Changing Expectations for the Green Line

See the recent MBTA presentation to the Fiscal Management Control Board: “State of Service: Green Line Light Rail.”

At our recent forum about the Green Line’s future, MBTA General Manager Frank DePoala offered hope for continuous improvement of reliability, with modest resulting capacity increases, but no hope for big capacity increases within the visible planning horizon.

The General Manager’s frankness and his hands-on familiarity with many specifics of the Green Line’s operations and needs were very reassuring. And he reported good progress on many of the short and medium term goals identified in previous meetings. But the dose of reality he offered about the long term will require some time to digest.

The potential demand for service on the Green Line at rush hour substantially exceeds existing capacity — full cars go past full platforms and many people have given up and chosen other modes of transportation.

I had picked up on suggestions made by the previous management team that if we could move from two car trains to three car trains during rush hour service, the throughput could be greatly increased.

I was thrilled in 2013 when the Patrick administration included hundreds of millions for the new vehicles and power upgrades that three car trains would require in its transportation vision. I made it my mission to advocate for the funding to support that plan.

My first letdown came as it emerged over the following year that actually, there was no medium term prospect of acquiring a new Green Line fleet — many of the existing vehicles had just been refurbished and federal standards might even prohibit the use of federal funds to replace them.

Further, it emerged that even if the fleet could be expanded, there was no place to house additional vehicles — layup and maintenance space for Green Line vehicles are already inadequate.

Last night, the GM identified an additional constraint that puts three-car trains beyond the planning horizon: Currently the underground stations of the Green Line are long enough to allow two two-car trains to discharge passengers simultaneously. Three-car trains are just too long to allow this and the result of adding them would be greater congestion in the core tunnels. Expansion of the underground stations is not a feasible idea to discuss.

The GM also offered some insight into the decision not to immediately go forward with diesel motorized units — an alternative approach to serving some of the same neighborhoods served by the Green Line. DMUs are independently powered subway-like vehicles that could run on existing rail lines. The problem is that they really can’t coexist with commuter rail service at rush hour, so they wouldn’t add capacity at the times of day when additional capacity is actually needed.

The more realistic hopes are for modest capacity increases through a host of fixes and upgrades that will improve reliability and reduce delays. These include upgrades to the signal and power systems, some components of which are over a century old, and synchronization with traffic signals on the above ground segments. These projects are clearly appropriate and actually underway.

One of the other recent improvements is the installation of GPS tracking for all the Green Line cars. This allows better passenger information and also better performance information. Given the incremental nature of the change we can expect in the Green Line, we should focus on understanding the new performance metrics and using them to see if improvement is actually happening.

We should, in addition, make sure that the vehicle replacement procurement does get teed up so that it is ready when the current fleet reaches obsolescence in the middle of the next decade.

As always, I greatly appreciate your input on these issues.

A further comment about three-car trains (5/5/2016)

Routine use of three-car sets is 10 to 15 years away. The issues previously raised as barriers to the use of 3 car train sets — power limits, the current lack of vehicles, the current lack of maintenance space, the incompatibility of the model 7 and model 8 cars in 3 car sets ( combined with the need to mix them to provide accessibility ) — suffice to convince me of that. However, these have all seemed to be issues that could surmounted over a 10 to 15 year time frame.

An additional issue was raised in the presentation — the possible incompatibility of three car vehicles with efficient flow in the core tunnels. I’ve gotten conflicting reads on the issue in various sidebar conversations.

So, I haven’t quite been able to accept that we should abandon three-car sets from a 15 to 25 year perspective. The lead times for new maintenance facilities are long enough that, if three-car sets are viable in the very long term, they perhaps should continue to be part of our conversation now. I will not let this issue go until we get more clarity on the core tunnel issue.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

40 replies on “Changing Expectations for the Green Line”

  1. I have no idea when self-driving cars will arrive, but many enthusiasts think some number like ten years is reasonable. The impact of the technology on mass transit will certainly be significant. (Some people think self-driving cars will become the next generation of mass transit). So it might not make sense to define long term development goals anyway, given the developing uncertainties of the core mission.

    1. Interesting thought. I think the real question is how far we can get with ride-sharing, self-driving or not.

      That’s how we will get cars off the road and limit traffic congestion. A self-driving car is still a car on the road.

      I suppose self-driving cars may make ride-sharing cheaper and more appealing though.

  2. I am unhappy tat the Government Center destination was not reinstated on the B line when the station opened.

    1. You are not alone — others have expressed the same frustration.

      On the other hand, the benefit for B line riders who don’t go to Government Center is more frequent service — going to Government center and turning there adds 7 or 8 minutes to the trip which translates into a longer cycle and fewer runs.

  3. One way to reduce congestion in rush hour is to push more commuters toward cycling. The green line runs for the most part on streets that are not particularly inviting for cyclists, and on most branches I would bet the average distance traveled for a commuter is relatively short vs other lines. Separated lanes, cycle tracks downtown along with the other incremental T improvements could be enough in the medium term.

  4. If underground stations can’t discharge 3 cars worth of passengers at once, is it not possible to alternate 3 and 2 car trains at rush hour, with 3-car trains being marked as “Express” underground and not picking up or discharging passengers there? Or having the third car be closed underground but opening up once the train goes above ground? Passengers could literally get out of the front two cars and move into the back car at all of the first-above-ground stations. Is there no way to add a train turn-around at Kenmore? That station just had such major renovations… no one thought of this? Synchronizing the traffic lights above ground so that the train always gets preference during rush hour is great, but would it make the round trip fast enough to reduce the crowding issues? It seems like a lot of excuses from the MBTA about why things can’t happen.

  5. I am very surprised by “The problem is that [DMUs] really can’t coexist with commuter rail service at rush hour”. In London I saw service every ~10 minutes on commuter rail lines; AFAICT service is not that frequent here. Is the issue really the signaling systems or the number of tracks at South Station rather than the line capacity? If the latter, maybe they should look at how the Hague plans so that two trains can use each station track.

  6. DePoala truly reflects the small-bore thinking with regard to transportation of the Baker administration. While the T’s efforts to improve reliability clearly are necessary and deserve our strong support, a long term plan that will bring about the necessary substantial increase in capacity needs to be under development now. This includes longer vehicles that use platform space more efficiently than coupling together multiple vehicles of the existing configuration, as well as improvements to the infrastructure that allow more efficient and faster operations through the Green Line subway.

    DMUs can be intermingled with locomotive hauled trains, and is done on a daily basis across the globe. The primary limitation to doing this is the signal system, which on Boston’s commuter lines is generally low capacity, in addition to being technically obsolete. The upgrades required for installing Positive Train Control offer a great opportunity to address this issue.

  7. Interesting. Thanks for the information.

    While waiting for the B line last night a man commented to me that he thinks he’s seen a decline in quality of service over the last several weeks. In particular he mentioned longer pauses as trains adjust their schedule at Harvard Street or queue up before Copley (inbound in both cases).

    I haven’t noticed this myself, since my adjustment to the problems you describe has me using the Green Line only in limited ways — e.g. never going as far as Copley before striking out on foot, and avoiding peak times — but from talking to him he seemed like a regular passenger well versed in the MBTA’s challenges, so maybe what he described is real.

    Whatever its problems, I must say I’m feeling much more charitable towards the Green Line and its operators since they acceded to public demand and dropped that horrible “pay your fare it’s only fair” message.

  8. I was thinking on the MBTA crisis and I came to a conclusion the whole planning process needs to be revamped. Basically MBTA divest of it’s bus system by dividing it up into a group of newly formed suburban RTAs. The overstretched T could focus on “Steel wheels on steel rails” The suburbs would do their own planning and service delivery. When I was employed I used to take the LRTA to work and in 4 years had only one “no show” bus. Their delivery was quicker, better, cheaper, more prompt and reliable that the T as far as service delivery. While I know the public unions will cry against this, they have to make their case why we are better off with them. IBEW 103 has done so.

  9. Hi,

    Thanks for the report.

    I hope that this is a reminder of the importance of the expanded train yard that was originally planned for the Green line extension. It seems to be on the chopping block now, but it is clearly needed.

    Regarding the dual berthing comments: this practice is no longer employed by the T except at Park street station. A move to incorporate a safety feature like PTC for the Green line would likely rule out double berthing for good. So it is strange to hear the GM suddenly claim that double berthing is a deal breaker. Sounds like a poor excuse.

    Regarding DMUs sharing rail lines: this is not unusual practice in the world. Certainly many lines in the UK do this every day. The schedule on the Worcester line is not that busy, and even if it were, the answer is to simplify and reduce the number of different stopping patterns on the contended section of track. Busy mainline rail systems operate with 2 min gaps between trains. Sometimes less. We’re not close to those levels. It’s true that the Worcester line needs major repairs just to reach its potential: double tracking, 2 sided level boarding stations in Newton, and modern signalling. May as well do electrification. So I can understand why the T may be reluctant. But it is possible.

    I don’t know if transit signal priority is going anywhere, but it’s important. As is fixing the fare payment and boarding system. I hope that the proposed Charlie card v2 changes mean that we can finally get all door boarding, a big performance boost that doesn’t cost a lot, and also helps with accessibility.

  10. This is all very interesting, and I’m excited to hear all the great ideas that commenters have made. I too think that the T, the city and the state are thinking small when this is a time for thinking BIG on mass transportation, both locally and regionally. We need to prioritize it and make it easier and more comfortable for passengers. Thanks Will for sharing the update.

    1. Sorry, but early retirement and other perks come before the commuting public. Lets have some transparency on the pension fund too. It will be quite revealing.

      1. Geoff beat me to it. I was just about to write the same comment. The Boston Globe has recently published a story revealing the MBTA is spending a good deal of money to cover up transparency of pension funds.

        Ironic, ridiculous, but not surprising.

  11. I find it a little troubling that system upgrades that address critical problems with our mass transit system are outside the “visible planning horizon” and our lawmakers are OK with this?

    Current trains can’t handle the needed capacity. We can’t get bigger trains because the stations can’t support them. We can’t expand the stations for a number of reasons. So what’s the path to goodness? Do we just sit around and wait for the system to break under the pressure?

    What are you guys on Beacon Hill doing to address this (other than wringing your hands lamenting our inability to do anything)?

  12. We should talk about expanding stations. We should not be afried to talk about ideas like that. We need a world class transit system and if expanding stations to allow for 3 car trains will get us there then we should be willing to rise the taxes and expand stations. DMUs or EMUs on commuter rail right of ways is a great idea, particularly along the Fairmont line. They would also be great on the short Needham line, along the Worcester from Boston to Riverside, The Fitchburg Line from Boston to Waltham, and the Newburyport/Rockport Line from Boston to Lynn or Salam.

    1. I think I agree with expanding stations, but it’s definitely a long term prospect — in the short and medium term (i.e. the next 10 to 15 years), there is a huge back log of basic maintenance to address. That has to come first.

  13. Frankly, as long as Voters are so anti Tax I don’t see much of any solution to fund real improvements to the Green Line or any line. Maybe Massachusetts should introduce a VAT tax in this Commonwealth to fund very real necessities like upgrading the transportation to the 21st Century by 2025, and paying off the T Debt imposed I believe during the Big Dig.

  14. Will,

    I appreciate you advocating for more investment in the Green Line. Public transportation is in my opinion the the #1 issue facing the future viability of Boston. There is entirely too much large scale commercial and residential development in the pipeline without ANY investment in transportation infrastructure to support it. This is simply TERRIBLE planning by the city and we are literally going to CHOKE on our success unless something is done and done quickly.

    Seriously. Transportation and the gridlock that comes with it (just look at the disaster in the Seaport District) are a threat to the very future of this amazing city.

  15. About 4 years ago, my green line commute used to take only 45 minutes. Since then, it has gotten progressively worse. Today, it took me an hour and 15 minutes to get home. And it was nice weather! Haha. Anyways, knowing that things are not likely to improve sadly means that I will be moving out of Allston sooner rather than later. The ridiculous rents being the other reason. It’s a bummer because I love it here, but so it goes.

  16. The only place I’ve ever seen the T discharge two trains at once is Park St. We desperately need 3 car trains during peak travel times. I’m getting tired of all the excuses from the T. Each time we seem to get closer to having better service, they come up with some other lame reason why they can’t do it.

    I’m also very concerned that signal priority is going to be less than effective. The City of Boston is saying that they only plan to give trains and buses priority if they are behind schedule. This makes no sense. They should always get priority. It’s the best way to make transit faster AND actually adds capacity, since the faster a vehicle can complete it’s route, the more people it can carry throughout the day.

    Also note that WBUR has had a series all this week about car commuting in Boston. The number of thing they heard from drivers: They would prefer to take transit if transit was actually faster, more reliable, and went where they needed to go. So let’s do it! Let’s do everything we can to make transit work better. We will all benefit when we do!

    1. The first TSP installations will go in this summer — we’ll see how it goes.

      I think the current barriers to 3-car sets are real. I’m less sure about the long term barriers.

      1. Will,

        Any word on the TSP installations that occurred over the summer? Did it occur? What are the results?

        Green line trains and buses carry significantly more people than a passenger vehicle. They should always have priority.

  17. Was there any discussion of the proposed extensioon or was this just about existing service?

  18. Not ideal solutions for dealing with rush hour capacity, but two thoughs come to mind.

    – remove seats from 1 of the green line cars so it is a standing room only car and can fit more people

    – run ‘green line’ buses as a supplement to trains that pick up passengers if a train is full and follows the green line via bus instead of rail

  19. Couldn’t 3-car trains be expressed through the stations where they are too long and the shorter cars could focus on the “missed” stations? There would need to be a little mathematical work to make this function, but it wouldn’t take a genius — well, at the MBTA, let’s hire a genius to do the math. People would need to select the correct express train to get to their destination or choose to walk an extra block or two.

  20. I do remember a time – probably 15 or 20 years ago, when the green line did run some three car trains during rush hours – but don’t remember which models – maybe it was the old smaller PCC cars?

  21. Keep up the good work on this issue whatever the time frame. Many thanks

  22. Overall, discouraging news. Something does need to be done to deal with capacity issues. Maybe improve bus service where it overlaps either the green line e.g. the 57? Or add buses that would mimic the path of the line, sort of like the old Night Owl service, but a daytime version? While the MBTA seems to be in a mode of no capacity increases, the city of Boston is pushing the addition of 53,000 housing units by 2030. How will these new residents get around?

    I agree with another commenter, remove seats so more people can get on. It also improves the ability to move around on the car. Future cars should emphasize standing over sitting.

    Thanks for your continuing focus on public transit in general and this issue in particular.

  23. Dear Senator

    Just want to add a point here. The bigger problem is the unions in MBTA and DOT. That is one of the major root cause of all the malfunction, accidents, costs overrun, system delay and meltdowns.

    It is a perfect summer day, and I just experienced signal caused delay in Alewife for 20 minutes. And this happens so frequently that is becoming not countable.

    I knew it is hard to implement because Unions play a big role in local elections. But we need to gradually walk away from them.

    Thank you

  24. Dear Senator

    Just want to add a point here. The bigger problem is the unions in MBTA and DOT. That is one of the major root cause of all the malfunction, accidents, costs overrun, system delay and meltdowns.That is one of the main reason of overcrowded cars, because the system is not functioning because of incompetent operators.

    I experienced frequently delays on both the green line and also the red line.

    It is a perfect summer day, and I just experienced signal caused delay in Alewife for 20 minutes. And this happens so frequently that is becoming not countable.

    I knew it is hard to implement because Unions play a big role in local elections. But we need to gradually walk away from them.

    Thank you

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