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MBTA Board Update: What Happened to Our New Orange Line Trains?

A new Orange Line train at Assembly Station in summer 2019. Courtesy of the MBTA.

The MBTA's Fiscal and Management Control Board met today with an agenda that included more discussion of expected 2021 budget cuts and an update on the agency's stalled procurement of new Orange and Red Line train cars.

Those new cars have struggled with design problems, including issues with doors opening while the new trains were in motion and, more recently, problems with the "bolster" compenents that connect the train bodies to their wheel assemblies.

The new trains are a key component of the MBTA's strategy to increase capacity and reduce wait times between trains on the Red and Orange lines.

At Monday's meeting, MBTA Deputy General Manager Jeffrey Gonneville reported that those capacity increases would be "a year or at least a year" behind schedule due to production problems with new Orange and Red Line cars at the manufacturer's facility in Springfield.

To date, 24 new Orange Line cars have been delivered, and three six-car trainsets have been put into service since the first new train hit the tracks over a year ago.

Meanwhile, a new six-car trainset for the Red Line is currently being tested. Although "there are some issues that have been identified," said Gonneville, "we are anticipating that that pilot trainset will be in service later this year."

In the original contract, the MTBA had hoped to have 152 new cars running on the Orange Line by the beginning of 2022. That timeline has now slipped 15 months, to April 2023.

Meanwhile, the timeline for the full delivery of 252 new Red Line cars has slipped a year behind schedule, to September 2024.

Planning For Service Cuts In 2021

Whether the T has enough trains to run more service on the Red and Orange lines will be a moot point for the near term, though, as the MBTA continues to look at major service cuts in anticipation of a large budget deficit in the next fiscal year, which begins next July.

T staff presented a framework for those cuts that would aim to preserve more service for high ridership routes that serve large numbers of car-free households or households from historically underserved communities, and target deeper service cuts for higher-income neighborhoods and routes with lower post-pandemic ridership retention.

The subway lines and most bus routes fall into the "high ridership/highly transit critical" categories, but that doesn't mean they'll be immune to cuts. T staff are considering reducing the number of trips on those lines so that they just clear the threshold of the T's "service delivery policy," which mandates service every 10 minutes during rush hours, and every 15-20 minutes at other times, from 6 a.m. to midnight.

Because subways and key bus routes generally run every 5 to 10 minutes, the T could potentially eliminate hundreds of daily trips from those routes while still meeting the minimum standards of its service delivery policy.

We'll learn more about the specific service packages that the T is contemplating at the MBTA's November 2nd board meeting.

Budget Numbers Are Less Bad Than Expected, But Still Pretty Awful

Those service cuts are being planned now in anticipation of a possible $300 to $600 million budget shortfall in 2021-2022, thanks to lower ridership in the wake of the pandemic and the end of CARES Act relief funding.

There was a glimmer of good news at Monday's meeting, though. Ridership over the summer has been beating the T's low expectations, which helped raise the agency's net revenues $24 million over budget for the month of August, and $20 million over budget for July.

If the agency can continue to beat budget expectations over the remaining 10 months of the fiscal year – and admittedly, this is a big "if" – then next year's budget shortfall and the service cuts that would come along with it could get significantly smaller.

New 100% Renewable Power Contract Will Save $3 Million A Year

Finally, the board heard a presentation from Andrew Brennan, the T’s Senior Director for Energy & Environment, about negotiations for a new multi-year electricity contract.

Under the proposed deal, the agency will buy electricity exclusively from renewable power suppliers to power the agency’s trains, trolleybuses, stations, and other facilities – and save the agency about $3 million a year compared to its current, fossil-fueled electricity contract.

We've broken out this news into a separate post to delve into the details – read more here.

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