Taking on the T
Sandy DiBacco is bringing attention to a safety issue for commuters at the Walpole MBTA station.
By Grace Allen
There’s a David and Goliath struggle going on right now, and a Norfolk woman is in the thick of it. Sandy DiBacco is taking on the MBTA, and she’s not afraid of a fight.
On September 12, the MBTA launched a commuter rail service pilot program between South Station and Foxboro Station via the Fairmount and Franklin commuter rail lines. If this sounds familiar, a version of this service began in the fall of 2019 but was cancelled the following spring because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now it’s back, albeit in a changed form, and not for the better, asserts DiBacco, who has been riding the commuter rail since 1988. While the service offers 11 inbound and 10 outbound weekday trains between Foxboro and Boston, most of those trains have been taken away at the expense of commuters using the Walpole station.
Perhaps more importantly, the new schedule creates a dangerous situation at the Walpole train station, where DiBacco catches the train to get to work in Boston. In order to get from the MBTA parking lots to the train station, commuters must cross the Foxboro line’s tracks. At least twice a day, that means crossing in front of a Foxboro train to catch or get off a Walpole train.
At the Walpole station, a set of train tracks branches off of the main line and goes through the station’s access road. These tracks continue to the Foxboro station, which is located at Gillette Stadium. No matter which parking lot commuters come from, they need to cross these tracks to get to the Walpole station.
While there are flashing lights and gates to stop cars from driving though, the concern for pedestrians rises as trains outbound from South Station to Foxboro roll through just as commuters are trying to catch inbound trains to Boston. For example, at about 7:15 a.m. each weekday, a train outbound from Boston, scheduled to arrive in Foxboro at 7:30 a.m., comes right down the tracks through this road, just as pedestrians and commuters in cars are rushing to the Walpole station to catch the 7:30 a.m. inbound train to Boston.
“You come up from the parking lot, you walk up the hill, and you have to cross the tracks,” explained DiBacco, noting the electronic signage boards do not announce the Foxboro trains. “And people are running across the train tracks as the Foxboro train is coming. They look and figure they can make it. It’s so incredibly dangerous.”
It’s not just an issue with scheduled commuter trains. Empty trains also move through the Walpole station for repositioning. Commuters getting off the 5:45 p.m. train from Boston to Walpole have to cross the tracks minutes before one such empty Foxboro train heading to Boston comes through.
“It’s pitch black now when you get off the train,” said DiBacco. “What about older people or somebody in a cast, or even someone pausing to check a text message? The Foxboro train comes just a few minutes after the commuters get off the Walpole train. I’m not even halfway down that path and that train is coming.”
Over the course of the past year, the MBTA has slowly chipped away at trains on the line, including several morning inbound trains. Changes on September 12 resulted in the loss of yet another rush-hour outbound train (5:20 p.m.) from South Station that used to end in Walpole; instead, this train now goes to Foxboro.
“I personally get home 45 minutes later than I used to,” DiBacco noted, who said even the conductors on her train were unaware of the abrupt schedule changes on September 12, asking the passengers why the trains were so crowded.
Given the shift of the train schedule away from stops normally made at Walpole, there are implications for overcrowding on other Franklin line trains, as area commuters are forced to turn to different ones. In addition, the MBTA added Forest Hills as a permanent stop on the Franklin line, resulting in even more passengers on already-full trains.
DiBacco, who works as a legal assistant, has started a petition, sent letters, and contacted MBTA and Keolis officials—Keolis operates the MBTA commuter rail system—to complain about the schedule changes, and more importantly, the dangerous situation in Walpole. Many Norfolk and Wrentham residents catch the train there.
She’s requested that a Keolis safety official come to the Walpole station during peak commuter hours, and has also filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), which was flagged as invalid.
“I’m not supposed to file an OSHA report because I don’t work for the MBTA, but I did it anyway,” DiBacco said. “It’s all in writing if somebody dies, God forbid.”
She has notified Walpole town officials, the Department of Public Utilities Transportation Oversight Division, and has gone into the Attorney General’s office to discuss the safety issue.
“Nobody is policing the MBTA,” asserts DiBacco.
The Kraft Group, led by New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft, has partnered with the MBTA on the Foxboro pilot program, which includes free parking at Gillette Stadium for commuters who take the Foxboro line. The Kraft Group owns Gillette Stadium and Patriot Place.
“Bob Kraft doesn’t take the train,” said DiBacco. “What business is his to ruin people’s lives because he decided he wanted people to go to Patriot Place?” She added she has no issue with the special event day train service from Boston and Providence to Patriots home games.
DiBacco says both state Representative Jeff Roy and former state Representative Shawn Dooley, as well as Walpole’s town administrator, have tried to schedule meetings with the MBTA, but at the time of this writing the meeting had not taken place.
When contacted, Rep. Roy said a meeting will most likely be held in the next few weeks, once a mutually convenient time and place are agreed upon.
“Having a reliable and safe public transportation system is integral for moving people,” wrote Rep. Roy in an email. “It is important for economic development and is vital to our success in reducing emissions and achieving our climate goals. Our residents demand and need a public transit system that will get them safely to their destination and this will be emphasized during our meeting.”
DiBacco’s petition, signed by over 160 people so far, requests that the MBTA abandon the Foxboro line pilot program, calling it unfair, inconvenient, and dangerous.
“When the MBTA wants to increase fares, they hold meetings for public input,” said DiBacco. “But they just changed everything for this pilot program without telling anyone. Somebody is going to die here. There is no question in my mind. Last year, in the parking lot, I slipped on black ice and broke my wrist. And the MBTA thinks it’s safe to cross the train tracks as a train is coming? We live in New England.”
She added, “Every agency, every MBTA and Keolis person I’ve contacted told me they can’t do anything about it. They all tell me the same thing. And I say, you don’t understand. I’m going to fight this until something gets done. I’ve done this sort of stuff before. I don’t mind fighting. It’s what I do best.”
To sign DiBacco’s petition, contact her at [email protected] Or search for “Abandon Foxboro Commuter Rail Pilot Program” on Change.org.