Now arriving on the Mattapan trolley line: real-time countdown clocks

The MBTA plans to turn on digital countdown clocks at seven of the Mattapan line’s eight stops later this month.
The MBTA plans to have digital countdown clocks in use at seven of the Mattapan line’s eight stops by later this month.

Passengers who rely on the aging Mattapan High Speed Line for their daily commute will no longer need to stand idly along the tracks and wonder with extreme patience whether their ride is on its way.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority announced Monday that all of the trolleys, which date back to the 1940s, have been outfitted with on-board tracking technology, allowing riders to pinpoint their precise location using smartphone apps.

And by later this month, the MBTA plans to turn on digital countdown clocks at seven of the Mattapan line’s eight stops, displaying vehicle arrival times. Three of the signs are already up and running.


“For people using the Mattapan line, they can time their trips and not wait on the platform, and get there right when the train gets there,” said David Block-Schachter, chief technology officer for the MBTA. “Just seeing how long it’s going to be makes people feel like their wait is shorter.”

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Considered Boston’s most scenic commute — Block-Schachter said it’s the only light rail line in the country that passes through a cemetery — the Mattapan trolleys have been rumbling along the tracks for decades.

The service brings riders from Ashmont Station in Dorchester to Mattapan, a 2.6-mile route that typically takes about 12 minutes.

The line provides more than 4,600 rides during the week and runs about every five minutes during rush hour. The vehicles are the oldest cars in the entire MBTA system, officials said.

In February, the MBTA pledged to invest $7.9 million to preserve the existing trolley cars and give them an overhaul.


The rollout of real-time tracking and countdown clocks marks somewhat of a milestone for the MBTA and puts the trolley service in line with the agency’s other transit operations.

The T began displaying train arrival times on digital signs at the Red, Orange, Blue, and Green Line stations beginning in 2012. Before the Mattapan line, the Green Line was the most recent train service to offer the real-time notifications.

Block-Schachter said with five years of using the countdown clocks under the T’s belt, the transit agency is working to improve the software that relays the real-time service information.

“Think about this like an upgrade from one operating system to another operating system. It does the same thing, but the new system allows you to take advantage of all sorts of things and build new features on top of it,” he said. “What that really means is that we can push out new features a whole lot more quickly, and we’re able to give people the best information as soon as we know it.”

Steve Annear can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.