BOSTON >> Two employees from the MBTA's dispatch center received commendations Monday for helping clear Red Line trains out of the path of a subway car moving driverless down the track Thursday morning.
"Based on all accounts after the fact, you two performed in exemplary fashion, made a whole series of strategic decisions, executed them perfectly and turned what could have been a far more dangerous circumstance into something that — while it was temporarily messy for a lot of the people involved — did not lead to any sort of significant, even minor, disaster," Baker told Mark McNeill and Ainsley "Lee" Saunders in the governor's ceremonial office Monday.
Thursday's dramatic, unpiloted ride from Braintree ended outside North Quincy Station after McNeill and Saunders worked to clear the tracks and then shut down power to that section of third rail. None of the roughly 50 passengers were injured in the roughly 10-minute ordeal, while the operator was brushed by the train departing without him.
The signing of citations for Saunders and McNeill took place on the same day that the entities investigating the major mishap expect to report their findings.
Multiple reports have indicated the operator rigged the controls to keep the train in motion and officials have said he did not set either of the two brakes required before stepping off the train to switch it into bypass mode — which allows the train to move past faulty signals and also disengages the collision avoidance system. The trains are designed to have a maximum speed of 25 miles per hour in bypass mode.
The closest train to the runaway train was leaving Wollaston — three stops up the line from Braintree — when the call came in, MBTA General Manager Frank DePaola told reporters. North Quincy, where the train came to a rest is one stop past Wollaston.
"Within a minute of the train leaving the station without an operator, Lee receives a call from the train-starter down at Braintree. He was told that there was a runaway train moving north without any operator and no way to stop it," DePaola said.
He said Saunders notified his supervisor McNeill and the two assessed the situation.
"They had to look to see if there were other trains on the track, which there were. There was a train heading north — just leaving Wollaston at the time — so they told those trains to express. Don't stop at any more stations so that they could create some spacing between the driverless train and the trains with drivers and passengers on them. Once they opened up enough space they then killed the power for that section of third rail, and the train coasted to a stop," DePaola said.
The incident began around 6:08 a.m. Thursday and DePaola said he was notified around 6:15 a.m., and told Braintree Mayor Joe Sullivan, a member of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation Board of Directors, about it before the T issued a press release.
Saunders, who attended the ceremony with his wife and daughter, started working for the T in February 2000 and has worked in the Operations Control Center for the past decade. McNeill, who attended with his fiancée, has been in the center since 1987 after joining the MBTA in October 1982.
"The T has had a really rough year. It started with the snow; it ended with this — hope that's the last of it," Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said. Saying most of the people who work for the T "work really hard," Pollack praised Saunders and McNeill for their "calm" tone and "level-headedness and quick-thinking."
Baker entered office right ahead of a series of snowstorms that knocked out rail service on outdoor parts of the system and completely shut down subway operations during the worst of the snow. The T has since wrestled with a structural deficit of $242 million projected in fiscal 2017 and the surprise $1 billion hike in the estimated cost of an expansion of the Green Line.
"I just think it's important when things in government work well, we need to highlight that as well," said Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, who said there are "many things every day across our state — our government — that work."
Encountered on a sidewalk after the ceremony, Saunders said the event in the governor's office was "very nerve-wracking" and it was "excellent to meet the governor." Saunders declined to give his own account of the incident.