MBTA
6:00 am
Wed March 27, 2013

MBTA: Graveyard Shift

As part of his push for more transportation funding, Gov. Deval Patrick has proposed extending MBTA service into the early morning hours. But its at night when the T tries to stay ahead of the problems that cause delays and frustrate riders during the day.

Subway Graveyard Shift

It's 2 a.m. at the Tufts Medical Center T stop, and an MBTA power crew is working against the clock to make sure the T is ready for rush hour. There are two white trucks on the tracks, one with a huge power cable on it.

Tonight’s assignment: Remove and replace faulty power cables -- the kind of cables that smoldered back in January, leading to the shut down of the T during morning rush hour.

“Old infrastructure is almost all of our work right now,” said John Martin, superintendent of power systems and equipment station support for the T. “We have a three and a half to four-hour window to get this work done. So it’s get in, get the cable out, get the cable in, and get out of the way.”

There are about 1,000 miles of cable bringing power to the trains, signals and switches in the subway, but there’s only enough time to work on a few hundred feet each night. Though often unseen, power cables are as important as train cars, and in some cases, as old. Some of the cables were installed more than 50 years ago.    

Keeping the T Running

There are more than 500 MBTA employees that work at night, doing everything from track maintenance and signal repairs to cable replacement.

But keeping the oldest public transit system in the nation running comes at a price: $244 million has been slated for system-wide maintenance in Fiscal Year 2013, including on trains, buses and the subway. But that does not come close to covering the $3 billion worth of deferred maintenance the MBTA says is still needed to overhaul vehicles and repair bridges.

Electricity and Water

Power to the third rail--as well as the section of cable that’s being worked on--gets turned off remotely by a power dispatcher at OCC, or Operations Control Center in downtown Boston. That’s so the workers don’t get electrocuted on the job. This is especially important since the manholes are often filled with water. 

“It could be ground water, leakage from the duct banks," said Laurie Barrett, the power crew's night supervisor. “Electricity and water just don't mix."

As the 5 a.m. deadline approaches, the power dispatcher at OCC pressures the crew to finish up. It's almost time to turn the power back on. As soon as the last truck drives off the track, morning rush hour begins.  

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