On a drizzly Wednesday morning, the E Line branch of the long-awaited Green Line Extension project sped off on a test run from Lechmere to Medford ahead of its public opening next week.
Running at a smooth 40 mile-per-hour clip, the train traveled through East Somerville, Gilman Square, Magoun Square, and Ball Square stations before pulling into College Avenue. Counting a brief stop along the way, the trip took about 18 minutes.
John Dalton, program manager for the Green Line Extension, said aside from a few “punch list” items and paperwork, the project is nearly finished — bringing decades of delays and disappointment to a close.
“This is it for the GLX,” Dalton told reporters invited along for the ride on the College Avenue platform. “We’re just focusing on getting this one done.”
The E line is scheduled to open to the public on Monday.
The Medford line was originally slated to open last December, then in November, but Dalton said construction was stalled by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent supply-chain disruptions. Last month, the MBTA announced that the line would start taking riders Dec. 12, much to the excitement of local residents and officials.
Dalton said the pandemic delays were the biggest hurdle, but there were a few other surprises during construction. Before tracks could be laid and stations built, crews had to widen the canyon through which the extension runs, which meant excavating tons of earth.
“We encountered an old, abandoned, freight-rail flatbed railcar along the right of way near one of the stations,” he said as the train weaved through Somerville, not far from where the surprise discovery was made. “That was probably one of the most dramatic phone calls.”
Ahead of Monday’s public opening, the test runs will continue on most days from 4:30 a.m. to 1 a.m., the same schedule the line is expected to follow. A day will also be set aside to make final tweaks, such as adjusting track gauges and evaluating the rails’ communication signals, officials said.
The test runs aim to simulate the experience T riders can expect on the new line.
At Lechmere, passengers are cleared off, but E-line trains continue north to Medford as if they were running regular service, allowing operators to familiarize themselves with the route and schedule ahead of opening. Trains arrive at each station roughly every seven to eight minutes, Alicia Gomes, division chief for the Green Line, said, although she hopes to see that headway drop to about 5 minutes down the line.
Gomes said the only difference between now and next week will be the passengers.
“That’s why I’m so excited,” Gomes said. “It’s the same Huntington Ave. line service that runs through here, so we’re able to manage that. We have the plan already.”
The opening comes amid an ongoing operator shortage that has triggered service reductions across the system.
Gomes said the T is “always concerned about the driver shortage,” but did not anticipate that it would create delays on the extension.
Joe Pesaturo, spokesman for the MBTA, said the T is in the same position as a number of major transit systems across the country when it comes to staffing.
“We just keep ramping up the hiring efforts,” Pesaturo said. “We have an aggressive recruitment campaign going on.”
Matthew Petersen, programs manager at TransitMatters, a nonprofit that tracks delays along the MBTA, said riders should be able to expect a smooth start to service, but he said the driver shortage and poor communication from the T still leave concerns about the overall quality of future service. especially on the Green and Red Lines “where the need is greatest but where communication has been the least.”
“It’s really not super inspiring, the pace at which they are hiring,” Petersen said. “It’s like 10 steps forward, nine steps back. I do wonder if they are doing enough to figure out the reasons people are leaving and try and fix those, because it’s much more expensive to get a new person than it is to keep someone you already have.”
Petersen noted reduced service on the Red Line, which he attributed to slow zones stemming from old infrastructure. TransitMatters currently measures about 18 and a half minutes of total delay across the entire Red Line.
When asked about Red Line slowdowns, Pesaturo said the MBTA is “hoping to make some enhancements to subway service soon,” but declined to provide further details.
As service commences, Dalton said his team would continue ironing out paperwork and finalizing payments, and possible rebates, from contractors that worked on the extension. He said contractors agreed to pay the MBTA $69,000 in damages per day for each unexcused delay, but it is too early to say how many days will be excused, or if any money will make it back to the state.
Listing “No service” as its route, the test train made it back to Lechmere in under 20 minutes. As they stepped off, some riders quipped that it was probably the last time they would see a Green Line car so empty.