MBTA Readies for Extreme Cold

A year ago, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and the MBTA were contending with brutally abundant snow. This weekend, they're contending with brutally cold temperatures, likely well below zero Saturday and Sunday mornings.

"Everyone gets the fact that snow is an enormous problem for the MBTA," Baker said Friday afternoon. "Really severe cold, when people are talking about temperatures over the weekend that may be lower than anything we've ever seen before, is just as big a problem ... Viciously cold weather is very tough on the signalling system, on the switches, and on the tracks themselves, and we're going to keep trains running as much as we have to try to keep things warm."

MBTA chief operating officer Jeff Gonneville said all this week T crews have been systematically bleeding dry the workings of subway trains and trolleys to get them ready for this weekend.

"Air systems that power our brakes, suspensions, propulsion, door systems, these air systems themselves have, by the nature of compressing air, build up of moisture, and that moisture can freeze," Gonneville said. Ice crystals in turn can freeze motors and doors and force trains out of service. "The process actually started last weekend to begin getting ready for this cold snap that we're seeing now," Gonneville said.

The one break for the T: This weather is coming on a three-day holiday weekend with much reduced schedules and ridership. Monday, the commuter rail runs on a Sunday holiday schedule, so if there are problems with trains or tracks, operator Keolis Commuter Services has an extra 24 hours to get things back to normal before the Tuesday morning rush.

Keolis said if you see or hear locomotives idling for hours on end this weekend at Needham Heights or Bradford or Newburyport or Rockport or other locations, don't be concerned or alarmed. That's what they need to do to keep them ready to run during daylight hours.

One challenge for the T: They'll still be operating late night subway and trolley service Friday into Saturday and Saturday into Sunday, until 2:30 a.m. Then they have to resume daily service at 5 a.m. That prevents the T from implementing its preferred plan for protecting subways and trolleys from severe cold weather: Park them inside tunnels overnight as they did Thursday into Friday.

"The small window of time that we actually have during late-night service, Friday night, Saturday night, we will not be able to do that for being able to store our cars in the particular tunnels," Gonneville said.

Riders are hoping for the best as they gird for extreme cold.

"I'm used to it. I like it," said Annette Gordon of Fall River, staying in Boston overnight before she takes the T to Logan International Airport Saturday. "I think they may run a little behind schedule but I know they will be there."

Sheeri Cabral of Boston's Hyde Park neighborhood, bundled up in scarves she knit as she pushed her nine-week-old son, Rubin, through Dewey Square, said she felt ready, and just hopes the T is, too. On her train ride home, she's still contending with months of delays getting an Amtrak signal system fixed.

"I'm worried about it because the thing is, even if I'm not travelling tomorrow or Sunday, it could be months, could be months for things to be repaired" if the severe cold causes new damage to T tracks or signals, Cabral said.

With videographer Anthony Sabato

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