SUBWAY FIXES on the MBTA hardly feel like they’re on rails.
As Red Line riders gear up for a 16-day October closure of a southern spoke, the shiny new Green Line extension was revealed to have such serious track defects that trains are crawling along at 3 miles per hour. Over the past month, MBTA data shows 33 speed restrictions were opened while only 19 were closed, with more than a quarter of the system’s track afflicted by slow zones.
Another “surge” of work is on the way, this time along the Red Line. The MBTA will close the Ashmont branch and Mattapan trolley line from October 14 to October 29 for “major track improvements,” officials said. Fleets of shuttle buses will replace the trains between JFK/UMass and Mattapan, which serve about 40,000 subway riders and 3,700 trolley riders each day, according to the MBTA.
Even state officials aren’t buying what the T is selling at face value. Rep. Russell Holmes of Mattapan pushed for straighter answers on speed restriction lifts at a Wednesday public meeting about the upcoming closure.
“I think we have to make sure we communicate that this is not over on 10/29 because it felt like we went to all of that pain on the Orange Line with no gain,” he told transportation planners. “So we have to say folks, yes, we’re going to get these tracks in place, but it might be a week or two before they’re settled and we can go to full speed.”
When the Orange Line shut down for its 30-day “surge” last September, officials said slow zones on the new track would remain for about a week as tracks settled into place. Though the line now has the lowest percentage of overall slow zones across the system, there are still about a dozen stretches throughout the line with speed restrictions of 10 miles per hour.
Some riders may find the Fairmount Line of the commuter rail, which will be free for the duration of the Red Line closure, a better alternative to shuttles. But unlike the free commuter rail service during the Orange Line closure, where commuter trains ran parallel to most of the subway line, the Fairmount Line effectively fills a subway gap in parts of Dorchester and Mattapan without other train service.
There are few logical points of intersection between the closed train line and the commuter line. MBTA employees noted the closest point of contact would be a 0.3 mile walk between the trolley stop in Mattapan and the Blue Hill Avenue Station on the Fairmount Line, and the next closest a 0.7-mile walk between the Shawmut Red Line stop and the Talbot Ave commuter rail stop.
After years of advocacy trying to bring the Fairmount up to subway standards of service, the line saw the highest amount of post-pandemic ridership bounce-back and is for the most part the same price as the MBTA subway system. But Fairmount trains still roll by every 45 minutes, a longer wait than even the expanded headways Red Line riders have come to dread. Planners said they suggested most riders plan for an extra 15 minutes to their commutes during the surge.
While most meeting attendees asked for specifics on their commute changes and expressed generalized angst about the disruption – “It’s just a headache. It’s just too much. We can’t have this no more,” one rider said, describing aggravatingly ballooning commutes – one asked why not shut down the whole Red Line and get the work over with, rather than yank riders on and off shuttles over successive months.
The line just serves too many people, said Deirdre Habershaw, chief of staff to the MBTA’s chief operating officer.
“So the bus count is not only not feasible to meet, but we would essentially have a caravan of buses creating gridlock for themselves and passengers all the way from Alewife, along Mass Ave, through the core of the city, and then both branches,” she said. Nighttime work targeted the Braintree line earlier this year. “We need to do this in sort of a triage manner so that we can keep people moving in a way that doesn’t completely shut down all movement throughout the core of the city,” she said.