Friday, March 22, 2013

What really causes MBTA delays?

     Delays are a regular occurrence on the MBTA, especially during the winter months. You might read online or get an alert on your phone that your train or line is experiencing delays due to a mechanical failure, medical emergency, or signal problem but what does the MBTA actually mean when they use these terms? 

Here is Boston to a T's list of MBTA "Delay Terms" and our interpreted definitions. 

Mechanical failures
      A mechanical failure can include any failures related to locomotion, braking (traction, pneumatic) and electricity. Due to the fact that commuter rail operation is such a dynamic system involving multiple systems working together, many issues can constitute a mechanical failure.  Engine failure can relate to either the main driver engine which powers the locomotive or to the Head End Power (H.E.P.) generator which generates all of the electricity & power for the train set. Mechanical failures happen all to often, this is due to the age of the MBTA's locomotive fleet (the majority of which are over 30 years old).

Disabled Train
     A train can become "disabled" due to a number of different problems. The trains AC or DC traction motors and propulsion system may blow out and prevent the train from moving, the braking system may not be working properly, there may be an electrical problem, or a computer fault. Any number of "mechanical failures" will cause a train to be "disabled". 
Signal Problem 

    One of the most common reasons for a signal problem is the interruption of a circuit between a signal and the signal's relay. This would cause all signals within an area (or block) to go to red. This will result in any train within the block to have to stop (and of course all trains behind it) until the prblem can be resolved. Sometimes it will reset on its own, other times signal personnel have to go to the signal, and check all the signals in the area to see where the prioblem started and then correct it. This takes time, and thus causes delays. Signal problems can occur all over the MBTA system. There are a few lines, however, that these delays are much more common. Due to the age of it's signal system the Fithcburg line is constantly plagued by delays. There are however plans in place to fully upgrade that system.

Speed Restriction

A heat kink on the WMATA
Photo: WMATA
     Speed restrictions can be put into place on an area of rail due to a large amount of reasons. One of the most common is heat restrictions. In the past CSX (the freight rail company that once owned most of the Worcester line) would implement a speed restriction on the Worcester line when temperatures would reach about 90F. Steel rails slowly expand and contract as temperatures rise and fall. In fact, an 1800-foot length of rail will expand almost one foot with an 80-degree change in temperature.With welded rail the normal tendency to expand must be constrained internally by securing the rail. Engineering measures, including heating the rail, are taken when rail is installed to account for rail expansion and contraction. The ties, rock ballast, and rail anchors must be strong enough to keep the rail solidly in place instead of expanding or contracting. Under extreme heat, the rail, on rare occasions, wins the expansion battle and a heat kink occurs. A heat kink causes the track to shift laterally causing a curve in what is otherwise a straight pair of rails.Speed restrictions can also be caused by construction, signal problems, and medical emergencies.

Medical Emergency

     Although medical emergencies are somewhat self explanatory, there are still a few different things that can cause one to be put into place. Someone can be physically sick or hurt on a train and need the assistance of an ambulance. This causes the train to move to the nearest station and standby until medical personnel and transit police can arrive. The train will not be released until the scene is cleared. Another cause can be a trespasser being struck by a train. Accidents like this will cause major delays on that rail line. There will be extensive police activity, and speed restrictions will be put into place if other trains are able to pass the scene. 
A fire at Chinatown Station in 2012

 Police / Fire Department Activity 

     Police and Fire department activity is a delay that happens anytime the police or fire departments need to be called to an MBTA train, station, or other property. It could be because of an unruly passenger, an electrical fire in a station, or a person jumping into the subway pit. 

Amtrak Interference (Providence/Stoughton/Lowell/Haverhill)

     This delay is just as it states. Trains are delayed due to an interference with an Amtrak train. Usually these delays happen on the Northeast Corridor (which Amtrak owns and therefore has priority over MBTA trains). If an Amtrak train is late it will then cause the trains that follow it to be late. This can also happen on the Lowell and Haverhill lines where 
Amtrak's Downeaster runs. 

Freight Interference (Fitchburg/Worcester)

     Once again this is just as it states. Trains are delayed due to an interference with a freight train. Usually these delays happen on the Fitchburg and Framingham/Worcester Lines. CSX and PanAm Railways are the prime culprits, in this area, when it comes to freight interference. 

Downed Wire

MBTA Type-8 LRV pantograph and catenary. 

     A downed wire can cause MAJOR delays on the railroad. Currently only the Green Line, part of the Blue Line and the entire Northeast Corridor have over head electric wire. Over head electric wire, or catenary,  is a system of overhead wires used to supply electricity to a locomotivestreetcar, or light rail vehicle which is equipped with a pantograph. Non-electric trains (such as the MBTA's diesel locomotives) may pass along these tracks without affecting the catenary. Downed catenary wires can be caused by tree limbs falling over, high winds, and broken support brackets. 


  1. What is "headway adjustment" and why does it happen on the B line every day?

  2. They try to maintain a constant spacing between the trains so they are not all bunched up. The green line gets stuck behind traffic and can take a long time to board at stations, so when the lead train is delayed, they sometimes hold back a later train so there aren't a bunch of trains at once followed by a big gap. Ideally they would just start another train, but that costs money.

  3. These are pretty reasonable excuses...if you live in 1934. Most of these problems seem incredibly avoidable and problems one might expect with a public transportation that wasn't one of the most veteran, experienced, and highly regarded in the country. Thanks MBTA for your service...kinda?

  4. Newbie. Disscussed. Dirty. Late. Hot. Cold. Vomit on floors. Dirty windows( who cleans & when?)
    Crowded. Expensive.
    UNSAFE !!! 100s stuck underground
    " disembark... another broken down train ahead that has to be removed from track"
    100s .... stranded. Fire? Another coconut grove. No way out. So unsafe ...


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