Boston: Subways, Wonderland, Trams and Mattapan

NOTE: In this blog post, I refer to certain rail vehicles as trams. Some American cities call them streetcars, others call them trolleys. Being from Melbourne Australia, they will always be trams to me.

Boston has a comprehensive public transport system operated under the branding of MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority). MBTA operates buses, ferries, heavy rail (branded  Commuter Rail), subway and trams. Single trip fares are available on all modes, but on buses, subways and trams it’s cheaper to use a “Charlie Card“; MBTA’s stored value transit card. Charlie cards are not accepted on ferries or Commuter rail, but passengers may buy tickets using the mTickets mobile phone app.

Along with the stock standard bus network, MBTA operates trolley buses and a BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) Busway. The BRT is shown as subway maps as the Silver line, operating as 4 interlinked routes (SL1, SL2, SL3 & SL4). Due to the tunnels on routes SL1 & SL2, dual mode diesel-electric buses are used; the buses are powered by overhead wires (like a standard trolley bus) on the underground section of the route. For the rest of the route, a diesel generator provides electricity to the electric motors.

Although Boston’s ferries operate under the banner of MBTA, they are operated by private companies. There are inner harbour ferries as well as Commuter Boats operating to Hull (on the Nantasket Penninsula) and Hingham (south of Boston). Ferries also operate to Logan Airport for a premium fare.

A Kawasaki double deck cab control car stands next to an MBB single deck cab control car at Boston South Station

MBTA cab control cars stand side by side at Boston South station. Kawasaki double deck (left) and MBB single deck (right).

Commuter Rail services operate 14 routes throughout Massachusetts and Rhode Island, sharing some tracks and stations with Amtrak services. Trains are painted in a striking livery of purple and silver with yellow stripes. A mixture of single and double deck cars are used, and all trains are powered by diesel locomotives. More information is available here.

An MBTA Commuter Rail service near Roxbury Crossing subway staion

An MBTA Commuter Rail service near Roxbury Crossing subway staion

Commuter rail and Amtrak services radiate out from 2 stations in the downtown area of Boston; North Station and South Station. There is no heavy rail connection between the 2, passengers wishing to connect must take an Orange and Red subway train, transferring at Downtown Center station. The heavy rail services use North or South station as follows:

  • North Station
    • Amtrak Downeaster (to Portland and Brunswick in Maine)
    • Rockport
    • Newberyport
    • Haverhill
    • Lowell
    • Fitchburg
  • South Station
    • Amtrak Northeast Corridor (to New York City, Philadelphia and Washington DC)
    • Amtrak Lake Shore Limited (to Chicago)
    • Greenbush
    • Plymouth
    • Kingston (Massachusetts)
    • Middleborough/Lakeville
    • Stoughton
    • Wickford junction and Providence (Rhode Island)
    • Forge Park
    • Needham Heights
    • Worcester
A Red line train departs Ashmont

A Red line train departs Ashmont

Boston has 3 subway lines; the Red line,  the Orange line and the Blue line. All lines operate a combination of subway and above ground operation  The Orange line crosses both the Red line (at Downtown Crossing) and the Blue line (at State), however the Blue and Red lines do not cross.  The Orange and Red lines operate 600v DC 3rd rail service, but the Blue line is something slightly different.

An Orange Line train near Roxbury Crossing station

An Orange Line train near Roxbury Crossing station

The outer terminus of the Blue line is called Wonderland, so I thought I’d go for a ride to check it out. The service started off as a normal subway journey, running through slightly smaller subway tunnels than the Red and Orange lines. The train emerged from the tunnels and the train stopped at Airport station (where a free shuttle bus is available to and from Logan airport). When the train stopped in the station, half of the lights went out in the train, and it went silent. Suspecting that there had been a power outage, I was surprised when the lights went back on and the train started gently humming again. We departed without delay or fanfare. What had happened was a standard mode of operation for the blue line. at Airport station, trains change between 3rd rail (with pick-up shoes) and overhead wires (with pantograph) for their power supply. I hadn’t noticed the pantographs when I boarded due to the tight clearances and low roof lines in the tunnels. After this unexpected power switch, the train made a normal journey for the remaining 5 stations to the terminus at Wonderland.

The dual mode Blue line trains feature 3rd rail pick-up shoes (centre of the bogie) and roof mounted pantographs.

The dual mode Blue line trains feature 3rd rail pick-up shoes (centre of the bogie) and roof mounted pantographs.

I didn’t know what to expect at Wonderland; a theme park, a housing development, a mega mall… but what I found was much more welcome on this warm autumn day. Across the road from the station was Revere Beach; sandy and calm on the shore of Broad Sound. People were swimming, and a cruise ship was making its way slowly out towards the Atlantic Ocean, there was barely a breath of wind, so I took my shoes off and walked through the warm water at the beach edge.

A cruise ship makes its way across Broad Sound near Wonderland subway station

A cruise ship makes its way across Broad Sound near Wonderland subway station

After soaking up the unexpectedly relaxed atmosphere, I headed back to the station. The rail operations at Wonderland are interesting; trains arrive on the outbound platform, run through a pair of crossovers to one of 2 dead end tracks, then back into the inbound platform. This provides good opportunity to photograph the blue line trains, as all is easily visible standing on either platform.

A Blue line train runs from the outbound platform at Wonderland into the dead end track to terminate.

A Blue line train runs from the dead end track to the inbound platform at Wonderland.

Boston’s trams are divided up into 2 different types; the Green Line and the Mattapan High Speed line. The Green line radiates out from dowtown Boston, and like San Francisco and Philadelphia, the runs through tunnels in the downtown area.

A Green Line tram runs through a tunnel in downtown Boston

A Green Line tram runs through a tunnel in downtown Boston

The Green line actually consists of 4 lines (or branches):

  • A Branch – Waterton (Closed)
  • B Branch – Boston College
  • C Branch – Cleveland Circle
  • D Branch – Riverside
  • E Branch – Heath
A 2 car Green line tram on the E Branch at Brigham Circle. The lead vehicle is a Type 8 LRV.

A 2 car Green line tram on the E Branch at Brigham Circle. The lead vehicle is a Type 8 LRV.

The Green line uses relatively modern Light Rail vehicles, which are capable of operating in multi unit (I saw up to 3 trams couple together in service). Trams in use on green line services are:

  • Type 7 LRV (number 3600 – 3699) made by Kinki-Sharyo 1986 – 1988
  • Type 7 LRV (numbers 3700 – 3719) made by Kinki-Sharyo 1997
  • Type 8 LRV (numbers 3800 – 3894) made by AnsaldoBreda 1998 – 2007
Some of Boston's earlier type 7 LRVs are not in the best condition

Some of Boston’s earlier type 7 LRVs are not in the best condition

The Mattapan High Speed Line is something different. After the interesting discovery of the Norristown High Speed Line in Philadelphia, I decided to take a look at this line for myself. The line runs from the south-western terminus of the Red Line (Ashmont) and is shown on subway maps at being a continuation of the line.

After leaving the Red line train, signs directed me out of Ashmont station into a forecourt.The forecourt was on an upper level with tracks laid into the concrete. The tracks led from a ramp up from ground level, up to a stop, did a 180º turn and led to another ramp back down to ground level. Looking down the ramp, I could see the line was ballasted, with a small ground level platform at a stop in the distance.

Looking down the ramp from Ashmont station towards Cedar Grove on the Mattapan High Speed line.

Looking down the ramp from Ashmont station towards Cedar Grove on the Mattapan High Speed line.

I waited at the Ashmont stop with a growing crowd, not knowing what to expect. After about 10 minutes, I saw a rail vehicle approaching. It was painted orange and rounded, with a centre headlight, which made it look like an older vehicle. As it approached, I found to my delight that it was a vintage PCC streetcar from 1943!

A PCC car stands at Ashmont

A PCC car stands at Ashmont

PCC (Presidents’ Conference Committee) streetcars were widely used across North America from the mid 1930s. They were designed and built as a result of a gathering of Presidents of streetcar operators to try to modernise and standardise rolling stock. They were the next generation of trams in North America, with modern control equipment, better brakes, smoother suspension and better passenger amenities. Most North American cities with streetcars saw them operate at one stage, with some having large fleets (Toronto – 765, Chicago – 683, Pittsburgh – 666, Philadelphia – 568). PCC cars remain in service in a handful of American cities; Boston (Mattapan High Speed Line)San Francisco (Market St Railway), Philadelphia (SEPTA route 15) and Kenosha Wisconsin (Kenosha Streetcar Society).

A Mattapan High Speed line PCC car climbs the ramp towards Ashmont station

A Mattapan High Speed line PCC car climbs the ramp towards Ashmont station

I boarded, and rode the vintage vehicle along the reserved right of way, first through dense housing and then through leafy parkland along the Neponset river. The old tram performed well, with fast acceleration and braking, riding smoothly on the well maintained track. The journey from Ashmont to Mattapan was enjoyable, but disappointingly short, at just over 8 minutes. At Mattapan, the stop is adjacent to the tram depot, and I spent some time photographing the trams and watching the arrivals run around a very tight reversing loop. I walked the 2.3 miles (3.7 km) back to Ashmont, finding plenty of good photographic locations for this unique line along the pleasant riverside walk, before catching the Red Line subway back to Boston.

A Mattapan High Speed line PCC car departs Capen Street towards Ashmont.

A Mattapan High Speed line PCC car departs Capen Street towards Ashmont.

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2 responses to “Boston: Subways, Wonderland, Trams and Mattapan

  1. PCC II car, actually. All new innards, original shell. Conversion done at Brookville, Inc. Philadelphia did this with 18 of its old PCCs for its Rt 15 line.

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