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Empty MBTA trains are rumbling into empty stations

Dr. Patrick Hyland rode a Green Line train home from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where he works in the internal medicine department.
Dr. Patrick Hyland rode a Green Line train home from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where he works in the internal medicine department.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The streets are mostly quiet now, the sidewalks largely empty. But still the MBTA subway rumbles along, the clickety-clack of its metal wheels a long-familiar sound in an unfamiliar time.

But look into the windows of the cars, and a sense of uncomfortable normalcy is gone. Seat after seat is empty, the swaying straphangers vanished. Many of the cars that normally hold packs of commuters are rocking toward another lonely stop with no passengers at all.

The ghost trains of the MBTA, now serving a stuck-at-home city, continue to carry on.

No one has ever seen anything like it, these moving echo chambers that carry a skeleton workforce to Boston from the north, west, and south while most people hunker at home. And no one is certain when the isolated “new normal” will end, and the regular, reassuringly crowded MBTA will return.

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“This is surreal," Megan Gelinas of Norwood said recently.

Gelinas, 29, had just boarded a train at Longwood on the Green Line’s Riverside branch. It was 8:45 a.m., smack in what should have been the rush-hour crush. Only one other passenger sat in the car, and he was about as far away from Gelinas as possible.

“It’s definitely strange," said Gelinas, who works at the Bright Horizons day-care center in Beacon Hill, which remains open to care for the children of essential workers.

Subway ridership has plummeted since the end of February, when the coronavirus had yet to upend life in Massachusetts. Daily validated fares on the Green Line dropped 95 percent between Feb. 28 and last Friday, to 4,286 from 78,043.

A woman disembarked a Green Line train at the MBTA Hynes Convention Center Station in Boston. The MBTA moved to a modified Saturday schedule across the system on March 17 in response to reduced ridership because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
A woman disembarked a Green Line train at the MBTA Hynes Convention Center Station in Boston. The MBTA moved to a modified Saturday schedule across the system on March 17 in response to reduced ridership because of the COVID-19 outbreak. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/file

The Red Line, the most traveled of all subway routes, sunk 92 percent in that time period to 15,120 fares from 189,501. The Orange Line dropped 91 percent to 13,678. The Blue Line fell 88 percent to 5,895.

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The subway lines are operating on reduced schedules, similar on most routes to a normal Saturday flow, which MBTA officials said "prioritize essential travel for health-care and emergency workers.”

Need a place to park for that lonely ride to Boston? No problem.

At 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, the MBTA had 2,273 available spaces at Alewife at the northern terminus of the Red Line. That’s 97 percent empty.

Elsewhere, the Quincy Adams lot on the Red Line was only 4 percent full. Wonderland on the Blue Line showed only 3 percent in use. Woodland on the Green Line counted just 5 percent occupied.

Gelinas said she felt fortunate to still be working at Bright Horizons, where she and a few other employees care for a handful of toddlers and preschoolers whose parents are mostly hospital staff.

The job allows Gelinas to help support her family, and that has added importance now. Her 55-year-old mother, who has a pacemaker, has been advised by her doctor to stay home and not continue working at a grocery store.

“I feel good that I still have a job, but I’m afraid of bringing something home to her," Gelinas said. “Still, I’m making sure the bills are paid. If I develop a fever, I’ll stay home.”

At the opposite end of the train, Dr. Patrick Hyland rested against the back of his seat following an overnight shift at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Sipping a cup of coffee, toting a backpack, his scrubs swapped for jeans, the 29-year-old internist was making a short trip to the Back Bay.

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“It’s made for an easier commute," Hyland said with a weary smile, looking around the car. “It’s good to see that people are taking it seriously, though. This feels like once in a lifetime."

Megan Gelinas of Norwood used hand sanitizer while riding a Green Line train to work on April 3. Gelinas works as a child-care provider at Bright Horizons at Beacon Hill, which has remained open for the children of first responders.
Megan Gelinas of Norwood used hand sanitizer while riding a Green Line train to work on April 3. Gelinas works as a child-care provider at Bright Horizons at Beacon Hill, which has remained open for the children of first responders. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Gelinas rode the train to Government Center, which at mid-morning was nearly deserted. No one clambered up and down the stairs from the platform. A single MBTA inspector stood wearing a mask near the underground tracks.

Above him at ground level, a lone MBTA employee slumped in a chair behind the glass information booth. No one asked for assistance. The Charlie Card kiosks stood unused.

At 9:07 a.m., an outbound Green Line train squealed to a stop on its trip to Jamaica Plain.

The cars were empty, their doors folding open for a single masked passenger headed to his job at Northeastern University. But even a short commute brings a risk of exposure to the virus.

“I’m very concerned,” said the rider, who identified himself only as Mike. “But they’re doing a good job with cleaning here, and the drivers are very safe about it.”

A few minutes later, on a Green Line train destined for Riverside, not a single passenger waited at Park Street, normally a hive of scurrying riders. MBTA driver Corie Sheridan opened the front door, poked her head out to look around the noiseless platform, and then motored toward Boylston Street and beyond.

MBTA operator Corie Sheridan sat in the cab on a Green Line train in Boston on April 3.
MBTA operator Corie Sheridan sat in the cab on a Green Line train in Boston on April 3.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

A curtain was half-drawn to protect Sheridan in the cab, but she didn’t wear a mask. A few seats near Sheridan had been declared off-limits to provide some distance between her and any passengers.

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One rider boarded at Boylston. As Sheridan continued westward, she didn’t seem outwardly apprehensive about catching the virus. But inwardly, it’s a worry.

"I’m concerned, very much so. But I have to do what I have to do,” Sheridan said as she picked up speed in the dark tunnel toward Arlington Street.

Then again, steering a ghost train holds a few benefits.

“It’s pretty nice, actually. It’s so quiet,” Sheridan said, shaking her head slightly. “But still, this is all a little bit weird.”


Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.