Red Line and Mattapan Trolley riders who have endured excruciatingly slow train and shuttle bus service in recent months were greeted Monday with a speedier commute as the MBTA reopened the lines between JFK/UMass and Mattapan stations after a 16-day shutdown.
Where trains used to slow to a crawl along the lines in dozens of areas, trains now glide at full speed, up to 40 miles per hour.
And what the T frames as a success — a highly publicized partial-line shutdown that led to faster service — may mean that a similar shutdown is coming to a subway station near you, said general manager Phillip Eng.
“What we’ve demonstrated is that we do have the ability to follow through on our commitments,” he said. “I just want the riders to know that moving forward, because there is so much more need across our system, we’re going to take what we learned from this and we want to apply it because the intent is to restore service, ensure safety to the riders.”
In just over two weeks of round-the-clock work, the T said it fixed all of the track defects, some more than a year old, that had forced trains to slow down along the route so they wouldn’t derail.
The shutdown is seen as among Eng’s first big tests of whether he can deliver durably better service for MBTA riders.
Since he took over in April, the MBTA has struggled to eliminate speed restrictions faster than it is putting in new ones. Riders are still having to tolerate longer waits and slower service than before the pandemic, forcing them to miss out on wages or take expensive ride hailing trips to make it to work on time, and also spend more time away from family.
The apparent success of the shutdown may inspire similar projects on other lines as the T works to rid the system of scores of slow zones, according to Eng. He attributes much of the closure’s success to the T’s willingness to try new things under the leadership of his new team, including chief of infrastructure Doug Connett.
“We’re using a lot of industry best practices that other transit facilities use,” he said. “I think we are fairly confident that the work we’ve done here will give us the ability to focus on other areas and not see [speed restrictions] rising up again in the very near term.”
One T driver of an Ashmont-bound Mattapan trolley, which goes from Mattapan to Ashmont in Dorchester, could not contain his excitement about the upgrades Monday.
“They did good, they did good!” he said out loud to himself, nodding his head enthusiastically as he stared through the wet windshield out onto the newly upgraded tracks. “It’s smoooooth, now you don’t feel none of that stuff. I’m impressed.”
At JFK/UMass Station Monday, riders marveled at the station upgrades. The T replaced the tile floor of the subway entrance and lobby that had dozens of missing pieces filled in with rough, discolored concrete. Now, a smooth, grey surface, all one color, welcomes riders. Divots, some deep enough to be tripping hazards, on the train platform have been filled in, and up above, paint no longer peels off.
“It’s completely new inside,” said Brianna Ayala, 19, as she boarded the train heading home after class at UMass Boston.
Sam Gregory, 22, also a UMass student, began keeping track of his travel times on the Red Line after the T first announced the 16-day closure. He moved from Oregon, where there was no subway service, to Boston about a year ago, he said, and has found the T to be very unpredictable.
On Sept. 14, it took him 15 minutes to travel from Ashmont to JFK/UMass on the Red Line, according to his log. That same trip took him 38 minutes on the shuttle bus on Oct. 14. But on Monday, with the improved tracks, it took just 10 minutes, he said.
“Usually you start and stop quite a bit, but now you glide straight through,” he said.
For Luis Alonzo Gomez, 50, a janitor at a school in Milton, the Red Line to Ashmont is the second to last part of a two-hour commute from Revere that also involves the Blue and Green Lines and a bus. Even five minutes that he doesn’t have to spend on the train would ease the stress.
“Now that it’s faster, it’s a huge benefit,” he said in Spanish.
Not all riders were sure of the benefits Monday.
The Red Line felt faster, but the trolley still felt just as slow to Sebastien, 20, a UMass student who declined to give his last name. The slow zones, he said, routinely made him miss the bus.
“It was atrocious before,” he said. “I hope it will get better.”
For Rakim Benoit, 32, the trolley felt faster, but the Red Line felt the same. Benoit said he works two jobs at the airport and has to leave his house near Ashmont Station as much as two hours early to make sure he gets there on time.
“It’s so slow, it’s not being mindful to the people who need to get places,” he said. “It doesn’t do us any justice.”
With the extra time he will get back from the improvements, he plans to rest, he said.
The immediate results of the Red Line Ashmont branch and Mattapan Trolley shutdown appear to be in stark contrast with the broken promises of last summer’s Orange Line shutdown, in which the T closed the entire line for a month and vowed to eliminate longstanding slow zones. Travel time on the Orange Line is now slower than it was before, T data show.
Still, the T has a long way to go to repair all the tracks.
Twenty-two percent of the T’s subway system still has slow zones, the T’s dashboard shows, down from 26 percent at the beginning of April.