Growing up and visiting Boston once or twice a year, I’d almost always drive into town via the MassPike and we’d pass by the assorted sites of Boston. Under and around BU, right by Fenway, under the Pru, then right past Back Bay[/South End] with its mixture of commuter rail tracks with the Orange Line wedged between. Passing Back Bay meant that I had made it to Boston and at this point the last challenge myself and whomever I was traveling with had was finding parking or a place to get off our tour bus. Heading home, it was one last taste of seeing MBTA action, B at BU West or a Framingham/Worcester Line train after a successful trip.
That said, lately I’ve ended up at Back Bay quite a bit for engagements in the area, being a quick commuter rail ride from South Station is part of why, so now is the time to review one of the more key T stations out there. The current incarnation of Back Bay is the northernmost/easternmost station on the Southwest Corridor alignment carrying the Orange Line alongside Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor and serves as a major transfer point of sorts connecting the Orange Line to the Framingham/Worcester, Providence/Stoughton, Franklin/Forge Park, and Needham commuter rail lines, Amtrak’s Northeast Regional, Acela Express, and Lake Shore Limited lines, plus the 10 and 39 buses as well as connections between each other. Also, the Orange Line makes this the simplest connection between the Northeast Corridor lines and the Downeaster at North Station. In theory, Back Bay should be an important station but in actuality it’s quite a bit worse for the wear.
Walk into Back Bay and save for LED signs and vending machines you’ll feel like you were transported back into the 80s given the decor. Though there has been some upkeep, there are parts that look like they’ve barely seen changes in the 26 years since the current incarnation’s opening. Entering the station, it forks into three different forks, which going from south to north are as follows.
1: Tracks 1-3 have two high level platforms and serve Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor trains and southbound commuter rail service. These platforms are visible from the MassPike and are partially exposed to the outdoors with the ends closest to the station enclosed. Your biggest risk here is running into hoards of commuters especially as the exits are at the far south/west end of the platform.
2: The two tracks of the Orange Line which are located one story underneath the main concourse in a shallow tunnel. Typical Southwest Corridor setup, not much to see here, exit at the north/east end of the platform.
3: Tracks 5 and 7 which carry the Framingham/Worcester Line and the Lake Shore Limited. Unlike the two others, these tracks have mostly low-level platforms with a mini-high at the way end at which point the platform extends into a tunnel and has a very odd feeling. In fact, it may be the most unusual if not creepy part of the MBTA/MBCR system and I’ll let regular reader and fan @BostonUrbEx explain.
“[The westbound platform is] the strangest place on the T that I’ve ever been, I think. Not only that but some homeless man chased me away when I was looking westward into the dark tunnel, and I had a little flashlight on me in my bag so I was using that, then he came out from behind some concrete walls and just stood there grumbling, I was freaked out and tried to casually make my way off and then he followed me, stopping every time I looked back.”
Toss all of this in with a ton of diesel smoke, enough for some to call Back Bay a “lung cancer chamber” and for public health officials to ask those with lung conditions to avoid it, and you have Boston’s third major rail station. The smoke is at its worst on the westbound platform as it’s mainly enclosed and the mini-high is at the way end. I’d hate to see someone needing to use it with lung or pulmonary problems to have to go through torture just to ride a train.
The concourse itself can use some improvement as it has a couple small stores and and two Dunkin’ Donuts and not much else outside its ticket windows. Its two exits show a good contrast of how life is on the other side of the tracks/Pike, exit onto Dartmouth Street and you have the heart of the Back Bay plus the 10 to City Point in South Boston. Exit onto Columbus Ave and you have the up and coming South End, the terminus of the 39, and the two rush hour round trips on the 170 to Dudley and Waltham. There’s more to do on the Dartmouth Street side but the Columbus Ave side has phantom exits, track views, and a sign salvaged from the prior Back Bay. There also is a convoluted tunnel which connects Back Bay to the Prudential Center (and Prudential station) which comes in handy when rain or navigating pedestrian-hostile intersections are in the way. Choose your adventure.
Station: Back Bay[/South End]
Rating (1-10): 4 (5 for the outside architecture and Orange Line, 4 for the NEC platforms, 0 for the westbound platform)
Ridership: A good mix of commuters and residents with the former heading more onto Dartmouth Street and the latter more onto Columbus Ave. The collection of nearby offices makes this a key stop on the Commuter Rail and often at rush hour the platforms are packed. Amtrak gets a decent amount of ridership and being in the neighborhood one day when the Lake Shore Limited comes in I saw 30 people board for points west.
Pros: It’s the main rail connection to the South End and is a very good bypass for when the mainline of the Green Line is snarled. The outdoor architecture is a bit akin to a urban version of Alewife. It also is a good connection to suburban and inter-city transport.
Cons: This station should come with a Surgeon’s General warning and westbound passengers should be given respirators if not oxygen masks. Besides that, improve some of the lighting on the Orange Line/southbound platforms and a LOT of lighting on the westbound platform and put in a better ventilation system and that rating would go fast. As with the rest of the Southwest Corridor, Back Bay answers a question that wasn’t asked a clearly as the answer warranted.