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Record Snow Cripples Boston's Subway System


The head of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority handed in her resignation yesterday. That resignation is national news because it comes after winter storms dumped a record 72 inches of snow on Boston over 30 days. That's caused massive commuting delays, and it's also caused some spectacular breakdowns in the city's antiquated subway or T system. Long stretches of track are above ground, and as NPR's Chris Arnold reports, Boston's trains are surprisingly ill-equipped to deal with snow.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: You might think that being a major city where it snows all winter, Boston would have trains that can handle snow. But sadly for those of us who live here, that is not the case. It turns out one big problem is that many of the subway train cars are still powered by old, outdated electric motors. And those are prone to shorting out and failing when it snows and they get wet.

AMELIA ZANI: It was spurting off from the back of the train really bright orange sparks, like electrical sparks. Maybe like a basketball - that was the size, you know.

ARNOLD: Twenty-two-year-old Amelia Zani was evacuated out of a train on the red line during one of the recent snowstorms. She and the other passengers were packed out on an elevated train platform buffeted by cold wind and snow that was blowing across the Charles River. And she says as workers tried to get the train moving again, the old train cars were putting on a pretty impressive fireworks show.

ZANI: I thought, oh, my gosh, the train caught fire because that was how bright and how loud it was. It was loud. It was sparking like, you know, when something explodes in a movie. And the people around me were just kind of shocked, like oh, ah.

ARNOLD: But the grand finale it turned out was disappointing. Zani said the train kind of made a dying sound.

ZANI: Whoo (ph). A person came over the loudspeaker, and they said seek alternate transportation.

ARNOLD: We don't know exactly what the problem was with that particular train, but there definitely appears to be a problem with these outdated train motors. T officials told The Boston Globe that 85 percent of the breakdowns after the first big snowstorm last week stemmed from propulsion system failures. And most of the trains on two major lines run on these outdated motors. Other Northeastern cities have upgraded to newer technology. Saurabh Amin is an assistant professor at MIT where he studies transportation systems, and he says despite the old, fragile train equipment...

SAURABH AMIN: Assuming that these components are likely to fail and given that I really, really need to work on my system, still what can I do?

ARNOLD: Ahmeen is saying that the T probably needs both better equipment and better contingency planning. The head of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, Beverly Scott, was under fire this week because of all the problems. The new governor was critical of her agency's response to the snowstorms. But at a press conference on Tuesday, Scott defended her agency.


BEVERLY SCOTT: We are running an extremely aged system that is getting a pounding every single day, and for anyone to have any belief that it's going to have the resilience to wind up rebounding and flying like an eagle, that is absolutely the epitome of - and I'm not going to say foolish.

ARNOLD: But then late yesterday, Beverly Scott handed in her resignation letter. In it, she said she will leave her post in April. The MBTA board said that was unexpected and that there had been no discussions about her stepping down.

Meanwhile, the trains are running again in Boston, though with some lengthy delays yesterday. And with more snow on the way, the creaky Boston T system is not out of the winter woods yet. Chris Arnold, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR correspondent Chris Arnold is based in Boston. His reports are heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. He joined NPR in 1996 and was based in San Francisco before moving to Boston in 2001.