Dear MBTA…Your Inaction Compromised My Security and I’m Not Happy

July 6, 2009
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image_thumb.pngThe MBTA, also known as the T in Boston, transports a million people daily throughout Massachusetts.  Every day, hundreds of thousands of people commute in and out of Boston over bridges and through tunnels, passing everything from the Longwood Medical area to Boston’s Financial District to Logan Airport.  It is a massive system that is relied upon by Massachusetts residents and tourists, and in its failure, Boston and surrounding communities would be crippled.

For the past 8 years, since 9/11, our nation has compelled us to be super diligent regarding the safety of our communities.  Police and security personnel are ever present.  You can’t go into Fenway Park or the Boston Garden without your bag being checked.  The TSA at airports extensively screens baggage and persons for contraband, weapons and potential threats.  It has become a part of our culture and each person has a heightened awareness of possible threats to individual and community security.

The MBTA is no exception. Every day I ride the bus and subway into Boston.  As I sit on the bus and drive over the Tobin bridge, an automated recording reminds passengers to be aware of suspicious activity or unattended packages.  When I board the green line trolley, I hear similar messages over system-wide PA systems, asking me to take care and report what might be out of the ordinary.

In April, the MBTA began a program called See Something, Say Something.  Its meaning requires no further explanation.  And since the beginning of the year, I’ve noticed that with more frequency security tables are being set up at various transit entry points where MBTA transit police randomly stop commuters and search their bags.

The MBTA has my attention.  I’m listening, I’m taking ownership, and I’m trying to stay aware, even when all I want to do is nap on my hour+ commute home.  But is the MBTA listening to us?

On Friday, I boarded the Blue Line subway at Government Center.  The car was nearly empty and as I sat down, I noticed a bag underneath the seat across from me.  Was it suspicious?  Or was it more likely that someone inadvertently forgot it as they got off the train earlier?  The latter is most probable, but it wasn’t up to me to look in the bag to determine its contents.

For years we have heard of terrorist activities on mass transit.  There have been deadly gasses as well as bombs on subways and trains.  I’m not an alarmist and I try not to over exaggerate.  But this is our world.  We live in a time where bad people do bad things every day, and their ability to create catastrophe today is far greater than it was 20 years ago.  So, no, I was not going to go anywhere near that bag, or even bring it to the attention of anyone sitting around it.  The train was full, and I would report it at the next stop and hope that all would be ok.

I sat there, imagining the possibilities.  I felt badly for the person who probably forgot their bag and would be missing it.  And I considered the reality that its non-threatening appearance could be exactly how a terrorist might enact his terror.  It would have been easy for me to close my eyes and brush it off as an ‘oh well, no big deal’, but this thing called self preservation kicked in to high gear and I became hyper aware of my own safety.

At the next stop, State Street, I pushed my way through exiting passengers, and made my way up to the top car to speak with the driver.  I informed him that it looked like someone had left a bag under the seat back in the third car.  The driver said, ‘the third car’? and I said yes.  And his response was a little surprising to me.  He said, ‘ok, I’ll have someone look into it.’  I told him I was re-boarding, which I did at that first car, and we departed immediately.

I knew that because of how full the trains were, that no one had even bothered to look. There hadn’t been time.  So at the next stop, at Aquarium, I decided that I was not going to stay on that train and I’d look to see if anyone was checking into the situation.

I got off the train and the train was still packed.  No MBTA police or security personnel.  And as I looked ahead to the tunnel that the train was about to enter, I thought I would be a fool to stay on that train.  ‘What if?’

‘What if’?’ That’s really the point here.  “What if.’  What if that bag did have an incendiary device in it?  What if that bag did have a toxic gas in it? What if that bag was set to go off in the tunnel under the Boston Harbor on its way to Logan Airport?  What if I were on it? ‘What if’ indeed.

I sat there on the bench at the Aquarium station, shocked at the inaction of the MBTA driver.  YOU, MBTA, asked me to be hyper diligent.  YOU asked me to report suspicious activity and unattended bags.  YOU asked me to be concerned for not only myself, but for every person sitting next to me and every person in my country. YOU asked this of me and every day YOU expect me to be aware and assist.

I held up my end of the deal.  Where were you MBTA?

As I sat there waiting for the next train, I quietly listened for any sound down through the tunnel that might indicate a problem.  Paranoid?  Perhaps.  But this is the world we live in.  Twenty years ago I wouldn’t have had a second thought about picking up that bag, rummaging through its contents and trying to find its owner.  But today?  You must be kidding.  That’s what “they” are for.  Right?

I boarded the next train, assured that everything was fine, and an anger came over me that compelled me to take the next step.  I couldn’t believe the inaction by the driver and the MBTA was going to hear about it. When I got to my car, I called the MBTA Safety Department.  Let’s see if I get this right:

From the MBTA Web Site — Safety Information

“The T works hard everyday to ensure the safety and security of our riders and employees.

Safety Department officials are constantly in the field inspecting stations, busses, subways, commuter rails and boats to ensure the safest possible environment.

When you ride the T, you’re never alone-all stations and vehicles have direct communication lines to the T’s Operations Control Center and we continue to upgrade our stations with modernized public address systems and closed-circuit television camera systems.

T Personnel are thoroughly trained in emergency response and our Safety Program (coordinated with local, state, federal law enforcement agencies, as well as the MBTA Police) includes a rigorous schedule of simulated emergency response exercises geared toward preparing us to be equipped with state-of-the-art emergency response techniques.

To learn more about the T’s Safety Program, please contact the MBTA Safety Department, at 617-222-5135.

Together, We Can Make a Difference

Under the Transit Watch program, the eyes and ears of our customers are valuable tools in the continuing effort to maintain a safe transit environment. Passengers who observe activities or things that seem out of place or out of the ordinary are asked to report such instances to T employees or call the MBTA Police at (617) 222-1212.”

I called the MBTA Safety Department.  Ah shucks..no answer.  Good thing it rolled over to the main line.  And then I waited on hold for about 5 minutes.  Of course, in a true emergency, the obvious action is to call 911. Not an emergency, I wanted to complain and report what had happened.

I spoke with an operator.  No real love there.  He told me I had reached the ‘complaint department’ and asked me for a description of the driver…tall, short, facial hair, etc. Did I know the train number… And then he said, thank you and he’d pass the information along to the MBTA Police as well as someone else.  Lovely.

While I appreciate that he’s ‘passing the information along’, what good is that going to do?  He never asked me for my name or how to reach me if anyone wanted to follow up and perhaps, oh, I don’t know, actually apologize for their ‘oversight’ and poor decision making?.

It’s all so disappointing.  That a seemingly innocent act of someone having left their bag on the train would result in all of this is a bit of a surprise.  It seems to me that the driver of that Blue Line should have taken 5 minutes to hold the train, ask people to step out for a couple of minutes and then have the bag removed by security.  Trains are delayed much longer for ‘signal problems’.

Where and when does our safety matter?  Especially when a train is about to enter a tunnel that if compromised would create a disaster like Boston has never seen. MBTA, I answered your call to action.  I replied by being diligent.  I saw something and I said something.  And then you did nothing.

I am disappointed.  I am not happy.  And you owe not only me an apology, but you owe an apology to every person who was on that Blue Line train yesterday headed to Wonderland at 3:00 p.m.  You compromised not only my security, but that of each passenger and employee on that train and the stations, and you compromised the security of Boston.

I suppose my next stop ought to be to…

MBTA General Manager Daniel Grabauskas or MBTA Blue Line Chief, Dion Stubbs (blueline@mbta.com).

Think they’re paying attention?