Understaffed Lot Creates Red Sox Transitjam

Stuck in Newton on the way to the ballpark

Stuck in Newton on the way to the ballpark

In a minature version of the Easter 2009 turnpike toll fiasco, insufficient staffing at the Riverside Green line terminal in Newton at noon on Sunday jammed traffic all the way back onto I-95/Route 128.  Red Sox faithful arrived at the station early for the 1:35pm afternoon start … and most still needed all of the time and patience they could muster.

Riverside Lot

Near Capacity Lot a Surprise for a Sunday

Turnout was strong for the short trolley ride to the stadium.  With the reduction in trolley fares inbound from the station a few years ago (from $3 per person to $1.70), families west of Boston seem to know a good deal when they see one.

Too bad the T and its contractor, Central Parking, didn’t get it right today, and they left T patrons idling in traffic for probably forty-five minutes each — right outside of the station.

Traffic backed up to highway overpass

Traffic backed up to highway overpass

The problem: Riverside station has staffed booths at the entrance to the parking lot, and in their wisdom, Central Parking and the T sent just one attendant to staff the collection booth for the entire thousand-space lot.  For occasional parkers, like weekend Red Sox fans, paying for parking is not a speedy proposition.  So the influx of fans piled up at the booth near the back of the station.  And then the line backed up through the station (blocking bus access). And then the line jammed up the local street outside.  And then it jammed up the Route 95/128 overpass, going so far as to stop traffic, bumper to bumper on the Route 95/128 off-ramp.

Transit-jam on highway off-ramp

Transit-jam on highway off-ramp

I doubt many of those fans are feeling very smart now about their decision to ride the T.  A half-hour trip to the Sunday game turned into a two-hour nightmare.  It’s unfortunate that the T and Central Parking can’t figure out a way to collect weekend parking fees in an effective way.

Riverside Station entrance

Riverside Station entrance

When the Turnpike inexplicably jammed patrons earlier this year by understaffing collection booths, the head of the organization promptly resigned.  Although this jam was no less inexcusable, don’t expect the same thing from the T.  In some ways it seems to set the bar lower.  But at Central Parking on the other hand … there may be some anxious days ahead.

(eds. note: Red Sox game coincided with final day of the Tall Ships Festival)

Crowded Platform

south-station-3-9-09-rush-hour

South Station Red Line, Evening Rush Hour

What does a crowded platform mean?  Is it a sign of success or a sign of failure?  When the MBTA compiles its ridership statistics, do they record the situation in the picture to the right as a roaring success?  Do they simply say “there were like a thousand people who boarded that train at South Station during the evening rush hour; hooray?”

There isn’t really any question in my mind how the patrons standing on the platform would have answered the question.  When you get down to it, there really isn’t much difference between sucking tailpipe emissions on Storrow Drive and becoming better-acquainted than you’d like with strangers on the subway.  Probably the main difference is scenery; there’s no advertising on Storrow Drive.

The T doesn’t usually give live feedback, but on the day of the picture the train driver gave passengers who boarded from the very crowded platform an unusually syrupy-sweet send off.  She knew the crowded platform was trouble.  But when the transit scribes meticulously record the events of the day, how will they see it?  I wonder.

The Patriots Train; good adventure; mediocre transit

Inside Gillette Stadium

Gillette Stadium

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.

Where's the 4:20 Patriots Train?

South Station: Where is the Pats train?

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.

Standing room only

Filled to capacity

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.

The beginning of the slow road.

Switching yard in Walpole

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.

Welcome to Foxboro Stadium!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.

The Patriots Train at Foxboro Stadium

Train arrived at Foxboro

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.