North Station

Tonight, the Bruins will take to the ice for a (full) season of hockey which hopefully unlike the last one will lead to another Stanley Cup and a banner raising. Of the over 17,000 going to a game, I would venture to guess that two-thirds will walk outside of TD Garden concourse to make their way to North Station. The majority of those will continue outside to the “Superstation” underneath for access to the Green and Orange lines as opposed to the northside commuter rail terminus they passed. This is a story of two stations….or four….or five. Cue the Zombie Nation!

Right off the Garden concourse is the mainline North Station, commuter rail hub for points north (and thanks to the listing nature of the Fitchburg Line, some which are actually WSW such as Belmont and Waltham) and terminal for Amtrak’s Downeaster to Maine. The relatively recent remodel has made the station look pretty modern while actually giving enough space for commuters and event goers to peacefully exist on certain nights. This is quite the improvement over the cramped concourse from the mid-1980s rebuild of North Station, one built without ever thinking it would be attached to an arena with 3500 more seats than its predecessor.

Under North Station and right down the street is the subway station of the same name. The current incarnation of North Station [Under] is one of the crown jewels of the MBTA system with its modern decor and its ingenious cross platform transfer setup between the inbound Green (C and E branches) and Orange Lines and not much effort to get between the two lines going outbound. Given the double duty that it has to do its namesake rail terminal right above and the Garden right behind that – often with both colliding – it does its job well and is probably the most well thought out transfer station on The T, granted it has decades over its competition. In terms of transit/arena access, it isn’t to the level of Madison Square Garden/Penn Station or Forum Centre Bell/Lucien L’Allier ingeniousness, but compared to others it might be seen as enviable. However, it always hasn’t been the case.

Growing up in eastern New York, I was blessed enough to see and use both “original” North Stations, the Causeway Street El station and the old surface station (I also was lucky enough to tour the Original Garden). Seeing the skyline and both Gardens – and for a couple years, seeing both was possible – was a sight that sadly future generations won’t be able to see from that vantage point. However, the cost of the charm and the views and that area being defined by the El had its prices: there was a single staircase for entry and exit, a single token machine, and if you wanted to transfer between lines you had a frustrating barricaded maze which made Haymarket look good. As much as it was functionally obsolete and had to be replaced due to neglect, the last time I rode through on the El several months before it was closed I felt that with it’s demise a bit of Boston would die with it. This isn’t all from the past. The surface station, after a while became a frustrating relic when you just knew that having four terminals was a bit too redundant and my one experience with it was visiting the aforementioned Garden hearing my Mom and Aunt act confused about why there’d be two distinctly different North Stations.

Flash forward to the present. I’ve used the current North Station several times but am impressed about how there was a lot of foresight in expanding it to the size that it is. In contrast to the “Kenmore Krush” after Red Sox games, using North Station after a Bruins or Celtics game is a pleasure as there’s more than enough room to for people to wait for their trains comfortably and safely. The joint platform has semi-intended benefits for the Green Line as it can have two 2-car trains on the platform with plenty of room to spare. Even those headed outbound have a good amount of platform space to sprawl out on. Having dealt with the transfer choke point in DC with the Gallery Place/Verizon Center combo and having done the walk of shame from Core States First Union Wachovia Wells Fargo Center to Pattison AT&T in Philly in a monsoon, North Station looks pretty great in contrast and deserves all the appreciation it can get. Let’s go Bruins!

Station: North Station
Rating (1-10): 8 – a solid 8 for both commuter rail and under.

Pros: The building of the Superstation and the enlarging/semi-segregation of the commuter rail terminal has made what once was a debacle a manageable experience. The Blackhawks won the Cup, but their transit situations (long walks to stations and special buses) are primitive in contrast to Boston and fans I know are envy in what Bostonians have. Also, during the week the station is the terminus of the 4 to downtown and the Waterfront and the Charles River TMA bus to CambridgeSide and Kendall Square.

Cons: Outside of some minor wear and tear (chipped tiles), putting 145′ of Green Line train on a 400′ platform during middays and nights makes sometimes getting on or off a challenge. On the outbound platform, the first car stop is far from the staircases/escalators while inbound there sometimes is a mad dash for a car. And yet it isn’t as bad as the Shady Grove-bound platform at Gallery Place in DC…

Nearby and Noteworthy: There are many, many places to either watch a game if you can’t get tickets or to go before/after a game if you do have tickets. My recommendation is The Fours, sponsor of trivia on Bruins games on NESN among others.

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Back Bay

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.” 

All Aboard for Framingham, Worcester, Springfield...Albany-Rensselaer...Chicago!

All Aboard for Framingham, Worcester, Springfield…Albany-Rensselaer…Chicago!

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.

Some Quick Easy Fixes

Well, it looks like the doomsday threats are coming back, and this time on top of the threats of killing weekend commuter rail are the threats of ending all bus service after 11:00 PM and cutting 30 bus routes. Here are some simple fixes that the MBTA should consider.

1: MassDOT merged everyone together into a bickering blended family. They should own up to their Big Dig debt.
As much as the crowd outside of 495 will claim that they should not pay for the debt of the Big Dig because it’s solely inside Boston, truth is that it is a utility for the entire Commonwealth and beyond. The Big Dig benefits just as much benefits those from Salisbury to Sheffield to Sandwich as it does for those in Southie and Somerville with improved vehicular capacity through town, improved access to Logan, and more.  When the Commonwealth merged everyone under the MassDOT umbrella, they should have demerged the Big Dig debt which the Cellucci Administration forced upon the MBTA for something they really did not contribute to. One umbrella, one debt.

2: Merge some lesser bus routes into singular routes.
Several years back when the Port Authority in Pittsburgh had their own Doomsday cuts, they ended up merging several routes which shared a common terminal into singular routes to help boost efficiency and maintain as much service as possible. I was going to suggest these in a proposal post but here are a few which could be done.

  • Merging the 62 and 76 full-time as the current 62/76 operates on Saturdays.
  • Combining either the 70 or 70A with the 91, running straight through Central between Waltham and Sullivan.
  • At least on middays and weekends, merging the 108 with the local portion of the 426 (which would help West Lynn, East Saugus, and northeastern Revere as the Blue Line will  soon be an eunuch).
  • The 354 is extended over the local portion of the 352 after rush hours. As much as it’d be bad for Burlington commuters outside of 95/128, making this the core route would not be  bad thing.
  • Merge the 131 and the northern/eastern portion of the 430 while terminating the 430 at Square One Mall. This would not only add an elusive bus connection between Saugus and Melrose, but would also redirect the 430’s resources where it’s needed.

(Everyone, join in and leave your suggestions in the comments!)

3: Make pass prices resemble something resembling reality.
Right now a weekly pass ($18) is only 1.6 times the cost of a one-day pass ($11) and is equal to nine rail rides paid via CharlieCard. I understand the one-day pass is a bit of a tourist tax but seriously the weekly pass could be raised to around $24 and still be seen as a bargain. Similarly, $70 for a monthly pass is still quite low compared to the MBTA’s peer agencies and could be hiked beyond $80 and still be seen as a bargain.

4: Charge for CharlieCards (and maybe CharlieTickets too)
When I was living in and around DC,the initial cost for a SmarTrip was (as is now) $5. In contrast, the CharlieCard is free. I’m not saying to emulate WMATA – nobody ever should – but even if the MBTA charged as little as $2 for a CharlieCard it’d make some money. Imagine how much they could’ve made over the last eight years off of CharlieCards for a nominal fee.
Similarly, the MTA in New York is now charging $1 for a new MetroCard. I think even a 50 cent surcharge on getting a new CharlieTicket would raise some extra funds and would show those that use them that getting a CharlieCard would be a good move to make.

5: One More Quarter
Compared to peer agencies, even with last year’s fare increases CharlieCard fares are still cheap at $1.50 for bus and $2.00 for rail. Hiking these by a quarter while leaving the $2.00/$2.50 cash fare as-is would still have the MBTA on the low end of their peer agencies. Ideally, going to one united fare would be good but the insistence of having bus be cheaper than rail would need to be put on the back burner.

6: Peak hour MBCR surcharges
Being from the New York area, I’m used to the concept of a peak-hour surcharge on both Metro North and the LIRR, charging a higher fare going into Penn/Grand Central in the morning and out in the evening. I know the MBCR lines don’t have the intensive levels of service that their New York counterparts have, but a surcharge of a couple of dollars for trains during rush hour would help raise some extra money from suburbanites. There are some problems with this, namely if the Zone 1A and Fairmount Line stations should be made exempt or not, but it’s worth the thought.

7: Take one for the team, Local 589
With service cuts come the inevitable complaints about unionized labor and all the negative stereotypes of unions and the “typical” unionized employee. While Local 589 doesn’t have the overtime abuse problems of TWU 100 and the other MTA unions or the mass corruption at ATU 689 at WMATA, I think that it might be a good PR move for Local 589 to make some concessions to help protect their jobs. Given the choice between voluntarily taking a pay rollback of a couple of percent and having jobs flat-out eliminated, I’d be willing to take that most Local 589 members would seriously consider the former. Such a move would be a sign of solidarity and would send a good message to a union-cynical public in a time when unions need the good PR.

I have one other bigger idea I’ll share in another post, but these would be better than getting rid of all weekend Commuter Rail service or ending bus service a good two hours before subway service. Then again, doomsday is doomsday and often doomsday never comes.

 

 

Salem (Depot)

Let’s go find a time machine and set the clock to Summer 1996, sometime right after the Atlanta games ended. I know everyone wants to go ride plug-doored Boeing LRV’s and 01800’s with their original red sets, but this story begins at the Days Inn in Danvers. My mom and I were visiting Boston but wanted to not deal with finding a parking space and we researched Salem (Depot) on the Commuter Rail’s then-Ipswich/Rockport (pre-Newburyport!) line. We drive down Route 114 in her base model ’95 Geo Metro with no AC and turn into the parking lot, the huge carcass of the former Parker Brothers factory looking over it, thinking about all the board games made there through the years.

Mom took one look at the old fashioned coin/bill slot board, was bewildered by the concept, openly wondered why they couldn’t have someone manning the lot, turned back on 114, and decided that 128 and 93 in rush hour, the old Central Artery and the Big Dig mess was simpler than wadding $2 or eight quarters in a slot.

Back to the present. I finally got to use Salem for its intended purpose. Since 1996, Salem has gained a mini-high platform at its north/east end which has been the main modification to the current 1980s vintage station. Walking down the ramp which runs behind the mini-high, there is a busway with routes connecting to Lynn, Beverly, the Peabody/Danvers mall corridor, Wonderland, and during the week Haymarket and Downtown Crossing while to the left is the low-level majority of the platform. The platform and busway area eventually merge before they ascend a staircase with a very 80s headhouse to Bridge Street with the historic downtown core of Salem not far away. Looking over the station in place of the former Parker Brothers factory are

After taking care of some business in Salem, I walked back and felt the main downside of the station: The North River runs adjacent to the parking lot and when I visited the winds were fierce and felt a lot colder than the mid-40s which the thermometer claimed it was. luckily, a train came quickly however in the future putting up some heat lamps might be a good investment especially as the station is going to be renovated.

The real pluses of Salem as a station are the historical knick-knacks around the station, especially its system map which not only is unchanged from its 1987 opening but is anachronistic (Gardner and Ruggles together!?). The tunnel south of the station has the former Salem station at its other end with platforms still intact a quarter century after its demise. Given its spot in a highly walled open cut, the move was for the best.

Station: Salem (Depot)
Rating (1-10): 8

Ridership: For a weekday midday, people heading up from Boston who value time (30 minutes versus an express bus to Boston or a local bus to Wonderland) over money ($3/$5 depending on the point of origin). There also are a decent amount of people whom got on at Lynn, the 20 minute savings for $1.50 makes this a popular alternative to the 450, 455, and 459 buses. Otherwise commuters, tourists, and during the second half of October scads of fun seekers who fill bilevels the south side has lessened their vice grip on.

Pros: This station is steps away from one of New England’s most historic downtowns and the history oozing from Salem alone is worth the trip. The $13 round-trip price tag from North Station may be a bit steep so I recommend busing it one-way if money is a concern.

Cons: This place is not pleasant when it’s windy and it could use a little TLC though the renovation will take care of this. Also, the 80s architecture clashes with the downtown brick of Salem.

Nearby and Noteworthy: I don’t need to explain why you should go there, but a trip to the Salem Witch Museum is a must especially to put the event which put Salem on the map for all the wrong reasons.  From personal experience having done this as a tourist, don’t do it during tourist season if you can.
If you’re in town earlier in the day and need a bite to eat, the breakfast/lunch-only Lynde Street Cafe has good food and generous portions for cheap. Just order when you get in even if they say not to, if not you might have a long wait. I recommend the meat omelette or the Buffalo wings.

Winchester Center

At the time of this writing, I live within sight of Winchester Center. If I open my front door, I can see the southern end of the station and if you’re on the west side of a train you might see my apartment in the distance. Therefore, I’m a bit too familiar with it as even a couple of weeks in I can tell when trains are coming inbound or outbound and can tell a Downeaster apart from a Commuter Rail train by vibrations alone.

Winchester Center in general is a bit of an anomaly in the Commuter Rail system, sitting on an elevated structure going through the center of town, looking more at home on Metro-North’s New Haven Line or the LIRR than for any Boston-area line. Even for the atypical former Boston & Lowell, Winchester’s central location is a bit of an outlier because it doesn’t bypass the center of town. These elements help create what could be one of the most charming and interesting Commuter Rail stations but it currently suffers for a few reasons.

Getting off a train at Winchester Center, you are emptied onto a platform which has seen better days with a lot of cracking paint. Your means of exit is a pair of long and winding ramps to the street which also have seen better days and are a miniature version of an old stadium concourse. The northern half of ramps exit right into the town center, the southern half exit into town parking lots (one on each side of the station). The reverse is true when boarding and to be honest for a cute and charming town such as Winchester the station which sets up the entire center of town can be a bit better.

For what it’s worth, Winchester Center is a good station for spotting the Downeaster (or any trains) and if the $5.50 of a Zone 1 fare is a bit scary the 134 runs once an hour to/from Wellington or North Woburn. If it was gussied up and looked like its surroundings I would be compelled to give a much nicer rating.

Station: Winchester Center
Rating (1-10): 5 for the station (but 9 for the surroundings)

Ridership: Lots of locals living within walking distance of the station with some people driving from elsewhere in Winchester and nearby towns (Stoneham and eastern Lexington mainly).

Pros: Regardless of condition, it adds to Winchester’s charm in a manner similar to, say, Wakefield and there is a ton by the station to visit. Bonus points for the Winchester Chamber of Commerce using their offices as a waiting room during rush hour in the colder months.

Cons: The station needs a renovation. Badly. The fact that the smaller Wedgemere right down the road got a renovation but not Winchester’s larger station is a bit odd. There also should be some ticket machines on the platform (as with all stations) and possibly modify some ramps to stairs and add an elevator. A mini-high should be a must but with Wedgemere just having gotten a mini-high and ADA letting Winchester Center off the hook this may be a harder sell.

Nearby and Noteworthy: Too many great things to count. Seriously. But to pare this down to a few:
Book Ends: Because independent bookstores in this day and age sadly are becoming a rare breed and this little shop is a thriving part of the community.
Black Horse Tavern: Top 5 of meals I’ve ever had. By far. Worth the trip and every penny (and I recommend the Cheggy Burger and the wings).
Winchester Wine & Spirits: I urge you to drink responsibly but my is this page huge and classy and right now they have an entire shelf of pumpkin beer which might have a post-Halloween run on it soon. No ice cider though.

Six Years from Brockton

As I write this, today is the first Saturday in June. Outside it’s raw, rainy, and about ten degrees below normal, the perfect day to just stay in and relax. Oddly, it remi Six Years from Brocktonnds me of a day when I did anything but in the past.

Six years ago, the first Saturday in June was cool and rainy, but that day I was going all over Greater Boston in the name of transit exploration, not just for The T but for the BAT system down in Brockton, a trip on top of a trip. Since the number of people who go to Brockton mainly for BAT is very small, this was a huge sign that I’m a big-time transit nerd especially since I was traveling out from Albany to do so.

Wake up, shower, eat, take the CDTA 10 to its end, negotiate my way from the back of Crossgates Mall to what now is a two-story Walmart, then spend 3 hours with (if you have Albany ties, sing along) the people with the right connections. My starting point: Aquarium, where an train of 0600’s that more than showed their age met me. After working my way to Government Center to a Type 8 and to Park Street for a pack of 01800’s, now was the time to hit the Commuter Rail, namely the 11:20 train to Middleborough. I was shocked at the tiny amusement park tickets that MBCR issues pre-Charlie, a far cry from fancier MetroNorth/LIRR tickets I cut my teeth on.

Settling on the lower level of a bilevel, I was shocked at the mere existence of there being seats mid-car with tables and I settled in one for the ride being amazed at how I was practically on platform level. When I get to Brockton, I notice three things:

1: The town is perhaps a bit too hung up on its boxing heritage. I know it’s hit on hard times but still…
2: The Green Monster mural at WB Mason headquarters right around the corner is nice and beacon of much needed brightness especially on a bleak day.
3: Signs from the Commuter rail to the batCentre is something that needed to exist. If it’s improved since then, good for them.

As a system, BAT is a typical small city, pulse point system and needing lunch I planned a trip on the 4 to Westgate Mall and back before taking a 12 to Ashmont. The trip to Westgate was typical and about 2/3 full. Westgate was totally underwhelming save for having a Brigham’s when they still existed and the Popeye’s there has the greasiest floor in existence which led me to nearly falling. Several times. And in typical fashion, my return bus was 15 minutes late. By the time I got back to the batCentre, I had to literally run to get the 12 to Ashmont in which I conked out cold somewhere near the Avon-Randolph line after the 240’s terminal.

When I woke up, I saw trolley wire. It turned out to be Central Avenue station on the High Speed Line. I frantically pull the cord to get off (if only the MBTA would go to pull cords like everyone else) and narrowly miss a PCC towards Ashmont so I make it worth my while to ride to Mattapan and back. Getting to Ashmont, less a month before it and the line shut down for its rehab, I sat on a parked train of 01700’s and wondered if the then-pending rehab was worth it and in hindsight, they could’ve kept some of the original setup.

  • Eventually, I got back into town and some other fun things happened including:
  • Having an entire 3700-series Type 7 to myself from North Station to Lechmere and nearly doing wind sprints from end to end across the Lechmere Viaduct. Yes, I am a dork…
  • Riding the 69 and hitting literally every stop out to Harvard.
  • Getting lost in Harvard Square – tourist faux pas – trying find the 1, then being rewarded with a ride on the infamous CharlieCard bus.
  • Having the bright idea to go from Back Bay to Downtown Crossing to South Station, then to take SL1 to Logan for a Massport shuttle to the Blue Line to home. Needlessly to say, I had to run for something to eat on the ride home because the SL1 seemed to get bogged down as always.

In hindsight, it was worth the effort and honestly I need to do this again sometime! Where in the burbs should I someday go? LRTA? MVRTA? MWRTA?

Photo Post!

I’m doing some late Spring cleaning which means two things here at (T)he Adventure

1: Some side improvements coming sooner than later (and branching out from reviews!)

2: I purged an old memory card, which means a bonus photo post for all of you!

Enjoy!

Commuter Rail platform at Malden Center.

Dudley Square, forlornly waiting for a train that’ll never come.

Bus 0440 lays over at Saugus Center on the 430.

1975 vintage sign on the unused side of Sullivan Square’s outbound platform.

One day I took the 99…

The 76 waits at Alewife to start its run out to Hanscom. Oddly this is on the list of routes I’d love to ride.