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New year, same terrible T commute

by Staff

Some riders didn’t see the alerts about the T shutting down many of the Orange and Red Line stations until they were well on their way to work or school on the morning after a long holiday weekend. And some ended up paying twice.

Only the Blue Line — the least popular of the four — was operating through downtown Tuesday morning.

“I know how important this system is to the riders, I know how important it is for them to be able to believe that we are turning things around,” Eng, who started as T chief nine months ago, said in an interview. “As we fix the system . . . we will start to proactively address these situations.”

“There’s never a good time for these incidents, but their safety was a top priority,” he said.

The troubles started at around 8:20 a.m., when the T announced on social media that Orange Line trains were delayed about 20 minutes because of a third rail problem at Community College Station, which the agency later resolved.

At the same time, the T discovered smoke coming from a manhole on the Red Line about 150 feet away from Downtown Crossing Station, according to agency spokesperson Lisa Battiston. All Red Line trains were being held at stations, Battiston said in a statement, so that riders could get off trains. The T soon determined that the smoke in the manhole was caused by a burning electrical cable used to power the Orange Line, Battiston said.

At around 9:30 a.m. the T announced that it had shut down the Orange Line between Back Bay and North Station. That meant Haymarket, State, Downtown Crossing, Chinatown, Tufts Medical Center, Central, Kendall/MIT, Charles/MGH, Park Street, South Station, Broadway, and Andrew stations did not have any Orange and Red Line service.

Just before 10 a.m., a red-shirted T ambassador stood at the turnstiles at Downtown Crossing Station, turning away handfuls of confused riders by shouting that there were “no trains!”

She told riders to walk to Park Street Station, where workers in high-visibility vests herded a snaking line of buses down Tremont Street.

T riders waited to get on to Shuttle buses at Back Bay.Lloyd Young/Globe Staff

It was a chaotic scene: crowds of snowy haired commuters swarmed each bus as it slowed, vying for a spot on the packed vehicles, while transit police yelled for people to stay out of the street.

By around 10:50 a.m., trains were up and running on the Red and Orange lines, Battiston said. But not before the chaos had forced some to give up entirely on making it to their destinations. Shuttle buses dumped some passengers at the closest stations after they reopened, where riders had to pay a second time for their nightmarish commute.

Emma Bulman, a 25-year-old lab technician who works in Kendall Square, decided to give up on her commute around 10:30 a.m. By then, she had been traveling — or, not traveling — for around three hours.

“My boss gave me permission to just go home,” she said, laughing without any mirth as she checked Commuter Rail schedules back to Bridgewater.

Her first Commuter Rail train pulled into South Station just before 8 a.m. There, she said she waited on the Red Line platform for more than a half hour before workers said there had been smoke on the line and ushered commuters out of the station to wait in the cold.

“It took 45 minutes for the first shuttle to show up, and it was full,” Bulman said. “If I knew that it would be that amount of time, I would have turned around right then.”

As she waited, a series of confused passengers approached Bulman to ask for help. Others argued with workers and police officers.

East Boston resident Andre M., who declined to give his last name, said his morning route is usually a “pretty simple” trip from the Blue Line’s Maverick Station to Back Bay Station on the Orange Line, with a brief stop to transfer at State Station. On a good day, he said, it’s around 30 minutes door-to-door.

The 48-year-old said he did not hear about the Orange Line closures until he was waiting on the platform at State.

“One of the attendants basically started yelling at everybody, basically saying ‘There is no Orange Line,’” Andre said. “No real guidance.”

He figured he could change plans and take the Green Line to work, only to realize that route had already been closed for scheduled maintenance. As the minutes ticked on, Andre felt his usual buffer, a few minutes between arriving at work and having to clock in, slip away.

“Now I’m just standing here waiting for a shuttle bus that may or may not be coming,” he said. “I took a picture of the madness, just to show that I’m out in this, for the people in the office.”

Eng said the cable that caught fire was at least 40 years old. While the cause of the fire is still under investigation, he said the insulation on older cables can become dry and brittle, making an incident like this more likely.

The T was able to reroute the power to the Orange Line on Tuesday to get the system up and running again and plans to replace the stretch of faulty cable on Tuesday evening after service hours, Eng said.

“I think this is indicative of the system that we have inherited,” Eng said. “It’s something we know we need to tackle.”

So much of the system had to be shut down while T workers investigated the fire because the T doesn’t have the capabilities to cut power to smaller stretches of its system, Eng said.

“As we move forward . . . we’re going to be incorporating that type of flexibility where we can have the ability to isolate power in a different manner,” he said. “And that’s tied to not just the state of good repair, but that’s tied to building a system back that’s better than before.”

Eng has made progress toward improving the beleaguered transit system, especially by making long-neglected track improvements, but that was little comfort for passengers on Tuesday.

In the afternoon, the MBTA suspended Red Line service for about half an hour between JFK/UMass and Ashmont stations because of another power problem, this time with an insulator on the third rail that malfunctioned, Eng said.

In November, the T announced that 76 percent of its power system, including substations, cables, overhead wires, and generators, were in need of repair or replacement, which would cost about $5.1 billion. All in all, 64 percent of the T’s assets, including power, stations, tracks, and trains and buses, are in need of upgrades estimated to cost about $25 billion.

“We are looking at how to ensure that we start replacing these cables, that we start to build out a program whereby the infrastructure that needs to be replaced is done more timely,” Eng said.

Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Taylor Dolven can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her @taydolven. Daniel Kool can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him @dekool01.

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