Confessions of a Red Line defector
Now is the time to show solidarity with the beleaguered masses on the Red Line who endure interminable waits and squeeze onto overcrowded trains. All for one and one for all. Collectively, we can survive our summer of discontent.
Who am I kidding? Sorry, not this Red Line commuter. I can’t take it anymore.
Since the June 11 derailment that damaged its signaling system, I avoid the Red Line every chance I get. Only Governor Charlie Baker has come up with more excuses not to ride the T.
I drive, I hitch rides with friends, I Uber, I work from home. I’m hardly the only one. Weekday ridership the week of the derailment was down 10.3 percent on the Red Line compared with an average weekday in June 2018, according to MassDOT figures. Numbers climbed back toward the end of the month, but ridership remained off by 4.4 percent during the last week of June.
I’ve tried a few times to return to the Red Line, but when the system can’t even let a rider know when the next train will arrive, you wonder if you’re just waiting for Godot.
When the T does tell you how long the wait will be, your heart just might sink like mine did Tuesday when I was greeted with a sign that read: “Trains to Alewife, Every 18 to 20 min.”
Really? No wonder so many people are running late in Boston these days.
It’s not like T officials didn’t warn us. They’ve become very good at delivering bad news. We were told fixing the damage caused by the derailment at JFK/UMass Station would take until Labor Day and were advised to build in an extra 20 minutes to our commutes because Red Line trains would have to travel at slower speeds on some sections of track. (That slower ride, by the way, costs 6.7 percent more, thanks to a controversial fare hike that kicked in on July 1.)
Life on the Red Line is ugly these days. During rush hour, the platforms are more crowded, and when a train arrives, you’re lucky if you can get a seat. Compounding the slower travel speeds, trains linger at some stations for several minutes to accommodate the manual signaling process the T had to implement after the derailment. Random cursing from passengers abounds.
I really do want to get back on the T. When it runs smoothly, life is good. Traffic makes driving a nightmare, and parking in Boston isn’t cheap — especially since Mayor Marty Walsh raised meter rates this month.
But every week, there are more harrowing tales of hellish commutes from Red Line riders who have stuck it out. One colleague coming into the city from Quincy recounted a two-hour journey Monday morning — there was a medical emergency aboard a train. The train had to back up to the station it had just left, and when it arrived, the doors wouldn’t open.
The incident, like others in recent weeks, was chronicled on Twitter. Here’s the take from @Kimbercandelora: “People are getting angry. Children are crying. The ac is off and we’re just sitting here with the doors closed, waiting to backup still. This poor person with the medical emergency can’t even get off the damn train. #mbta”
It must also be frustrating for T workers who want nothing more than the Red Line to get back to normal.
We want to blame someone for our misery, and it’s easy to pin all of this on Baker and his administration, but really, the mess is on everyone on Beacon Hill. When it comes to doing something major about public transit, politicians have kicked the can down the track year after year, decade after decade. It was just a matter of time before derailments became de rigueur.
Only former governor Michael Dukakis gets a free pass. Over three terms that stretched from the mid-’70s to the early ’90s, he not only maintained the MBTA system but expanded the Red Line to Alewife and rebuilt the Orange Line. He also rode the T while governor, and still does, taking the Green Line from his Brookline home.
Consider this 2009 report commissioned by governor Deval Patrick’s administration and coauthored by former John Hancock CEO David D’Alessandro, who predicted commutes from hell if the state didn’t maintain, repair, and replace its antiquated fleet of subways, trains, and buses: “It stands to reason that an aging, complex, and underfunded transportation system will have to confront unpleasant surprises that can result in safety hazards and service delays.”
D’Alessandro has said that after the report was released, he didn’t receive a single call from a legislator. Today, he still doesn’t see enough urgency from Beacon Hill.
“To have sustained growth in our economy and to help us weather recessions, we need a first-class transportation system,” he wrote in an e-mail to me. “Other cities like Atlanta, Seattle, Dallas will beat us out in the long run for startups, corporate relocations and 21st century jobs.”
Since D’Alessandro’s report, billions of dollars have been committed to fix the T. Over the next five years, the system will start to feel more modern with the arrival of new Red and Orange Line cars and the Green Line extension into Somerville and Medford.
But let’s not lull ourselves into thinking everything will be all right. The MBTA is still in rough shape. The price tag to fix or replace equipment and upgrade infrastructure is $10 billion, and the state tells us the work won’t get done until 2032. That’s an untenable timetable.
The question that should be burning in the Legislature — and in business and civic circles — is how can we fix the T faster? What would it take? Where will the money come from?
I do sense that our leaders are ready to fix our transportation system — but it’s not because of the plight of Red Line riders like me. It’s because the roads are so clogged that the only way to relieve congestion is to convince more drivers to get out of their cars and onto public transit.
The way to do that is to create a world-class transit system — one so good that people don’t hesitate to rely on it. That will take bold thinking and billions of dollars. If Beacon Hill once again takes a pass on making tough decisions, we’re going to be mired in gridlock for years to come.