As a native of China living in Cambridge, Michael Zhang on Monday evening attempted to do what he often does: Ride the Red Line across the Charles River and back for a taste of home in Chinatown. It never occurred to him that the subway system would shut down for the night during dinner time.
“Oh no!” Zhang said, after the automatic gates at South Station failed to swing open when he tapped his CharlieCard, and a bystander told him the system had been shuttered at 7 p.m. “I’m stuck here.”
It was one of many scenes of surprise and frustration, and occasionally hope, that played out across South Station Monday evening as MBTA riders scrambled to get home, waited for the last train out, or discovered the hard way that officials had made the rare decision to shut down subway, trolley, commuter rail, and most bus service at 7 — news quickly followed by the decision to keep that service closed until at least Wednesday morning.
Upstairs in the soaring rail terminal, a massive crowd during the evening rush had stared up at a departures display board — tantalizingly framed by tourism billboards advertising the sunny Florida Keys — dotted with the words “Delayed” and “Cancelled.”
“I am waiting for the 4:20 Kingston train. It’s now 5:46 and it is not even on the board anymore,” said Matty Roumacher, a 26-year-old customer service rep at a downtown security-system firm.
She had just approached a commuter-rail employee but learned no more than what the board said — her train had been canceled, but the next Kingston train, a delayed 5:38 p.m. departure, would eventually roll in and then depart for the South Shore.
“They say when it comes in they’ll announce it, which is not too much to go on,” said Roumacher, who had left work early to catch the train. Though no announcement had been made over the speakers, she had learned on her smartphone that there would be no service Tuesday.
Roumacher was not sure what she would do — without getting to work she might not get paid, but without a train she had little chance of getting to work. “TBD,” she said. “It’s just frustrating.”
On the far side of the marbled hall, Colin Spillane quickly packed up the kiosk where he was selling laser-cut greeting cards for lovepop, a Cambridge start-up whose cards open into intricate three-dimensional pop-ups. He had planned to stay until 7:30 p.m., but now he wanted to make sure he could catch the Red Line out.
‘I’ve got to get home,” said Spillane, 23, whose sales on Tuesday would be curbed without any commuters at South Station. He had been observing life there each day this month.
“Today people are definitely more frustrated,” he said, packing up the last of his cards.
Downstairs in the subway station, the computerized public-address system occasionally croaked an announcement that service would end at 7, while a similar message flashed on the LED signs that double as next-train countdown clocks.
Those signs betrayed the effects of the storm: “Alewife 20+ min,” “Ashmont 20+ min” — and, soon, Alewife wiped off the board altogether. Those trains still ran, but the system gave up forecasting what time they would arrive.
The T built in a little post-7 p.m. cushion, but at 7:13 an inspector bellowed something not usually heard until after midnight: “OK, we’re locking up,” he said, and began to close the doors to the street, though the tunnel to the commuter-rail terminal remained open.
As beleaguered riders scrambled toward the gates — “Is it still running?” — customer-service reps beckoned them to move quickly.
“Hurry up! Come on,” they said. “Let’s go. There’s only a couple more trains.”
At 7:29, Zhang — who said he has a PhD in nanomedical engineering and imports tea from his native Fujian — thought he was out of luck.
“I never expected to be trapped on the Red Line,” he said. “It’s always the most convenient way to go back to Harvard. Right now I don’t know how to go back.”
Upstairs, cabs waited, at several times the price of a subway ride, but Zhang found a stroke of luck. He tried again, and the gate opened. Down below, one last Red Line train waited to head out toward Alewife.
Up in the rail terminal now, the crowd had dwindled to a few dozen, the last commuter trains having departed on all but two lines, with employees promising that those trains, too, would soon depart. That would leave only Amtrak, which still had trains bound to and from Boston even with the MBTA shut down — in theory, at least.
“Supposed to be here at 5:15 and now it’s 8 o’clock,” said Husein Mustedanagic, shaking his head. The driver for North Shore Car Service had arrived at 4:40 to meet a passenger coming in from Washington, D.C., on an Amtrak train.
With his car idling alongside South Station, Mustedanagic had been coming in periodically to check the arrival board, but still that train was delayed. Now he dialed a nearby restaurant, ordering chicken-friend rice -- not for his unseen passenger, who remained somewhere south of Boston on the snow-clogged rails, but for himself, approaching 3 1/2 hours and still waiting.
“I’m starving,” he said.