Oak Grove

Two weeks ago, assorted circumstances brought me out to Oak Grove. It wasn’t my first time – I had used it right after I moved – but this time gives a chance to do a review which goes a bit off-topic.

As part-time work barely pays the bills, I’ve been looking for work and took a chance on a temp-to-perm assignment just north of Oak Grove and the Malden/Melrose line. Coming off the train, I saw the current state of chaos of the platform which has reduced the station to a one-track operation as the other side is being refurbished. While this was long overdue, the original mid 1970s platform was starting to break off and rot away, it does create some aggravation in the station. In terms of overall design, it’s the end of the Haymarket North extension and can be described best as “Malden Center in a depression” – the two have an identical setup but Oak Grove’s sunken while Malden has more of an “end of the line” feeling than Oak Grove ever will which might double its depression.

Heading upstairs, there are two ways to go: Turn left and you’ll be at Oak Grove’s parking lot, a busway for the 131, 136, and 137 buses, and its very rarely used Commuter Rail platform which only is in use when the Orange Line is down or in emergencies and Winter Street. Turn right from there and walk across the town line you end up with the growing community of apartments near outer stations wooing people with rents which are high for the area but low versus the core of Boston. For people headed north, there is a very long tangent which ends up becoming Banks Place in Melrose, meeting Main Street next to Hunt’s Photo & Video and continuing into the picture-perfect experience which is Melrose. However, this job wasn’t at Hunts.

Turn right and you end up on Washington Street where there is a street stop for the 132 bound for Melrose’s west side and Stoneham. It’s a mix of residential and industrial and on the right side of the street you can see the operations of Oak Grove Yard and see the wearing-apart roofs of the 01200’s while in the station. We’ll walk, we’ll go in for an interview, we’ll ace the interview then walk back and smell the obvious smell of hot dogs from the vendor just past fare control.

Flash forward a few days. Do the actual job. Realize that there’s nothing near there to get lunch but that’s more than okay. Finish the work only to find that this was a test, you failed because you didn’t think of doing it their way (which they knew you were rusty on), walk down Washington Street. Once you get within sight of the platforms, get a call.

“The client just didn’t see you as a fit and is ending the assignment.”

Before I finish this review: I know I’m an outsider. I know I’m male and applying for fields that are female-heavy (administrative, HR, and nonprofit). But how is it that someone with a Masters can’t even get a viable chance in this town is aggravating. I need full-time work and the money but I think the fact that my resume shows I’m not from here is hurting me. If anyone wants to help, please drop me a line because I can really use a job or support or whatever since though we’re in a recession, my circle of friends (almost all not here) sure as heck aren’t feeling it.

Get back to Oak Grove and get my old job back. Then wait 45 minutes for a 136/137 to come with a huge crowd waiting for it. Though they had one of the loaner RTS’s they got from Charlestown, I don’t get why these problems happen out of Fellsway more than others, it was awkward and shows that a) commuter rail fares may be too high or b) Melrose, Wakefield, and Reading could use better bus service rather than the current setup of one bus every 30 minutes combined in rush. Great towns but they can use a bit more in the means of transit. You then realize that unless you’re headed into town and Wellington won’t do, who knows when you’ll next be back to Oak Grove.

Station: Oak Grove
Rating (1-10): 5

Ridership: A good mix of demographics and by modes coming in. The lot is always largely full though not congested by Alewife or Quincy Adams standards and like the former there is enough bicycle ridership that it recently gained a bike cage. The four bus routes serving the station get healthy ridership and there is a decent amount of pedestrian ridership as well especially since new apartments (and soon condominiums) have been built across the town line to take advantage of both Oak Grove and of Melrose’s schools.

Pros: For an end of the line station, it’s tranquil. Not overblown like Alewife, not an out-of-town magnet like Riverside or Braintree, no traffic nightmares like how Wonderland and Forest Hills can get (though the beach gives Wonderland the edge there. In contrast to Ashmont, it’s more suburban and of course there are no PCC’s.

Cons: Outside of the current renovation, here’s a big deal: Neither Malden or Melrose has road signs on Main Street at Winter or Banks pointing to people that in fact a train station exists here. The first time I actually used Oak Grove, my wife and I got lost and ended up at Malden Center because of the lack of signage and were only saved by my then-phone’s GPS. Maybe they seriously want it to be tranquil.

An Idea: Make Oak Grove commuter rail an actual station. Put it in Zone 1, make it pickup-only outbound/dropoff-only inbound. Maybe set up a flat fare for ridership heading between Wyoming Hill and Reading. This would provide a good alternative for often spotty 136/137 service and if priced at even $2.50 one-way would be with transfer a bit cheaper than the status quo.

Nearby and Noteworthy: Yes, there are much more accessible Hunt’s at Kenmore Square and Harvard Square. But this one is bigger than both of those combined so for the serious photographer, this is here. Seriously, this is all I’ve got since otherwise people go here to go home.

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.

 

 

136/137 (Reading Depot-Malden Center)

Your intrepid blogger is about to re-enter the workforce and with it comes the leverage to get a place for myself, the wife, and the cats. The latter two, added with jobs and family, make the Bostons and Brooklines a no-go so to the Northern suburbs we went. Both of us wanted to look at a couple of places in Melrose and to scout the area I decided to parlay it into a trip on both the 136 and 137 which means two reviews for the price of one!

As a whole, the 136 and 137 provide local service on the stretch of the Haverhill Line Commuter Rail between Reading and Malden Center and at the far northern end of the line in Reading and from Wakefield Square on they run together and are coordinated routewide most of the day weekdays and Saturdays. The two routes split mainly to service opposite sides of Lake Quannapowitt, the 136 the north/east sides and the 137 the west/south sides.This split makes each route unique as the 136’s solo portion is almost exclusively residential while the 137’s serves the Walkers Brook Road retail strip in Reading and North Ave in Wakefield. Night service is slanted towards the 137 side (mainly due to the retail strip) and Sunday service operates as a loop from Wakefield Square north with service on the 136 outbound and the 137 inbound. Oddly this isn’t referred to as the “136/137” a la the 24/27, 62/76, 426/439, and the late 37/38.

Getting dropped off in Wakefield, I go check my MBTA app of choice and find the 136 is next. I make my way down Main Street and eventually meet the 136 at Salem Street where only a few passengers were on board just after rush hour. Working through Wakefield, passengers boarded at a regular rate until I got off a half-full bus at Lynn Fells Parkway/Franklin Square. Through the next few hours, I observed traffic and noticed that buses were up to a full seated load with some voluntary standees.

Inevitably, I had to head back. Getting on a 137 at the north end of Melrose’s downtown strip, I find a bus that was 2/3 full and grew slightly as it wound its way down Main Street. Then as soon as the bus arrived at Oak Grove, there was a mass exodus as 80% of the passengers got off, bound for the Orange Line. Those staying on get to be subject to a somewhat pointless loop as both buses use Banks Street (Melrose) both into and out of Oak Grove. About ten minutes later, both buses arrive at Malden Center and do the reverse back to Reading.

As a combined route, the 136 and 137 are a great suburban route with good ridership, decent service for the most part (136 solo portion aside), and provides a relief valve for the Haverhill Line with the farthest walk from a station being around five minutes. It could use some work but it is a great resource that also provides a great savings compared to its in-house purple competitor.

Routes: 136/137 (Reading Depot-Malden Center)
Rating (1-10): 7

Ridership: Heavily middle class and heavily slanted towards Oak Grove with some local travel on the Reading/Wakefield and Wakefield/Melrose tracks. The 137 gets more ridership in part due to its heavy retail.

Pros: It’s a good suburban connection and it links together several quintessentially New England towns (even with Wakefield being a little rough around the edges) and provides a good alternative to commuter rail. Had I not narrowly missed one once, it’d have been a good timesaver when the Haverhill Line was zonked due to heat.

Cons: Some of the headways could stand be simplified: 70 minutes per route middays? 100 minutes Saturdays? Coordinated or not, at least 60/90 might be a more standard divide. Short of adding service to make these routes be on the level of the 77, this could be a good start. If the routes weren’t coordinated, I’d be for a headway increase.

Nearby and Noteworthy: For both routes, downtown Melrose is quaint in itself and is worth a trip either via bus or commuter rail. In some regards, it reminds me of a smaller version of Arlington without its stereotype of being “Cambridge North”. The 137 solo portion has the flagship for Jordan’s Furniture which includes a Richardson’s Ice Cream stand, a Fuddruckers, a candy store, and a water show. Be warned: it’s a walk up a hill so stay safe!

Wyoming Hill

If this review is rough, it’s because I’m doing it on the fly. I’m in Melrose today scouting out potential future neighbourhoods and I had the luck of catching the 9:38 to Reading this morning at Wyoming Hill. The southern of Melrose’s three stations, it serves a largely-residential area just south of the main commercial strip. This review has pictures below the jump.

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