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Sunday, August 24, 2008

I’d Like to Take the Train, But. . .

I commute by car, a hundred mile round trip—forgive me Mother Earth, for I have sinned. I usually don’t have to do this more than two or three times a week (lots of telecommuting), and I drive the highest mpg car ever offered to consumers. Still. . .

Worcester, Massachusetts where I live, is just over forty miles due west of Boston/Cambridge. And there is a mass transit connection. . . sorta. A little while back, I thought I would take the train in. An experiment, to see how that would work. Because it’s easy to pester people about how “we” need to use mass transit more. Lots of places, when you actually try to use mass transit. . .

Well, here’s how it worked.

I was dropped off at 10AM at Worcester’s Union Station (a gorgeous old building, from the hey day of rail travel, vacant and crumbling for years, then revived in the late 1990s—with mixed results—as an “intermodal transportation center”). Amtrak service is almost nonexistent; the Lake Shore Limited comes through twice a day: heading west, on the way to Chicago; heading east, on the way to Boston. There’s a bus port, served by Greyhound and Trailways. Commuter rail is run by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA)—or just “The T,” the greater Boston transit system: ten trains in (six before noon) and ten trains out (eight after noon) on weekdays.

How late was the 10:30 train I was trying to catch? It NEVER came.

First there were digital sign updates: Train Late; Track Fire. Then there were public address system announcements to the same effect. After almost an hour, there was an announcement that a bus would be sent to take train passengers to Framingham, about halfway to Boston.

I should pause here to note that, while the early morning trains may be populated by business people commuting in to Boston, the people waiting for the 10:30 train appeared to be mostly poor, a good percentage of them speakers of languages other than English, and a sprinkling of people with physical disabilities. Almost half of the passengers simply wandered away; they didn’t seem to know where they should go or what they should do.

I went downstairs to the bus port, where I assumed the bus would pull in. The long distance bus people yelled at me irritably, said they had no idea what bus I was talking about and it wasn’t their problem anyway.

I tried to find an MBTA employee to ask for information. Couldn’t find one anywhere in the facility.

Finally, I called MBTA Central, in Boston, to ask where I should go. It was news to them that there was any problem with the Worcester train, but they put me on hold and gamely pursued information on my behalf. After ten or fifteen minutes, I was told the MBTA bus would pull up in front of the train station.

Around noon, it did. It took (fewer than half of) us to Framingham, where they were holding a Boston-bound train. Slowed by track work in a few places, the train eventually got us to South Station; from there, I took the subway to Kendall Square; from there, I walked to my office.

Time, door-to-door: four hours. Door-to-door time, on the way home, without incident: two hours. Time, door-to-door, when I drive (off peak, without traffic or weather problems): one hour.

I would like to say “I am sure,” I’ll say instead “I hope” this was a freakishly unusual problem. But it just reinforced my feeling that taking mass transit to work isn’t an option for me right now. I could adjust to a four hour roundtrip commute; I’m not much on working on the train, but I guess I’d have to learn.

But I can’t fail to show up at meetings and classes. How much time would I have to allow to give myself a reasonable margin of error? Three hours each way? On my test trip, four hours would have been just enough.

The MBTA’s Worcester Line has a variety of problems. At the top of the list, the MBTA doesn’t own the tracks. The freight operator CSX does, so their trains have priority. But the frequency and reliability problems feed a vicious cycle that has long crippled mass transit: there aren’t enough trains and they aren’t reliable, so lots of people won’t take them.

Few riders, few trains; few trains, few riders.

Personally, I’d like to see a maglev train from Boston to Albany, along the right of way of the Mass Pike, stopping at rest stop Park & Ride lots, with either buses or light rail creating feeder lines to city centers along the way.

Not holding my breath. . .

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Len points out that allows you to map car-free trips (mass transit and walking) in a growing number of cities.