Is there room for nostalgia at the T?

Emotions run high over rolling museum pieces on Mattapan Line

PHOTOGRAPHS BY MICHAEL MANNING

THE MBTA RECENTLY DECIDED to replace all the cars on the Red Line rather than just a portion of them. The agency’s chief operating officer, Jeffrey Gonneville, made the case that a Red Line with a uniform style of car would lead to much better service and lower maintenance costs. He also said it made no sense to overhaul cars built in 1993 so they would last another 8 to 10 years, when it was possible to buy new cars that would last 30 years.

The potentially $280 million move was hailed as a sign the T was finally catching on. Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said pulling the deal together in 90 days showed the agency was thinking in a different way. “It represents an important difference between the new T that we have been working hard to build…and the old approach,” she said.

But the T is following a very different playbook with the rail line that shuttles passengers back and forth between Mattapan and Ashmont Station, at the southern end of the Red Line in Dorchester. The line is officially called the MBTA High Speed Trolley, but the trolleys themselves don’t travel at high speeds. Built in the mid-1940s, the trolleys are essentially traveling museum pieces—with legions of vocal fans.

Gonneville remembers making a presentation to the T’s oversight board early last year about the state of the entire system. During his presentation, he talked for just a few seconds about the challenges with the Mattapan Line and some of the options under consideration. In no time, he was hearing from trolley supporters angry that he was even considering changes. “There are a lot of people who have very strong opinions about the Mattapan Line,” he says.

What has stirred up opinion—and emotion—is the prospect that the T could decide soon that it’s time to sunset the popular, but aging, fleet of trolleys. It has turned into a battle of heart strings versus purse strings, a fierce debate about the T’s priorities. Should the agency be all about making the trains run on time at the lowest possible cost, or is there room for emotion to come into play? Nearly everyone agrees the trolleys are costly to operate, but is that all that matters?

The pols in Dorchester, Milton, and Mattapan, including Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who lives near one of the Mattapan Line’s stops, all want to keep the existing trolleys running. They say the cars are historic, cool, and add a certain panache to the T. The trolleys were prominently featured in a 1972 B-movie called Dealing, which starred John Lithgow, Barbara Hershey, and Charles Durning. And, of course, there’s now the requisite “Save the Mattapan Line” Facebook page.

But there are also many people who can’t believe the T is wasting money and time extending the life of trolleys that belong in museums. They deride the Mattapan trolley supporters as Luddites and say the cash-strapped T should focus on transporting passengers instead of bowing to nostalgia.

T officials themselves are being very careful not to stake out a position one way or another at this point. They have commissioned a $1.1 million study to assess the structural integrity of the trolleys and the line’s infrastructure and to also examine the cost of other options. Gonneville says he expects the completed results of the study sometime in December.  But whatever is decided, it will not be implemented until about five years down the road. While waiting for the results, the T has allocated another $7.9 for capital improvements to keep the Mattapan cars running.

In an interview in his office overlooking South Station, Gonneville repeatedly sidesteps questions about where he stands on the trolley line, although his tone is more manager than museum curator. “I will tell you this,” he says.  “You need to have the right information in front of you to be able to properly make any decision about the future of the trolleys.  And that’s the whole purpose of our study, because whether people want to make the decision based on their hearts or their heads, they still need the data.”

Presidential Conference Committee 

The quaint orange-and-cream-colored trolleys feature a single headlight framed by chrome wings. They begin their 2.6 mile, 8-stop, bumpy journey in Mattapan. They traverse the Neponset River into Milton, then head back over it into Dorchester, cutting through the Cedar Grove Cemetery. They make their way to the end of the line at Ashmont—where passengers can board Red Line trains or buses—before making the return trip to Mattapan.

Engineers refer to the trolley cars as PCCs, which is short for Presidential Conference Committee, a reference to the group of manufacturers and transit operators who collaborated in the late 1920s and 1930s on the design of a modern streetcar and then licensed that design to manufacturers.

The T’s PCCs, put into service across the system in 1944 and 1945, operate on electricity provided by overhead lines. They are about the same width as a Green Line car, but 26 feet shorter and about half the weight. They don’t do well in heavy snow; the line shut down for three weeks during the historic snowfall of 2015.

Passengers, who sit on hard plastic seats, alert the operator of their desire to stop at a particular station by pulling a cord that triggers a bell-like sound. In 2010, the latest year for which the T has data, 4,600 passengers were shuttled back and forth on a typical weekday.

Mattapan_06

The MBTA owns 10 of the trolley cars, but only seven are currently operational. Of the three cars out of commission, one is expected to return to service, but the other two are in such rough shape that the T is using them for parts. The T needs only five cars to deliver its peak service.

Parts are a big deal with the PCC cars. The cars are no longer being manufactured, and neither are parts. So the T has to keep the trolleys running on its own, repairing parts, cannibalizing them from other PCCs, or fabricating new ones from scratch. In a pinch, the agency has obtained parts from the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, Maine.

“When the T was scrapping some of their PCCs back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, they let us have a lot of stuff,” says Bill Pollman, the museum’s curator of rapid transit who works as a locomotive technician for the T’s commuter rail operator. “I would pick those cars clean for parts—there would be nothing left. And as the years go by, they’d call us looking for parts and we’d give them to them—at no charge, of course. We have a nice relationship with them.”

The MBTA spends $1.7 million a year maintaining and repairing the Mattapan trolleys. The cost represents 1.6 percent of the MBTA’s total budget for rail maintenance, but on a per-vehicle basis the agency spends about 40 percent more maintaining the trolleys than it does other rail vehicles, according to T spokesman Joe Pesaturo.

Of the $1.7 million, $1.2 million is allocated to a carhouse located at the Mattapan Station, where the day-to-day routine maintenance of the trolleys gets done.  The remaining $500,000 goes to a T repair facility in Everett, where propulsion systems on the cars are worked on.

Ed Belanger, superintendent of the cavernous Everett facility, says fabricating parts for vehicles that date from the 1940s can be a challenge. “It’s a specialized knowledge,” he says as drills whir and machines rumble in the background. “What we’re doing here is a different style of machining.”

While Belanger is trying to keep the trolleys running, the engineering firm CH2M is assessing the T’s options on the Mattapan Line. The firm will not only examine the cost and feasibility of maintaining the status quo, but will also look at other approaches.

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, for example, brought its PCCs back into service in Philadelphia by hiring a firm to replace all the internal systems while keeping the outer shells. The T could also decommission the PCCs and replace them with another type of light-rail vehicle, although it’s unclear whether the existing track and bridge structure on the line can accommodate bigger cars. Another option would be to pave over the existing rail right-of-way and operate a bus rapid transit service from Ashmont to Mattapan or even beyond.

Heart strings 

While transit geeks debate the merits of rail versus bus and the cost of paving over a rail right-of-way, riders of the Mattapan Trolley Line and the politicians who represent them focus almost exclusively on the historic nature of the cars.

“The Mattapan Line is the kind of thing that makes Boston Boston,” says Wanda Appleton, who lives near the Butler Station stop.  “So what if it costs a little more money to keep them going.  They’re part of our heritage.”

Tim Murphy, a T employee who operates one of the trolleys on Saturdays—the other days he works the Green Line—is a huge fan of the PCCs.  “I love them,” he says. “They’re an important historical attraction. We have people from all over the country, all over the world, coming here to ride on them.  The trolleys are like an ambassador for the T and create a lot of good will.  Other cities like Philadelphia and San Francisco embrace the PCCs. We should, too.”

James Aloisi, a former state secretary of transportation, says the fate of the Mattapan trolley shouldn’t be just a dollars-and-cents issue. “This is less a transit question than a quality of life one,” he says. “A great and old city needs to have ways to link its past to its present. That’s what makes up a part of urban legibility. San Francisco maintains many vintage trolley cars to the delight of tourists and residents. Too bad we don’t share the enthusiasm for our transit past in Boston.”

Politicians who represent residents along the Mattapan Line want to keep the trolleys running. Officials from Milton, Dorchester, and Mattapan have all backed the current trolley system.

“I’m not buying the idea that we can’t afford these trolleys,” says Boston City Councilor Tim McCarthy, whose district includes part of Mattapan. “Remember, once they’re gone, they’re gone.  And people will look back with sadness.”

Rep. Dan Cullinane, whose district includes part of Mattapan, says money should not be the deciding factor. “Across the country, we’re seeing cities recognizing the value of these types of trolley lines, and investing public dollars in bringing them back,” he says. “We should be asking why the MBTA is considering flying in the face of that and even entertaining paving the tracks over and putting buses there.”

"I love them," says Mattapan Trolley driver Tim Murphy. "They're an important historical attraction."

“I love them,” says Mattapan Trolley driver Tim Murphy. “They’re an important historical attraction.”

Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell, whose district also includes part of Mattapan, agrees. “I love the historic nature of the Mattapan trolleys,” she says. “When folks see the trolleys pulling up, it brings them back to memories of what Mattapan used to be and to what Mattapan can be again.”

The area’s power couple, state Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry and her husband Bill Forry, editor of the Dorchester Reporter, offer a one-two punch in support of keeping the Mattapan trolleys going. Sen. Forry has joined with her political colleagues in pushing for the trolleys, while her husband has made the case in the newspaper.

“The Mattapan trolleys are a unique and cherished part of our neighborhood’s daily life,” Bill Forry wrote last January. “The cost of keeping these vintage cars on the tracks needs to be measured in more than just dollars and cents and timesheets.”

Mayor Marty Walsh says he thinks the trolleys can be operated just as cost-effectively as other options, although he doesn’t have any numbers to back that up. “There’s something to be said about our having the oldest subway system in the country right here in Boston, and the Mattapan Trolley is certainly part of that historical significance that we need to maintain,” Walsh says. “I believe the city would lose some of its character if the trolleys were to go, and I have made my voice heard on this with the T.”

Philadelphia faced a similar PCC dilemma. The trolleys were introduced in Philadelphia in 1948 and replaced with buses in 1992. In 2001, the Southern Pennsylvania transit system decided to bring the trolleys back, signing a $23 million contract with a Pennsylvania company, Brookville Equipment Corp., to rebuild 18 PCCs. Brookville completely overhauled the insides of the PCC trolleys, equipping them with new propulsion systems of the firm’s own design. When components are needed, there is no need to ring up museums in search of scarce parts. The trolleys were eventually brought back online in 2005, replacing the buses that had been operating for 13 years.

The Philadelphia trolleys travel a much longer route than the Mattapan trolleys, making about 50 stops, not only on dedicated rights-of-way but also public streets.

Byron Comati, the transit authority’s director of strategic planning, says the refurbished trolley cost more to operate than the buses they replaced. “But the political powers that be were very desirous of bringing some attractive features to Girard Avenue, a commercial corridor that had seen better days, in order to stimulate economic development,” he says. “Their thinking was that putting back trolleys that had been reconditioned and that look good and feel good—and that’s where it gets a little gray here—would rejuvenate the area.”

Purse strings 

Steve Poftak, one of the five members of the MBTA’s Fiscal Management and Control Board, which will have to decide the fate of the Mattapan trolleys, seems torn. “I’m a fan of the Mattapan trolleys and I don’t view what we should do with them as being a strictly dollars-and-cents exercise,” he says. “But I also understand that there’s some reality here that we need to deal with. My hunch is that the engineering analysis being done will show that these trolleys are relatively expensive to operate. It is not viable to think we’re going to be able to run them to, like, 2040.”

Joanne Miller, a programmer who lives in Milton, is not sentimental about her mode of transportation. “The fact that the trolleys are antique makes no difference to me,”  she says. “If the T could find a cheaper way to get us back and forth, I’d be all for it.”

Rodney Bacon, a Mattapan resident, feels much the same way. “Even though they’re nice to look at, I don’t think they should keep investing in fixing the trolleys. It’s throwing good money after bad,” he says.

Richard Davey, a former state transportation secretary and MBTA general manager, takes a different point of view than fellow former state transportation chief Jim Aloisi, who thinks the T should keep the trolleys operational. Davey says he would be shocked if the engineering study of the Mattapan Line fails to conclude there is a more cost-effective way to service the area. “Running bus rapid transit, for example, is probably the cheapest way to move people up and down that corridor,” he says.

Ed Belanger, superintendent of the T's Everett repair shop, explains how the T reduced the ear-piercing sound of the trolley wheels.

Ed Belanger, superintendent of the T’s Everett repair shop, explains how the T reduced the ear-piercing sound of the trolley wheels.

Davey encourages state transportation officials to push the envelope when considering transportation solutions for the Mattapan corridor. “If I were advising Brian Shortsleeve [the T’s chief administrative officer and acting general manager] and the Fiscal Management and Control Board, I’d be telling them to phase out the Mattapan trolleys and to talk to the trolley advocates and the elected officials and say something like, ‘You know, it’s now time to think about the future.  The PCC cars served us well and they were groundbreaking at the time.  But let’s make the Mattapan corridor line groundbreaking again.  And let’s do that with a pilot program testing out automated buses.’ Transit automation is inevitable. It’s going to happen.”

Meet the Author
Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Steve Hicks, the T’s chief mechanical officer, says he will deal with whatever his superiors at the transit agency decide to do with the Mattapan Line. “I’m a soldier. I’m ex-military. Whatever is decided, I’m going to take care of it,” he says.

Hicks says he believes the T can find or fabricate the parts needed to keep the trolleys running if that’s the ultimate decision. “I’ve been an engineer and a mechanic a long time. Anything is fixable. The question is, is it cost-effective and is it intelligent to do?” he asks. “For example, I live in a historic house. I spend a lot of money restoring my house. It may not be rational, but I love this house. And that’s a big part of what Mattapan is.”