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Getting Their Hands Dirty


It’s nearly 1:30 am, and word comes on the radio that the last Red Line subway car has cleared the tracks for the night. Immediately, a different schedule springs into action. Finally green-lit, three gear-toting track workers pile into a rickety yellow cab that only appears after-hours—a cramped, lightless MBTA “work train” filled with oil-streaked equipment. The urban submarine chugs through darkness from a sprawling Southie bus yard to the JFK/UMass station, where sub-zero temps have cracked a rail. Service must resume in four hours (otherwise, cue the “T sucks!” tweets from morning commuters).

En route there’s much good-natured joking: about kids, dogs, one another. Then the guys hop off and start moving like well-oiled gears. Sledgehammers knock metal clips off the broken rail. A crane hoists its replacement. Foreman John McGrath throws constant words of caution to me, the amateur interloper. (I had to pass an eight-hour training course to even get this close.) “Look away!” he barks. Blinding white light jumps from a panel as he kills the power to the electrified third rail. “Step over it anyway,” he cautions, though I’ve just watched him test it. Earplugs and goggles are thrust into my hands, and a worker takes a circular saw to the tracks, slicing slowly as if through mud. Metal screams and a chest-high flurry of sparks flies. I’m suddenly grateful for the guidance.

“We’re a team here,” McGrath explains. “We have to watch out for each other.” I remember a sign back at the bus yard, requesting donations for a sick worker.

MBTA maintenance is dangerous: Take heavy machinery and load-bearing infrastructure, and then add 600 volts of electricity, the pressures of an overnight time crunch and, potentially, moving trains to the mix. “Our goal is to go home to our families” was a frequent refrain during the intensive safety class, which also dispelled oft-heard urban legends. (No, you can’t save yourself by laying low between tracks.)

That’s what cultivates the unique camaraderie, says MBTA’s Danny Payne, who supervises track maintenance teams. Payne picks me up from the JFK/UMass station for a subterranean tour of the tunnels at Porter Square, which at 130 feet below surface is one of the world’s deepest subway stations. As the service truck crawls down the endless earthen corridor, a group of orange-vest-clad workers climb out of the way and offer a salute that seems quite cheery for three in the morning. There’s another city down here, with its own streets and sense of civic duty.

“We’re in the business of moving people,” Payne says as we pull into the station. “And we take great pride in doing that together.”