One Story, Two Lessons

How the Red Line came off the tracks and how commuters and the MBTA dealt with it.

Last week on 22 December around 16:00, immediately before the evening commute, a train set of 01800 series Red Line cars (as reported by the Boston Globe) began heading southbound from the Alewife terminal. Initial sources, including a conductor I had asked at the Harvard platform that night, noted that the derailment actually happened as the train passing over a set of points (the crossover switch) just yards south of the station. This, with the cracked wheel, brings to mind the fatal accident that happened in Eschede, Germany in 1998 with the high-speed Inter City Express. The Boston Globe placed the derailment at just a few feet out of the station, before the crossover switch.

Nonetheless, the northernmost crossover tracks were rendered unusable and trains were forced to terminate at Harvard since the next set of crossover tracks are located just yards south of Harvard station. This led to one incredibly slow rush hour commute for two reasons: the MBTA was not using Harvard station as it should have and buses can hardly replace the throughput of 6 full Red Line cars, the longest and widest cars in the system, running on its own right of way every 9 minutes (ideally) through each station.

Reduced Throughput at Harvard

The night of the incident, the MBTA was not only using just the southbound platform for loading and unloading of passengers, it had no form of crowd control to expedite the process of loading and unloading the trains. This meant people waiting to load the trains were slowing the egress of passengers on the trains and holding trains at the platforms longer than necessary – and we all know how I feel about door blockers and generally those who stand to hold trains at stations.

As far as only using the southbound platform, this meant slower service and longer delays because of how block signaling works and the simple fact that doing so reduces the throughput of trains through the station. Let’s not forget that Harvard station itself used to be the northernmost terminal for the Red Line up until the extension nearly three decades ago. The MBTA has not yet released why they were not utilizing both northbound and southbound platforms – it is unlikely they were reserving the northbound platform for moving equipment to and from Alewife.

Reduced Throughput with Shuttles

If there’s one thing transit advocates have been trying to repeatedly voice to the powers that be, it’s that buses can never replace the capacity and timeliness of heavy rail transit. Now, ‘timeliness’ may not be a word Bostonians have come to associate with any of the subway lines operated by the MBTA, but it’s certainly something many people who normally ride the Red Line should have noticed. Shuttle buses that replaced Red Line service were paralyzed by the normally heavy traffic on Massachusetts Ave turned absurd from the number of people who called spouses and friends to pick them up at Harvard and the added traffic from several shuttle buses occupying most of one lane.

Transit-progressive cities like New York and Portland have begun deployment of specially dedicated bus-only lanes, often opting to redesignate a lane of traffic or parking as well as redesigning the boulevard with pedestrian amenities and bump-outs [pdf] for bus stops if preserving parking lanes. Doing so to Mass Ave may not be practical if the parking lane is reserved, but there are arguments for maintaining parking lanes as a means of insulating pedestrians from otherwise harmful traffic, much like the trees that used to line boulevards before we threw out the urban road design vocabulary to turn everything into a high-speed thoroughfare (read: highway).

In any case, the lesson is that buses can’t replace trains, especially if they’re sharing the road with auto traffic. With that, I’d like to treat you to a rare ‘extension’ of the Silver Line into Somerville:

Commuter Response and MBTA Communications

Based on the NECN news report on the derailment, riders mostly took the whole thing in stride, but as I’ve come to know Bostonians, they’re much more likely to complain quite rabidly in the digital space of the interwebs. On many news pages and on Twitter, there was a severe backlash and outrage by riders. Many claimed the MBTA should step up its inspections and maintenance operations to prevent such things as the Green Line derailment that happened just weeks before.

Admittedly, some of this chatter comes without the transit common sense that comes with years of railfanning and understanding train operations – some wheel and track failures are near impossible to detect before failure and it is impractical to inspect a train while it is in service – this last incident was next to impossible to prevent. That isn’t to say that the MBTA shouldn’t step up their maintenance practices and do what they can to raise awareness of the situation at hand: we have a crumbling system, there are billions of dollars of stimulus infrastructure money floating around, Obama and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood have stated their support for transit, but the oldest transit agencies in the country aren’t getting the money they need to both keep it operating and keep the trains on the tracks – roads by far are getting most of the stimulus money despite the fact that transit carries millions more riders each day and by far has a much safer running record as well as a higher return on investment in terms of throughput, traffic relief, and longevity of components.

Now, more than ever, is a time to ask more of our transit agency and even more of the Commonwealth’s political leaders because not only is transit on the line, but so are our lives.


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