Thursday, December 4, 2008

The stairs, they are a-crumblin'

There have been the usual problems on the Franklin line in past months, including quite a few 30+ minute delays. These have become so routine that they're hardly worth an entry here.

But there's a much more interesting problem that has come to light at Ruggles recently.

The commuter rail station at Ruggles has two long stairways. One is entirely covered by the Ruggles roof, although water leaks copiously through that roof in many places and the stairs are often soaked on rainy days (even inside the main area of the station itself, it's often like a rain storm indoors on wet days).

The bottom of the other stairway extends out under the open sky. Here's a current photo from the top of the stairs:

That would be quite a fall, wouldn't it?

Now, that stairway was closed for two or three years straight because it was unsafe. Finally in August 2007 it was repaired and reopened. But in the sixteen or so months since it reopened, it has already decayed badly and it again seems very unsafe - an accident waiting to happen.

At least eight stairs are loose, partially detached from the underlying cement. Here's a video of one of them:

If you look closely, you'll see the surface of the stair pop upwards as it's stepped on by the passing commuter, and then fall back down again. You can hear it click as it moves.

It seems that T personnel may not have actually repaired the stairs; I may be wrong, but it looks as if instead they just covered them with new non-skid surfaces. That might be a perfectly adequate replacement (I don't know, I'm not a safety expert) except for one small problem: the nails (or possibly screws) that they used to attach those new surfaces to the underlying, possibly crumbling cement steps are melting. Whatever they're made of, they're fast rusting away to featureless spikes - some are completely gone. And many of the stairs are half-loose from the underlying surface as a result.

Perhaps that rusting process will suddenly stop. But I don't think so. You can't help but wonder about the competence of an organization that would use fasteners liable to rust on an outdoor repair job! Suddenly, the many problems of the Big Dig seem less surprising.

I suspect that the stairway is going to be closed again for repairs, soon. How many years might that process take this time? In 2005-2007, the economy was relatively healthy and the T's budget situation might not have been quite as bad as it is now. So how long will commuters at Ruggles have to put up with either dangerous stairs, or only a single usable stairway?

Apart from the loose stair surfaces, there are a number of steps that have a curious bounce to them when stepped on. It almost feels as if the rubbery surfaces are unsupported; as if the concrete which is supposed to underlie them simply isn't there. The mortar-like substance that was used on the sides of the steps has broken and crumbled away in many cases. But at the very bottom stair, the cement of the underlying step can be seen - and it's not a pretty picture.

Or video, in this case:

What the heck; here's a picture, too.

Notice the rust, and the badly decayed condition of the step. How do the other steps look, I wonder, under their non-skid covering?

And how much could the MBTA and the state be sued for, if (when?) one of those steps gives way, and one or more people are catapulted down that long flight of stairs? How much of the upcoming rate increase would a multi-million dollar settlement eat up?

Lastly, what would it take to get a professional repair job done? I can't imagine it would be more expensive than the liability that the T seems to be courting with their incredibly poorly-maintained facility at Ruggles.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


As you may have heard, parking is about to change at commuter rail lots. It's going up from $2 per day to $4 per day. But nobody seems to have told the people who write the schedules. The new October 27th, 2008 pocket schedule for the Franklin line still lists the parking cost as "easy and only $2 per day".

It should be no surprise that there has been a lot of talk among passengers about the increase. Everyone I've spoken to is pretty pissed off. A 100% increase? That's steep, even in this economy!

It's also going to be pretty inconvenient. Ever tried to push four individually-folded dollar bills through one of those little payment slots? It can be done, of course, but it takes time. And just try doing it when the train is about to leave!

Of course you may prefer to pay with 16 quarters instead...

Another odd thing: the penalty fee. It used to be $0.75, but from what I've heard, it's only going up to a dollar. Why are those who follow the rules going to be stuck with a 100% increase, while those who skip paying only have a 25% increase? Is the T trying to reward people for not paying?

Meet the new train...

Yesterday was the first day for the new 717 Franklin train, departing South Station at 4:20 PM. I'd actually planned to try to catch the 715, which had been moved to 15 minutes earlier, but wasn't able to make it. I'll try to catch it soon - possibly tonight - and report on it here.

I've been wondering just how many coaches the T will put on it. The old 715 usually consisted of five double coaches and two singles. But since they seem to have basically split the run - moving the 715 up by 15 minutes and dropping in a new train that runs ten minutes after the old time - it seemed likely that each of those two trains would have less capacity. But how much less, I wondered?

I can't speak for the new 715, but the 717 last had six flat coaches and one conductor. Between him and the engineer, that's two people to handle a train carrying 700-800 passengers. I don't know what sort of safety or union rules there are, but it's hard to imagine that a single conductor would be considered safe or adequate staffing.

The train itself arrived at Ruggles 15 minutes late. There had been trouble in the yard, apparently. The lone conductor was good about announcing the destination, fortunately; we were all wondering if this was the new Franklin train.

It was, of course, overcrowded. There were ten standees in the coach I was in, and with those old flat coaches that means that some people get pushed into the aisle, blocking traffic.

Many people were confused about the stops that the train would be making. As I noted in the last entry, the T did an awful job at alerting people about the change; I got an earlier warning than most via RailMail, and even THAT was only six days before the change!

Anyway, the old 715 stopped at every station on the Franklin line except Hyde Park and Plimptonville. The new 715 is the same. But the new 717 does stop at Hyde Park, but doesn't stop at Endicott or Islington (nor Plimptonvile). Since a lot of people were going to those stations, the train stopped at all of them - with an announcement that it would NOT be making those stops in the future.

We arrived at Franklin/Forge Park at 5:49, 24 minutes late. Not a particularly auspicious first run, I'd have to say.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Changes in Franklin schedule with very little warning

I'm on the MBCR "RailMail" mailing list for Franklin commuters. I think they add everyone to that list who has given them an email address when filing a claim for the on-time guarantee.

Yesterday afternoon I received an interesting announcement: the schedule for the Franklin line is undergoing some fairly big changes. And those changes are taking place this Monday, October 27th!

Here are the changes:

Monday through Friday - INBOUND
Train 790, the 5:08am train from Franklin/Forge Park to South Station has had three minutes added to its trip time and will now depart Franklin/Forge Park at 5:05am (see attached schedule).

Monday through Friday – OUTBOUND

Train 795, the 7:40am train from South Station will depart 5 minutes earlier at 7:35am.

Train 715, the 4:10pm train from South Station will depart 15 minutes earlier at 3:55pm.

Train 799, will depart South Station at the current scheduled time of 4:30pm but will only go to Readville where it will terminate.

“New Train” 717 will depart South Station at 4:20pm and will make the following stations stops: Back Bay, Ruggles, Hyde Park, Readville, Dedham Corp, Norwood Depot, Norwood Central, Windsor Gardens, Walpole, Norfolk, Franklin/Dean College, and Forge Park/495.

Here's a link to the new 10/27/08 schedule. In order to be "green", they won't be printing many of these, they say, so they're recommending that passengers print out copies. I have to wonder if printing the schedules from our computers is really friendlier to the environment than having the MBTA print them in bulk. Or perhaps the "green" they're thinking of is their money.

New Franklin Schedule, 10/27/2008

For those (like me) who take the afternoon 715 train, you'll either have to take it 15 minutes earlier than before, or wait 10 minutes later for the 717. At this point there's no knowing what the new train "consists" will be - how many coaches they'll have, and whether they'll be flats or doubles. I suspect that both trains will be smaller than the current 715, which is normally two flats and five doubles (and is still sometimes crowded).

One day earlier this week the 715 was five or six flats and one double, instead. People were literally jammed into the vestibules. I've seen bad crowding on the morning #708 train lately, too.

I'm surprised that the MBCR/MBTA gave us so little warning. For those who have to deal with changes to their work schedules, or day care, or change their commuting arrangements in other ways...think fast!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Handicapped seating

Sorry to harp on this point, but I think that it's an interesting opportunity for me to get a look at the T from a new perspective.

On August 23rd I slipped and fell while hiking across a stream in the White Mountains with my son. I landed with my left elbow twisted behind me, and broke it in two places. I've had to keep my arm in a sling ever since, on my doctor's orders.

So I've had a chance to see what it's like to be a semi-handicapped passenger on the commuter rail.

It sucks. Mornings are okay, but over the past month ridership on the Franklin #715 train has increased notably (again). And they have often shorted the train consist; for a while it was five doubles and two flats, but now it's often only one flat. The difference is notable; in early August I was able to get a seat every time I boarded at Ruggles, but for the past three weeks I have almost never been able to get a seat until the Norwood Central stop, nearly half an hour into the ride.

Mind you, there are seats; many of the three-person seats only have two people in them. But they inevitably push towards the opposite ends of the seat, and generally places their bags in the space between. As I walk down the aisles, being careful not to bump my sling against passengers (more because my arm hurts like hell when bumped than because of any great courteousness on my part) many of those passengers in the three-person seats have a classic reaction; they catch sight of me and then quickly look away, out the window or at their suddenly-engrossing reading matter.

As a matter of stupid pride, I never ask them to make room for me. Still, I have to admit that it sticks in my craw; whenever there's an injured person, a parent with children, or a pregnant woman standing I have always been the first to stand up and offer them my seat. But now that I'm injured, only one person has ever offered me a seat. I declined with thanks (I was some distance away, and it was crowded), but it was nice of him to make the offer.

It's a strange issue. I guess it's human nature for passengers to spread out and claim as much space as possible. Should conductors encourage passengers to store their bags in their laps, or in the overhead racks, rather than beside them on the seats? I've heard that announcement once in a while, but it's very rare. Should I speak up and demand a seat? To be honest, I can't jam myself into the middle of a three-person seat; pressure on my arm really does hurt.

As it is, I've been sitting on stairways instead. I can't take a chance on falling down, and it's both painful and difficult to take a secure hold and stand with only one working hand. I have to keep a watch behind me and move at most stops to let people use the stairs, though.

Oh, one more note of interest: fare collection is way down on the Franklin #715 again. I don't recall being asked for my ticket once in the past two weeks.

Hot Cars

As I mentioned in the previous post, I broke my elbow while hiking, recently, and so haven't been able to take the train as often as I used to. Nonetheless, I did run into a few hot cars.

On 8/29/2008, the Stoughton #917 train had a hot car: coach 507

On 9/3/2008, the Franklin #715 train had a double coach without working AC (the first I've ever seen in which the AC was disabled throughout): coach 716. It was horribly hot. I didn't have a thermometer, but I feel quite safe in saying that the temperature was approaching 100°. The coach had the usual effect, too; people jammed into the adjoining coaches, crowding them dangerously. Since the Franklin #715 coach has been getting more and more crowded lately (and they've been shorting us a coach fairly often, too) this was a real problem.


This morning the Franklin #708 train was exactly one-half hour late.

It's unusual for the train to be that late. But it's even more unusual for the train ever to be actually on time.

For the past few weeks I have been tracking the performance of the Franklin #715 train. I board it at Ruggles at 4:19 in the afternoon, and in theory it should arrive at Franklin/Dean College (the next-to-last stop on the line) at 5:10 PM. But here's the actual performance:

Sorry it's an image instead of a table, but Blogger doesn't seem to like my tables. A few notes of interest:

1. All arrival times were taken from my cell phone, which is set to automatically synchronize and update. The time was taken at the moment the train made a full and complete stop at the station.

2. Sorry that the data isn't more complete; I broke my elbow hiking the the White Mountains about three weeks ago, and as a result I haven't been taking the train every single day. It's also a lot harder to check arrival times when you're trying to wrestle a backpack and the train door with one arm.

3. The first column is mislabeled; it shouldn't be called "Late", but rather "Date". Freudian slip, sorry. This data reflects every day that I rode the Franklin #715 and was able to record the time (nine times out of ten, at least), and I have not eliminated ANY data. I wouldn't want anyone to think that I had left out data that improved the results (from the T's point of view), because I haven't.

Nonetheless, the average time late is six and two-thirds of a minute, so far. Multiply that time by the number of passengers on the train, and you're talking about hundreds of wasted person-hours per week. And that's just for that one train! Unless it's the only regularly-late train in the fleet (something that I doubt very much), that means that system-wide many thousands of person-hours are being wasted on a regular basis.

Now, six minutes might not seem like a big deal. And it isn't. But what I find remarkably startling is this: on every day that I recorded an arrival time, the train never ONCE met its official 5:10 PM arrival time.

Not once. Isn't that strange?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Mystery Train

My inbound commute this morning inspired the following poem:

The Mystery Train

The Mystery Train is a train of excitement,
With windows so clouded that you cannot see
Which station you're passing - or IF there's a station,
Or where in the world you might happen to be.

You stare in confusion at windows so frosted
An x-ray machine couldn't peer through the haze.
Is my stop coming up? Or have I just passed it?
Or am I a minotaur lost in a maze?

The conductors all thoughtfully aid in the mystery,
Never breathing a word which might pierce that dark veil
Where is the train going? Are we passing a station?
Was that blob Back Bay station, or was it Montvale?

If YOU want to ride on a train full of mystery
They're rolling along on the tracks every day
You might never get to the place you were going,
But that's how it is on the MBTA.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Silent Stops and Secret Stations

No major issues lately, but there are still a few things to write about.

There was a bit of a stir on the inbound Franklin #710 train this morning (08/06/2008). After the Readville stop, the conductor announced over the intercom that the next stop would be Back Bay. Since the train was supposed to stop at Ruggles, this caused a bit of a stir.

The train sometimes skips Ruggles due to track problems, so the announcement seemed unusual but not impossible. They're supposed to announce that they're skipping Ruggles, of course, but they don't always do that.

In the end, they stopped at Ruggles after all; the announcement must have just been a slip of the tongue by the conductor. So no free tickets today.

I did cash in five free tickets recently, and was annoyed at the attitude of the guy behind the counter (at Back Bay). He insisted that all three letters had to be pre-signed before I got to the window, and I had to be at the window with my driver's license, tickets, and letters all in hand. Time was short, but after waiting through the line the first time I had to go out, sign and arrange everything, and go through the line a second time. It wasn't a terribly long line, so I'd guess that the clerk was just being officious for the hell of it.

Speaking of silent stops, conductors have been particularly silent at Ruggles lately. They often don't bother to announce the destination of the train, and sometimes they don't even step out on the platform! Since the trains have been more and more erratic, time-wise (they can vary from the schedule by five minutes or more) this is particularly worrisome. Often passengers have to go into a train and ask the passengers inside where the train is going.

A few quick notes:

Smelly Car - A coach on the Franklin line had an unusual problem: it stank. It wasn't a bathroom car, but it smelled like sewage for the entire trip. This caused a "hot car" effect; passengers avoided that car and piled into the other ones. Unfortunately I didn't note the train number (it was a later-evening outbound run), but I think the coach might have been #604.

Hefty hefty hefty! - MBTA head Dan Grabauskas announced via cellphone from his luxury state-supplied SUV1 that T riders would be facing "hefty" fare increases in 2010 unless the Legislature took action. I'd predicted that he'd jump the increase forward to 2009, so I guess I was wrong about that. But I have to wonder what he means by "hefty". Recent increases have been in the 25-27% range; what could a hefty increase look like? I'm guessing 40% or more, but please feel free to put your own guess as a comment. The winner will receive a free luxury SUV, fueled and paid for by the taxpayers of Massachusetts2.

Wall Street Journal story - A couple of months ago I was interviewed several times about the commuter rail system by Alex Roth of the Wall Street Journal. Here's a link to a copy of the story: Riders Swamp Public Transit. I imagine we'll hear a lot more about the strain of increasing ridership on public transportation over the years to come.

Late! - I was chatting with an experienced passenger, and she pointed out something that I hadn't really noticed: the trains have been late a lot, for a long time now. Not necessarily by a lot, and not by that golden 30 minutes that means a free ticket, but the trains are regularly five to fifteen minutes late by the time they reach the end of the line. I don't think we've actually arrived exactly on time in months. But just because I'm me, I'm going to start tracking arrival times on the Franklin #715. It will be interesting to have some solid data to post.

Oh, a quick shout-out to the women I talked to on the train this morning. Hi!

1 - Okay, I don't know that he made the announcement from the SUV, but I couldn't resist mentioning that little perk of his.
2 - Offer will not be honored. No free SUV for you!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Something new: half AC

This was a new one on me: coach #704 on the Franklin #715 train tonight (Thursday, 7/17/2008) didn't have air conditioning on one half. It was the half closer to the engine (and to Franklin, for that matter).

What's particularly unusual about that is that coach #704 is one of the new double-decker coaches. It was the first time I've seen any AC problem on one of those.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Notes: AC and announcements

On Thursday, July 10, the air conditioning was broken on coach #611, on the #917 Stoughton train. It was a hot day. Fortunately I wasn't going to Stoughton...but I pity those who were.

Yesterday, on Monday July 14, the schedule was definitely messed up. An outbound train pulled up to Ruggles at 4:19; everyone got on. One passenger asked what train it was, and discovered that it wasn't the Franklin train after all; it was the Needham train, running very late. We all started shouting and warning people, and there was a mass exodus of Franklin passengers.

The conductors never announced the damn train. You'd think that since it was arriving at the exact time and on the same track as the Franklin train, they might have made an announcement...but I guess they have delicate lungs.

The Franklin train showed up about eight minutes later.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Another gouge at the public from the MBTA

Some time in the last few weeks the MBTA did it again. Just as they quietly took away the option of bringing a free guest on the T on Sundays, they've now taken away free parking on weekends and holidays:

I wonder how many people will fail to see that sign and end up having to pay the 75¢ penalty surcharge?

Maybe none, if you believe that sign. On the other hand, who believes the MBTA these days?

Just one more little gouge at passengers pocketbooks, courtesy of the MBTA. Oddly enough, they don't seem to have announced the change, and as far as I can tell it hasn't been in the news at all. A search of hasn't turned up anything about the change either.

I'm reminded of an old Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movie. Moriarty strapped him to a hospital bed, stuck a needle in his arm, and proceeded to slowly bleed him to death, one drop at a time. Unfortunately we in the public don't have a Doctor Watson to rescue us at the last minute!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Lest we forget...

Overcrowding is still common on the Franklin line. This morning, though, it was particularly bad. By the time the #708 train (departing from Franklin/Forge Park at 7AM) reached Norwood Central (which is the mid-point of the run), passengers were being jammed into the aisles. I couldn't see the outer vestibules, but the crowding was extreme:

One accident with a train this crowded would probably cause at least twice as many casualties than there would be if the train had adequate seating.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Celtics on parade

Throngs of people filled Boston to see the victory parade for the Celtics today, so perhaps it was inevitable that there would be problems on the Franklin #715.

The train itself was packed, with lots of teenagers wearing green. The aisles were crowded with standees, although I didn't see anyone in the vestibules themselves.

Shortly after the Norwood Depot stop, the train came to a halt. We were stuck on the short length of track between Norwood Depot and Norwood Central, directly next to a McDonald's. It wasn't long before the smell from the McDonald's became sheer torture.

After a while there was an announcement that the train was waiting for an inbound train to pass, after which we'd start right up again. So we waited.

And waited.

And waited.

For half an hour.

I saw six teens jump off the train and walk down the track towards Norwood Central. And since I was roughly in the middle of the train, the odds are that more jumped off and I didn't see them. Not to mention that I could only see one side of the train; I don't know if anyone jumped off on the other side.

When the train finally started up again, it went at a crawl for a long time. It was scheduled to arrive at Franklin/Dean, my destination, at 5:10 PM; we ended up pulling into the station at 5:49 PM, a full 39 minutes late. So in the last six days the T has failed to make their on-time performance guarantee three times. Now that I think of it, that's a pretty awful record!

Trouble on the Stoughton Line

I chat with a lot of people about the commuter rail. Inevitably, many of them tell me about problems. Yesterday a woman told me about a memorable Tuesday on the Stoughton line.

The morning train (shortly before 8 AM) simply skipped the Ruggles stop completely. Track work, I presume, but apparently they didn't announce it until after the previous stop.

Then that evening the train (at around 5 PM) kept stopping to let other trains go by. When it reached Canton Junction it simply stopped...and then everyone was told to get off and wait for the next train.

So apparently the Franklin line isn't the only one that has problems. But then, we already knew that - didn't we?

Monday, June 16, 2008

A fire and a plan

Part of the mystery is solved: according to WBZ, there was a small fire at South Station and a planned outage for repairs. I have to say, though, that a Saturday in June on a day that two festivals are being held in Cambridge - one of them quite a large festival - is a really stupid day to PLAN to take out the Red line. And why wasn't the T better prepared?

South Station Fire Shuts Down Red Line

A surprising series of screw-ups, part 2

Arriving at South Station 31 minutes late didn't exactly help our schedule. The Cambridge River Festival ran from noon to 6 PM, and it was already well after 2. We headed towards the subway station. A quick trip on the Red line would get us into Harvard Square before 3 PM.

But at the entrance to the subway station (which is part of South Statio, of course) we were waved back by T employees. "The station's closed!" one of them shouted. "Go up those stairs, there will be buses!"

What the hell?

Up the stairs and out on the street, we ran into a scene of budding chaos. There were fire engines, emergency vehicles, and firemen everywhere. The crowd wasn't yet overwhelming, but it was large and growing quickly.

And there wasn't a single damned bus in sight!

Whatever had happened in the subway station - and we heard several rumors, most of them being that there had been a fire (although we hadn't smelled any smoke at the station entrance) - it must have happened pretty recently. Either that, or the T was even more screwed up than usual, because it took a surprisingly long time for any buses to show up.

Here's the scene:

When buses finally started to appear they were all destined for JKF/UMASS, and therefore completely useless for us. In the meantime the crowd had become enormous, spilling onto the streets and greatly slowing traffic. There were several points where buses were pulling in, but it wasn't clear if there were particular locations for specific destinations. Many of the signs on the buses simply said "OUT OF SERVICE", and people had to shout and ask the drivers where they were going. It was, simply, chaos; nobody seemed able to organize the situation and let people know what had happened or where they should go. Parts of the crowd ran back and forth from loading-point to loading-point, trying to find buses to take them where they wanted to go.

Eventually a bus headed for Charles/MGH showed up. We ran like mad and managed to get on. It was jam-packed, of course. Traffic in the city seemed unusually heavy, and it took quite a while for the bus to reach Charles. By the time we reached Cambridge, it was well after 4 PM.

Sebastian was pretty worn out by this point. He's only six years old, after all! We stopped and had some lunch, but after that the walk to the River Festival was simply too much for him. So after all that we had to give up and turn back towards the T. We never got to see the River Festival after all.

But our weekend wasn't over yet. I'd hoped that the Red line was fully back in service, but of course that wasn't realistic. At Kendall/MIT the train stopped and everyone had to get off. So it was back on the bus for the trip back to Park Station. From there the subway trip to South Station was, thank goodness, relatively uneventful.

We took the Franklin train to Norfolk. Sebastian fell asleep on the way, but I was able to wake him (with difficulty) before we got there. The light was failing, but the sun hadn't yet completely set; and to my surprise I was able to navigate my way back home without a single wrong turn. We arrived home late and tired, but okay.

But that was just Saturday. The T had one more surprise in store for us that weekend...

It was a relatively minor one, but still annoying. We had to take the commuter rail in to Boston again the next day. And just minutes before we would have arrived at our destination, Ruggles station, there was an announcement: due to problems with the tracks, the train would not be stopping at Ruggles. Anyone headed for Ruggles would need to go one stop further, to Back Bay, and take the Orange line back to Ruggles. I imagine that would be particularly irritating for passengers who didn't have T passes, since that would mean they'd have to pay an extra subway fare.

I was pretty annoyed too, since my father was waiting in his car at Ruggles to pick us up. He didn't have his cell phone, so I couldn't call him and tell him that we'd be late. Fortunately he was still there when we finally arrived, but it was one last little screwup from the MBTA.

What a weekend!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

A surprising series of screw-ups, part 1

I'm a weekday commuter; I don't normally go to Boston on the weekends. When I do, I usually go with my family, and we drive.

But at around 150 miles for a round trip (including some incidental driving in the city area) at roughly 25 miles to the gallon...well, one of the cheaper stations in our area recently bit us for $4.14 a gallon. Do the math: 6 x $4.14 = $24.84.

My zone 6 pass costs $223 a month. My son, who's six years old, will be able to ride for free on the T until he's 13. It would have cost $13.50 for my wife to come along, round trip (plus the additional cost of any subway rides) but as it happened she wasn't coming with us that day. Our total additional cost to take the train would be $0. Who wouldn't save $25 if they could?

So on Saturday my son and I headed over to the Franklin/Dean College stop to catch the #1708 train, departing from Franklin/Dean at 12:47 PM. I'd have preferred to take an earlier train, but his karate class let out at 11 AM and the weekend schedule of the commuter rail is surprisingly inconvenient; trains come once every two hours. Our destination was the Cambridge River Festival in Cambridge, MA. It started at noon and ended at 6 PM.

We were running a little late, but made it to the station with six minutes to spare. It was 12:41. We got out of the car and started picking up our stuff. As we did, another car pulled into the parking lot after us. A man in a safety vest standing next to the station called out to me "Are you going to Boston?"

"That's the plan!" I said cheerfully, but a little warily.

"The buses just left!" he answered.

It turned out that there was repair work being done on the tracks over the weekends, and as a result part of the line was replaced with buses for some of the runs. The problem was that the two buses had both left early! We hadn't even seen them, so they must have left at least seven minutes early, if not more.

The people in the other car started talking to the guy in the vest. They wanted to know if he could call and have the bus wait for us at the next station, Norfolk.

"I don't know how to get to Norfolk!" I exclaimed.

"Follow those guys!" said the T worker. Sebastian and I hopped back in the car and took off after them. As we pulled out of the parking lot, we passed several young women - college students, probably - on their way to the station. It still wasn't quite 12:47, so I suspected that those girls were expecting to be able to catch the Boston train. I wished them well, but figured that shouting the bad news to them out of the window as I drove by would be counterproductive. The T guy could tell them.

As we followed the other car I must admit that I was worried. I was going in a direction I'd never driven before, into terra incognita. With the other car to follow I figured I'd make it to Norfolk, but what bothered me was the thought of a nighttime drive back. I did my best to memorize landmarks at the various turns, and said them aloud to my son as we drove. That was more to help fix them in my memory than in his, of course.

When we got to Norfolk station the damned bus was pulling out again! The car ahead of us pulled into a convenience-store parking lot, and the passenger jumped out. He ran to the bus, while I tried to get a parking spot in the station parking lot. The problem (that's a word I'm going to be using a lot here) was that the bus was stopped in the street, and the cars stacked up behind it were completely blocking the entrance to the lot.

Fortunately the bus driver eventually pulled ahead and onto the side of the road. The other cars moved on, and I was able to get into the lot and park. My son and I ran like madmen to get to the bus.

It was an incredibly ancient schoolbus, even older than the kind that I used to ride when I was a boy. Sebastian (my son) was excited, since he has been dying to ride a schoolbus for years. He had a lot of fun on the ride.

Eventually the bus pulled up at Walpole station, where the train was waiting. I took a quick photo of one of the buses. That's Sebastian's head in the foreground.

We got on the train...and had a long, long wait. It turned out that another bus had turned back and returned to Franklin/Dean station when they'd heard that there were more passengers there! So those girls turned out to have gotten their ride after all. And our trip to Norfolk was unnecessary.

The rest of the trip was actually quite interesting, because there was a lot of track work going on. There are a number of odd-looking little trains - repair vehicles, I suppose - some of which normally just sit parked on the side-tracks between Readville and Ruggles. This time they were all being used, plus others that I'd never seen before, and the tracks were swarming with workers. The train kept honking its horn to warn them along the way. My son was in heaven. He loves that sort of thing (and I liked it too).

I also spotted some graffiti. Now, I'd never do graffiti myself; I just don't have the nerve for it. Somewhere deep inside me is the conviction that the first time I ever try to write on a wall in public I will be caught and punished. But I love to be surprised by funny graffiti.

This one snuck up on me. It was an ad I'd seen a lot lately, a Vermont vacation poster. The clever thing about that series of ads is that they each have what looks like a large handwritten post-it note in the lower right-hand corner of the poster. It's part of the photograph, of course, but it's so brilliantly done that you find yourself actually touching the edges of it to see if it's really a post-it.

This one...well, take a look for yourself:

The train pulled into South Station at 2:14, exactly 31 minutes late. But if I'd known what waited for us at South Station, I'd have turned right around and gone back home. Because this was only the start of a weekend of disasters, courtesy of the MBTA.

Things were about to get much worse.

To be continued...

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Trouble on the Franklin Line

It was a tough morning on the Franklin #708 today.

The train started out short a car. As a result, the place was packed; people were jammed in the aisles. And then at Dedham 128, there was a medical emergency. The train lay by for over half an hour waiting for an ambulance. By the time we arrived at Ruggles, the train was 38 minutes late. People were crowded into the vestibules when I got off, but I don't know if they'd been riding there for the whole trip.

I didn't see the ambulance or the medical emergency myself, by the way. I was on the opposite side of the train from the parking lot, and the emergency must have happened on some other coach.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

An Unexpected Turn of Events (Problem Solved?)

The vestibules had been packed for weeks. So on Friday I brought my digital camera; it was time to get video proving that people were being forced to ride in the vestibules and being packed in the aisle, a massive safety hazard for hundreds of paying passengers every day.

I don't believe in fate. But I have to admit that it's pretty ironic that on Friday, for the first time in quite a while, the Franklin #715 train wasn't just five single-level coaches; it was several double-level coaches, as well as at least one or two single-level ones.

There were still quite a few standees, but no one had to ride in the vestibules that I saw. And the aisle were relatively uncrowded. So I had nothing to photograph.

On Monday, same story. Double-level coaches, and adequate seating capacity. I'd brought my camera, but had no call to use it.

On Tuesday afternoon, I received an email from the MBCR. It said, in part:
I have spoken with the manager responsible for train consists and understand that your train has finally been returned to its proper number of coaches.
This confused me a bit; "proper" number of coaches? "Returned"? I've been riding the #715 for years now, and it has never had double-level coaches on a regular basis before! We had them perhaps three times a year, on average, and it always meant that the regular train had broken down.

Being perplexed, I wrote back:
Thank you. I am a bit confused by your response, however.

For the several days leading up to Thursday, April 24, the #715 consisted of five single-level coaches - one less than usual. On Friday the 25th and Monday the 28th the #715 included at least three double-level coaches, as well as at least two single-level ones (if memory serves). Is this the new status quo? We have not seen this many coaches on the #715 on a regular basis for the past three years at least.

There are still many people who have to stand, even with the double-level coaches - but at least we don't have to ride in the vestibule. At this point, however, many of the regular riders on the #715 don't know what to expect. Will the expanded seat capacity which has been provided over the past two weekdays continue?
I haven't received a response yet, but when the #715 pulled into Ruggles this afternoon, it consisted of four double-level coaches and one single-level one. And to my utter amazement, I got a seat - not at Norwood Central, nor even at Dedham/128, but at Ruggles itself! Some people were still standing, and I expect that I'll still have to stand more often than not - at least for part of the trip - but at least we won't have to ride in the "crumple zones".

Or so I hope. Of course, it could all change back again at any time, I suppose. And I can't help but wonder what other train or trains lost the double-sided coaches that have been put on the #715 run. But for now, it seems, the Franklin #715 train is no longer a large-scale accident waiting to happen.

Don't think for a minute that I plan to retire this blog or anything like that, though! I'm hopeful about the new added capacity, but after 20-odd years of dealing with the MBTA I'm sure that there will be new things to write about. Still, it's nice to see that the T finally did respond and fix
the problem. And it may be hubris on my part, but I'd like to think I might have played a small part in getting them to take action.

I never heard back from the Globe or the Herald, incidentally. And from what a friend has told me, they probably never will get back to me. My next step would have been to contact the Metro, the Boston Phoenix, and the Weekly Dig. Instead, I can relax and deal with other issues.

Oh, one more thing: it doesn't seem likely that the Franklin #715 train was the only one having problems. And I'm sure there will be hot cars aplenty, as well as lots of other problems; the sad truth is that the commuter rail system is under considerable strain, and will be for some time to come. So please, if you hear or see anything of interest, post a comment here - or email me.

Ride safe!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

And again (715)

Just for the record, the Franklin #715 had five coaches again today, and people were once again forced to ride in the vestibule - as they have been every day for weeks.

And the last two coaches on the train still have no air conditioning - cars 628 and 1504. It wasn't quite as hot as it was yesterday, so the heat wasn't unbearable. But it certainly wasn't comfortable, either!

Word on the train was that the T is going to give the 715 one or more coaches soon. I'm not sure if it will be a single or a double-level. If it's a single, that will simply put us back to where we were a few weeks ago; the 715 used to usually have six single-level coaches. Ridership is still considerably up since then, though, so even the addition of a sixth coach will probably still leave well over 100 people standing in the train, every day.

I've been asked if I have any solutions. I've been thinking about it, and will continue. In the meantime, if anyone out there has any ideas - any at all, no matter how unorthodox - I'd love to hear them. I don't to simply sit around waiting for a serious accident, and right now that seems to be the one thing that might get the problem addressed in a hurry!

The Vestibule, and Governor Patrick Responds!

To my amazement, Governor Patrick's office replied to my email in less than 24 hours.

This is really pretty astonishing. Governor Romney's office took more than five months to reply with a kiss-off form letter via email. And even when I emailed him last year, Governor Patrick's people took weeks to respond - and they only forwarded my letter to MBTA management. Since my complaint was about MBTA management, this wasn't exactly helpful.

This time, I got a fast, detailed response. I don't normally publish email, but since this was correspondence with a public office I'm going to make an exception; I'm sure that Governor Patrick's office wouldn't mind.

Unfortunately, since the MBTA is a partially-independent agency, Governor Patrick has no administrative control over its daily business. However, Governor Patrick and Secretary of Transportation, Bernard Cohen, have been in contact regarding these concerns. Secretary Cohen is aware of the performance issues and is working closely with officials to address concerns.

As part of the recent extension of their operating contract, the MBCR is required to provide more frequent performance updates to the MBTA Board of Directors. Currently, MBTA personnel are working closely with the MBCR to implement corrective actions immediately and restore on-time performance to an acceptable level. Each morning, senior MBCR management from each department review the past twenty-four hour period together to identify each delay cause, assign responsibility, and review corrective measures that would have minimized or eliminated the delay. This approach has shown to be effective in preventing future delays. In addition, MBCR has also increased transportation supervisory personnel at South Station and equipment supervisory personnel at the Southside Maintenance Facility. A number of new employees are currently receiving training to assume on-train positions.

We are hopeful you will soon be noticing a general improvement in service reliability and a resulting decline in problems.

I haven't yet heard from the Globe or Herald, but it's early yet.

Incidentally, just to be clear: the Franklin #715 train is normally all single-level coaches. Vestibules don't have seats; they're the area where you board the train, and passengers are forbidden to ride there. How do I know? Simple:

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The First 2008 Hot Car Report

I didn't expect this so early in the season, but today the temperature in Boston climbed to 86°. So welcome to the first Hot Car report of the season!

The Franklin #715 was short again today; five coaches instead of the six that we used to expect. It's been down to five for a few days, though, so maybe that's the new status quo.

I counted 14-15 people riding in the vestibule, not counting the conductor of course. The number is slightly indeterminate because people do tend to stand in the doorway as well. Inside the coach itself...well, it was the worst I've seen in a while. I was able to count at least 24 standees (not counting the people in the vestibule) up to the mid-point of the coach. Beyond that point I couldn't count accurately, but since the far side was visibly as packed as the side I was on, it's a very safe bet to say that there were at least 45 people standing in the coach - and probably more.

Among the standees were some young children riding with their mother, by the way.

No fares were collected, of course. Although I heard that one eager young go-getter of an assistant conductor had tried to collect fares after the train had emptied out a lot; I think it was at the Norwood Center stop the day before. From what I was told, he ended up with a mini-revolution on his hands. Angry passengers wanted to know why anyone who had gotten off before that point had been able to get a free ride.

The coach behind mine was pretty crowded. The people in it were visibly sweltering. We were all chatting - there's nothing like being packed like sardines and getting really awful service to get people to break through the usual barriers to conversation - and it soon came out that the other car had no AC. In fact, some passengers seriously claimed that they thought that the heat was on! That didn't sound impossible to me, since I've experienced the same thing on some hot days on the T.

I was horrified to see a baby in a stroller in the hot car, too.

The hot car was #628. I heard that there was another hot car on the same train, so at Walpole I hopped out and ran down to the next and final car - #1504. Sure enough, it was hot too - extremely hot. It was still crowded enough for people to be jammed in the vestibule, and one of the people riding there was a woman who had to be at least six months pregnant. She told me it was better riding in the vestibule than riding in either of the broiling-hot coaches on either side of her.

Ironically, I had lost my patience (again) and written some complaints before the ride home tonight! I "wrote to the top" first (it was hardly the first time, though). Bob Stoetzel has written to me several times with explanations and apologies, but no action has ever been taken. By the way, isn't it funny that the T's "Write to the Top" page doesn't allow you to write to the actual head of the T, Dan Grabauskas? I couldn't find his email address anywhere on the MBTA site.

Since I've never gotten a satisfactory answer from the MBTA before, I wasn't inclined to let matters lie there. So I wrote to Governor Patrick's office again, specifically pointing out that A) increasing numbers of riders are in real danger, and B) since the MBTA management had repeatedly ignored the issue, referring my email to MBTA management (again) would not be helpful.

Then I called both the Boston Herald and the Boston Globe. Had to leave voicemail at the Herald, but I talked to someone on the tip line at the Globe; not a reporter, I think, but I told him about the danger to the commuting public and gave him my phone numbers.

Maybe tomorrow I'll contact the Boston Phoenix, too. I'd call the Metro, but they never seemed to show much interest. It's a pity that BostonNOW! is gone; they were the only ones who covered this issue much.

Oh, a quick wave to LesserEvil, who was riding in the same vestibule as me. It's nice to know that I'm not the only one blogging about the miserable state of the commuter rail, and about the Franklin line in particular!

System in Crisis

Over the past three or four weeks, the Franklin #715 train is experiencing an unprecedented state of collapse. Ridership has increased enormously; every seat is full to capacity, the aisles are packed solid, and even the vestibules - which are supposed to be off-limits for passengers - are full of riders.

Yesterday there were 14 people riding in the vestibule that I was in. I was in the spot exactly between two cars; that spot is probably the most dangerous on the train, because it's the intersection between the two coaches. You can easily get your hand or foot caught and crushed by tons of moving metal!

Fares haven't been collected on the #715 for weeks. Passengers are openly talking about giving up their passes and buying 12-ride tickets instead, because you can easily get a month or two of rides from one; the conductors simply can't check tickets.

A couple of days ago I was jammed into the middle of an aisle, which is probably the second-worst place to stand on the train. Standing next to me was a pregnant woman; she had to be at least six months along. Nobody offered her a seat. When the time came for her to get off, she literally had to squeeze past me and through the rest of the crowd!

I've heard that ridership is up to a similar degree across the system. That's probably because of the skyrocketing price of gas. If so, I don't think the overcrowding problem is going away - ever.

It also occurs to me that during a recent train accident, the people who were standing were the ones who got injured. At at least 30 standees inside each coach, plus 12 or more standees in each vestibule (not counting the conductors), I count 190 standees who are being endangered by the willful blindness of MBCR and MBTA management to the safety hazard that's happening on their watch.

Governor Patrick is equally culpable, as is the Legislature.

Operating a train under these conditions must violate safety regulations. What agency is responsible for enforcing the law in the case? OSHA, perhaps?

The conductors are clearly miserable, incidentally. But it's obvious that there isn't a thing they can do. The passengers I've heard bitching about the situation have all made it very clear to any conductors in earshot that we do not blame them.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Ruggles: Signal Problems

On Friday March 7th, the Franklin #710 train (departing from Franklin/Forge Park at 7:45 AM) skipped the Ruggles stop. They announced it; apparently there was some sort of signal problem.

This morning, March 10th, the Franklin #708 train (departing from Franklin/Forge Park at 7:00 AM) also skipped the Ruggles stop. Again, it was announced on the train PA system.

I've put in for the on-time service guarantee on both days. Since the train never arrived at my destination, the MBTA can hardly claim that it was on time!

I called them just to see if this was going to be a regular occurrence. According to their customer service rep, they don't expect it to be - it's just a signal problem. Now that I think of it, that's a little disturbing - I wonder what other problems there might be? I'd hate to find out by having my train run into another one at full speed!

And why haven't they been able to fix that signal over the last four days? It could have been two different problems, I suppose, but that seems unlikely.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Bird Crap Story

The bird crap was still piling high on the evening of Tuesday, February 6th. The next evening I noticed that it had finally been cleaned.

I first posted about the guano-covered escalator on January 3rd, and of course the problem had been building up long before that. It took the T 35 days (or more) to get the escalator cleaned.

It took the birds far less time to cover it with crap again.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

More of the same...

The escalator at Ruggles remains uncleaned. Bird crap is piling higher, and has been smeared all over the left inner side by unaware passengers. Yuck.

On the morning of Friday the 25th two Franklin trains were cancelled: #706 (6:35AM) and #708 (7:00AM). The next train was obscenely overcrowded, of course, and got into Ruggles 36 minutes late.

Fares are not being collected more than half of the time. The MBTA blew $55 million dollars trying to trade debts, according to the newspapers. They've spent hundreds of thousands of dollars - if not more - providing wifi access to certain coaches, but there still aren't enough seats. It's nice to see that they have their priorities in order!

Seriously, what will it take to get the system fixed? How much more will people take? Why isn't any public figure doing something about this?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Guano, Delays, and $$$

Guano: The escalator at Ruggles remains uncleaned, and the guano is piling up higher every day. It has been fourteen days since I posted the photo, if anyone is counting.

Delays, and $$$: The Franklin line has been running late quite often - in fact, it's more often late than on time, and that has been confirmed in the news. It's usually the worst-performing line in the entire system!

This morning, though, was special. The #708 is scheduled to arrive at the Franklin/Dean College station at 7:07 AM. It didn't arrive until 7:53 AM instead, effectively pushing it back to the next scheduled train slot. The passenger information marquees performed comically throughout; When the train was already 30 minutes late, the signs said it would be 20 minutes late, and when the delay reached 40 minutes the signs updated to tell us all that the delay might be as much as 30 minutes. Tremble at the technological savvy of the mighty MBTA!

Maybe they should go back to steam locomotives.

With two trains worth of people to cram into a single train, the overcrowding was all that you'd expect. The conductors announced that there had been mechanical problems at the "storage area". If a mechanical problem can cause that sort of havoc, I wonder what will happen if the threatened Amtrak strike takes out South Station starting on January 30th? The mind boggles.

Perhaps a class action lawsuit would be in order. God knows it's annoying enough to pay $223 per month*, $2,676 per year for the privilege of not having a seat on a crowded, swaying train. But if the ridership is subjected to the sheer chaos that seems likely if the strike goes forward...well, I've already heard rumors of legal action. And that's based on the current lousy service.

The #708 arrived at Ruggles at 8:55 AM instead of the scheduled 7:50 AM. I've already filed for my free ticket. It's a good thing that the T has plenty of money to throw away on complimentary fares! In fact, they must be rolling in dough. In the past nine trips I've taken on the Franklin #715 train, I've only seen fares collected four times.

There are stubs which show that a conductor went through the coach after it departed South Station, but well over a hundred people get on at Ruggles. If over 50% of them aren't being ticketed, and that rate obtains over the entire commuter rail system, I'd guess that the MBCR/MBTA is throwing away tens of thousands of dollars every day.

They're not losing anything on me, of course. I'm one of the poor bastards who buys a monthly pass. But people with tickets and punch-passes are getting a lot of free rides. I know one daily passenger who rode for an entire month on a single 12-Ride ticket!

Call me a pessimist, but the commuter rail system simply can't survive much longer under the current management. It's going to fall apart within ten years, I'd guess - just when people will need it most. It desperately needs to be properly funded and managed, but the odds are that none of that will happen until the system crashes to a standstill. Maybe the Amtrak strike will be the nudge that the legislature and management need...but I doubt it!

* - And what do you bet that fares will shoot upward sooner than we expect? They're not supposed to go up again until 2010, but T General Manager Dan Grabauskas recently wrote in BostonNOW! that fares wouldn't go up in 2008; call me cynical, but I suspect that this is a hint that we'll get a 25% or higher fare increase in 2009.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Ruggles: For the Birds

Here's why you should always stay in the center of the escalator at Ruggles, and never, ever touch the handrails no matter what the safety signs say:

I had to take this from above and the view is limited, but basically a large area of the escalator (and of some of the staircases) is absolutely covered with bird crap every day. I suppose someone must be cleaning it up at least once in a while. But basically the area is always filthy.