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opinion | Robin Washington

On the T, one size doesn’t fit all

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/file 2012/Globe Staff

With 46-year-old trains repeatedly breaking down on the tracks during Snowmageddon, some Red Line riders have been catching the blues.

Or wishing they could.

“One of my friends was wondering about using extra cars from the Blue Line when the weather is terrible,” said Red Line rider Nicky McCatty of Brookline. “I think that’s a great idea.”

With brand-new Blue Line trains delivered as recently as 2009, it sure sounds like one. McCatty, who also uses the Green Line, isn’t talking about the trolleys; he knows they wouldn’t fit on the other lines. But Red, Blue, and Orange line cars are all pretty much the same shape, the main difference being Blue Line cars are shorter (in order to navigate the sharp turnaround at Bowdoin Street.)


Sure, the colors would be confusing and the smaller cars may mean standing room only, but the key word is emergency.

“For an emergency situation or crazy rush hour, I don’t think riders would complain too much if they had shorter cars for a while,” said Robyn Sears, who commutes from Sharon to Harvard Square via the Red Line and commuter rail, an hour-and-a-half trip lately. “They ran four-car trains on the lines for years.”

Blue Line cars are 48 feet long, versus 65 feet for the Orange and 69 for the Red. Yet the incompatibility isn’t a matter of feet — it’s inches. Each line’s station height is different: On the Blue, it’s 3 feet 5 ½ inches from the rails to the platform. On the Orange, 3 feet 9 inches, and 4 feet 1 inch on the Red.

Worse, in a homage to the London Underground’s “Mind the gap,” the width of the train cars also varies — from 9 feet 3 inches on both the Blue and Orange lines to 10 feet 3 inches on the Red. That means if an Orange Line train pulls into JFK/UMass, you’ll have to jump over a chasm four inches higher and a half-foot wider.


Of more concern than what could have happened during the storm, the inconsistency severely affects a $566.6 million order for new trains. Delivery of 152 Orange Line cars is scheduled to begin in the winter of 2018. More desperately needed are 132 Red Line cars, not slated for delivery until fall 2019.

So why don’t the cars match? It’s because each line has a different history. Some of the subways began more than a century ago as trolley tunnels or narrow passageways for wooden vehicles. As they evolved, the dimensions remained the same, even with a near total renovation of the Orange Line in the 1980s and major rehabs along the Blue this decade.

The MBTA isn’t alone. Philadelphia, London, and New York have lines that aren’t interchangeable, unlike newer systems built from the ground up in Washington, D.C., and Atlanta with one-size-fits-all cars.

Surprisingly, one of the oldest systems — Chicago’s — set the standard for compatibility more than 120 years ago, when it opened for the 1893 World’s Fair.

“Yes. All CTA rail cars can run on any CTA rail line,” Chicago Transit Authority spokeswoman Ibis Antongiorgi confirmed in an e-mail.

As in Boston, Chicago’s El lines were once separate companies and fierce competitors. But they all wanted to serve downtown and agreed on sharing a “Union Loop” that demanded compatibility and defines the area today.

“New cars purchased by the CTA are expected to run on all of our rail lines,” Antongiorgi continued, adding it’s not just for emergencies or convenience, but the bottom line. “Manufacturers offer better pricing on larger car procurements.”

For Boston, incompatibility means a higher price tag — like asking someone to make a Hummer and then retool for a Prius.

To keep costs low, T officials said, specs for the Red and Orange line car manufacturer included as many consistencies as possible, such as air conditioning units, doors, wheel assemblies, and motors. But it still means different assembly lines, and as the Orange Line vehicles come in, the Red Line will have to wait.


No sweat. Red Line riders are used to that.

Robin Washington is a journalist who writes about transportation. He may be reached at robin@robinwashington.com. Follow him on Twitter @robinbirk.