MBTA Blocking TPM

I’ve been happy to see WiFi appearing on nearly every MBTA commuter rail car recently. I was less happy to see this:



I guess I’ll have to wait until I get home to find out why this bothered Steve so much.

Oddly, the MBTA’s web filter also blocked access to my WordPress editor, but unlike the TPM block, I could select “yes, I really want to do this” to get here.

I’ve never understood why web filters so often block these sorts of sites on apparently generic settings. “General News/Blogs/Wikis” are dangerous? Reputation “neutral”? I’d be surprised if anyone at the T actually did this on purpose, but I suppose it would fit the general pattern of operational incompetence.

Update: the problem appears to be real.

MBTA On Time

After my many philippics against the MBTA, I should give the T credit for being nearly 100% on time this week (at least within five to ten minutes of target), so much so that I am often sprinting to catch the train because I had gotten used to it being late.  That the trains are only half-full due to people’s vacations must be related. So maybe the long-term solution is to alienate enough riders that they leave the system?

[Tags]MBTA, Boston[/Tags]

MBTA Followup

This Universal Hub thread and Boston Globe article sum up my several MBTA complaint postings nicely (1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11). The “work to rule” comments are particularly interesting.

Okay, if I’ve really written twelve entries on this topic, I’m done for now.

[Tags]MBTA, Boston[/Tags]

Is the MBTA killing its passengers?

A few days ago, I asked, is the MBTA killing itself? Now I’m wondering if it’s actually killing its passengers.

The following is cut-and-pasted from my submission to the MBTA “write to the top” program for commuter rail:

My wife boarded the Needham Train in Roslindale this morning (around 10am) with a carriage for our newborn baby. The only place you can board the train in Roslindale with a carriage is the last car which has a ramp. When the train arrived at Back Bay station (where she intended to get off), there was no way to exit the train from the back car, because the train didn’t pull far enough into the station, so there was only a wall at her exit. The carriage was too big to fit through the door to pass between cars (which I understand is discouraged while moving anyway). She pressed the emergency call button three times (and heard the emergency call announcement) but was  ignored by the conductors. She was unable to get off and thus ended up at South Station, two miles from her destination. The same problem would occur for someone in a wheelchair. This seems like a major ADA violation and a safety concern — how can you ignore the emergency call button pressed three times?

Okay, I’ve probably had enough hating on the MBTA for one month. What is wrong with these people, though?

[Tags]MBTA, Boston, ADA[/Tags]

Is the MBTA Killing Itself?

As I stand in a near cattle-car packed South Station, waiting while no trains arrive and no trains depart (“signal difficulties”), I wonder if forces are conspiring to make MBTA service so poor that it enters a death spiral of poor reputation for reliability, increasing fares, lower ridership, less revenue, etc.. One or two long delays or canceled trains in a short time span can be ignored, but after a while it may become impossible for the T to recover the lost goodwill. There’s a saying in trademark law, “once you’ve lost a customer, they’re often gone forever.”

Are signal difficulties for real, by the way?

More on this topic: this excellent op-ed in the Globe about the importance of mass transit to the local economy and life sciences in particular; contrast with this news about what the T plans as its next big project (hint: “T TV”).

Not much good news here, either.

Is anyone listening?

[Tags]MBTA, Boston, Mass Transit[/Tags]

MBTA Responds

To follow up on yesterday’s MBTA philippic, I received a response from the T’s customer service regarding my complaints. Although it doesn’t give me hope that things will improve, it’s nice that they have at least hired someone to write personalized, polished replies. At least they can do that right:

Dear Mr. Kessel,

Thank you for your email concerning service on the Needham Line.

The past couple of months have been difficult for our passengers, and I want you to know we are very sorry for the inconveniences this has been causing. The causes of these delays have ranged from signal and mechanical issues to long stops boarding passengers at stations, and even track work on other lines.

I know that it may seem odd that trains on other lines can impact your trains, but I assure you that is true. The Franklin, Needham, Providence, and Stoughton lines, as well as Amtrak all share the rail between Hyde Park and Boston. All it takes is one delayed train in this area to cause a cascading effect that delays other lines. There’s also the fact that trains may come in from one line to go out as another. For example, a train on the Worcester Line comes to Boston, and either the train set, or the crew (sometimes both) head out as an outbound Needham train. If the inbound is late from Worcester, then the outbound Needham will be late, which also means that its “turn,” the next inbound, will be delayed.

In response to your comment about the doors not all being opened, even with a full compliment of conductors, crews are not able to staff every door, and especially at ground level stations we want to ensure that all customers are able to board and detrain safely. This is why conductors do not open all doors to the train.

I contacted our Mechanical Department, asking that the PA system on train 625 be checked out to make sure everything is working properly.

Please know that delays in service are not something that we take lightly, and all departments are committed to working together to ensure that our customers receive timely, safe, and reliable service.

Once again, I am sorry for the inconvenience this has caused you. Thank you for writing.


Linda Dillon
MBCR Customer Service Manager

MBTA Out of Order

Steve points out that the T has been falling apart lately. My own experience gives it a solid D minus as well.

Over the three years I’ve lived in Roslindale, I’ve been quite satisfied with the commuter rail. Unlike other lines (e.g., Worcester), the Needham Heights line does not share tracks with other carriers, and thus does not regularly get tens of minutes off schedule waiting for freight or other traffic to pass. (Why freight gets priority over passengers is a question for another day.) I live about 90 seconds walk from the commuter rail station, and I could calibrate my departure to be within one minute of the train every time.

Over the past few months, however, it has been a steady downhill slide. None of these complaints are novel, but I’ll enumerate them anyway: Trains have been canceled without notice (you didn’t really need to be at work by 9am, did you?). Nearly every train is late — I’ve started thinking of the 8:23am as the “8:30” because it hasn’t arrived before that time since early in the summer. Many trains are missing cars, so the remaining cars end up being standing-room only. Almost every day the train needs to wait for a free track at South Station, no matter which train I’m on. (I’ve never understood why this happens with 12 tracks, many of them empty.) Trains are often short conductors, which means not all the doors open at stops, which further exacerbates delay. And my personal favorite complaint: the PA system is often so loud that passengers have to cover their ears. Except when it’s broken and you can’t hear any announcements.

I hate to kvetch, but there must be something wrong here beyond technical glitches. Perhaps the most frustrating part is having no clue about the inner machinations that provide this result.

Other complaints from today (about different parts of the system).

MBTA and Blogger Complaints

Does it do any good to complain about mass transit in the blogosphere? According to Universal Hub, the answer seems to be “no”:

The reporter also, indirectly, gets an answer to Paul Levy’s question about what T officials do with complaints posted daily on Boston-area blogs: Not a hell of a lot (then again, that’s hardly a policy change at the T):

When asked to comment on the blog, T spokesman Joe Pesaturo responded: “While blogs come and go, people will always be able to present comments and concerns directly to the T’s Customer Support Services.”

Oh, really? Let’s rewrite that statement a bit:

“While MBTA flacks come and go, people will always be able to have their comments and concerns ignored by the T’s Customer Support Services.”

I’ve had two successive days of bad luck. Yesterday, I arrived early for the 8am train (from Needham Heights). The LED sign announced the train was about twenty minutes late. Half an hour later, still no train. Finally, what was apparently the 8:23am train arrived about ten minutes late. That train, crowded on an ordinary day, was of course at double capacity and thus resembled one of those 1980’s “Aren’t you glad you used Dial? Don’t you wish everybody did?” commercials. The train stood motionless for about five minutes at each stop with no announcements as to what was going on. Finally, I arrived at work about an hour later than I expected.

Today’s train was a bit late and had no lights in any of the cars. A conductor informed me that yesterday’s delay was due to a locomotive that failed over the weekend but that the T had neglected to fix or replace it. According to the conductor, “they don’t want to pay overtime.” (He also mentioned that all of these service improvements were courtesy of the recent fare hikes.)

Broken MBTA

There’s something about malfunctioning mass transit that really gets to people. Or at least really gets to me. It’s a feeling of powerlessness like few others—at least in a car when you’re stuck in traffic you still feel (albeit erroneously) “in control.”

I had allotted myself half an hour to get from Downtown Crossing in Boston to North Station—about a-mile-and-a-half. Normally the train would take less than ten minutes, and the trains come every five to ten minutes. Instead, I waited fourty minutes for a train, then we crawled to North Station, where I had long since missed the train I was trying to catch, disrupting all the rest of my plans for where I was trying to go tonight.

We expect this kind of thing with air travel. It’s tolerable because we don’t do it everyday. But daily commuters reach a breaking point pretty quickly when they get to their destination two hours later than expected.

My only hope is that there is some one in charge who is agonizing over the inconvenience when this happens. Kind of like when the web/email/mail-list server I administer goes down—every minute is a minute when my users are banging up against a broken door with their web browsers and ssh clients, and I feel the pain. I’m just not so sure the MBTA is feeling the pain these days.

Next time maybe I’ll walk.

Dismantle Storrow Drive

Most brilliant idea so far this year. In brief, Storrow Drive was never supposed to exist. Now it needs massive repairs, which will be both expensive and disruptive. Rather than fix it, some are calling to simply remove it, similar to when San Francisco decided to tear down its elevated highway after it was severely damaged in an earthquake. Proponents of dismantling Storrow Drive include former Secretary of Transportation Fred Salvucci and former DPW associate commissioner Ken Kruckemeyer. Not your typical wild-eyed anti-car fanatics.

The nay-sayers — and this Radio Boston episode shows there are many — fail to understand induced demand. Many share the naive belief that if a highway is removed, all the traffic it once carried will be redistributed to other roads, thus further increasing congestion. But it’s not a zero-sum-game. Numerous examples show that tearing down a highway can actually relieve traffic — not to mention result in enormous aesthetic and environmental benefits. Road networks are dynamic systems — change one parameter and the rest will readjust as well: gas prices, tolls, road congestion/capacity, suburban and urban property taxes, MBTA fares and service levels, regional land use and transportation planning policies, all feed into each other. One caller to the Radio Boston show claimed she needs to use Storrow Drive daily because there isn’t enough parking at Alewife! (I don’t think I need to spell it out, but I think we can safely assume that improving the Alewife parking garage will be a good bit cheaper than rebuilding Storrow, without needing to look up the precise numbers. Plus it will reduce congestion, improve air quality, and increase T ridership).

Of course it would be equally naive to assume any road can be removed without consequence on congestion, but dismantling Storrow Drive seems like a perfect start for the post-carbon era.