Trolleys sputter as MBTA makes repairs while awaiting study

The aftermath of a collision on the Mattapan hi-speed trolley tracks next to Cedar Grove Cemetery last December. Maureen Forry-Sorrell photo

The Mattapan High-Speed Trolley has had an up-and-down winter so far: a crash caused by a phone-distracted operator that disabled two trolley cars, a steady flow of weather woes, and mechanical problems. A study that will inform the fate of the 70-year-old mini-fleet is now expected to be aired in late spring or early summer.

Three Presidents’ Conference Committee (PCC) trolley cars were removed from service last week due to “propulsion problems,” according to MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo. The T determined that “intermittent fluctuations in power put enormous stress on the 70-year old cars’ propulsion systems, burning out key components,” he said.

Since Dec. 29, when a distracted trolley operator rear-ended with another trolley and took both cars out of commission, the Mattapan line has been running with four trolleys instead of the normal five.

All four cars failed in a time frame of about 90 minutes during a weather event on Jan. 29, Jeffrey Gonneville, the T’s deputy general manager, told the Fiscal and Management Control Board at its Feb. 5 meeting. “At the time we thought the issue was snow ingestion, which the Mattapan PCC cars have been shown to be extremely vulnerable to due to the ages of the vehicles’ propulsion equipment,” he said.

But maintenance crews found that snow was not the cause of the propulsion issue. Tests on the line determined that the power fluctuations and drops in line voltage were the root issues.  

The MBTA replaced more than 40 components along the line, which were having issues, returning the power back to ground after powering the trolley. Any power abnormalities have been resolved, Gonneville said.

In order to preserve the equipment until they addressed the power issue, the MBTA decided not to resume service until Feb. 5. Shuttles replaced the four trolleys, which were repaired by Thursday of last week.

State Rep. Dan Cullinane criticized the transit authority’s approach to service changes on Friday. “The MBTA’s nonexistent communication is embarrassing,” he told the Reporter. “Time and time again we are forced to read updates in the newspaper instead of getting any heads up from the MBTA, which prevents us as elected officials from being able to communicate any updates to our constituents, and that is wrong.”

The shuttles “do a complete dis-service to all riders,” he said, especially Milton riders, who are forced to walk the full length of Eliot Street due to the road-dependent drop-off location. He also said lack of signage at Ashmont left some riders standing in the snow waiting for trolleys that would not arrive until a T employee came out to inform them specifically.

Mayor Martin Walsh told the Reporter this week that “the phone’s ringing off the hook because of the trolley line going down.” He said he will meet with the MBTA general manager in the next few weeks to highlight the trolley’s importance.

Constituents and neighbors are concerned, Walsh said. “People want to make sure it’s safe and stays,” he said. “I mean it’s one of the oldest in the country … and the only one that goes through a cemetery, so there’s historic value here as well.”

After the December collision, the MBTA planned to combine four nonfunctional PCC cars to bring the fleet up to a normal number of operable vehicles. “We have two PCCs where the bodies and the structures are not in that bad of shape, but the propulsion and mechanical equipment on those vehicles is beyond repair,” Gonneville said. “The thoughts are that they are going to take the shells of those cars and the mechanical components of the cars that were involved in the collision and make two good cars from them.”

The two propulsion-less cars were moved to the T’s Everett Shops for repair. When ready for service, the cars will be moved back to Mattapan to begin the mechanical transfer process, he said. The propulsion systems will be replaced with a modern system, he added, and they expect to have both cars completed and back into service by summer of this year.

Locally beloved, the Mattapan trolley cars have been in service since 1946, with several major overhauls over the years. About $7.9 million was allotted last year to begin reinvesting back into the PCC fleet, which will “focus on the key areas to invest in these vehicles to keep them operating safely and reliably for the next few years,” Gonneville said.

Cullinane said he wanted a report on “where the $8 million the delegation secured is right now, and if no part of that money has been spent to fix the problems. For me, we got them the money, and we want it to be used to make the line work for the people who rely on it.”

Gonneville noted that there is significant roof deterioration on some of the cars. That and other maintenance needs will be conducted at Everett Shops. The first car is expected to be back to work next summer, he said, and then the next one by the end of 2019.

A study being conducted by the private engineering firm CH2MHill is under way to test technical specifications that will help determine the viability of the Mattapan Line and assess possible options for the future. “With the investment that we’re making in these PCC cars, it gives us some time to be able to really think this through and think about what makes the most sense for the future of the line,” said Gonneville.

An infrastructure assessment and an evaluation of the PCC cars is complete, Gonneville said. Now they are “putting together a menu of options of various alternative that we could go forward with,” he said. They hope to have a draft report completed by spring that they will present to the board and discuss public meetings, with a final decision to be made by the end of the year.

“At this point, we are going to plan on having a very robust discussion about what these alternatives are and what we can do with these vehicles in the future” Gonneville said.

Dan Sheehan of the Reporter staff contributed to this report.