73 Bus Summer 2016 Service Issues

In response to constituent complaints about the service quality of the 73 bus, we reached out to the MBTA to see if there was an explanation and also to get a timeline for the return of the trackless trolley service.  Below is the response from MTA Service Planning:

As the original email suggested, the recent poor performance on Route 73 is primarily due to a shortage of drivers. When drivers are not available for their regularly scheduled duty, that work is normally filled by drivers on the “Cover List.” However, if the number of unavailable drivers is greater than the number of drivers available to cover the work, then some trips are dropped. When forced to drop trips, the MBTA prefers to drop trips from high frequency routes (e.g., every 6-10 min, like Route 73), reasoning that those riders will face less disruption than riders of routes that operate once an hour, for example. Therefore, drivers may be pulled from high frequency routes to cover vacant work on low frequency routes. Unfortunately, this means that among Bennett Garage routes, drivers are often pulled from Routes 73 and 77.

In Fall 2015, we received a great deal of complaints regarding Route 73 for this reason. Bus Operations instituted a policy that strictly limited drivers being pulled form Route 73 during peak hours. Afterwards, the number of complaints dropped significantly. This improvement was also due in part to the hiring of more drivers and changes in MBTA’s attendance policy. However, we have pulled from Route 73 in recent weeks due to more drivers taking vacation during the summer. While we run a slightly reduced schedule to account for this additional vacation time, it has not been sufficient for us to cover all absences. The policy of not dropping Route 73 trips remains in effect, but we have learned that lately it has not always been followed. The Supervisor Office and Bennett Garage leadership are working closely with our field officials to cut down on these dropped trips.

Looking ahead, when Route 73 returns to trackless trolley service, this issue should be much less common, since vehicles cannot be transferred from Routes 71 and 73 to other routes.  Now that the road construction work on Trapelo Road and Belmont Street is nearly complete, we are currently working to return electric trolley buses to the line. We anticipate that regular service with the electric trolley buses will begin in conjunction with the start of our Winter schedule on December 30, 2016. While this may seem like a long time from now, given that the road project is mostly complete, our work has just begun. The MBTA only recently received permission from MassDOT and Newport Construction to begin work on reinstalling all of our catenary wire between Cushing Square and the Cambridge line (we have already been working on the segment from Waverley Sq to Cushing Sq). This work will take several months to complete. After that, we must conduct testing and ensure that all of our operators are sufficiently trained on the new wires. Therefore, residents in the area should see some non-revenue service trolley buses beginning in the fall, with regular service beginning at the end of the year.

Please let us know if you continue to notice poor service on the 73 bus route.

Andrew Bettinelli
Legislative Aide
Office of State Senator William N. Brownsberger


20 replies on “73 Bus Summer 2016 Service Issues”

  1. If there is a driver shortage, then replacing diesel busses with electric trolley busses will not solve the problem of busses missing from the schedule.

    Will the MBTA be hiring more drivers to meet their regular schedules and to cover sickness/vacation time out? That surely is the only long-term solution to poor service?

    1. The return of the trolleys will help us, because they can’t just send the buses elsewhere. Driver and bus are being diverted together.

      The larger management issues of reducing absenteeism and delivering reliable service are absolutely what the T’s board are trying to address.

  2. My cynical side thinks this is karma from years ago when the 71 bus was often turned into a 73, leaving those in Watertown in the lurch. Often there was a 3 to 1 ratio when waiting to get home.
    Also, the news that they pull drivers from the 77 would explain the many, many times my child waited in vain for a bus to school, none arrived. Not the answer I ever got from the MBTA, of course. In Arlington, there is only a school bus for the 6th graders, leaving 7th grade and above reliant on the MBTA.

  3. Is anybody else disturbed by the notion that the summer schedule is reduced so drivers can go on vacation, rather than restricting how many drivers can go on vacation at one time? Also, their timetable for returning the trolley buses is unreasonable. I thought they were in a hurry to use the diesel buses on other routes (and hopefully junk some of the older ones).

  4. Traffic obstructions, and not just from Star Market across the Parkway, are enduring causes of fewer buses moving commuters to their destinations. Yes, missing drivers, too. How many scheduled buses don’t cross the parkway during a typical rush hour? How many. Ommuters could be moved by buses in bunches, some not reasonably full?

    Both routes 71 and 73 are stalled in rush hour traffic. What capacity is lost? What, could be gained by bus lanes where possible?

  5. This level of explanation is much welcomed, I’m sure, by regular riders of Route 73. Even though I am not in this group of regular riders, I want to express my appreciation for the wonderful follow up on these and similar issues by your office! While it can seem like complaints of this nature are trivial, your recognition of the impact such issues can have on quality of life is very welcome and makes you an excellent legislator.

  6. I was a planner in this area a few years ago, so hopefully this will help. Feel free to contact me through my web site link.

    The honest answer is that they simply don’t have enough people to run the service.

    Due to persistent hiring freezes over the years, their cover list is now minimal and in some garages non-existent, so when someone takes time off, there is often nobody to fill in. Typically they would pay overtime but (a) in rush hours there is nobody just finishing up who could work late, (b) overtime in not mandatory, (c) the FMCB has severely limited overtime in its zeal to show that overtime is down. Overtime of course is not a good strategy beyond a few hours because it’s expensive and causes other problems like driver stress and fatigue. They should instead hire enough people so that a certain percentage of drivers are designated as a fill-in driver, but that would increase the budget and I guess they’re not allowed to do that.

    The strategy for dealing with shortages is also highly problematic.

    1. There should be enough buses and drivers working so that there is always a bus or two waiting in strategic places ready to respond to a disruption; for example if a Harvard route is disrupted a bus now has to either drive from Sullivan or disrupt another route. They need a large enough cover list so that no trip is ever skipped because someone calls out sick.
    2. There are no contingency plans for rail outages. Anytime a rail shuttle is needed that’s a major disruption because there are ~850 buses running in rush hour and you might need 100 or more for the shuttle. I don’t think you could always have enough extra drivers and vehicles available to manage a Red Line shuttle, but you could implement an emergency plan (like the winter weather plan they’re supposed to have by now) including special routes with police escorts, suspension of a few routes, etc. Anyone who has ever experienced an unplanned Red Line outage knows how awful it is, and it will never be good, but it could be much better. Or maybe there should be no shuttle buses in these situations if it can’t be done well.
    3. The idea of removing a bus from a frequent route is premised on the desire to avoid creating a long gap in infrequent service (i.e. reducing frequency from 7 to 9 min is better than from 20 to 40 min). In reality, neither is good. The 73 and 77 are very crowded in rush hour and you can’t carry two buses worth of riders on one bus, so they bunch together and there are long gaps in service. But this goes to #1 above: they need more drivers and buses.
    4. The current scheduling strategy of interlining trips (bus 96 gets to Harvard, then becomes 77 Arlington and back, then 69 Lechmere, then 87 Davis, etc.) causes cascading delays and makes it very hard for a single inspector with a tablet at Harvard to manage disruptions, because then they’re creating more disruptions.
    5. There are only four bus dispatchers on duty for all 180 routes and 850 buses. They are too busy dealing with routine calls to effectively respond to service disruptions. Additionally, the number of on-street supervisors has been reduced to dangerous levels because of budget cuts, so they do the best they can with the limited tools they have, but it doesn’t work.

    Most importantly, the T does not have enough people to do the job. It’s bad enough that someone out on vacation might not be replaced. Yet the FMCB continues to cut the budget for political reasons, and as a result the number of dropped trips and the severity of disruptions both increase.

    1. Also, the T does not understand or show any interest in addressing the severe bunching and long gaps that happen every day on every frequent route. Major cities like NYC, Philadelphia and Chicago keep that mostly under control with various intervention measures, but the T does nothing.

      Some of that is a lack of resources, and the other part is a lack of interest in transit industry best practices.

  7. If what we want is performance to schedule, why is any explanation, reasonable or not, be acceptable? Should we care what the explanation is?

    Wouldn’t we care if T Management assured performance to schedule, and delivered on that assurance. Is that the meaning of excellent management?

  8. I suppose the MBTA’s reasoning of cutting some service of more frequently run routes makes sense. But I’d like to know why they don’t simply hire more drivers if they’re running short so frequently.

  9. Why do we attempt to explain and and offer grudging support to the T for the inadequate performance? I have done this too, explaining poor performance because of under funding.

    In addition to delivering the full schedule of drivers and buses, well maintained, there is the independent problem of traffic. For example, about twenty (20) buses of the #71 and #73 routes on Mount Auburn Street are scheduled to cross the Parkway each hour during the morning commute. Each bus short of that reduces capacity by, say, 50 commuters. Further, traffic along the route tends to bunch buses (ok, bunching is partly a dispatch issue) and crowd the first bus leaving available capacity in the following bus(es), empty.

    The streets are full during rush hours. Do we have to consider initiatives by Watertown and Cambridge that reallocate rush hour street space to bus lanes, and preference at stop lights, and perhaps right of way on the road?

    Could bus riders be galvanized to call for better service? How would we reach them with a call for political action?

  10. I get on the bus on the 3d stop from the end of the line. There are no more seats after the next upcoming stop! People are jammed and not of good spirit. One morning I thought one of the passengers was going to hit the bus driver! The bus driver was asking everyone to move to the back of the bus and there was no more room! And this passenger became violently abusive in speech!

  11. During the morning commuting hours, what portion of the scheduled #71 and #73 buses actually cross the Parkway each half hour. Even one bus short is 50 spaces missing for commuters.

    Bunching, in part caused by running buses in traffic rather than bus lanes where practical, further crowds some buses and runs others ‘nearly’ empty.

  12. The T recently released a lot of data at mbtabackontrack.com. Their target for bus reliability is 75% on time (why not 100%?). During the month of July, the bus system achieved only 68% reliability, and on no day did it exceed 74%. However, route 73 achieved reliability of 85% for July (defined as being no more than 3 minutes later than the scheduled interval (headway)).

    1. Yes, Will, Thanks for this opportunity.

      How does 85% reliability relate to buses per hour? Routes #71&73 schedule 21 buses across the Parkway each rush hour. Hypothetically, 100-85%=15% or about 3 fewer buses suggests 150 commuters. These additional, some in more comfort, commuters could have been carried each rush across the Parkway to the Red Line and jobs, or in the evening to home.

      What is a better calculation of lost capacity? Remember, we paid to purchase the bus, to maintain it, and for the bus driver. That is a lot of cost sitting in traffic or failed to dispatch.

  13. Thank you for asking the MBTA management about service on the 73 bus route. To me, their response is refreshingly credible—more so than those we’ve heard in the past. It also demonstrates to me that the T is more a political entity than a business enterprise. (It’s hard to imagine a commercial service provider telling Raytheon or Fidelity that their work had been delayed because the staff was serving a small client somewhere else.) The stated plan (“regular service beginning at the end of the year”) suggests more delays and seems to invite a political response from those who represent the riders on the 73 line.

  14. To everyone concerned: Mass DOT, MBTA, legislators . . .

    Pathetic, like much of the shoddy quality/reliability of work on the “completed” Trapelo Rd. Belmont St. Corridor. You just can’t live up to your commitments and expected target dates, can you? Too darned hard for an inefficiently operating government-regulated system, is it? We were supposed to have electric bus service restored last Sept., two years after the removal of the catenary wires. We are now passing the 3rd yr. I don’t see the workers out there killing themselves to get the job done in time. Are they “working to rule”? I thought the fuel allocation had been exceeded and the buses, borrowed. Why all the doublespeak? Just return the buses to their original routes, and give us back the electric buses. Wasn’t the fuel supposed to have been an incentive to hasten the process? Deadlines have been passed and promises broken left and right. Let’s get’er dunne!

    December? Give me a break.

    NJK – Trapelo Road

  15. Still no trackless trolleys operating on the 73 line even though all the infrastructure seems to be in place. WWhat’s the holdup?

  16. Now that the 73 buses are back on the wires, there seems to be no uniformity in the way the drivers load passengers at the Harvard lower busway. Some drivers continue to open the far-side (against the wall) doors in addition to the near-side door and other drivers open only the near-side door. Opening only the near-side doors when there is a large group of waiting riders makes for a very slow process of loading. Even before the road construction project, when the buses were on the wires, most drivers opened the near-side door and the far-side door opposite the driver and it made the loading process much quicker. At present, one is never sure where to stand while waiting for the bus because we don’t know which doors the driver will open. If they would all just get on the same program, at least it would cut down on the confusion about where to stand. And opening more than the near-side door would definitely improve the boarding experience.

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