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Step inside the oldest cars still operating on the MBTA

The historic Mattapan trolleys were designed during the Great Depression and travel a short, unusual route.

Boston, MA - 03/08/16 - A trolley passes a mural on the Neponset River Greenway, which runs alongside much of the route of the Mattapan Ashmont High Speed Trolley Line. Numerous murals adorn the way. Lane Turner/Globe Staff Section: MAG Reporter: in caps Slug:
Lane Turner/Globe staff

The trolleys that rolled out of Worcester’s Pullman-Standard factory in 1944 and 1945 are still rolling, seven decades later, along Boston’s most scenic commute. Traveling from Ashmont Station in Dorchester to Mattapan, they cross through Milton woods frequented by deer, coyotes, and all manner of birds. The 2.6-mile journey, cutting across Cedar Grove Cemetery and running parallel to the colorful murals of the Neponset River Greenway, is over in 10 minutes.

The cars of the Mattapan-Ashmont high-speed line — named not for blazing speed, but for the dedicated right-of-way intersected only twice by city streets — have a history that dates back even further than their seven decades of service, says transportation historian Bradley H. Clarke. They were designed early in the Great Depression by the Electric Railway Presidents Conference Committee, a group formed to create trolleys that would serve cities across the nation. Of the 346 PCC cars originally purchased for various Boston lines, 10 are left, all of them plying this route. “They are the oldest cars in the entire MBTA system,” Clarke says.

Earlier this year, passengers and fans feared the MBTA would replace the expensive-to-maintain trolleys with buses, but a $3.7 million line item approved in June will keep them running. A 1990s refurbishment brought new seats and updated control and fare-collection systems. The cars are heated and air conditioned now as well. But there’s no mistaking their prewar design aesthetic — passengers snapping souvenir photos are a common sight — or their antique feel.

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“They’re all individual,” says one driver, patting the controls of car number 3260. “Some of them can hit 40 miles an hour, but this one can only go 25. And you feel every little bump.”

Lane Turner is a member of the Globe staff. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.