What Keeps Boston Moving: RCs Visit the MBTA

Emily Batt, Contributor

Emily Batt (MBA ’20) reports on a field trip in which RC TOM students saw course ideas in action.

Every day, the MBTA completes 1.4 million rides for residents of greater Boston. On November 27, twenty RC students got an inside look at what keeps that service running as part of the TOM Field Trip series. The students, accompanied by RC TOM Professor Srikanth Jagabathula, explored the MBTA operations center in downtown Boston and the bus and subway repair facilities in Everett. For the students, this was a chance to witness firsthand the principles of the TOM curriculum and see ways in which a public service organization grapples with changes in variability, equipment, and demand to keep Boston moving.

Both the operations center and the Everett repair facilities maintain a progressive stance on innovation. “In the last five years, we’ve seen the MBTA become very customer-focused,” said Todd Johnson, Chief of Transit Services. When running a public service, “we understand there will be problems. But it’s all about how you communicate with the customer.”

Megan Chann (MBA ’18), Director of Lean Strategy, said that the T is trying to adopt the speed of innovation normally reserved for the private sector. By focusing on collaboration across divisions, she noted the T is “trying to sustain a change to culture long-term.”

Still, the team was frank about progress to be made. As subway lines are updated, the mix of technologies means the MBTA must contend with a lack of standardization. At the Everett repair facility, students saw how supporting three separate car-types on the Red Line poses challenges to inventory management, as replacement parts are not universal across cars.

Beyond this, the MBTA must accommodate updates in third-party technology. Whereas most subway lines sport track-circuits that can pinpoint the exact position of train cars, the Green Line is monitored by 3G technology facing impending obsolescence. This, combined with the challenge of driving above-ground trolleys and managing speed without the Automatic Train Operation incorporated on other lines, means Green Line drivers must train for twice as long as those on other lines.

These demands lead to increased variability that can translate to frustrations for customers. When asked whether the Green Line was the disproportionate source of issues, Billy Hogan, Operations Supervisor, responded without a breath: “Yes.”

Nevertheless, the MBTA strives to deliver a consistent customer experience to subway and bus riders alike. Dispatchers closely manage the cycle time between buses or trains arriving at a given station—“headway,” they call it—to offer customers regularity and predictability. So that any given station is not starved long of transport, both subway and bus operation teams agreed that maintaining constant headway is more important than adhering to published schedules. “The best thing you can do for a delayed train is hold the train in front of it,” Hogan noted.

As a public service operation, the T faces challenges not common to most companies. “It’s a city,” said Hogan. “All of humanity is out there.” Beyond this, the T must confront extreme weather and field volatility in demand, which can be difficult to forecast. Whereas operations teams all recognize that maintaining a ten-minute headway is the best method for staying on top of a blizzard, there was no playbook for the enormous demand spike of the 2016 Women’s March.

To improve its agility, the MBTA has adopted an intrepid approach to continuous improvement. About one year ago, the Everett bus repair outpost—which houses mechanical and autobody repair facilities, an upholstery department, paint department, fabrication resources, and parts department—became a testing ground for new lean practices. Eight months ago, a Kaizen event in the parts department prompted an overhaul of parts-delivery practices, allowing the T to more closely monitor and forecast demand among its internal supply chain across divisions. By mapping out the delivery process and identifying the communication gaps, the team was able to triage the most problematic aspects of parts delivery. The Kaizen event also prompted the parts department to request new gravity-fed shelving to enable first-in, first-out inventory management with automated restocking notifications.

The lean initiative, a top-down change to business as usual, was initially met with skepticism, but gradual team buy-in has unlocked significant improvements. “This allowed us to fix a lot of long-standing issues,” said Mike Burrows, Supervisor of Maintenance. “The front-line workers have the most valuable input because they are the ones dealing with this every day. Once the initiative started to pick up steam, it got competitive between areas.” Today, a lean council meets weekly to discuss ongoing projects and improvements. The progress at the Everett facility earned them a new project: restoration of the 1943 Mattapan High Speed trolley cars. “This is something different, exciting. It’s the first time trains have been in this building since the 1970s, and these are the oldest vehicles in service,” noted Burrows.

For students, this trip concretized the challenges facing cities in an age of rapidly-evolving transportation technology. “The MBTA trip reminded me of why I love thinking about transportation issues,” said Sarah Wang, Class of 2020, Section G. “Ultimately, I believe that the movement of people is critical to spurring growth within communities. We often forget that public agencies bear much of the cost of providing this opportunity and have increasingly looked to private players to resolve the gap, but I think we need to give the public side much more credit and recognize that the opportunity for public-private partnerships is largely untapped.”

Emily Batt (MBA ’20) is a joint MS/MBA student with the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. She was previously a product design engineer and product manager in hardware and software technology companies. She was trained as a physicist, loves the arts and the mountains, and plays guitar badly.