How to improve T service during shutdowns

Three suggestions for rider-friendly alternative service

ONCE AGAIN, the MBTA’s floating slab project has reared its ugly head. If it seems like this project has been going on forever, it’s because it has. The first weekend shutdowns to replace the concrete which holds the tracks together took place in 2011. Over the past decade, one might assume that the MBTA would have put together a replacement service plan to allow buses to move back and forth between the impacted stations and ensure that service on the rest of the line was not affected by turning trains around at Harvard instead of Alewife.

You’d be wrong.

When the MBTA closes the Red Line north of Harvard, the rest of the line suffers as well. On weekends, trains are supposed to come every 7 minutes along the trunk of the Red Line, and every 14 minutes along the Braintree and Ashmont branches. Yet on these construction days, trains are run only every 10 minutes along the trunk of the line, which means service only every 20 minutes to Ashmont and Braintree – an unacceptable level of service at any time.

Why does this happen? At Harvard, the T runs the line on a single track at the station. This means that each train, after arriving at Central, has to wait until the preceding train has arrived at Harvard, unloaded passengers, taken on new passengers, and proceeded out of the station in the other direction. Given these constraints, only limited service can be provided.

This would make some sense if Harvard Station only had one track, but it has two. There is no discernible reason why the T cannot operate trains on both levels of the station, which the transit authority has done in the past. The T can station staff at the main bus terminal entrance and near Church Street telling passengers which track is scheduled for the next departure. It can use the arrival signs to tell passengers which track the next train will depart from. Or it can do both.

If this was a one-off project affecting service for a short period, this sub-optimal service still wouldn’t be acceptable. But given the long-term nature of this project, weekend T riders deserve much better service. And if the T is still wondering why weekend ridership is falling, they can look to operational choices like this as the answer.

Better bus shuttles

It is good that the T is now fast-tracking, long-necessary weekend shutdowns, which will make the track and power systems more reliable. But if this is going to be a fact of life for the next several years, there are two major questions which the T needs to resolve.

First, is track replacement proceeding fast enough? During the work this past fall, the T was able to replace only about 500 feet of track per weekend. With upcoming track work, the T is planning to replace less than 300 feet of track per weekend. At this rate, it will require shutting down service on the Orange Line every other weekend for the next five years to replace all the track planned for replacement. It’s possible the proximity to platforms has caused slower working conditions lately, but the T needs to find ways to speed up track replacement to reduce the number of shutdowns.

Second, is there a rider-friendly plan for alternative service? If there are going to be regular shutdowns on the Orange Line for several years, the current service plan needs to be significantly improved to provide replacement service which does not actively drive passengers away. Service today results in passengers having to take buses from Sullivan to Haymarket, and then transfer to Green Line trains to Copley for continuing Orange Line service.

This is convoluted enough, but the T doesn’t even run every Green Line train to Haymarket to accommodate passengers. So when a bus arrives at Haymarket, the only Green Line trains available are C and E cars, while B and D cars continue to turn around at Park and Government Center. It is this sort of cavalier attitude toward customers which drives passengers away from the service. It’s bad enough to have to take a bus from Sullivan, but worse when there’s no train at Haymarket for five or ten minutes.

This should be simple to fix. During Orange Line shutdowns, every Green Line train should run to North Station or Lechmere. During the Orange Line shut down last fall, the T ran less than 60 percent of Green Line cars past Government Center. Merely extending those trains beyond Haymarket would increase the shuttle capacity of the Green Line by 70 percent. When the D Line is running weekend shuttles between Kenmore and Reservoir, the T should also reallocate trains to the inner core to improve service even more.

Then there is the question of buses. Right now, Orange Line replacement buses all stop at Community College, despite minimal demand for service there on weekends. About 5,000 passengers use the stop on weekdays, but only 1,000 to 1,500 use it on weekends because classes aren’t in session. That’s the lowest weekend usage level on the Orange Line. Rather than make every bus take the time to serve Community College, why not have most buses run express from Sullivan to Haymarket, with less-frequent service for this low-demand station.

Another way to improve the shuttle experience would be to have buses that normally terminate at Sullivan end at Haymarket, where most passengers transfer to other services anyway. For a rider coming from Oak Grove, there would be no difference in shuttle service. But for a rider on the 89 or 104 or any number of routes which normally terminate at Sullivan, the slower bus ride would be offset by a one-seat ride to Haymarket. And instead of having these buses sit in traffic, the T should work closely with municipalities to establish bus lanes during these shutdowns so that transit users can travel with speed and reliability.

As the Red Line prepares for more long-term shutdowns, a similar menu of items should be explored, including increased service on crosstown buses like the CT2, which doesn’t run on weekends (and would benefit Orange Line riders as well), and the 1.

Don’t forget commuter rail

The T shouldn’t ignore the potential to use commuter rail service during weekend shutdowns because train routes in some cases parallel the subway lines.

On the Red Line, commuter rail service is available from Porter Square and along tracks that run parallel to the Braintree branch. When the Orange Line is closed, the commuter rail can allow passengers to travel between outlying stations and downtown, but only if trains run more often. Right now trains from some Orange Line stops run every two or three hours. In the case of Forest Hills, there’s no service at all on Sundays. If the T was trying to cope with a two-weekend shutdown, planning for the extra staffing for commuter rail might be more trouble than it’s worth. But for a multi-year project, it could be used to provide service faster than parallel buses.

From the north, replacement commuter rail service could serve Oak Grove, Malden, and North Station to connect to the Green Line, eliminating the need for many passengers there to take the Orange Line a few stops and then connect to a bus. On the south side, service could run from South Station to Forest Hills and, given the capacity of the tracks there ,could even run on a subway-like frequency, providing an easy trip from Forest Hills to South Station, where passengers could connect to the Red and Silver lines. Maybe there could even be a discussion of instituting Sunday service on the Needham Line, and Sunday morning service on other lines south of the city, so passengers would have an option to ride it.

Meet the Author

Ari Ofsevit

Boston program senior manager/Board member, ITDP/TransitMatters
If the MBTA had invested in regional rai” service, as TransitMatters has long advocated, it would render many of these issues moot. In addition to bringing better transit to suburban areas and Gateway Cities, regional rail could, in theory, act as an overlay transit system for urban areas. It would be much easier to justify a long-term subway shutdown to rebuild a line for much improved service if there was a reasonable transit alternative. To really be effective, a north-south rail link to move and distribute people through the city would be needed.

Ari Ofsevit serves on the TransitMatters board of directors. TransitMatters member Chris Friend and board member Jim Aloisi contributed to this article.