ABOARD THE RED LINE — I was starting to think Charlie Baker, at 6-foot, 6 inches, was simply too tall to ride the T. Maybe that’s why he refuses to recharge his CharlieCard to be with us commoner commuters.
No, Baker isn’t too tall. In fact, he can comfortably fit — even stand — on the train. I know because I saw it with my own eyes. There he was Monday morning, leaving behind his driver and his state-issued SUV, to ride the MBTA’s most beleaguered route: the Red Line.
Baker has been on the T before as a private citizen, but never as governor. Just the mere sight of Baker on the Park Street platform was Twitter-worthy. Would he actually ride the T?
Indeed, he did. At 8:40 a.m., he stepped onto on a Braintree-bound train for a 28-minute commute to attend the ribbon-cutting for the newly renovated Wollaston Station in Quincy. It opened in August after being shuttered for 20 months for a $36 million upgrade that included new elevators and escalators, all of which make the Red Line fully accessible.
Arriving by train would be a way to mark it as a special occasion. “It’s a big deal for the T and a big deal for the Red Line,” Baker explained.
The governor’s underground adventure was also a plug for short-term pain. He wants the public to understand that subway closures on weekends — and, at times, for longer stretches — will help the T get fixed faster. On Saturday, Baker toured the construction on the Orange Line, parts of which will close on weekends to accelerate the upgrades.
“You’re going to see us pursue as much of this type of thing as we possibly can do without being too disruptive,” Baker said. “The opportunity to really move the needle on programming and modernization is huge.”
The hue and cry for Baker to ride the T began early in his first term, after the epic MBTA meltdown in the winter of 2015. I might have led the charge, with a front-page column reminding everyone how Michael Dukakis, when he was the governor, commuted via the Green Line from Brookline to Beacon Hill.
Dukakis told me that riding the T made him acutely aware of the system’s problems, and he would make sure repairs got done. Plus having the boss routinely ride the trains added pressure to make sure they ran on time.
Calls for Baker to take the T grew louder after the June 11 derailment of a Red Line train damaged the signal system. Service is not slated to return to normal until October, and riders have been told to expect delays of up to 20 minutes.
Still, Baker resisted swiping his CharlieCard, as if to tell critics “I don’t need to ride the T to fix it.” He had a perfect photo-op in August after christening a set of gleaming new Orange Line cars at Wellington Station. T time? Nope, he slipped into an automobile because of scheduling reasons.
That’s why Monday’s trip turned heads, as Baker stepped onto a train and stretched his arm to grip the upper rail, just like the transit regulars.
“I saw him when the doors closed. ‘Is that Charlie Baker? That can’t be,’ ” said commuter Amanda Bohne, who was on the same train. “My second thought, after being pleasantly surprised: ‘Of course, the T is running just fine today.’ ”
Bohne, a tech executive who works in the Fort Point Channel neighborhood, said she appreciated Baker’s using public transit and urged him to find creative ways to obtain more funding.
“We really need a reliable transportation system to be able to attract and retain great talent here,” she said. “Investing in the T is more important now than ever before.”
As a private citizen, Baker was a Red Line regular in the late 1970s, when he was an undergraduate at Harvard, and later when he worked at the Cambridge venture capital firm General Catalyst. Baker also relied on the commuter rail to get from his Swampscott home to Boston when he worked for governors Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci in the early ’90s.
When he ran for office in 2014, transportation wasn’t a priority, but it quickly became one in the winter of 2015, and again this year, with a congestion report on how to reduce traffic. In between, Baker embarked on a historic $8 billion, five-year capital plan for the T and proposed an $18 billion transportation bond bill.
Still, this summer has been a particularly bad one for the MBTA, with power outages, fires, and accidents that have plagued people’s commutes. Our ride Monday morning was uneventful, except when the train lingered at JFK/UMass Station.
Turning to Baker, I decided to give him a pop quiz: “Do you know why we are sitting here?”
“I do know why,” the governor said. “I saw the signal boxes myself.”
Since the derailment, parts of the Red Line have required the use of manual and visual signals, which causes delays because a train has to wait for the go-ahead before moving to the next station.
As our train’s doors finally shut to leave the station, Baker brushed off the inconvenience: “It wasn’t too bad.”
I just groaned, channeling Red Line riders everywhere who have endured delay-ridden commutes all summer long.
I asked Baker if he would ride the T again. He said he would, but it’s not easy because “I can’t ever ride it by myself.” He glanced at his entourage, who included Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, MBTA general manager Steve Poftak, two press aides, and two plainclothes state troopers.
It shouldn’t be news that our governor takes the T, but here we are. Still, as Dukakis — who at 85 remains an avid T rider — put it: “Look, this is progress, don’t you think?”
Better late than never. Let’s hope this is the beginning of a new commute for Governor Baker.