A breakdown provides lessons on reliable train service

Accessibility is a must, particularly for underserved communities

JUST BEFORE 6 p.m. on Sunday, after passing through Framingham, the train to Worcester jerked, then gently stopped. My friend and I peered outside the window. The lady opposite me looked around confused, as red lights from outside flashed across her face. The conductor’s voice crackled across the train: “This is an emergency. Stay on the train. We will update you soon.” The train had hit a car at a crossing.

My friends and I, all Worcester Polytechnic Institute students, were returning from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston back to Worcester. It looked like we were going to be back late from our Sunday adventure. My friends began translating PA messages for the Colombian lady opposite us. I’ll call her “Sara” to protect her identity. Sara didn’t speak much English, and now found herself, in her second week in the US, on a train stopped because of a collision with a vehicle that somehow found its way onto the track.

After the initial excitement of flashing lights and police vehicles wore off, my friends and I started playing cards to pass the time. And then, finally, almost two hours later, the train began moving again, slowly, then stopped. The PA system rang out: “We are arriving at Ashland Station. You may choose to find alternative transportation.”

Interesting choice of words. What do you mean, “choose?” What if we chose not to find alternative transportation? What choices did we have? One passenger exclaimed “I paid for my ticket. They can’t just leave us here now. It’s not right.”

When we translated this to Sara, she was calm, but abruptly got up and left the train – and not for the first time that day. We had met Sara earlier that day on the train from Worcester to Boston. As we were approaching Boston Landing from Worcester that morning, she had asked the conductor where West Newton was in halting English, which clearly was not her primary language. The conductor told her that she missed the stop and explained that the train skips stops unless a passenger asks to get off, although I didn’t remember the PA system announcing that. Even if it had, she would not have understood – she only knew Spanish. My friend had translated the conductor’s words, and Sara stood up in a rush and got off the train one stop too late. She would have to wait an hour in the cold for the next train, or take multiple buses at an increased cost; there was no convenient alternate connection between the stations. That is the everyday challenge of riding the MBTA without knowing English.

The MBTA website and the PDF timetables are in English, and the MBTA uses Google Translate to convert the website into Spanish. Unfortunately, the word “Boston” is missing from “Boston Landing” in Spanish, and there’s no good explanation of flag stops like West Newton (or should I say, “newton oeste”). The online timetable mentions that passengers must tell the conductor they wish to leave to get off at flag stops, but not in Spanish – only in English, even on the translated page, as shown below. Besides, few conductors would be able to recognize the station names in Spanish (been to “bahía trasera,” anyone?) – station names should not change between languages.

One way or the other, Sara presumably did reach West Newton, but her adventures were far from over, as we found ourselves together on the same train stopped in Ashland that evening.

As Sara left the stopped train, it sunk in that we were all truly, absurdly, stuck in Ashland. So what were our alternatives? An Uber to Worcester started at $70. Split among four college students, that wasn’t too bad, but we weren’t as quick on our phones as the other passengers, and as we sought alternatives it turned out that no cabs were available. We spent a half hour dialing friends to pick us up on this cold Sunday night  — and when our friends with cars didn’t answer our calls, we messaged a discord channel. Finally, someone said they could pick us up in half an hour, but the PA system crackled again. “The next train to Worcester will arrive on the opposite platform, platform 2.”

Finally, we were saved. I ran out and found Sara on the station platform, and we rushed to the opposite platform together. And in less than 10 minutes the next train made it through to the station, and we were off, two and a half hours late to Worcester

For us and our fellow passengers, this was no disaster. We were safe and warm, with the exception of a few minutes on Ashland’s platform. But Sunday’s experience exposed how the MBTA commuter rail fails those who rely on it most, aside from its lack of frequency and speed.

First, the Ashland train station was rebuilt in the 1990s in the middle of nowhere, rather than in the historical town center with people and jobs in walking distance. There were no nearby amenities aside from an empty parking lot. No restaurants or services of any kind for us hungry and worried passengers.

Second, the MBTA and RTAs (Regional Transit Authorities) do not coordinate. If they did, perhaps the Framingham-based MetroWest Regional Transit Authority or the Worcester Regional Transit Authority  could have sent a bus to pick up passengers and bring them to their destinations while the tracks were closed. Perhaps existing local bus services could have provided a convenient transfer for passengers to reach their final destination. But along the Framingham-Worcester line, thanks to slow, poorly-planned bus routes, a lack of fare transfers and uncoordinated timetables, there is no easy transfer between RTA buses and trains.

Third, throughout the two and a half hour wait, there was no reassurance that the MBTA would be able to get us to our destination. My friends and I thought we were stranded indefinitely in Ashland, a prospect bewildering to our Sara, who couldn’t even speak English.

Reliable train service begins with careful preparation for unanticipated events. Incidents like the one that occurred that evening are thankfully uncommon, but when they happen, the T should have a standard operating procedure that is designed to provide rapid and legible alternative transport for riders, or at least reassure them that they will be taken care of. Commuter rail and RTAs should integrate their schedules in normal times and be prepared for emergency service.

Moreover, responsive train service begins with ensuring that the system, at the very least, is accessible for everyone, particularly underserved, transit-reliant communities. The commuter rail serves several low-income, linguistically isolated, and refugee communities. Worcester takes more refugees than any other city in Massachusetts, and over 12 percent of Worcester households have no adults that speak English “very well” (EJSCREEN, 2020).

The MBTA must immediately use human translators to make their website, app, tickets, voiceovers/PA systems, emergency protocols, and paper/PDF timetables all available and readable in multiple languages, starting with Spanish, Portuguese, and Mandarin, the other three most common languages in Massachusetts. And as the MBTA ramps up commuter rail service, multilingual conductors should be hired, ideally from these very same underserved communities.

Metro Boston cannot advance its efforts to promote more widespread adoption of sustainable mobility – particularly for underserved residents – unless our public transportation system leads the way with more reliable and responsive multilingual service across modes. Our experience on a random Sunday evening offers a real-life cautionary tale for how the MBTA serves its most dependent communities in a disaster. Enabling accessibility to the commuter rail is an easy way to increase ridership and service quality, and should be a priority for a system more and more of us choose to rely on.

Map of Worcester, MA, showing percentage of households with linguistic isolation, which means no one above 14 can speak English “very well.” The circles indicate a one-mile and two-mile distance from the Worcester MBTA station. As shown, many households around the station are linguistically isolated. United States Environmental Protection Agency. 2020. EJSCREEN. Retrieved: May 18, 2021.

Meet the Author

Tarang Shah

Student / Member, Worcester Polytechnic Institute/TransitMatters

Tarang Shah is a student at WPI and a member of TransitMatters and Sunrise Worcester. He lives in Worcester.