MBTA eyes short-term, long-term fixes for Orange Line

Riders frustrated with long waits between trains and crowded cars on the Orange Line can look forward to 2019, when the MBTA expects to begin putting its new Orange Line cars in service and boost capacity by 40 percent.

But in the meantime, T officials said Monday, the public transit agency could increase Orange Line capacity by as much as 10 percent, shuttling an additional 1,200 riders per hour, by expanding an ongoing pilot program to both ends of the rail line.

Under standard practice, when a train pulls into the Oak Grove terminal the motor-person must shut the train down, secure the driver’s cab, walk the length of the six-car train to inspect it, then begin the process of starting the train from the cab on the opposite end.

Since the spring, the T has been quietly testing out a system at Oak Grove station that involves “drop backs” during morning and evening peak times. Under the pilot, once a train pulls into Oak Grove its driver shuts down the train and begins inspecting the cars. A second motorperson waiting on the platform begins the process of starting the train back up while the first driver does the inspection.

Once the inspection is complete, the first driver tells the second driver they can proceed out of the station and then waits on the platform for the next train to come into the station.

“Our release times, or the times we are leaving Oak Grove, are far more reliable than they have ever been in the past,” MBTA Chief Operating Officer Jeff Gonneville told reporters Monday.

If the T were to begin using “drop backs” at Forest Hills, the other terminal on the Orange Line, Gonneville said the Orange Line could cut the time between trains by 30 seconds and run more trains per hour.

Gonneville said that “at worst case from a budget standpoint,” the T would have to have one additional train operator on the clock in order to begin “drop backs” at Forest Hills. He said the T is waiting to see how the new procedures work on the Orange Line before expanding the practice.

“It is something, right now, if we can demonstrate success of this on the entirety of the Orange Line, we could potentially look at rolling it out on other lines,” Gonneville said.

But the “drop backs” system is intended to be a short-term measure to help the T maximize capacity with the vehicles and infrastructure it already has. CRRC, a Chinese railcar giant, is working to fulfill a $566 million contract to build new Red and Orange line cars.

All 284 new cars are expected to be in service by December 2022, according to the T. Once the 152 new Orange Line cars are on the tracks, Gonneville said, the T expects to be able to move 17,220 passengers per hour on the line that links Malden, Somerville, downtown Boston, Roxbury and Jamaica Plain.

“The vehicles themselves will be able to operate faster for longer ... our capacity will be able to increase from about 10 to 14 trains per hour. We’re estimating that at that point in time we’ll be operating at about a four-and-a-half-minute headway,” Gonneville said, referring to the time between trains. “There is going to be a substantial amount of passenger capacity and a substantial increase in trains that can travel per hour.”

Gonneville said his presentation Monday served as a follow-up to one he gave at a meeting in September, in which he said the T’s Red Line could transport an additional 10,000 passengers an hour and keep the time between trains to about three minutes if the agency upgrades the line’s entire fleet of cars.