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Born broken: The deep history of the T

Boston proudly built the first subway in America. But before long the system was fighting to stay afloat.

Conductors test-ride the subway in 1897.From Boston Public Library

The first subway in America was barely four hours old, on the morning of Sept. 1, 1897, when America’s first subway accident occurred.

The eventful day began at 6 a.m., when a mustachioed motorman named James Reed steered a packed Boston trolley with passengers hanging off the sides down into a tunnel at the corner of Boylston and Arlington streets for the nation’s inaugural subway ride. “Down in front!” people yelled as some stood excitedly to see what lay ahead.

Some four hours later, at 10:20 a.m., a different trolley, car No. 2022, with a sign that said “Huntington Ave. Cross-Town,” emerged from the same tunnel, heading outbound toward Jamaica Plain. With no warning, its roof clipped a crossbeam at the mouth of the tunnel. The conductor immediately stopped, climbed up to inspect the damage, and then hopped back into his seat and drove off.

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The whole incident took a few minutes at most. But it tells us something important about today’s MBTA, which has been beset by collisions, fires, derailments, and even train doors closing on passengers’ limbs, not to mention daily delays caused by signal issues, overheated tracks, or routine maintenance work. How did we get to this point?

Well, as that first subway trip and first accident in 1897 suggested, Boston’s system was essentially born broken. (A similar phrase, “Born Broke,” found its way into a 2009 report from the MBTA Advisory Board focused on why the agency was burdened with such paralyzing debt.) From the day the subway opened, the tunnels were too shallow and too narrow, with sharp turns that couldn’t accommodate longer trains to carry more people. Many of those sharp turns are caused by the system’s other great flaw: its hub-and-spoke design that forces every trolley and train to pass through the busiest hub stations downtown, rather than skirting around its quieter edges.

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The shortcomings of the system’s layout, however, are only partly to blame for the state of mass transit in Greater Boston. Decisions about how to manage it, and fund it, are also at fault.

Certainly the innovators behind the subway hoped that their system could one day do for Boston what the world’s first subway, in 1863, had done for London, opening up congested streets, making suburbs easier to reach, and thinning out pedestrian traffic on the sidewalks so people weren’t elbowed off into traffic. But it was easy to dream big when the system was so small.

In the years after the first two miles of tracks opened in 1897, the tunnels were slowly extended to connect with an increasing number of elevated lines, which were quicker and cheaper to build. With a private company known as the Boston Elevated Railway, or BERy, running the system, sections of what today we recognize as the Blue and Orange lines were both operating before 1910; a section from Harvard opened in 1912.

The old Forest Hills Station of the Washington Street Elevated line in Boston.Boston Globe Archive

It’s estimated that 75 percent of people traveling into and out of Boston by 1930 either walked or used public transit. In the 1940s, the Boston system made more of an effort to pull in riders from the 13 other fast-growing cities and towns that made up metro Boston (Arlington, Belmont, Brookline, Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, Malden, Medford, Milton, Newton, Revere, Somerville, and Watertown).

As the system grew, it continually cost more to keep it running, just as it costs a lot more to feed a growing teenager than it does a hungry toddler. And as more and more money was needed, the focus shifted away from making sure the transit system remained healthy and ready for the next generation of challenges. By the mid-20th century, it was just about finding ways to keep it alive.

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In BERy’s year-end report in 1945, the company said ridership had reached an all-time high, expenses were greater than ever, and the future was uncertain. “The depletion of the reserve fund, taken together with the present operating costs and the likelihood of a continuation of a high level of costs, has created a serious problem,” the report said. Two years later, in 1947 a quasi-governmental agency called the Metropolitan Transit Authority stepped in to take control from the privately operated BERy.

In the 1950s and 1960s the MTA continued to expand the system, including an extension to Revere and more Green Line tracks and stations. It also began the gradual replacement of the unsightly Orange Line El with underground tracks. More and more people took public transit, but the increase in fare revenue was not nearly enough to cover the cost of this expansion. The trains proved to be too short to handle the number of riders, and the maintenance and upkeep of the cars, tracks, and stations proved overwhelming. There was no way to just throw more trains onto the already crowded tracks, and the system started to buckle under its debt.

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In 1964, a massive study yielded the idea of consolidating all rail systems in the region into one. Instead of servicing only those 14 Metro Boston towns, the new system would expand to reach 78 cities and towns, some of which were running their own independent streetcar systems. On Aug. 3, 1964, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority was born, and Governor Endicott Peabody went so far as to say the region’s transportation problem was “on its way to solution.” Fittingly for Boston, home of the first subway, it was the nation’s first combined regional transit system.

New cars were introduced on the Orange Line in 1957, replacing equipment that was 40 years old at the time.Edward F. Carr/Globe Staff

The intentions were good. But not much changed. And when gas prices soared in the 1970s and even more people turned to trains for commuting, the agency’s debt grew out of control, until everybody’s worst fears were finally realized on Dec. 6, 1980, when the entire system actually shut down.

At 11:32 p.m., an empty train pulled out of the Harvard/Brattle Street Station, and attendants, standing in the doorways, told would-be passengers that was it. The T was closed. And not just for the night.

“No more trains,” one worker said to arriving passengers, the Harvard Crimson reported. One passenger asked, “For how long?” only to be told, “Maybe forever.”

Not quite. The T reopened a day later after an emergency $41 million compromise spending plan was signed, but the woes remained. And the actions in the plan other than the infusion of cash seemed almost trivial, like expanding the transportation advisory board from five to seven members and adding the state transportation secretary. One legislator said with excitement, “The old MBTA is dead, long live the new one!” It was wishful thinking.Then again, public transit in Boston has always been taken for granted, not just by lawmakers but by passengers, too, pretty much from the day it opened. On Sept. 3, 1897, just two days after Boston’s historic first subway trip, Bostonians were already searching for something else to complain about now that the previously miserable congestion on their streets had surely been addressed. What’s next? they asked. The front-page headline in that day’s Globe said it all: “Novelty over.”

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Doug Most, a former editor at the Globe, is the author of “The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America’s First Subway.” He is an assistant vice president and executive editor at Boston University.