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Why are MBTA railroad deaths in Massachusetts rising?

Posted on November 3, 2017
by Benjamin R. Zimmermann

Benjamin R. Zimmermann
S

Something is very wrong at the MBTA.

Earlier today, November 3rd, a woman was struck and killed by an MBTA commuter rail in Norfolk.

On October 11th, a woman was struck and killed by an MBTA commuter rail train in Somerville.

On October 9th, a teenager was struck and killed by an MBTA commuter rail train in Concord; that same night, another man was struck by a Green Line train in Waban.

On October 4th, one person was struck by an MBTA commuter train in Boston’s Fenway/Kenmore neighborhood, suffering serious and life-threatening injuries.

On September 26th, a teen was struck and killed by an MBTA commuter rail train in Andover.

On September 15th, two separate commuter rail accidents, in Natick and Dedham, resulted in deaths of one man and one woman. On September 5th, a teenaged freshman at Boston University was struck and killed by an MBTA commuter rail train.

These are just a few examples of accidents involving the MBTA in recent months. According to the Boston Globe, 11 people have been struck and killed on MBTA rail tracks since July 1, 2017. In that same time period, there have been more MBTA accidents with victims suffering serious injuries. And in the year before, there were 22 reported deaths on MBTA tracks – a doubling from the prior year.

In response to the unusually high incidence of accidents, state officials have convened a task force – the MBTA’s Rail Safety Committee – to investigate possible solutions.    

Breakdowns, derailments, speeding, and broken safety equipment

Massachusetts residents have often observed that the MBTA transit system is rife with problems. It’s not an illusion – the data supports it. According to a report from the Federal Transit Administration, the T logged far more breakdowns than any other transit system in the country – 338 mechanical failures in 2016 alone.  

In 2015 and 2016, the MBTA had the highest number of derailments in the nation.

Other problems include a high number of speeding violations by train operators, malfunctioning railroad safety gates, and more.

Blaming the victims

As we noted in a previous post on railroad liability, “All railroad companies, including the MBTA, are known in legal circles for their aggressive and often biased investigations of accidents to deflect responsibility for the injuries and deaths.”   

You see this in the MBTA’s calling victims of railroad accidents as “trespassers” – implying they brought the harm upon themselves.  

Every single report of a recent MBTA accident on the MBTA Police news blog demonstrates this. 

(Just a few examples: On October 11th, “Trespasser struck in Somerville.” On October 9th, “Trespasser struck in Concord.” Also on October 9th, “Trespasser struck near Waban.”)

Who watches the watchmen?

It’s significant to note that the MBTA has its own police department – and the jurisdiction of this semi-private police department is very broad.  

According to a 2015 case (Hatfield v. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Auth. & Herby Jean), MBTA officers “shall have, within the territorial limits of the Authority, the powers and duties conferred or imposed upon police officers of cities and towns” under Mass Gen. Laws. Ch. 41 § 98, and “shall have the powers and duties which are conferred or imposed upon police officers of railroads, streets railways and steamboats” under Mass Gen Laws ch. 159 § 93.  

Further, in Mon v. Mottola, 10 Mass.App.Ct. 775 (1980), the court noted that there is “no indication” of a legislative intent to limit the authority of MBTA police to MBTA premises.

What this boils down to is that (1) the MBTA Police is powerful and virtually unlimited in authority, and (2) the MBTA is essentially in charge of investigating itself.

This leads one to wonder how unbiased these investigations are, and how willing the MBTA could possibly be to bring judgement upon itself.

In its analysis of the recent MBTA accidents and in its determination to fix the issue, the new task force should look into the potential problems of prejudice that are created by the MBTA’s self-serving investigations, and by the lack of an independent body to investigate the tragedies that do occur – on the tracks and elsewhere.  

Further, the safety performance of the Commuter Rail’s new operator, French-owned Keolis, should be reviewed and compared with other private operators in the United States. Keolis under-bid its competition; one wonders if corners are being cut now.  

Railroad liability cases are notoriously complex and require careful handling. SUGARMAN attorneys have over 50 years of experience and expertise in Massachusetts. If you or a loved one has been a victim of a railroad accident, call us for a consultation at (617) 542-1000 or email info@sugarman.com.