A new chapter: The MBTA’s Phillip Eng

Back in April, Phillip Eng arrived as the MBTA’s new general manager hoping to restore trust with the public following a series of high-profile mishaps by the transit system, some of which resulted in fatalities. 

The situation Eng walked into was years in the making. Decades, really. Delivering on the standard objectives of any transit system – fast, safe, reliable service – will take time, which is understandable given the scope of work to be done. In the interim, Eng astutely identified regaining trust as an important short-term goal while the work is mapped out and performed. 

“When (riders) speak to us, they need to know that we’re listening, and we’re responding.” 

Despite being a fervent rider of public transit, my confidence in the MBTA’s ability to deliver on those aforementioned goals has diminished in recent years. Not just because of the headlines but because of their customer service, namely their communication, which can be characterized as slow and opaque. What exactly is a “minor” delay

If Eng wants to regain trust from the public, improving communication is a practical and quickly implemented place to start. Eng, to his credit, has become a fixture at T stations, using the system and engaging directly with passengers during their commutes to better understand their struggles. It’s a small gesture, but one that demonstrates he’s proactive in soliciting feedback and will walk a mile in their shoes.   

“I’ve been engaging with a lot of riders on the trains, but also just in my walks to the stations…so people have come up to share their thoughts, which I appreciate, because that’s important to me.” 

Although his tenure is still in its first few months, there have been multiple opportunities to assess how the MBTA has handled communication under his leadership. Here’s a look at a couple of examples.  

The Sumner Tunnel shutdown was on the docket well before Eng arrived in the Bay State and it’s also a MassDOT project, not the MBTA’s. But the project’s massive disruptions have been (somewhat) mitigated by a slew of MBTA alternatives, including free Blue Line and ferry service and discounts on parking and commuter rail tickets. These low/no cost options serve to reinforce recognition of the disturbances and represent good faith efforts to keep people moving 

Importantly, these options have been reported by news outlets, touted by elected officials, and plastered on billboards. Headaches over the disruptions and delays were expected, if inevitable, but the communication rollout has effectively laid out the options available to commuters.  

If the Sumner shutdown was a success (at least from an MBTA perspective), the terminated plans to shut down the Union Square Green Line station to facilitate repair work on Squires Bridge in Somerville was the opposite. For starters, the lead time was roughly two and a half weeks, and the initial communication was delivered on Thursday afternoon leading into the 4th of July holiday. The insufficient timing was complemented by MBTA communication that no shuttles would be employed and that riders should plan to walk to nearby buses to connect to other Green Line stations. This plan gave little consideration to passengers with mobility challenges and those inexperienced navigating the neighborhood, which is undergoing significant construction.  

Under pressure from local electeds, the shutdown was postponed less a week later until September, “so that the closure does not occur at the same time as the Sumner Tunnel closure and to allow appropriate time to explore mitigation options and communicate with the public.” Although the about-face was awkward, it was clearly the right decision and will give MassDOT and the MBTA the time to think through a more robust mitigation strategy. If there is a positive to be found in the Union Square station shutdown episode, it’s that agencies were receptive to feedback from the public and quickly reacted accordingly. 

“Despite the frustration that some of the public has, the welcome that I’ve gotten has been really uplifting. They are pulling for us. And I think, you know, you kind of need to because there is no alternative, we need to deliver mass transportation.” 

There is still room for improvement in communication. Slow zones, which have been a staple of T commutes for the past year, are still plaguing the system and there’s no explanation or end date to be found. Tackling slow zones was one of the first areas Eng identified when he took the job and the plan for eliminating these delays remains outstanding.

While these situations have prolonged impacts requiring a greater strategy, the most frequent communication between the MBTA and customers occurs when there are unplanned disruptions in service. One of the most frustrating aspects of being a regular MBTA commuter is the all-too-familiar situation of standing on an overcrowded platform awaiting updates that are slow to come through. Unfortunately, the communication around these incidents routinely misses the mark as passengers are prone to pointing out on social media. Overhauling this process to ensure passengers are not left in the dark and staff can direct folks to alternatives won’t improve service, but it can make delays more tolerable.

Trust is hard to earn and easy to lose. Communication will need to be prompt, clear, and consistent if Eng is to win the hearts and minds of commuters.

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