MBTA What If: North Shore instead of South Shore?

Earlier this week, I was in and around Quincy Center and found a nice neighborhood with a mixture of residences and businesses (and vibrant businesses at that), tree lined streets, and a very pleasant vibe to the area which stretches up Hancock Street (and to a lesser degree Newport Avenue) towards Wollaston and North Quincy. This growth is in no part thanks to the Red Line having been extended through Quincy in the 1970s even as Quincy Center itself is showing its age.

In contrast, a similar distance away on the opposite shore is Lynn, a city sans rapid transit which is far more threadbare and worn and lacks the vibrancy and charm Quincy Center has curated. Though some of this is from classic reputation, it makes me wonder something.

What if the MBTA in its earliest years put its energies towards the former BRB&L mainline and extended the Blue Line to Lynn in the 1970s while letting the old Old Colony mainline through Quincy lay fallow. Would Quincy have turned out as good as it has with ferries and express buses up I-93 instead of the Red Line? Do Lynn’s fortunes change with the Blue Line instead of overpriced-for-the-distance commuter rail and express buses?

It’s something to seriously think about.

459 (Salem Depot-Downtown Crossing EXPRESS)

As I mentioned in my rant about MBTA line bias, my entire summer has been an overworked, underemployed blur in which I entered a heavy rut which distilled my riding to about six different routes/modes. I needed a ride to get me out of the rut of academic writing about stuff like economic embargoes (and stuff that matters like counseling to help families of children with disabilities and illnesses adapt to their new lives). Our proverbial slumpbuster in this case, a route I might not think about otherwise, is the 459, a route semi-unique among the North Shore routes which should be a model of sorts.

The 459 is one of two express routes stretching from Salem Depot into Boston, this one of the most part paralleling the 455 from its origin to Bell Circle in Revere going around Salem’s east side via Lafayette Street and Loring Avenue past the Salem State University campus into Swampscott. After reaching Vinnin Square, the heart of Swampscott’s business district, it transitions onto Essex Street which becomes Union Street in Lynn. Meeting the nuculus of North Shore routes at Central Square, it goes around Lynn Common and eventually passes by West Lynn garage. It is shortly after this I join in.

My ride began at the sole stop the 459 (and 450[W]/455) have in Saugus, the stop located at the corner of Western Turnpike/MA 107 and Ballard Street. Heading towards Lynn, it’s a typical stop but heading towards Revere/Boston riders get an old makeshift cinderblock shelter which a reader referred to as a “rape hut”. I know the nature of that area is very industrial and at that point MA 107 is a divided four-lane road but no shelter would’ve been better than that monstrosity because even on a bright sunny day it looks foreboding. Luckily a bus came right as I arrived, about 2/3 full which is par for the course for midday express runs from the North Shore.

Leaving that bleak shelter, the 459 eventually follows MA 107 to its end at Brown Circle, then MA 60 to its end at Bell Circle where it uses the center bypass lane to get on MA 1A and the route becomes dominated by a big box complex, Suffolk Downs, and a lot of services geared towards persons headed to/from Logan Airport largely that of the offsite parking nature. This sets the tone for one of two main discharge points for the 459, Logan’s Terminal C where about half the bus got off. After going through the Ted Williams Tunnel and a few stops on the Waterfront, the 459 ends with a stop near South Station and a couple of street stops before its end at Federal and Franklin streets alongside most of the 500-series express buses bound for points west and the limited rush hour service of the 448/449 from Marblehead which parallel the 459 from Bell Circle on south. The rest of the bus used either the South Station stop or the Downtown Crossing terminus.

With headways on average of every 70 minutes or so from AM rush to PM rush (a measure so that resources are limited) and a run time of around that length, on paper the 459 would seem to be like a throwaway to toss a bone for the North Shore crowd to get to Logan and to have an alternative to Haymarket. In fact, the route has a lot of potential, if not for itself for the whole 400-series as a whole.

  • Even with the North Shore express network pared down, there is a “Haymarket or Bust” mindset which puts one transfer point among others. The 459 shows a market for a North Shore to South Station connection, what harm would running the 426/450 down Atlantic Ave to terminate at the Dorchester Ave/Summer Street stand the 459 uses? With the Waterfront booming, this cuts a four-seat ride to two seats.
  • Running some 426/450 peak runs via the Ted Williams Tunnel could work as a relief valve for their regular crossings.
  • Soon enough the whole North Shore network is going to get semi-isolated on the weekends when Government Center closes to be rebuilt making the Blue Line an eunuch connecting to only one other line. Weekend 459 service would be a good alternate especially given how it hits all the key spots in the heart of Boston (then again, so would running the 426W to Malden or Wellington instead of Wonderland).

The 459 is a nice little route and some lessons could be learned from it, problem is does anyone want to learn those lessons especially as the North Shore enters a state of transit flux.

Route: 459 (Salem Depot-Downtown Crossing EXPRESS)
Rating (1-10): 7

Ridership: As in the local portion headways are coordinated with the 459, there probably is a healthy amount of ridership between Salem/Lynn and points in-between. By the time I got on, there was a crowd which was 95% bound for Logan or Downtown with Brown Circle the other destination. As with any North Shore route, a good socioeconomic mix too and the Logan crowd was an even split between travelers and workers.

Pros: It’s a North Shore route that doesn’t go to Haymarket! It’s one of the few non-Silver Line routes that serves Logan. What else is there?

Cons: Outside of the 426 and 450, the North Shore express routes are a bit of an afterthought and though this isn’t as bad as thrice-daily 428 or the once-daily 434, this could use a little more service. How it could be divided especially since other routes could use service to its terminus would be a big problem.

 Nearby and Noteworthy: Heading inbound, there’s one of the few standard format “Entering Boston” signs and leading into Logan you can actually see the top of Airport station (which at 9 already needs some new top windows). Not much else in terms of stuff and I need some reason to give the 455 a ride someday.

426 (Central Square-Haymarket via Cliftondale…and friends!)

If you’ve ever been to Haymarket, you may know quite well the huge walled shelter with a “North Shore Buses” sign on top facing the inner busway, away from the ruckus known as the 111. A weekday-only visitor, they have their audience of people commuting in with some people headed for points north who are bound for Lynn or Salem and don’t want to pay high Commuter Rail fares. I’d be willing to bet that there have been scores of tourists or locals who wondered “What goes on on those routes?”

Currently, I live in a corner of Saugus that’s a teeny bit isolated from transit. The closest route to my house, the 426, is one of “those routes” whisking people between Lynn, Saugus, and Revere to Haymarket during the week and to Wonderland (as the 426W) on weekends and major holidays. Heading inbound from Central Square-Lynn station, it goes around Lynn Common and makes its way into the Austin Square neighborhood before crossing into Saugus and working its way through the heart of Saugus’s eastern half including Cliftondale Square and Linden Square on the Revere/Malden line. After the rotary where Squire Road/MA 60 meets US 1, it has a FAST express run into Boston via the Tobin Bridge where buses can reach the speed limit easily. The express run alone is worth the $2.80 as if this being the “quickest way” to Boston wasn’t enough. Along the way, the 426 is coordinated most of the time to transfer with the 430 at Cliftondale Square and with the 108 and 429 at Linden Square, however that isn’t all.

The 426 is a route that suffers from whatever the bus version of multiple personality disorder is. What is described above is the “base” service that runs weekdays, but there are THREE variants of the routes that run and some other odd mediocrities. Pay attention, there may be a quiz after this:

  • Route 426W provides weekend service to Wonderland instead of Haymarket and also has three inbound (but no outbound) trips in AM rush plus a late-night inbound trip. If the Doomsday cuts are to pass, the 426W would become base service.
  • Route 426/439 are three interlined PM rush trips that continue on from Lynn to Nahant. During these times.
  • Route 426/455 is a combination of the 426 and 455 to Salem that has a few runs in PM rush and also provides weekday evening service via the Callahan and Sumner tunnels.

On top of this, there is some unnecessary complicating in exactly where the buses terminate. Central Square, the Commuter Rail Busway (Central Square plus a loop), and the Lynn MBTA Garage are all listed in the schedule and the weekday 426W has a different stop than the weekend 426W. Any newcomer to the area could find this confusing; I know I did and nearly once paid for it by missing a commuter rail train and another time by having to go from one end of Wonderland to the other.

My own experiences on this route vary based on time of day (but what route doesn’t!). Go on this bus during or near rush hour dressed up and it’ll be easy to blend in given the number of people who use the 426 to head to work. Do the same during midday when ridership is more local and you may stick out like a sore thumb. My first ever ride on the 426 was exactly this, complete with the confusion of where it’d end and the fact that I learned the hard way that you can’t get CharlieCard fare you loaded online activated on a bus. North Shore buses are worth the ride if you can get to one!

Line: 426 (Haymarket-Central Square via Cliftondale) Rating (1-10): 7

Ridership: Rush hour ridership runs the gamut of all demographic groups with each run having bunches of regulars; on the 426/439 runs it’s similar to being a “Commuter Club” among the Nahant commuters and the regular 426 runs have their run of regulars as my regular rides to and from work have the same 10-15 people on both. Also during these times the number of people getting off on the local portion of the route is very small. Middays and weekends are another story as there’s decent local ridership.

Pros: As the base 426, it links many areas in northern Revere, southern Malden, and Saugus to downtown. As the 426W, at least it’ll get you to Wonderland. The fast ride on Route 1 is more than worth the fare and even the Wonderland runs go through too many rotaries. Though I haven’t (yet) ridden the 439 portion, I know the ride out to Nahant is very scenic.

Cons: If the MBTA could afford it, midday service could be beefed up a little outside hourly. Trying to fill time due to missing a bus is never fun even in a walkable city like Boston. Adding in some extra service for locals, either with 426W’s alternating with 426’s or with a 108/426 combo from Malden Center, would help stimulate ridership on the “local” portions.

Nearby and Noteworthy: Kane’s Donuts. If you haven’t been there already, go! Especially if you like huge donuts, unique varieties (Peanut Butter & Jelly, Maple Bacon, and more!) and coffee rolls the size of your head.

If donuts aren’t your calling, I recommend Spuds on the Lynn-Saugus line. Very good seafood and offbeat dishes that I swear came up in a chef’s dream such as Buffalo Chicken Alfredo. If not that, too many sub/roast beef shops along the route; I recommend Mike’s Place for sentimental reasons. Just don’t play 20 Questions when ordering there.