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...


Lyss said...

I drive by part of the Franklin tracks and the Norfolk Commuter Rail stop on my way home from work sometimes. I'd been wondering that those stacks of wood were for... and when they were going to be used.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear about your trouble. Although I am as ready as anyone to bash the incompetent T, this work was actually previously posted on signs at the station and was sent out via email by the MBTA to anyone who is registered on the site. This doesn't excuse your experience of how the T actually messed up that day, however. The commuter rail is a bad now as I have ever seen it, and if my pass wasn't subsidized by my work, I would never use the commuter rail.