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!

Bus Exhaust Other Than From Tailpipe

Tailpipe up top, but the exhaust escapes below.

Tailpipe up high, but the exhaust leaks out below

Recently, I saw bus 0462 (marked in the picture for route 504) belching fumes.  That itself is not remarkable.  Some buses just stink.  But 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.

You Can’t Get There From Here

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.

Travel times for walking and riding the T

Red is fast; blue is not.

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 ….