The Future of the Red Line (31 Responses)

The Red Line is the central artery of the MBTA, carrying more passengers than any other subway line, two-times more passengers than the entire commuter rail system and 70% as many passengers as all bus lines combined. Red Line service has been unstable over the past few weeks and I’ve heard from many about that, but there is reason for hope, in the long term, for big increases in both reliability and capacity.

Last week, a group of Senators representing districts along the Red Line met with Brian Shortsleeve the Chief Administrator of the MBTA and Jeff Gonneville, the Chief Operating Officer to talk about the future of the Red Line.

Jeff Gonneville’s passion for making the system work better has been evident in every conversation I’ve had with him about the Green Line and about the Red Line. No less so in this recent conversation. Both he and the Chief Administrator know how much the system matters and also how bad things have been. They went through the litany of problems they’ve had recently and how urgently they are working to minimize their recurrence.

The focus of the meeting was on long term plans. Currently, there are three generations of cars running on the Red Line, the oldest going back to 1969 and the most recent dating from 1992. The oldest vehicles have millions of miles on them. It is a testimony to both the quality of their original construction and the skills of the MBTA’s maintenance shops, that these vehicles are still running at all. But reliability has become a real issue — of 218 cars altogether, 50 are in the shop on any given day.

In 2014, the MBTA set in motion a procurement to replace the oldest two generations of cars. New cars are expected to begin arriving in 2019 and continue arriving through 2022.

At the same time, the MBTA has been improving the Red Line tracks themselves and, most importantly, studying how to improve the signal system — signal system outages often contribute to delays.

The current system is a “fixed block” system — trains are permitted to proceed from track block to track block as the blocks ahead clear. More modern systems don’t depend on track blocks — instead, they track the actual spacing to the next train using communications.

Moving to train control based on spacing on the Red Line would cost the better part of a billion dollars. But the MBTA’s engineers have been carefully studying their options and have developed an exciting alternative. They can upgrade to a reliable digital system still using the fixed block model for a relatively inexpensive $200 million. The MBTA’s signal blocks are short enough that they approximate a continuous spacing model pretty well and can pace trains almost as efficiently.

The huge savings from the preferred approach can be used to acquire additional cars and completely replace the existing fleet. In addition to the obvious maintenance advantage of having a single kind of car in the fleet, a fleet composed entirely of the new cars could allow a big increase in capacity, up to 50%.

The new vehicles will be able to both accelerate and stop more rapidly than the older vehicles. Their braking distance will be 30% shorter, meaning that they can be spaced more closely. Also, since they will accelerate faster, they will spend more time running at their top speed. Overall, the engineers estimate that capacity could increase from roughly 13 trains per hour to 20 trains per hour at rush hour.

All of this will take 8 or 10 years to achieve. For now, while we can hope for slowly improving reliability, service is likely to remain uneven. The MBTA faces a host of tough management and engineering challenges. As your State Senator, I will continue to do everything I can to support their efforts to improve.

Update, December 13

On Monday, this plan was approved by the board of the MBTA. Read the Globe story here.

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    Will Brownsberger
    State Senator
    2d Suffolk and Middlesex District