Inside the Mattapan Station garage — a two-sided structure largely exposed to the elements near the bus and trolley platforms — sits a 1940s-era trolley car with a fresh coat of orange and cream paint and a crimson stripe, new wiring, electric doors and a modern propulsion system.
The MBTA vehicle maintenance team working on refurbishing the car says it is about 88 percent complete. All that’s missing are final touches like the seats, more wiring, testing, and a safety certification.
But the project is already more than two years behind schedule, frustrating elected officials who have long advocated for improvements to the Mattapan trolley line.
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority said in October that by the end of 2021, at least one newly refurbished trolley car would be rolling down the tracks through Dorchester, Milton, and Mattapan. Citing a long list of unanticipated obstacles, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the MBTA now estimates the first refurbished Mattapan trolley car will be in service by the end of this winter. The first one was originally supposed to start operating in August 2019.
Erik Stoothoff, MBTA chief engineer, is hopeful the hurdles encountered on the first car — lead paint, corrosion, staffing shortages, mis-sized parts — can provide a more speedy process for the next seven cars, with the second refurbished trolley — currently being worked on at the agency’s Everett repair facility — possibly launching next summer.
“Ideally, as we go through, the learning curve should be shortened,” Stoothoff said.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Mattapan trolley had around 6,600 daily boardings, according to the MBTA. The 2.6-mile track connects to the Red Line and 11 bus lines at Ashmont Station and nine bus lines at Mattapan Station.
The MBTA announced the $7.9 million improvement project in 2017 as a way to keep the historic 75-year-old trolleys on the tracks for an additional eight to 10 years by modernizing their propulsion and braking equipment while the agency determined a long-term solution for the fleet.
Shortly after beginning work on the first trolley, the MBTA discovered lead paint, which can cause serious health problems and needed to be removed. All lead paint had been stripped from the cars during their last overhaul in 2001, Stoothoff said, but the agency suspects that a supervisor at the time decided to use it again without anyone knowing.
At the MBTA vehicle repair facility in Everett, where most of the trolley refurbishment work happens before the car gets transferred to the Mattapan Station garage for the final stages, the COVID-19 pandemic forced vehicle maintenance staff to shift to duties like adding barriers to buses to protect drivers and pouring hand sanitizer from bulk containers into individual ones. Since then, one of the top engineers on the trolley project left the MBTA, and the entire vehicle maintenance team is short more than 100 workers as the agency struggles with hiring.
After crews removed the seats, floors, and much of the frames, the MBTA became aware of the level of damage to the cars, requiring more structural work than anticipated, Stoothoff said. In order to support a new grid resistor on the roof, part of the modern propulsion system, engineers had to add reinforcement beams to the walls and poles near the aisle that look like subway handrails.
“There is always going to be some hidden damage,” Stoothoff said. “It’s still a 75-year-old vehicle; it has imperfections and complications.”
Once the car that is furthest along was moved from Everett to the Mattapan garage in October, crews discovered some parts, including a metal box for wiring and wiring connectors, that needed to be refitted.
“On paper, these things look like they should work,” Stoothoff said.
The MBTA says despite the delays, the project has not gone over budget. The $7.9 million investment was the price of the parts, said Stoothoff, and the labor costs are built into the agency’s regular vehicle maintenance budget.
Riders seem largely unaware of the project delays, which Stoothoff said are not affecting service. The MBTA recently began reducing service frequency on the Mattapan line on weekday mornings and afternoons and increasing service frequency on weekends after 11:30 p.m. due to a driver shortage.
Yolanda Harris, 40, rode the trolley as a child and young adult, and recently moved back to Mattapan and began riding it again. On a trip to catch the Red Line at Ashmont and travel to Fields Corner to return Christmas presents, she said the trolley is just as she remembers, including the loud noise and sudden jerks.
“I don’t mind that they are 75 years old,” she said. “I love it; it’s very easy. I’ve never had an issue with the trolley.”
Dan Caban, 46, said he takes the bus from his house in Hyde Park to the trolley and then the trolley to the Red Line to get to his job downtown, which takes about one hour and 10 minutes door to door. Out of the three modes, the trolley is the most reliable.
“It’s kind of weird because it’s the oldest,” he said. “I love it; I love how old it is. The lights, the old-style seating.”
Milton resident Elizabeth Higgins, 56, takes the trolley to get to her job as an elementary school teacher in Cambridge via the Red Line. Her school doesn’t offer enough parking for all teachers, so she relies on public transit.
“We all feel like if the trolley stopped working or wasn’t updated, we would be out of options,” she said.
Residents served by the trolley face some of the longest commute times to downtown, said state Representative Brandy Fluker Oakley, who represents parts of Dorchester, Mattapan, and Milton, and have long felt undervalued by the MBTA.
“There was a lot of excitement when we learned about the refurbishment of the trolleys,” she said. “Public trust has been eroded with every delay; with every explanation, it makes the community feel more undervalued.”
After refurbishing the trolleys, the second phase of the MBTA’s plan to improve the Mattapan Line includes upgrading stations to make them more accessible and repairing tracks. MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said the agency is negotiating an agreement with an engineering firm to do the design work for the second phase and a needs assessment for the entire line.
State Senator Walter Timilty, who represents Milton, said he has “no confidence” in the leadership of the MBTA on this project. He urged the MBTA to move more quickly with the second phase.
“It is vital to the quality of life of the residents of Milton, Mattapan, and Dorchester,” he said. “The fact that this project has had a series of delays is unacceptable. . . . It’s an accessibility issue and a safety issue all in one.”
Stoothoff said the MBTA is working on getting more staff dedicated to the trolley refurbishment project. When the improved trolleys reach the end of their lifespan, around eight to 10 years later, the MBTA plans to use Green Line cars on the Mattapan line, Stoothoff said. The agency had previously weighed other options, including upgrading the existing fleet again, purchasing new light-rail vehicles, or running buses instead.
Harris said she is relieved that the tracks probably won’t be paved over to make way for buses.
“Keep the trolley,” she said.