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For Red Line commutes, a roll of the dice and branch determine timing

Passengers rode on the MBTA Red Line from Ashmont Station during morning rush hour in Boston on July 25.Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe

This is what rapid transit should be: a 20-minute ride during the morning rush, six miles and eight stops from Alewife to downtown Boston.

By the end, the train is uncomfortably crowded, but moving briskly between stations without interruption.

But the other end of the line is often a different story. Braintree and Ashmont riders don’t know from one day to the next, or even from hour to hour, whether the commute will be quick and uneventful, or a long ordeal with lengthy stops along the way.

Passengers often receive no indication of how long the wait will last and don’t know how late they will be for work.


The June 11 derailment of a Red Line train that severely damaged signaling equipment has effectively separated the T’s most heavily traveled subway line into two different worlds: The Alewife side has run relatively on time, while the southern side fluctuates maddeningly.

“This is either going to be a 35-minute ride or an hour-and-a-half ride,” Jeremy Korb said of his expectation boarding in Braintree every day. “Let’s see what dice we’re rolling today.”

On a single day in late July, the Globe followed Korb and several other riders on all three branches of the Red Line to compare their morning commutes. The trip from Braintree to Downtown Crossing that Thursday morning was somewhere between nightmare and normal: 47 mostly unremarkable minutes.

A rider made her way down the escalator at Alewife Station.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

That’s still quite a bit longer than the usual commute before the derailment, but not nearly as bad as the hour-plus ordeals many Braintree riders say they have endured in recent weeks.

It was even better on the Ashmont line that morning: about 25 minutes to Downtown Crossing.

Those times reflect repairs the MBTA has made since the derailment, which heavily damaged three sheds outside the JFK/UMass Station containing electronics for the signaling system. For weeks, the T has run trains at lower speeds and used workers to manually direct traffic, prompting lengthy delays while drivers wait for clearance to move forward.


The T said the repairs and addition of several trains during rush hour have reduced the longer commutes by 10 minutes, and it expects additional repairs to cut another five minutes off by mid-August. The agency said recently that it is now “targeting” October to finish the repair work and return to normal service.

But those flashes of the old, semi-reliable service are like a tease, with the T seemingly unable to put together a run of trains that Red Line riders can consistently rely on. An analysis of MBTA data shows a pattern of improving times on both the Braintree and Ashmont branches since the June 11 derailment, followed by persistent relapses of slow trips or long waits.

For example, an hour before Korb arrived at Braintree that Thursday morning, there was nearly a 25-minute gap between trains leaving the station, according to MBTA data; the following week there were waits of 20 minutes or longer at both Braintree and Ashmont in the middle of the morning rush hour. An Ashmont train that took 25 minutes to get to Downtown Crossing one morning took 35 minutes a week later.

SOURCE: MBTA. There is no travel time data on days when MBTA ran shuttle buses. Times are also missing for some daily trips because of issues with track circuits and data processing.SAURABH DATAR/GLOBE STAFF

The service seems even more erratic after rush hour, with midday waits of 20 minutes or more not uncommon, according to MBTA data.

“It’s an added stress because you don’t want to think about what time you’re going to get into work,” said Dabota Wilcox, an architect who takes a bus to the Ashmont Station, and then another from South Station, to work every morning. Any disruptions on the Red Line can unravel her plans for the day.


“I like to imagine I rely on the public transportation to be efficient and get me there on time,” she said. “Right now, it’s just the situation you have to deal with.”

Wilcox began her commute around 7 a.m., boarding the 240 bus in Randolph and arriving at the Ashmont Station a little before 8. The train sat at the station for about five minutes before whirring into life and rumbling forward. Before the derailment, she said, trains would whiz through Ashmont.

Passengers on train that originated from Ashmont exited the MBTA Red Line at Downtown Crossing.Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe

At one point she glanced up at the station’s countdown clock, which said the next train was due sometime between nine and 16 minutes.

“It’s just a waste of time,” she said with a sigh.

By Fields Corner, the standing room was all claimed, and Wilcox reflexively tucked in her legs. A towering man holding a large iced coffee inadvertently stepped on her feet as he braced himself against the moving train.

“Sorry,” he muttered.

On slow mornings, Wilcox often sends a text to work: “I’m late. The train’s not running. Sorry, I’ll be there when I get in.” Wilcox said her supervisors are sympathetic; most of her colleagues also commute on the T.


There was no need for a text that morning. Once the train barreled into South Station, Wilcox was through the crowds, heading for the 7 bus and the last leg into the office, where she arrived, as usual, tired from the ordeal.

Over on the Braintree branch, Saba Ghaffar settled into a seat a little after 8 a.m. and prepped for the uncertain journey, queuing up music on her phone. It used to take 30 minutes to get to her job at a law firm near South Station; now it’s 45 minutes or longer, with trains frequently stopping along the tracks for minutes at a time.

Riders started their commutes in Braintree. David L Ryan/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

“I would have thought it would take maybe a week or two to fix it,” the 27-year-old from Randolph said. “I don’t know what’s taking so long.”

Korb, sitting across from Ghaffar throughout the ride, said his commute can now take more than an hour.

“I just wake up earlier,” he said, sipping coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts. “When I get up, the morning is based off of basically how long it took for me to get to work the day prior, so it’s constantly evolving.”

As the train approached JFK , the site of the derailment and now frequent lengthy stops, Korb braced for the announcement that would determine the rest of his commute.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I apologize for the delay,” a T worker said over the loudspeaker. “We’re waiting for the train in front of us to depart from JFK, so the dispatchers will give us permission to proceed. This is the area where we have all the signal problems due to that derailment last month.”


Korb nodded grimly. “It’s like, ‘Here we go again.’ This has become part of it now.”

He and his fellow passengers caught a break that morning: The train stopped for just five minutes. Some days, Korb said, it’s more like 15.

Meanwhile, at Davis Square, 26-year-old Sammi Bure boarded an inbound train for what turned out to be a quick ride to Kendall — about a dozen minutes.

Indeed, the Alewife side has largely remained on schedule since the derailment. The MBTA sets a benchmark of 19 minutes for a ride from Davis to Downtown Crossing during rush hour; in recent weeks, the trips averaged 18 minutes, according to a Globe analysis of MBTA data.

Better yet, for Bure, was that the train that pulled into Davis still had a few seats open; oftentimes, the cars are so crowded she has to let a train or two go by before one has room.

“By the time I get to Davis, I sometimes still have to wait 10, 15 minutes for the first T to get there,” Bure said. “It’s more frequent at night from Kendall coming back to Davis that I’ll have to wait maybe even two trains, because they’re so packed.”

Same, too, on the Braintree and Ashmont branches.

“As bad as it sounds going in, for me the experience is always worse when I’m coming back,” said Wilcox, the Ashmont commuter. “The delays are even more. The trains are even more crowded.”

This has led to some unwelcome changes in routine for Wilcox. She often finds herself shopping for essentials and grabbing a quick dinner downtown at places such as Chipotle if she expects a long journey home and a late arrival.

“It’s annoying because your diet is fast food and you’re very inconvenienced by the train,” Wilcox says. “I wish I could be home to cook dinner – it’d be better.”

The MBTA said riders should expect to see “incremental” improvements in service as it continues to bring more damaged equipment back online, and add more trains during rush hour.

It’s not gone unnoticed. As she joined the crush of people disembarking at South Station, Ghaffer threw a quick assessment of her trip in from Braintree that morning.

“Not bad — today.”

Kellen Browning can be reached at kellen.browning@globe.com, or on Twitter at @kellen_browning. Alison Kuznitz can be reached at alison.kuznitz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AlisonKuznitz. Diamond Naga Siu can be reached at diamondnaga.siu@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @diamondnagasiu