One operator per train on Orange Line

Change will save MBTA money

The MBTA will stop using two employees to run each Orange Line train, part of a plan approved by the agency’s board Wednesday to balance next year’s budget without raising fares or cutting service.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is one of the few transit systems in the world that still use two operators to run a single set of subway cars. Past attempts to change the practice have met with strong union opposition. The second operator, who sits in the middle of each train set, has little responsibility beyond opening and closing doors and making station announcements.

The Blue Line switched to a single operator more than a decade ago without affecting safety or service. The Green and Red lines will continue to depend on two operators under the latest plan because managers say those lines have complications that need study.

“It’s the kind of efficiencies we need to bring to the organization,” said Jeffrey Mullan, transportation secretary. “It does not affect customer service. It does not affect service.”

The change on the Orange Line is expected to save $1.5 million a year, less than the $3.3 million estimated last year and a small fraction of the T’s $73 million operating deficit for the coming budget year, which begins July 1.

To make up most of its shortfall, the T will refinance $67.9 million in debt, a practice that has been a persistent concern of watchdogs and outside reviewers, who have expressed concern that the T’s $8.6 billion debt load will continue to grow larger as problems get pushed off into the future. Payments on the debt, which will make up nearly one-fourth of every operating dollar the agency spends next year, have left the T struggling with a budget gap nearly every year.

The Orange Line move will eliminate 15 operators’ jobs, from layoffs and attrition.

Governor Deval Patrick, who is up for reelection this year, announced in November that fare increases would be put off until at least July 2011. Wednesday’s news that the T would also resist cuts in bus routes or train service for at least another year came as a relief to passengers.

“It’s important to everybody,” said Mike Tomasini, 16, a student at Boston Latin School who was riding the Red Line home to Dorchester Wednesday.

His classmate, Kevin Baptista, agreed that people who depend on the T would be hurt by any loss in service: “There’s enough time between trains as it is.”

Mullan defended the decision to refinance debt. He said it made financial sense this year, given historically low interest rates. He said the impact on the T’s overall debt portfolio would be minimal.

“Today was a good day for people who use the T,” he said. “We were able to close the budget for next year without impacting service.”

But the T will continue to have financial challenges, even in the short term. The budget approved Wednesday assumes no salary increases for the majority of labor union employees, whose contracts expire June 30. And the down economy has meant fewer people are paying to ride the MBTA’s buses and trains.

To reduce staff on the Orange Line, the T has spent the past several months adding mirrors to stations and making other modifications that will allow drivers to see the entire platform. Operators will be trained in about two weeks in anticipation of moving to a single driver on June 23.

The Boston Carmen’s Union, Local 589, which represents subway operators, has been working with MBTA managers on the issue, but continues to oppose it, worrying that the T would have fewer employees available to evacuate passengers in case of fire or other emergency.

“We’re uncertain whether or not it’s something that can be done effectively, efficiently, and safely for the workforce and for the passengers,” said Stephan MacDougall, union president.

MacDougall said the T has promised to address the union’s concerns as they arise, but “at the end of the day you have less people and we carry extremely precious cargo, and there’s a lot of lives on the line.”

In addition to approving the MBTA’s operating budget Wednesday, the MBTA board also delayed voting on a plan to spend $2 million to study a more modern automated safety system for the Green Line. Federal safety officials have said a better crash prevention system could have prevented a 2008 fatal accident on the line in Newton.

Janice Loux, MBTA board member, questioned the $2 million contract, saying she has been frustrated that the MBTA’s staff has yet to offer the board a detailed explanation of its Green Line safety plan following the 2008 crash and a second serious crash a year later. She said she also had concerns that the contract under consideration Wednesday did not deal broadly enough with Green Line safety issues.