I boarded the special so-called “Patriots Train” on Friday to see the 7:30 p.m. football exhibition against the Philadelphia Eagles. I was looking for good transit and railroading adventure. I found some adventure. As for good transit, there’s no shortage of promise — but the execution leaves something to be desired. Much like our pre-season Patriots!
The Patriots Train is a great idea. The Patriots are Boston’s professional football franchise, but the football stadium is about twenty-five miles distant from Boston. Boston is the great walking city, and a train would be a great way to move the large group of people who are going from Boston to the game — without cars. In theory, this should be a marvelous success.
MBCR certainly puts effort into it. There was extra staff available at South Station at about 4 p.m. to run ticket collection and there were multiple audio announcements.
Good thing, too, because the train — being special and all — never got posted on the main announcement board. I asked why, and the answer had something to do with the board being new. I like the board, and the newness is a plus … but that hardly seems to be a good excuse. Some of the older television devices did carry the listing. The ticketing was a little bit of a hassle, but all of the agents clearly were putting in the effort to make the train a success.
They were undermined, as usual, by administration and infrastructure. Seating on the train was tricky. Who would have guessed that this train is very popular. MBCR used six cars on the trainset– five single-level cars and one bi-level. At South Station, MBCR opened only three of the six cars, and those filled quickly. Only when every seat was filled (and people crammed uncomfortably together), did the conductors reluctantly open a fourth car. There was enough room for small groups to sit together at Back Bay but by the time the train left Dedham Corporate Center — it was standing room only. There just weren’t enough seats. MBCR could have used at least two more bi-level cars and still filled every seat. And really, when you think about it, every one of the six cars on that train should have been bi-level cars because it’s a long ride (as I shall explain) and particularly on the return trip (after a long night cheering) some fans really are best left alone and without seatmates. Really. Both before and after they pass out.
The train left South Station promptly at 4:24 p.m., only moments later than the scheduled time. About three hours before gametime. Arrival was scheduled for 5:30 to 6:30, depending on your source. We arrived a little after 6 p.m. It might seem surprising that a 23-mile ride would take somewhere in the vicinity of one and a half to two hours. How can that be? Well, for my train part of the reason was inadequate railroad capacity on the junction between the Franklin Line and the Northeast Corridor in Dedham. There was a traffic jam! There is a single track for all of the trains, and our train waited for fifteen minutes to allow one train to pass in the other direction. Then we passed a third train who pulled onto a siding for us. Some way to avoid traffic! There just isn’t enough track; it’s a one-lane railroad.
Then there’s the tale of two railroads. The map at the top shows the route of the Patriots Train in two colors. There are 19 miles marked in blue, and 4 miles marked in red. The blue miles are tracks regularly used for passenger service by MBCR. The red sections are not. There is a big difference. Just outside of Walpole Station, the train switches onto the last four miles of track, initially turning into a lightly-used rail yard. The crew requires about ten minutes in the yard to make the necessary adjustments to the track and to reverse the direction of the train. This part is the high-adventure part for a rail enthusiast, because it’s rare for fare paying service to enter these kinds of tracks. From the picture it should be obvious that they are far from pristine. That leads to a second problem. During these last four miles, the train’s speed is restricted to fewer than ten miles per hour. That is slower than your typical Patriot’s traffic jam. And it means that the speck of red-marked route on the map above consumes fully a third or half of the total time of travel on this adventure! Amazing.
Now don’t get me wrong, I liked the train very much. Part of why I liked it might have been the relief and amazement on arriving at the stadium and seeing the well-worn signs for the station. Very cool. The other riders were enthusiastic and friendly. And the staff was courteous. The wait for the train on the return was long (it was more like 40 minutes from the end of an uncompetitive game) and a handful of riders were somewhat unruly, and had there been a few more seats the wait would have been pleasant.
Overall, though, unless you’re looking for a train adventure, the Patriots Train just doesn’t make good transit sense. The fare is $12 round trip per person. No one goes to a game alone, so your fare really is at least $24. If you park at one of the MBTA lots, that’s another $2. Parking at Gillette Stadium is about $40. There isn’t much of a price advantage — if you have more than three people it actually costs a whole lot more than parking. Meanwhile you spend in waiting time whatever money you hoped to save. Travel time is entirely uncompetitive; the train takes roughly double the travel time of an automobile from Boston. And that is the most favorable comparison. And it doesn’t count time required for purchasing tickets on the front end and waiting for the train to leave after the game on the back end. Those activities added about an hour of travel time round-trip. And comfort? The MBCR dropped the ball by allocating too-few seats to the trains that they sent to the game. There just weren’t enough seats, and so the train wasn’t all that comfortable.
So what besides railroad adventure might make the Patriots Train worth the trip? Maybe convenience, or perhaps for a Bostonian sheer simplicity and avoiding the highways. But I’m not sure there is much transit value to commend the Patriot’s Train. Which is terribly disappointing. However, the train was different, and folks were friendly and enthusiastic enough so that the whole ride almost seems to make sense.