One Sunday night two years ago, Marc Ebuña and Ari Ofsevit stayed up past 1 a.m. to watch the city’s transit system grind to a pointless halt.At system closing time, or if the owl car service runs on longer headways, it matters that the last cars make their connections, lest passengers be stranded overnight or until the next owl car, particularly in sketchy neighborhoods.
Sitting in their respective apartments, they were monitoring a website that tracks Boston’s rapid-transit trains in real time. “I live-tweeted the late-night ballet, the last-trains ballet,” Ebuña says. Except what they were seeing was more of a citywide muscle spasm than an elegant dance.
Ebuña and Ofsevit, who had plenty of the personal experience waiting on trains during these puzzling delays, enlisted two fellow members of their advocacy group TransitMatters and did their own audit.That last car generally carried only one passenger.
On that September night in 2016, Ebuña and Ofsevit could see the last trains on the Red, Orange and Blue lines, and the westbound Green Line streetcars, as they reached downtown transfer stations and stopped. The only trains still moving were two lonely streetcars on the Green Line’s E branch. Nothing could move until these two stragglers reached Park Street. Across Boston, Ebuña and Ofsevit knew, 56 buses, many carrying tired shift workers, were idling outside stations, awaiting the trains’ arrival before they fanned out with their last passengers. For a quarter-hour, the Green E trains had held up the entire system.
Ebuña took screenshots and fired off a tweetstorm that night. Ofsevit blogged about the 1 a.m. bottleneck the next afternoon. Another member scraped daily data off a transit website that tracks MBTA trains. The numbers showed that the last Green E train caused about 75 percent of the delays in the transit system’s nightly shutdowns.
It transpires that the car in question is still on the line, returning to Central Boston to lay up, as there is no terminal at the end of its line to pull into. Thus the connecting cars and buses are waiting for one lightly-loaded car to return to Boston, long after all the other owl cars and buses have pulled in at car stations at the outer ends of their lines. "What they found illustrates how good intentions can sometimes lead to inopportune outcomes."
Amateur Planner breaks down the scheduling difficulties, the possible improvements, and the lost overnight maintenance time, all for the lack of an Arborway car house. Instructive, with lots of links to the social media communications that revealed the problems.
The better outcome, the article suggests, is for Boston to view itself as a city that never sleeps.
Many Bostonians work well into the night or very early in the morning at Logan Airport, at our hospitals, at restaurants and bars, and at businesses in the innovation sector that know no boundaries of the clock. This should surprise no one. It’s what great cities do. It’s what 21st Century cities do. It’s what most other cities in the United States do: they work around the clock.Once upon a time that was understood, at least in song. "Now all night long Charley rides through the tunnels Saying, 'What will become of me? How can I afford to see My sister in Chelsea Or my cousin in Roxbury?'" (But did he ever return, no he never returned ...)
Our plan for overnight service would serve those workers, and respond to this clear and persistent need. The owners of the highly regarded restaurant Myer & Chang spoke recently on WGBH’s Boston Public Radio program about how the lack of overnight service harms their employees, proving the point: by shutting down public transportation during late evening and early morning hours, we are doing a disservice to the hard working men and women who do not have “9-to-5” jobs. If we want to be regarded as a vibrant city, and if we care about the people who work hard to make that happen, we need to offer them the convenience and dignity of 24/7 transit service.
There's a lot more in the Politico article, including the ferroequinologist fine point about how the door trap and step-box configuration required for trains calling both at floor-level and street-height platforms slows loading and unloading at stations with street-height platforms.