From the edge of reason…and sanity…

Taking the T

Working in Downtown Boston doesn’t offer a lot of travel options. You can pay what would be a fair fraction of rent on a decent apartment anywhere else for a parking space (and the hassle of actually driving in Boston), or you take the MBTA. Since I live a fair distance west of Boston, the commute for me includes the Commuter Rail. Read on for some details and rantings.

The MBTA (or the “T”, since we have to use as few syllables as possible) gets a lot of hassle from those who take it. I usually don’t give it a lot of grief – it is the oldest subway, and we pay a fraction of what other cities charge. But sometimes its just stupid.

The Fitchburg commuter line in general has been good – it has only been late a few times since I started taking it about 8 months ago. However, last week going home I got “door-to-door service” – I got dropped off right at my car. Too bad my car was about 150 feet short of the actual platform, and you have to step onto a 2 foot high concrete wall from the train and then jump to the ground. I was afraid someone would lose balance and land on my trunk.

Far worse in the Orange Line. Usually its not so bad, but there are days where it seems to be operating in what I call “stupid mode”. The Orange Line desparately needs more trains, but there aren’t enough. They aren’t the oldest trains in the fleet (that goes to the Red Line and the 1500-1600 series Pullman cars – and the even older “Wartime” PCC trolleys that run the Red Line’s Ashmont-Mattapan “high speed rail”), so they’re not yet scheduled to get new cars yet, but may get rebuilt Blue Line cars if it is feasible.

This shortage helps to bring about “Stupid Mode”. Somehow you can wait an extra-long period of time for a train to arrive. Now, at a station like North Station, which gets a lot of people coming in off the northern commuter rail branches, the train will finally arrive – and be completely full. So you can’t get on, and just have to wait for another train.

Now, on the Red Line, whenever a train seemed to be delayed and arrived full, there would be a train immediately behind it – completely empty. Not a problem. Not so with the Orange Line. The next train won’t come for a while, and it will be completely full as well. And the next, and the next…I once sat at the North Station platform and couldn’t get on until the 5th train arrived, and only because I forced myself on. This happens more often than it should.

In fact, the MBTA, especially the Red Line, exhibits a form of what I’ve always called the snowball effect. For instance – the time it takes passengers to get on and off is directly related to how crowded it is. A delayed train results in more people getting on it at the next station, which takes longer. More people on the train means more people getting off, delaying the people who want to get on, so they take longer, and so forth. In the meantime, more trains get backed up behind the lead train, which just slows down the whole system. Except on the Orange Line – the trains are still slowed down, but there never appears to be one right behind.

The Red Line, at least, would run the lead train as an “express” (typically from Park Street to Harvard) to get some space between trains. That’s great when you are at Park Street – not so great at the stations that get bypassed as the train you’ve been waiting 30 minutes for goes whizzing by…

Today heading home, I got to do the “Commuter Rail Sprint”. I start at Downtown Crossing leaving a little late, and there’s a train at the platform, but I’m not. So I run for it, and of course just miss it. So I have to wait for what seemed too long for another train, and there were a lot of people at the platform, so it seemed to take forever to close the doors and get moving. We get to the next station, and they’re slow to get off, and people start getting on – and there is the inevitable person who suddenly realized this is his stop, and bolts for the door, causing everyone to stop, back out, and have to repeat all over again. Clock is still ticking.

Finally get to the Orange Line North Station – there are in fact THREE North Stations right now. The Orange Line (at the new underground “Superstation”), The Green Line (on the old elevated trackway over Causeway Street), and the Commuter Rail under the Fleet Center. None of them are connected. The Green Line will eventually be relocated to the Superstation in a few years, and an underground walkway to the commuter rail will also be built, but that won’t be complete until at least 2005 right now.

Back to today – I run out from the Superstation, cross Causeway Street (there is no traffic lights or cop – but traffic amazingly does stop for you), run over to the Fleet Center, all the way down to the platform for my train (it is always on the last platform), and get on the train with 30 seconds to spare. Then we start to leave – and then stop for 10 minutes for a rare outbound delay. I was too tired to ask the conductor why when he came by…

Well anyways, I don’t mean to dis the T that much – I’m very tolerant of it generally. In fact, I’m interested in T history – check out this site for an interesting (albeit old – some links are broken) history of the T, and an up-to-date equipment list). If you know of more sites, let me know.