Shutdown process costly for the T

Tab for well-meaning gesture may be $3.8m a year

IT BEGAN WITH A TWEET, sent in the early morning hours.

James Jay, a TransitMatters advocate and transit enthusiast, tweeted: “One E-Line train is the reason the entire MBTA system sits idle for over 30 min.”

That bit of information sparked a subsequent exploration by three TransitMatters advocates — Ari Ofsevit, Andy Monat, and Marc Ebuna — into how exactly the MBTA shuts down subway service every evening.  What they found illustrates how good intentions can sometimes lead to inopportune outcomes.

When the MBTA shuts down its subway service every night, it follows a procedure that allows passengers to transfer between lines. On its face, the procedure seems logical and laudable, as it is designed to ensure that no passenger is stranded in the midnight hour. In practice, thanks to a questionable scheduling quirk, this process requires two Red Line and Orange Line trains, one Blue Line train, four Green Line Trains, and 56 buses to wait an average of 34 minutes for one lonely E-Line train. Why is the E-Line train so late? It’s a combination of schedule and the need to have a place to layover for the evening.  There’s nowhere to store a train at Heath Street, so the last E-Line train has to turn around there and come back into the city.

Read a response from Jeff Gonneville, the chief operating officer of the MBTA, to this article by clicking here.

The MBTA is presumably trying to offer anyone riding this last E-Line train a guaranteed connection downtown, even though inbound service on every other line ends half an hour earlier.  It’s a nice gesture, but it comes at a cost disproportionate to the benefit, inconveniences passengers on other trains and buses, and it may be depriving many thousands of people each year the chance to benefit from overnight service.

Most of the costs of running transit service are fixed; they accrue whether the train is moving or not. So waiting for that one E-Line train means all other trains—and 56 buses, which wait for connections—sit idle, costing the MBTA anywhere from $2.7 million to $3.8 million every year.

“What’s $3.8 million a year?” you may ask.

Well, it’s 24/7 transit service in Greater Boston.  That’s about what it will cost to implement the overnight service plan that we presented in Commonwealth last March, and that we expect will be presented to the Fiscal Management and Control Board in the very near future. Boston deserves — no, needs — 24/7 transit service, because Boston doesn’t stop working at 12:45 a.m.  Many Bostonians work well into the night or very early in the morning at Logan Airport, at our hospitals, at restaurants and bars, and at businesses in the innovation sector that know no boundaries of the clock. This should surprise no one. It’s what great cities do. It’s what 21st Century cities do.  It’s what most other cities in the United States do: they work around the clock.

Our plan for overnight service would serve those workers, and respond to this clear and persistent need.  The owners of the highly regarded restaurant Myer & Chang spoke recently on WGBH’s Boston Public Radio program about how the lack of overnight service harms their employees, proving the point: by shutting down public transportation during late evening and early morning hours, we are doing a disservice to the hard working men and women who do not have “9-to-5” jobs.  If we want to be regarded as a vibrant city, and if we care about the people who work hard to make that happen, we need to offer them the convenience and dignity of 24/7 transit service.

Our overnight service plan provides reliable 24/7 transit service throughout Greater Boston, running buses along key routes to serve late-night and early-morning commuters. An Uber ride may suffice for a student coming home from the bars at 2 a.m., or an investment banker who’s had a leisurely and expensive night on the town. But for a service worker in Malden or East Boston or Hyde Park, a $25 ride home may consume one quarter of their paycheck. That’s not sustainable or equitable. To those who say that we should start taking effective action to respond to income inequality and social injustice, I say: start here.

We’ve been advocating for overnight service to help the MBTA prove that it can do more with less.  Now let’s focus a bit more on what the T is doing every night after midnight, doing a lot less with more. TransitMatters activist and blogger Ari Ofsevit wrote recently about the transit “ballet” that takes place, largely unseen by most riders, every night.  Working with real-time data compiled and assembled by Andy Monat and Marc Ebuna, he wrote about the well-choreographed train movements that allow passengers downtown to make connections for the last train, but are stymied by a scheduling fluke.

The theory behind this process, whereby trains meet at a central location and transfers are guaranteed, is sound. However, in practice, things go awry.

Here’s what happens.  If trains adhere to schedule and meet at 12:45 a.m., they should all leave downtown by 12:55 a.m. However, the last train to Heath Street arrives there at 12:47 a.m., and turns around to head back downtown. This last train is designated as a “w” train, which means that all other trains wait for it to arrive at Park Street.  Although those trains (if they are on schedule) are ready to head out at 12:45 a.m., they must still wait at least another 21 minutes for our lonely E-Line train to arrive.  If the E-Line train is running late, the trains wait longer, sometimes pushing an hour.

In the past 30 days, on no day did the trains leave before 1:09 a.m., and on average they sat at Park and Downtown Crossing 10 minutes later than that. On some nights, if the Lechmere train is late, other trains may not get to the end of the line until 2 a.m. And the problem doesn’t end then.  It is exacerbated because the buses waiting for transfers from Wonderland to Forest Hills can only begin their trips once the trains have departed for their night’s rest.

This may all seem a bit mind-numbing, but here is the bottom line: because of one E-Line train traveling from Heath Street to Lechmere, the rest of the system sits idle, often longer than half an hour, costing the T millions of dollars every year, decreasing the time available for subway maintenance, and depriving T riders of funds that could be put to much better use than paying conductors and bus drivers to sit idle every night.

There’s been a lot of talk about reform.  Here is an example of an ongoing process, invisible to most, which could be reformed in an instant and save millions of dollars.  A rider taking the final E-Line trains in the wee small hours of the morning is guaranteed a connection under today’s schedule. The cost to keep such a guarantee does not match the benefits.  However, if the overnight service plan on which we’ve been collaborating with the T is implemented, riders would have reliable connections at 2, 3 and 4 in the morning on a bus home, or back to work. That may not be optimal for a handful of people, but it provides significantly more benefit to the majority of overnight riders.

Let’s be clear: good, quality service does not cost zero. Our overnight service plan provides 24/7 transit service for Greater Boston at a fraction of the cost of the T’s previous late night service, which cost much more for only two hours on just two days of the week.  The cost to implement our plan would be in the range of what the T spends each year to keep trains and buses idling after midnight, waiting for the arrival of one single train coming from Heath Street to layover at Lechmere.

Meet the Author

Those of us who want the MBTA to succeed and grow have a responsibility to offer up creative, viable, and credible ideas that will improve service, reduce costs, and increase efficiencies.  Drawing attention to the costs associated with the evening subway shutdown is consistent with that responsibility, as is continued advocacy for 24/7 overnight transit service in Greater Boston.  Advocacy is moving from rhetorical persuasion to fact and data-based calls for change.  That’s a positive and exciting development that is sure to have a meaningful impact on public policy.

James Aloisi is a former Massachusetts secretary of transportation and a principal at the Pemberton Square Group.