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.