Here’s what’s slowing down the Red Line now

And here’s what can be done to speed things up

WHEN THE RED LINE DERAILMENT occurred, at first it seemed like it was in a relatively good location. Ashmont trains could bypass the crash site, and passengers could transfer to the Braintree branch at JFK/UMass, eliminating the need for the multiple transfers involved with a bus bridge. By Tuesday evening, the T had put this arrangement into place: an all-rail service plan for Red Line ridership. Trains could run between Alewife and Ashmont to avoid the accident site, with Braintree passengers making the transfer across at JFK/UMass for continuing service.

But when the derailed train was removed on Wednesday morning, it became apparent that the crash had actually occurred in perhaps the worst possible location: the train had damaged signal equipment which controlled not only Columbia Junction (the tangle of tracks near JFK/UMass), but several miles of the Red Line itself, from Shawmut to Broadway. Trains could still be run, but they can only run at a very reduced rate of throughput, affecting the whole line.

The Red Line is scheduled to run 14 trains per hour during rush hour (which, it is worth pointing out, is still significantly less than the busiest lines in New York, San Francisco, and Chicago). Yet since restoring service, the T has managed only four to five trains per hour – only one third of capacity normally provided (and needed) to operate the line.

This affects a quarter million Red Line passengers per day, from Alewife to Ashmont and Braintree, plus thousands more as Red Line refugees swarm commuter rail trains at Porter and on the Old Colony lines and the few buses which parallel the Red Line. Travelers are also affected on I-93, where the addition of a few cars increases congestion significantly.

Looking for a Lyft? A check of prices on Thursday evening showed a ride from Harvard to Ashmont clocking in at 56 minutes (20 minutes longer than a T ride would normally take) and costing $80. None of this is sustainable.

The T has done a fine job addressing most aspects of the aftermath of the Red Line derailment, but it has not addressed the most important issue: the reduced capacity on the Red Line. The reduced capacity is due to the signaling system, or lack thereof. The Red Line normally operates using what is called a fixed block signal system. The track is divided into sections, called blocks, and the system identifies when a train is in a particular block and alerts trains coming from behind not to enter that block until the train leaves the block.

The derailment destroyed a signal bungalow, and the railroad must now be operated as unsignaled “dark territory.” In this case, the portion between each station is a “manual block” controlled by T personnel, and trains must wait at a station until the operator is given permission by a supervisor to move to the next station. (This system is not necessarily less safe, but requires information be relayed through several people and delivered to an operator in a station, and is not conducive to high-frequency operations.)

Without signals, trains must operate at a reduced speed, so the time it takes to travel between stations takes longer, and the overall throughput is governed by the longest block on the line. With this combination of slow speeds and manual signaling, the T has only been able to run a train every 10 or 15 minutes. With 30 to 40 percent of normal capacity, passengers get left behind when trains are full, with unacceptably long wait times for the next train.

In the first days after the derailment, this level of service is maddening but understandable. But we need to have a very frank discussion about how long this will continue, and it’s disheartening that the T—and especially the governor—don’t know when the signals will be fixed and won’t address the significantly lower capacity as a result of the signal outage. To be fair, the T can’t necessarily walk down to “Signals-R-Us” and buy a new signal system: if the damage is severe, it could take weeks or months to fix. (When the Green Line was flooded in 1996, it took months to resume normal operations, and years to actually fix the system.) Signal systems are bespoke, and it may take that long, or longer, to resume regular service.

If it is the case that resolving the impact will take months instead of weeks, we urgently need to come up with alternatives. Here are some suggestions.

First, the T should look at optimizing the throughput on the Red Line despite the lack of signaling. Can trains run faster (and since they would clear the blocks more quickly, more frequently) with two operators, to provide redundancy in case one operator is incapacitated?

Could choke points be identified in the “dark territory” and additional personnel stationed there to act as signals in order to speed service? What can the T do to get throughput as close to normal as possible while maintaining a safe railroad?

There is some encouraging data: on Friday, nine trains operated on the Red Line between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m. But the T needs to be clearer about the duration of this reduced capacity and, if it’s going to last a long period of time, what steps can be taken beyond the Red Line to address it.

How can parallel transit routes help out? It’s hard to add additional service on bus routes and commuter rail lines at rush hour, since those modes are already operating at capacity, although private bus operators can sometimes be hired to provide capacity beyond what the T’s fleet can muster. The commuter rail is running three additional trains on the Old Colony lines (the equivalent of one additional Red Line train per hour), hamstrung both by a lack of equipment and single-track bottlenecks on the Old Colony Line. (If we had true Regional Rail service, it would provide the redundancy needed to take some pressure off of the Red Line.)

As for buses, it would take a dozen to equal the capacity of one Red Line train, but perhaps the cities of Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville could set up emergency bus lanes to speed buses along existing routes to take some pressure off of the Red Line.

Meet the Author

Ari Ofsevit

Boston program senior manager/Board member, ITDP/TransitMatters
If the T can provide  close to 14 trains per hour on the trunk of the Red Line on Monday morning, hundreds of thousands of commuters will be able to breathe a sigh of relief. If it can’t, we need to have transparency regarding a time frame and a plan. Winston Churchill (and many others) have said that one should never let a good crisis go to waste. If, indeed, this crisis will drag on to a second week (and beyond), we need to make sure that we’re doing all we can to get people where they need to be. From the dish room to the executive suite, our economy can’t run if our only transportation options are delayed, packed trains, gridlocked highways, or $80 Lyft rides across town.

Ari Ofsevit serves on the TransitMatters board.