South Station passengers, consider yourselves warned: The daily troop through the train station is about to get more than a little messy.
A combination of two significant changes — a huge construction project and the installation of subway-style fare gates at the platforms — threatens to create years of bottlenecks at one of the most critical times of a rider’s commute: the rush from the train to the office, and back again to catch the train home.
The amount of disruption coming to South Station is unprecedented. The construction of a nearly 700-foot office tower over the open-air section of the tracks will require officials to close most of the doors leading from the station to the platforms, forcing riders to funnel through a handful of doors bunched together in the western end of the station. And much of the exterior concourse between the indoor lobby and the train platforms will be cordoned off as early as July, requiring officials to build out a concrete extension that essentially fills in parts of the tracks in order to fit more passengers.
Then, to top it off, sometime by this fall the MBTA and its commuter rail operator, Keolis, plan to install fare gates on the outside area near station platforms, similar to those on the subway, that will add yet another obstacle as travelers sprint for their trains.
“That’s too much,” said Adia Johnson, who commutes to South Station each day from Norwood. “You’ll have to squeeze through the doors, and then through the gates. God help you if your train is all the way over there” at the furthest platforms.
And for some riders, it doesn’t end there: The upcoming rebuild of the Massachusetts Turnpike in Allston will probably affect service on the fastest-growing line into South Station, from Framingham and Worcester.
Johnson said the MBTA should announce the platforms for each train as far in advance as possible, to limit the bunching inside the concourse and crowding at the choke points. She noted there’s a big difference between fare gates on the subway — where riders trickle into a station over time — and the commuter rail, where hundreds of passengers move en masse to the platform when the track is announced.
MBTA and Keolis officials say they are working with the Houston-based tower developer, Hines, to limit the disruption. But even now, boarding at South Station can sometimes look like orchestrated confusion. At a station with 13 platforms serving eight different MBTA lines as well as Amtrak trains, hundreds of riders jostle and dodge each other as they navigate to and from their trains — especially during rush hour, when multiple trains are boarding and deboarding.
“Anytime there’s a bunch of delays on the trains, you have people hanging out in the lobby, and it’s just kind of hard to get through,” said Jon Lee, who commutes on the Needham line from Roslindale Square. “Blocking off that much of the concourse, it’s going to be kind of annoying.”
Today, these riders move between the lobby and the platform area using 10 doors, spread across nearly the length of a football field — though two of the doors are often closed. But come late summer, the construction will reduce the number of doors to five, and squeeze them into a space less than a third of that length.
Construction is expected to last almost five years, and, unless plans change, this configuration will stay in place the whole time.
MBTA and Keolis officials say they are trying to mitigate the effects of the tower construction: The five doors from the lobby to the platform area will fold open rather than slide from side to side, as the current doors do, which they said would allow better movement through each, because they open more quickly. The food vendors at that end of the station will be moved to open up room for queuing passengers.
The expansion of the outdoor concourse area will add about 4,000 square feet of space. The T also hopes more riders will use the side entrance on Atlantic Avenue, which brings them directly onto the platform area without going through the station itself. They expect to install a digital display board at that entrance to direct riders to their platforms. Lee, the Roslindale commuter, said that would be a “huge improvement.”
However, another outdoor entrance to the platforms, on Summer Street, will be closed off by the construction zone, diverting some riders indoors.
MBTA assistant general manager Mike Muller said the agency must be “vigilant” as it monitors the impact on commuters of the tower construction, originally approved by city of Boston officials in 2006.
“We do have concerns. It’s a marquee station in Boston and we want to make sure this doesn’t significantly, negatively impact our customers and our service," Muller said. "Even if everything moves smoothly, there’s going to be an adjustment period where people are going to have to grow accustomed to a different configuration.”
In a statement, David Perry, senior managing director of Hines, said the disruption will be worth it in the long run. The company, for example, will also rebuild the bus terminal at South Station and link it to the new tower, so those passengers will no longer have to make their way through the scrum on the train platforms to get to and from their buses.
The city’s two other main train stations have also been targeted for huge construction projects. New towers have recently sprouted around North Station, adding an entrance and concourse that gives commuters easier access to the front of the building. During construction, commuters heading to and from the Green and Orange lines were detoured above ground and across busy Causeway Street; but unlike South Station, there was no building work that directly affected the train boarding area.
Meanwhile, a series of towers is also expected over Back Bay Station, though it’s not clear when that work will begin and how it will affect commuters. The developer, Boston Properties, noted in planning documents that it will need to coordinate with state officials “due to the work being located over and around active rail and highway infrastructure.”
Each of the three stations is expected to get fare gates this year, though only at South Station will the installation coincide with so much physical disruption from construction.
Fare gates are controversial because they add a barrier between riders and trains. But some see it as necessary to improve the T’s finances because some number of fares are not collected by conductors, particularly on overcrowded trains during rush hour. Adam Whittemore of Franklin said the tower construction could cause “chaos,” but noted the gates will at least ensure that everyone on the train has paid their fares.
“It’s going to be a mess,” he said. But, “you have to do something, because [collection of] fares is a problem."
Transit officials said they will not install the gates at South Station until passengers have had a month or more to get used to the new flow, and only after the new pedestrian pattern is working well.
They have not said exactly where the gates will go, or the number that will be installed, though they promise there will be enough to allow large numbers of people to pass relatively quickly; last year officials said as many as 48 gates could be installed at South Station, according to a memo obtained by the Globe through a public records request, though that figure does not appear to take into account the space limitations from construction.
The fare gates are likely to be arranged diagonally across the outside concourse area, forcing commuters to pass through them before getting to the individual platforms. However, Platform 1, closest to Atlantic Avenue, will not be gated, to allow bus riders to get to and from their terminal.
Keolis and the MBTA are also working with Amtrak to make sure the gates accept tickets to the national rail system.
Much of the tower project will take place over existing tracks and platform areas at South Station, but Hines has pledged that the work will not affect rail service. Nonetheless, T officials have warned riders to add 5 to 10 minutes to their daily commute in anticipation of some delays getting through South Station by foot.
Richard Prone, a former railroad engineer who represents Duxbury on the MBTA advisory board, said he is skeptical that train service won’t suffer amid the project.
“It’s got to have some impact,” said Prone, who opposes the tower because he thinks it will clash with the historic Neoclassical architecture of South Station, which was built in 1899. “I don’t have a crystal ball, but with the size of the tower and everything that’s going on there, it’s not going to get any better.”
Delays are all but certain, however, for riders on the Worcester line in the coming years, the result of a separate massive construction initiative: the planned mega-project to rebuild the section of the Massachusetts Turnpike that curves through Allston. That project is scheduled to get underway in 2022.
Because of the narrow work space there, officials say they need to limit the rail line adjacent to the highway to a single track for several years. That will have a big impact on the 18,000 riders and 54 trains that travel the Worcester line each day; a spokeswoman for the state transportation agency acknowledged that losing one track in that area will cause disruptions.
Mary Connaughton, a former member of the Massachusetts highway board who now works at the Pioneer Institute think tank, said the state should be increasing service on the Worcester line to accommodate drivers displaced by highway construction — not reducing service. Connaughton, who commutes daily on the line, said the state should redesign the highway project to keep both tracks in service, in order to limit the many headaches facing commuters in the coming years.
“That is going to lead to huge disruption for commuters, and has to be reconsidered,” said Connaughton. “They should figure in the impacts on commuters … and the timing and duration of the project.”