Fifty years ago, American ingenuity landed man on the moon. Here in Boston, we’ll settle for the Red Line running on time.
Believe it or not, beleaguered riders, the MBTA is making progress on getting the Red Line back to normal. Now don’t get too excited. Please keep expectations low. You’ll still need to build an extra 20 minutes into your commute. And there's no timetable for when the operation will be back to the way it was.
As all Red Line commuters know, life has not been the same since the June 11 derailment near the JFK/UMass Station that damaged three bungalows housing signaling equipment. The MBTA has had to resort to what almost seems like something from the 1800s: a system of manual signals and switching, complete with humans holding orange flags and pulling levers on the tracks.
The result: sputtering service and crowded conditions.
I have all but abandoned the Red Line, opting to drive, Uber, or work from home when I can. But it’s not a sustainable routine, so I dared to ask what the MBTA has been doing to fix the Red Line. Here’s some of what I found out.
What kind of progress has the MBTA made on the Red Line?
The upshot: 21 of 29 signals and 11 of 19 switches are back to being remotely controlled by the operations control center. Before, workers were pulling switches by the tracks.
Wait, there’s more: The MBTA is able to add eight trains when needed.
What, eight trains? That seems a lot of additional service.
“Let me clarify,” MBTA general manager Steve Poftak tells me.
The T has scheduled 24 trains (each train has six cars) during rush hour on the Red Line “trunk” from Alewife to JFK. That’s a frequency of 10 trains per hour through Park Street, meaning customers wait about six minutes for the next train.
According to Poftak, three additional trains have also been positioned at the ends of the system — Ashmont, Braintree, Alewife — to make one-way trips during the peak of morning and evening rush hours to add more capacity.
“We’re not back to full service,” he adds, but “it’s definitely an improvement from previous weeks.”
How much better? Trips from South Station to Braintree, for example, can be completed in 45 minutes compared with 55 minutes. Normal, in case everyone has forgotten, is about 30 minutes.
Since the derailment, Red Line ridership has been off, yet why are trains and platforms so packed?
The T typically runs 28 Red Line trains during peak periods allowing for 4½-minute wait times in the trunk.
Why are there are fewer trains and reduced trips?
Blame it on manual signaling. The method requires more time to move trains from station to station. Train speeds are slower; instead of a maximum of 40 mph, the top speed is 25 mph. One train can’t move until the next train moves from its station.
Manual signaling has been in effect between Broadway and Fields Corner on the Ashmont branch, and between Broadway and North Quincy on the Braintree branch.
Before the derailment, T officials in the downtown Boston control center received electronic signals to monitor the trains. Now it involves manual and visual workarounds between officials on the platforms, drivers on the train, and dispatchers at the center.
That’s why you see all these T officials armed with walkie talkies hoisting flags on the tracks or platforms. “It’s a labor intensive effort,” says Norman Michaud, assistant general manager of rail operations.
The T has used manual signaling before but not to this extent. “This is an extraordinary event,” adds Michaud. “In my 27 years at the MBTA, I’ve never seen anything like this.”
What’s up with the new countdown clocks? Sometimes we’re told “5 stops” until the next train. What does that mean?
Typically, the T measures wait times in minutes, but since the derailment, it has been difficult to get real-time data on the Red Line. T officials realized that when they posted wait times beyond 8 minutes, accuracy dramatically diminished.
What the T does know for sure is how many stops away the next train is. So if your train is at least 8 minutes away, that’s when the T measures by stops instead of minutes.
Does the Red Line also have an air conditioning problem? There are plenty of tweets on the subject.
“I don’t have any evidence of a trend,” says Poftak. “However, as it gets hotter and trips have obviously gotten longer from regular service, people’s discomfort becomes more acute if the AC is not working.”
Poftak’s advice: Tweet @MBTA with the four-digit code of your train car. The T will fix the AC — or not, judging by this recent tweet from @NancyJB88: “Train 1724 need AC ... like yesterday. Thanks. @MBTA Useless. #redline”
Remind us when the shiny new Red Line cars go into service. Riders need something to look forward to.
A pilot car will be on the rails this summer, and the first train will be in operation by early summer 2020. There will be a period during which the Red Line uses both old and new fleets. The entire Red Line will have all new trains — that’s 252 cars — by 2023.
Has the MBTA thought about a customer appreciation day? Ride the T for free, or cookies, or something.
“Some of these ideas are interesting but they’re not necessarily practical,” says Poftak. “A lot of our customers use monthly or weekly passes. A free fare day doesn’t necessarily make sense.”
Still, Poftak says he is open to “an appropriate gesture to thank all of our customers for their patience.”
Here’s the first suggestion: a commitment from Beacon Hill to make a reliable MBTA our moonshot by the end of the next decade.
Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.