It’s the MBTA’s most popular subway line, its longest, and lately — by many metrics — its worst.
More than three years after the COVID-19 pandemic forced riders off the T, and more than a year after a flurry of speed restrictions began slowing its trains, here is the woeful state of the Red Line today: Ridership is at less than half its pre-pandemic levels, around half as many trains come each day, and a trip from Braintree or Alewife — the furthest ends of the line — at times takes about as long as it would to just drive, according to route plans generated by Google Maps.
State Senator John F. Keenan said he used to regularly take the Red Line from Quincy to the State House. Now, he starts most mornings comparing drive times to travel times on the Red Line and Commuter Rail.
“Before, the train usually was faster. Now, the car seems to be faster,” Keenan said. “More people who have to go to work are driving to work.”
Keenan said rider expectations are low, but ditching the MBTA is a luxury some people cannot afford.
“A lot of people don’t have options,” he said. “The MBTA is it.”
Average speeds on the Red Line have fallen over the last month, following a brief recovery in July: now about 12.8 miles per hour in August, compared to 18.7 in January 2020, according to data from advocacy group TransitMatters.
And riders say they can feel it.
For Lexington resident Ganesh R., who works in Cambridge and declined to give his last name, the Red Line is a necessary headache.
Sitting on an inbound train at Alewife this week, Ganesh said he usually parks there before taking the train four stops to Central Station. Parking at Alewife means he spends less time and money than he would to park in Cambridge, and he can usually dodge the morning traffic.
But the 48-year-old said he was ready for a reason to ditch the T unless service improves.
“If they have good parking options [in Cambridge], I’ll get off the Red Line completely,” he said. “Traffic is frustrating, but I would rather take the car” all the way from Lexington.
A commuter since 2020, Ganesh said his entire commute used to be “much quicker,” about 35 to 40 minutes. Now, he said, it lasts an hour, and the only difference seems to be the slower speed of the trains. The Red Line journey, the last leg of his trip, used to take just 10 minutes; these days, it’s closer to 20, sometimes 30, he said.
That morning, a rush-hour train from Alewife took 23 minutes to get to Central in Cambridge, an average of 9.6 miles per hour.
Reduced ridership and fewer total trips have coincided with decreased speeds, data show. In late June 2022, prior to the July slowdowns, Red Line weekday ridership topped 100,000 trips on average, with nearly 200 roundtrips completed each day, according to TransitMatters.
Last week the T scheduled an average of 127 Red Line trips each day and completed 104 of them. Meanwhile, weekday ridership fell to about 83,000 this month, according to TransitMatters. The advocacy group measures ridership in terms of the total number of validated fares, which does not include transfers.
The T’s metrics, which include transfers, show a loss of about half the Red Line’s pre-pandemic ridership.
It’s a far cry from the T’s vision in the 1970s and ‘80s, when the Red Line was extended in each direction, south to Braintree and north to Alewife.
Jim O’Leary, general manager of the MBTA from 1981 to 1989, said the extensions were part of a “very ambitious effort” to bring service to the suburbs and pull would-be drivers from the roads to the rails.
“What tends to drive people towards transit is if there’s a regular, peak service that they can rely on,” O’Leary said. “Nobody wants to park their car at the Alewife Station or at Braintree Station and not have a train show up on a regular schedule.”
On the Braintree Branch, MBTA crews are conducting track and tie work overnight and during scheduled shuttle diversions. As of Aug. 15, crews had replaced 836 ties on that branch, according to the T.
“We are confident the work taking place will begin to show a meaningful impact soon,” Joe Pesaturo, a T spokesperson, said in a statement.
A significant level of work is being planned for the Ashmont Branch, with more details to come soon, according to the agency. More new Red Line cars are expected to be delivered in the fall.
The current slowdowns reflect an increase in speed restrictions placed on the track since mid-2022, which the T has struggled to remove. The agency made temporary improvements to the line between early April and mid-July, but delays from the slow zones have crept back up over the past month, according to TransitMatters.
By Aug. 19, a roundtrip over the entire Red Line took one hour and nine minutes longer than it would have without the speed restrictions, according to TransitMatters.
Restrictions cover 14.4 miles, or 30 percent, of Red Line track, according to data published Tuesday by the T. As of Tuesday, there were 110 total restrictions along the line, up from 23 restrictions Jan. 1.
The T has made some corrections to its slow zones, and speed has improved on other lines. But delays on the Red Line have continued to increase, according to TransitMatters.
The delays can turn commuters’ decision to take the T — once, a no-brainer — into a calculated compromise.
The trip from Alewife to Park Street stretches just under 6 miles, but nearly half of its rails are under some level of speed restriction. During Tuesday’s morning rush hour, the journey took more than 32 minutes to complete. At peak speeds, that trip should take less than 24 minutes, according to TransitMatters.
But for Elizabeth Dornburgh, who works downtown and lives just a few minutes’ drive from Alewife Station, the longer commute is still worth not having to sit in her car during rush hour. She said taking the T is less stressful “as long as the Red Line is working.”
“I can sit here and read,” Dornburgh said as she waited for her southbound train to leave the Alewife platform shortly after 8 a.m. Tuesday.
That morning, a trip to South Station, Dornburgh’s destination, took more than 35 minutes.
Reading time aplenty.