Platform Anxiety; where to wait for the train?

Where on this platform do I stand?

For a new rider on the commuter rail, one of the most basic questions is “where do I stand” to wait for the train?  There are long areas astride the tracks for boarding and disembarking. The areas typically are long enough to accommodate a maximum-length train of six or maybe even more cars, at eighty-five feet apiece.  That’s more than 500 feet, or well more than a football field — endzones and all.  In other words, it’s a lot of space to cover.  And there is only one of me, the rider.

The question of where on the platform to wait is all the more pressing because the midday trains only open a few doors.  There may be 12 doors to the train but rest assured only two of those doors will open — the doors where the MBCR conductors are located.  The same train generally will follow the same practice … but different trains apparently follow different practices.  Some trains board passengers on the leading cars, while other trains board passengers on the trailing cars.

How can a rider predict where on the platform the train will stop and which doors will open?  The easy answer is that you should stand with the other riders.  But that only works if you are slow to arrive at the station and time the train closely.  As you can see there are no riders in this picture of Mishawum/Woburn station a few minutes prior to the arrival of a Boston-bound train.

How about standing on the elevated platform?  The MBCR and MBTA have made handicap accessibility a priority, so more boarding is conducted from the platform in recent years.  However, clearly not all elevated platforms are in use.  You can see the picture above was taken from an elevated platform that was in a state of disrepair and not the correct choice.  The train did not board from the elevated platform.

In fact, riders boarded on the far end of the Woburn/Mishawum stop, and that only was clear when the usual riders began gathering in that area just moments before the train arrived.  There has to be a better way to help riders who are unfamiliar with a train or a station.

Walk this way to board the train

And it turns out that the MBCR already has the solution, in the form of the sign to the left posted at the Needham Junction station.  Call it obvious (or brilliant) but it is a hurtling leap forward in communications with riders.  Stand where the sign says to go and you will be alright.  Now if we could just get these signs at all of the stations!

Move That Bus

Crowd waiting for rider to drive inactive bus

The 57 bus.  What can I say?  Forty-five stops in five-and-a-half miles of Brighton, Allston, Newton, and Watertown.  One stop for every 650 feet.  In traffic.  It isn’t exactly the kind of ride that anyone really looks forward to.

But the 57 gets riders.  Lots of riders.  One might think that would prompt the T to emphasize frequent, reliable operations.

Why then, does the T allow excessive numbers of riders to accumulate at peak hours, waiting for that bus?  The T’s foot-dragging seems doubly strange when there is both an inactive bus and a driver waiting at the 57’s origin in Kenmore Square, just waiting … waiting … waiting for … I’m not sure, just waiting.  Ten minutes, fifteen ….

This picture was taken on a Tuesday evening at 9:15 p.m., at Kenmore square.  This was the scene for perhaps 20 minutes (that I personally saw); I would guess that the earliest arrivals were waiting at least 40 minutes.  The group in the picture (which continued to form for some time) is actually quite large; the people are standing right up to the edge of the curb, and not exclusively for the view of the inactive bus directly in front of them.  The erstwhile bus driver was sipping a latte, taking it all in.  And this was (according the the Red Sox recap) about an hour before the end of the game.  This was not part of the post-game rush.

The run at 9:12 p.m. run obviously was dropped.  It seems very doubtful as well that the 8:52 p.m. or 9:00 p.m. routes ever left the station either.  If they occurred, they certainly failed to accommodate everyone who was waiting for the bus at those times.  At least two other empty (or nearly empty) buses went through the station while the group was waiting.  One was “Out of Service,” and the other was running a route that no one apparently was riding.

Eventually the loitering bus driver restarted the bus, marked it as the 57, and pulled it to the curb.  The driver must have been scheduled for the 9:24 p.m. run.  Never mind that the three preceding runs of the 57 bus never happened.  It was a cozy ride with the large group that had gathered to wait, made more unpleasant by the over-earnest warnings of a second T employee who urged packed-in riders to stand behind the yellow line or else.

In another context, for another agency, this would be a sign of part of an organization headed in the wrong direction, unable to motivate employees to provide critical services in an appropriate manner.  But for the T, unfortunately, it is another night of business as usual.  At least on the 57 bus.

If Roads Were Regulated Like Rails, Everyone Would Drive A Cement Mixer

If highways were regulated like railways, you would drive a vehicle like this.

In the 1970s, the federal government instituted automobile regulations to increase vehicle fuel efficiency — in part by decreasing vehicle weight.  The initiative, called “CAFE” or “Corporate Average Fuel Economy,” has been renewed and enhanced as recently as 2007.  Heavier vehicles tend to be safer vehicles, but Congress and the President have judged that the gain in efficiency at the cost of safety is worthwhile and justified.  The stakes are high; roads are dangerous, automobile accidents are common, and literally thousands of people die each year as a result of the CAFE efficiency standards.  The government made a tough choice and for four decades the decision has withstood constant scrutiny.

At the same time, the government has been encouraging heavier, more polluting, less useful passenger trains.  Although rail collisions are rare (particularly compared to auto accidents) the federal agency in charge of the national rail system has strongly discouraged lightweight railcars from the national rail network.  Never seen a single-car train beyond the interior suburbs?  That’s because generally they aren’t allowed there.  Trolley and subway cars operate only on closed-off portions of the rail network that are physically disconnected from the national rail network.  Passenger trains must be bulked up in weight to be allowed on traditional rail corridors, even where freight traffic is rarely seen.  For example, the Acela Express Amtrak trainset nearly doubled in weight to comply with the regulations, and as a result it developed numerous design and performance problems.

To recap: the feds required passenger trains to get heavier or be banned from the basically safe national network at the same time that other federal regulators have required passenger cars operating on a dangerous road system to shrink in mass.

The two sets of regulations could not have been more different.  Imagine for a moment what the roads would look like if they were operated like the rails.  So much for the freedom of the open road; that would be history.  If you owned a subcompact car– or an SUV for that matter– you would only be able to drive on your driveway, unless you first put up barriers to block off the local road network from the national road network.  To be able to drive on a national highway or Interstate, you would need to buy a vehicle the size of a cement mixer, and fill it with cement.  Everyone would be required to do this, because (in the language of the rail regulators) otherwise the passenger automobiles would be too lightweight to avoid deforming in a head-on collision with the heaviest tractor-trailers on the road.  Vehicle fuel efficiency of these passenger-cement-mixers would be abysmal, people would be forced to pay for excessive vehicles and unwanted tons of cement, and maintenance costs for the vehicles and roads would be much higher.

In effect, rail regulations would convert a useful network of highways into isolated islands of local roads interspersed by connections that are accessible only to impractical overweight passenger vehicles.

No one would seriously suggest that we should have regulations on the highway system like the ones that have been imposed on the rails.  That begs the question why we have such onerous rules for trains.  A passenger train that can survive a high-speed collision with a locomotive may well be safer to its passengers in that respect.  However, the result of the requirement has been a far less connected and useful, and far more expensive, passenger rail system that has forced more and more people into their automobiles.  And automobiles are proven to be far more lethal to passengers than trains, in addition to the deleterious impact of automobiles and asphalt on the environment.

So in its zeal to make passenger trains safer by making sure that no passenger rail car on the national network will deform if was unfortunate enough to collide with a coal freight train (whether or not anyone could remember a coal train operating in that location), the federal government has undermined the competitiveness of rail technology and forced everyone to take much more serious risks on the highways, where the risk of death is many times higher than the rails.  And where no one expects a passenger automobile to bounce back from a head-on collision with a semi-trailer.

Maybe it’s time that regulators considered that heavier passenger trains and a less connected rail system are not actually a safer or more convenient for the public at large.  A lighter passenger train (or trolley service on regular railways) operating on the national rail network might help drivers off of the roads … and that alone would save lives.