As part of the “New Perspectives” T Map Challenge, I’ve updated the familiar time-map concept using some modern database tools. Want to visualize where in the system you might go in the limited time that you have? Check out the time map collection in more detail at the permanent resource page.
The riding public was treated today to the sight of two brand-new-to-me locomotives that the MBTA purchased from the Utah Transit Authority. (Yes, Utah has a transit authority, which has a surplus of trains in preparation for a big expansion in service scheduled for 2013-14). One of the two locomotives made its first service run today and met a contingent of reporters and VIPs at South Station. (Note to reporters: let the riders disembark before trying to board yourselves). The Worcester-to-Boston service was only 20 minutes late, so riders were not eligible for a complementary fare. Incidentally, the train also had two locomotives — the new one on the front and the usual one on the back. Not taking any chances with mechanical problems, these transit bigwigs.
Originally the T planned to purchase or lease as many as nine new-to-me locomotives from the Utah Transit Authority with delivery beginning in the fall 2010, but that number appears to have been cut back and the delivery delayed. Even so, the new locomotive was a welcome shot of good press for the MBTA during a dreary stretch of winter weather. The units are said to be a little bit more fuel efficient while also being a little bit more powerful than the MBTA’s existing stable of geriatric locomotives. The press releases don’t mention a model number, which apparently is a variant of Motive Power’s MP36.
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.
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!
Recently, I saw bus 0462 (marked in the picture for route 504) belching fumes. That itself is not remarkable. Some buses just stink. Bus this bus stunk in a peculiar way. See in the picture to the right how there is an exhaust pipe up high to the left of the bus, strategically above the passenger compartment and away from the curb? That is where one would expect the bus fumes to escape.
Instead, the fumes on this bus came out the bottom, apparently whenever the driver hit the gas, in a big gray plume. (The picture shows the bus idling).
I’ve seen several buses like this in the last year. Exhaust pipe on the top, heavy stinky exhaust cloud down below. When I’ve been unlucky, I’ve ridden on that bus and been made queasy by diesel fumes that perfumed the passenger compartment. Maybe it was the same 0462 bus over and over.
If the cloud of exhaust underneath the bus is indicative of a major leak in the exhaust system — the other possibility of a dummy exhaust pipe seems unlikely — one might wonder how the bus ever made it out of the shop. Ahem … make that “might have wondered,” i.e., wondered in the past. Turns out the bus maintenance people have been falsifying records to keep up the appearance that they could handle their backlogs of work. So far nineteen supervisors have been disciplined for faking regular maintenance of the buses.
Here’s guessing 0462 is overdue for its next checkup. Hopefully the T will have enough supervisors to deal with this problem soon.
One of the fascinating things about the T is how it shapes riders’ views of the world. If you rely on the T to get around, you know that many of the stops on the T are places that you can travel without much effort. And there is a netherworld of gauzy space that is beyond. Having browsed to this blog, you may be someone who understands what I’m talking about.
Let’s say you live near Porter Square, Cambridge. From Porter Square, destinations in Cambridge, Somerville, and downtown Boston are close — less than a half-hour by T. Almost by default, practically speaking that becomes the entirety of your city. You might plan a shopping trip to Harvard Square, a movie at Kendall or Boylston, or you might schedule a bus out of South Station. You’d think carefully before you would put the time into visiting places like Chestnut Hill, Roxbury, or Mattapan — even if you needed to be there — because those all are basically day-long excursions on the T. The ride one way on the T is at least an hour, including a bunch of connections. (By contrast, in an hour of driving in a car, you could be at least a state away.) And places like most of Needham, Westwood, or parts of Dedham? Fuhgettaboutit. Two hours or more, on average.
Well, finally we have an interactive graphical representation of what this looks like, on a map. Software guru Dan Tillberg has done a fabulous job illustrating the world traveling by T, in color. Using the T service information database posted by developers at MassDOT (kudos to the government folks for posting the extensive dataset), the map shows in red and yellow the places that are relatively close by T (and walking). The places that are further away are in greens and blues. Dan’s map is interactive, and it is pictured above. Click the image to browse through to his site, and check T connectivity of other locations.
Of course, there are some assumptions behind the map that would change the way it looks depending on, for example how far or fast you were willing to walk, and whether you were willing or able to time your trip precisely to meet a particular bus or train. Transit diagramming is tricky. And this map probably is something like a best-average case … the dataset of delayed or dropped MBTA routes isn’t presently available and so Dan was left to assume that, for example, the Number 1 bus midday from Harvard St. was right on time. Even though we all can guess is was late and overcrowded. That will be another project ….
Turns out the T doesn’t need a fare hike this year after all! Last month the T announced that it would increase fares again — subway fares would break a 28-year inflation-adjusted record to set an all-time high of $2 per ride. Around the same time, I noted that the last two occasions when fares broached the inflation-adjusted $1.75 mark, strange things happened. Fare increases implemented in 1954 and 1981 that took prices over the inflation-adjusted $1.75 mark were rescinded the next year. Those were the only two years in more than a century of transit in Boston that nominal subway fares actually receded.
Looks like history is repeating … or at least rhyming. Gov. Patrick directed that the proposed 2009 hike is off the table, for now. Hopefully major service cuts also were averted. If the consensus economic view is correct that inflation will remain subdued for some time — and assuming the inflation-adjusted fare of $1.75 remains the third-rail of subway pricing — that proposed hike won’t be finding its way to riders anytime soon.
Say what you will about Dan Grabauskas; he is a political survivor. The public servant who reformed the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles resigned under pressure from Governor Patrick and his appointee James Aloisi today, nearly a year short of the end of his five-year term as general manager of the MBTA. The Democratic governor will have his chance to appoint a successor, but the bitter partisan flavor probably will linger with voters for some time. The tab for buying Gov. Patrick an extra nine months of direct control of the MBTA: $327,487. I hope that turns out to be a good investment, but at the moment it’s not so clear that Messrs. Patrick and Aloisi gave taxpayers a good deal.
In 2005, Grabauskas took the job of general manager with a clear vision. The T would treat riders like customers; the system would be reliable, clean, courteous, and safe. But mainly clean. And accessible; inaccessibility “impacts not only on the disabled, but on parents with children in strollers, as well.” Grabauskas professed to be a neatnik; he was particularly concerned about the condition of elevators and escalators. He apparently believed that if he made the T a comfortable place to be, riders would flock and revenues would soar. And, of course, he wanted to control costs.
So four years later, how did he do?
Grabauskas never shrunk from the gaze of his “customers,” for example writing a regular Q+A column in the free daily paper Metro, and appearing more than once on WBUR public radio. He was determined to keep riders safe; he initiated random, highly visible police screening checkpoints. He committed to spending hundreds of millions of dollars to make the T more accessible, installing announcement screens and elevated platforms on the Green Line. He resisted union contract demands and agreed to wage increases only after being overruled by a labor arbitrator. The T renovated the Charles Street station and installed a new train control system on the Red Line that permitted more frequent service. And there is the electronic fare system.
The list goes on. Grabauskas was nothing if not engaged in the goings-on at the T. Perhaps one can disagree with him on policy matters — for example it might be reasonable to question the wisdom of a having a broke organization with heavy capital needs spend hundreds of millions of dollars in an effort to meet the unique requirements of less than 0.1% of T riders — but the man demonstrated integrity and dedication to his “customers.”
But many things never changed. Yes, the trains still are slow and late. Yes, the escalators have at times been scandalously unreliable. Yes there still are door-openers on the Red, Green, and Orange Lines. Yes, Kenmore Station still is under construction nearly five years later. No, Dan Grabauskas does not commute to work on the T. Yes, the T still is broke.
But none of those were the reasons that Governor Patrick and his appointees gave for the reasons they had lost faith in Grabauskas. The breakdown occurred, they said, because two Green Line drivers in two years apparently had ignored traffic signals for different reasons, and Grabauskas was not in Washington, D. C. when the NTSB released its report on one of the accidents. And there was a power outage on the Green Line. That’s it. Never mind that Grabauskas nearly overmanaged the aftermath of the Government Center Green Line collision by banning cell phones from drivers. And never mind that he was on an unpaid budget-related furlough at the time the NTSB report was released. And never mind he is not the T electrician.
No matter; Grabauskas is out, but to Gov. Patrick’s likely chagrin, the former T general manager emerges from the tussle virtually unscathed. That isn’t true for the Governor and his appointees. The termination looks like short-term political retribution — at taxpayers’ expense.
Unfortunately, the real loser here looks to be the T. The authority is leaderless at a critical time where the patchwork of agencies is being reexamined and when the modes of transportation finance are in flux in a way they have not been in memory. The Governor has made noises time and again that he is a friend to transit. Now he has an opportunity to go from words to action.
It just became a little little easier to figure out if you can get there from here on the MBTA. Google Maps rolled out a new service that allows users to map directions on buses and trains operated by the MBTA. The visual aspects of the Google service are a little easier to use; the map is easier to see and to manipulate. On the other hand, there still are some quirks to work out … fares aren’t listed, which is an important consideration for many trips … the system doesn’t seamlessly recognize the names of transit stations the way the MBTA’s system does … and Google is more tolerant of transfers and plodding travel times than is the MBTA. And some of Google’s selections clearly are not the best routes. For example, for directions from South Station to Needham Center station (just west of Route 128) departing at 2 pm today, Google’s first choice is an hour-long, two-transfer odyssey; if instead you set the clock to arrive at 3:06pm (the time that leisurely trip is scheduled to arrive), Google’s first choice becomes more sensible 40 minute railroad trip. Hmmmm…. 40 minutes and no transfers in a reasonably comfortable railcar or 1 hour and two transfers on the subway, trolley, and bus … not a tough choice, at least when the fare is unknown. On the other hand I guess all of the routes are in the list. And, of course, it would help if the route data was cleaned up a bit.
[eds. note: After this was posted, Google adjusted the way that it selects routes; the original post contained another link that now is outdated]
The Suffolk District attorney charged former Green Line conductor Aiden Quinn of gross negligence in the control of “a railroad train,” according to published reports. Quinn was at the controls on May 8 in Government Center when his trolley struck another. His trolley, not his train.
The criminal charge apparently stems from a Massachusetts law that applies to a “railroad or railway of the class usually operated by steam power.” One probably can’t begrudge the District Attorney for not knowing the precise history of the Green Line and the Scollay Square trolley stop; that history never involved steam.
But it certainly would be interesting if the railroad law applied on the Green Line. The law has some interesting, specific requirements. A few things would need to change. To be a trolley conductor, Quinn would have needed to serve as a “brakeman” for two years. Not a bad idea … except trolleys only have one driver (and a door-operator) and no brakeman. Any trolley conductor who never worked as a “brakeman” (probably all of them) would be subject to a $500 fine and year imprisonment. (There’s no such thing as a railroad “operator”) Bare-headed Green Line employees also would be no more; all railroad employees must don a “cap.” An employee without a “cap” forfeits $45.
But on the other hand, maybe some changes would make some sense. If the Green Line was a railroad then it would be required to accept bicycles, one per rider. Of course, as I’ve written previously, the Green Line irrationally prohibits bicycles under all circumstances. And don’t try to hold the door to keep the Green Line train from leaving the station; if it’s a railroad that offense carries up to a $1,000 fine and 20 years in prison, which makes what Quinn is facing look like tiddly-winks.
Obviously the Green Line isn’t run like a railroad. There is a reason for that; it’s a street railway, apparently subject to an entirely different law. That law doesn’t require employees to wear caps, has no obvious requirements for the qualifications of conductors, and (unfortunately) doesn’t require that trolleys accommodate bicycles. If you merely obstruct a trolley you only can be jailed for three months (instead of 20 years).
And if you drive a trolley at excessive speed like Quinn allegedly did — even willfully — you forfeit $500. That might conceivably seem like a bit light of a maximum penalty. But fear not; all operators of common carriers — from steamboats, to buses, to trolleys — also are subject to an entirely different law that the District Attorney apparently did not specifically name, which carries a penalty of two and a half years in jail for gross negligence in the control of any common carrier (not just a railroad).
What does all of this add up to? Well, ultimately if the District Attorney succeeds in sending Quinn to prison for three years (instead of to jail for 2 1/2) for crashing a railroad train (and not a trolley), then the T should get ready to welcome bicycles and their riders on that same line. Because that’s the law!