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Boston 'T' riders lament over the subway shutdowns for repairs

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A partial shutdown of the subway system in Boston is challenging commuters. The second busiest line on the T, as it's called, has stopped running. The Orange Line's closed for repairs after a series of accidents. As NPR's Tovia Smith reports, that's created confusion and delays.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Boston loves to boast about all its firsts - the nation's first public park, first lighthouse and first subway system built in the late 1800s. But age is not always an asset.

MARK REPPUCCI: Since I was a kid, they're still using - I'm 50 years old - they're still using the same Orange Line. That's why we're in this mess.

SMITH: Mark Reppucci is one of many commuters frustrated by long-deferred updates of Boston's aging transit system.

REPPUCCI: They just got a bunch of banana heads running the transportation. They don't know what they're doing.

SMITH: Safety concerns came to a head recently after a spate of crashes and accidents, two of them fatal. Last month, riders had to jump from a train that caught fire on a bridge. One jumped into the river below.

ROBERT THOMAS: It's psychologically damaging because you think, is this the day that something's going to happen because it's happening so often?

SMITH: Commuter Robert Thomas says he had his own scare when two trains collided last year.

THOMAS: I almost got hit by the train. I jumped out the way for that crash.

SMITH: The Federal Transit Administration is now investigating T's safety. T officials say the shutdown is enabling them to replace tracks and upgrade systems to improve safety ASAP instead of over five years of nights and weekends, an unprecedented move that Mayor Michelle Wu had been calling for.

MICHELLE WU: We can no longer tolerate just trying to fix things up here or there. It is time to talk about just ripping the Band-Aid off and taking drastic action.

SMITH: But the improvements come at a price.

PRINCESS OLOWU: Oh, my God. I'm not going to get to the appointments.

SMITH: On board one of the shuttle buses running in lieu of the Orange Line, Princess Olowu was running late despite allowing four hours for a trip that should take one. Newly hired shuttle bus drivers also needed direction this week...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Go ahead there. No. No. Go. Go.

SMITH: ...Some as confused as commuters like Robert Thomas.

THOMAS: They shut the Green Line down, so I would have to get on the 66 to the Orange Line. But now the Orange Line shut down, so now I have to come to the shuttle bus. And then I get to the shuttle bus and it takes me to another shuttle bus. I'm like, wait. What?

KAMMA SADLER: People need to just keep their cool.

SMITH: Kamma Sadler was one of many urging patience and calm. Seth Brown agrees the inconvenience is short-term pain for long-term gain.

SETH BROWN: In order to progress, we should be willing to roll with the punches.

SMITH: The real test of the shuttle system will come as summer ends and streets and trains fill back up. Officials say staffing shortages require service reductions through the fall, and some are balking at what they call a disproportionate impact of it all on communities of color. T officials say the good news is the work is on track to finish on time, though many in boston remain skeptical.

THOMAS: There's no way this is going to be over by September 19. If this is over by Christmas, I'll eat my hat.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MYSTIC RIVER RAMBLERS: (Singing) Will it ever return? It may never return.

SMITH: Many Bostonians are hoping humor helps them through their transit travails...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MYSTIC RIVER RAMBLERS: (Singing) Through the streets of Boston...

SMITH: ...From this performance at a T station to Civil War-style dispatches from the front tweeted by commuter Brian Estabrook.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRIAN ESTABROOK: I fear we have not seen a disaster of this magnitude since Fredericksburg.

SMITH: His latest came after two construction vehicles, enlisted to prevent future train derailments, actually derailed themselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ESTABROOK: Father, our daring campaign commences, and with it setbacks. Derailments have already reared their ugly head.

SMITH: Faith in the T's command is waning, Estabrook says. He'd desert the T if he could, but he needs it to get to work. Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.