that it operated one additional unit in one additional station at the end of 2007 (and it reported that to the Globe, among others), but that was not true.  That escalator also didn’t have a spotless operating record as the MBTA claimed.  The extra escalator (unit 323 in Ashmont Station) was dismantled before 2007.  Ooops.

I’ve long questioned whether the MBTA’s analysis of its escalator statistics was really accurate.  This project collects the MBTA’s escalator outage statistics.

2007 MBTA Escalator Data

As a starting point, the MBTA sent a set of records for 2007 relating to elevator and escalator outages.  Here is a more compact version, downloadable here as a 236kb tab-delimited text file.  The data contains a list of MBTA daily log entries for instances when an escalator was out of service; the station, unit number, beginning of the outage, and (if it ended the same day) the end of the outage.  For outages spanning multiple days, there are multiple entries.  One outage was more than three months.

What interesting nuggets have the data revealed?

Highest % of Time Out of Service in 2007

Unit 394, Aquarium station (outbound platform to mezzanine).  18.6% (68 days). This unit went out of service on May 21 and was not back online until July 25, when “98 steps” had been replaced.  Wasn’t that station renovated recently?

Unit 6, State Street station (northbound platform to paid lobby).  15.0% (55 days). This unit experienced three weeks-long outages.

Greatest Number of Separate Outages

Unit 113, Downtown Crossing (Red Line northbound platform to Hawley Street).  62 separate restarts after repairs.  Average time per outage: 9.6 hours.  In October and November, alone there were 21 separate outages.  Most often the unit wouldn’t start; occasionally it wouldn’t stop.  There were several notations about the handrail.  Apparently the problem was not easily located or fixed.

Unit 354, Alewife station (concourse to garage level 2).  56 separate restarts after repairs.  Average time per outage: 10.1 hours.  Sixteen separate outages in July, including 6 in two consecutive days.  The unit repeatedly shut itself off, inexplicably.

Most Reliable

Two units had no outages reported.  Both are doubtful and have been disqualified.  Unit 323, Ashmont station, was demolished before the year began and, contrary to MBTA daily reports, did not operate in 2007.  Unit 348, Quincy Adams station, serving the top level of the multi-story parking garage, had no outages reported, but in a visit in 2008, the unit was out of service and the attendant was not aware of the outage.  The most likely winners are as follows:

Unit 404, World Trade Center (outbound platform to lobby).  86 minutes out of service in 2007.

Unit 397, Aquarium station (1st landing to street).  287 minutes out of service in 2007.

Stations with Highest Rates Out of Service

Beachmont station, 2 escalators, 5.9% of time out of service.

Park Street station, 3 escalators, 5.2% of time out of service.

Porter Square station, 7 escalators, 5.1% of time out of service.

Stations with Lowest Rates Out of Service

Jackson Square station, 1 escalator, 0.1% of time out of service.

Wellington station, 2 escalators, 0.1% of time out of service.

Dishonorable mentions

Units 428 & 429, Maverick station (unpaid lobby to street).  These units were new and began service in October.  They don’t make escalators like they used to.  In their first month of operation, together the units accumulated 28 separate outages.  They finished 2007 ranked numbers 3 and 19 in highest percentage of time out of service (of 169 units).  The problem apparently was that the new units repeatedly would not start.

Unit 123, Andrew station (southbound platform to busway).  Highest differential between rush hour time out of service (12.4%) and general time out of service (9.8%).  The unit was often out of service, and especially at rush hour.

Units 326, 327, and 383, North Quincy station; Unit 125 Bowdoin station.  The MBTA reported superior reliability for each of these units when calculated on a standard 20-hour, 7-day a week schedule.  Kudos.  Except the facilities in which these units are located didn’t operate on a full schedule in 2007.  The areas where the escalators were located closed early each night and did not open on weekends.  Results should have been calculated on a 15-hour day (plus or minus) and a 5-day week.

Do you speak MBTA-ese?

Have you ever wondered how to communicate with an organization as unwieldy as the MBTA? I have. I’ve tried a few approaches; I’ve emailed. You need to be patient with that approach. Three months is roughly the average response time. I’ve spoken with station agents. Many are friendly and eager to help; others aren’t and still others are difficult to find. Results are uneven and often dissatisfying. I’ve organized and written well-reasoned letters. It’s a lot of work, and sometimes it seems like more trouble than it’s worth.

Well, I think I’ve found a far more efficient way to communicate with the MBTA. It’s simple. Here’s what you do: stand in front of whatever happens to be the problem, and take a picture. This morning I took two pictures. Well, in fairness I took about ten, but they were only of two things.

Warning sign on disabled=

An escalator on the Red Line, unit No. 504, was condemned by an inspector a few weeks ago and it has been out of service ever since. It’s been about three weeks. So I stood at the top of the escalator and I took a picture. And elsewhere on the Red Line, beneath South Station, a message board that ought to be announcing trains has instead been spewing garbled nothings. As if the MBTA is trying to speak to passengers in some unknown alien language. I took a picture.

Train arrival message board under South Station

Gibberish on a message board at the South Station subway

Apparently nothing focuses the MBTA’s collective mind like the prospect of jpeg-based public humiliation, no matter how mild. Twelve hours later, the message board, although not fixed, was not displaying gibberish. And the escalator was running. That has to be the fastest response time ever! So, in the course of trying to snap a picture of what I assumed was the the MBTA’s language– the gibberish– I inadvertently began communicating well enough to be understood!