Tales from the Red Line: Making do with what it is

This spring, the Reporter engaged ten undergraduate students from the Northeastern University School of Journalism to take a few rides along the MBTA’s Red Line, which runs from the Alewife Station in Cambridge to either the Ashmont Station in Dorchester and on to Mattapan, or to the South Braintree Station, as it clicks and clacks along during morning and evening rush hours and report back on what they saw and heard along the crowded artery of rail that runs through our neighborhood. Their observations follow:

By Megan Lieberman and Lindsey Schmidt
Clearly, many passengers on the Red Line have come to accept the breakdowns and delays that go with relying on this route for their rush-hour commute, but many of them were surely troubled by the flooding in the stations that recurred during several stretches of heavy rain in March.

On March 30, crowds and delays were not the problem. The month’s rainfall total had reached 13.63 inches, according to the National Weather Service, one result of which was pools of water in indoor stations. In some, rain water had surged through holes in the walls, while in others, water leaked through cracks in the ceiling, a soaking observed and sometimes felt by the T’s harried clientele.

Dori Gillbert, 51, of Haverhill, who uses the Red Line to commute weekdays to classes at UMass-Boston, said one of the most frustrating parts of the commute is the condition of the Red Line stations on rainy days, not just when there is major flooding. “They should just take care of it now. It only seems to be in need of a few simple repairs.”

The popular Park Street underground station had traffic cones and sandbags blocking off a 50-foot section of platform that flooded over on March 30. The platform was so crowded that some riders had to stand in the water. And there was evidence of major water leaks around the benches where people waited for trains at the JFK/UMass indoor, above-ground station.

“It leaks whenever it rains,” piped up Lorraine Layne, a Red Line work commuter, “And it’s been raining quite a bit lately.”

For all that, this flooding was special in its breadth; morning commute delays and breakdowns – and being late to work as a result -- are regular happenings, according to regular riders. Eileen Hutchins of Dorchester readily recalled a one-hour breakdown delay outside the Massachusetts General Hospital earlier this year. “We then all had to get off and take a bus,” she said. Annette Jackson, a daily commuter to and from downtown agreed that the morning commute is often slow, but the problem is not in waiting for trains to arrive. “There is so much stop and go, so much waiting in between stops,” she said. “That is where I find I’m being delayed the most, waiting on the train in the tunnels in between the stations.”

Jimmy Pearson, a 57-year-old regular on the line, looks at everything pragmatically: “There is definitely overcrowding during rush hour, but it’s natural for public transportation. What are they going to do?”

Les Owen of Dorchester has an answer: “The trains should be upgraded to newer models so they don’t break down as much and are more reliable.”

But Pearson holds his ground: “I have used the Red Line for many years, and I have seen the improvements they’ve made. They can’t change everything overnight.”

By Jessica Bolandrina and Brenna Eagan
Someone new to Boston’s Red Line train service might look at the spilled coffee and scattered newspapers on the floors of the trains and deplore the unkempt appearance. But on a number of trips along the line, we found that the more experienced riders look past the clutter and appreciate the Red Line for what they know it is: an adequate means of public transportation.

“There are always going to be little problems, but I take the train four or five times a week out of Boston to visit my girlfriend,” said Anthony Sandstrom, a college-age Red Line user.

The Red Line’s peak operating hours are from 7 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 6 p.m. during the workweek and during those times, riders often have to stand shoulder to shoulder to shoulder along the length of the line. But at other times, there might be as few as one or two passengers per car.

Erin Sinclair of Brookline uses both the Red Line and Green Line to get to work each day. “The Red Line gets crowded,” she said, ”but I feel like the Green Line is worse and gets more crowded,” Sinclair even found a plus in taking the Red Line -- the more spacious layout of each car. “The cars are wider and more comfortable than the ones on the Green Line,” she noted.

The Red Line uses some of the oldest train cars in the system alongside newer models, according to the T. The oldest cars date to 1969 while the newest arrive din 2002. Robert Grappi of Quincy works in Boston and has been using the T since he was a boy. An experienced commuter on the Red, Orange and Green lines, he thinks that the Red Line is the least appreciated of the group.

“They need new cars on the line, but the MBTA doesn’t have the money for it,” he said, explaining that the T is investing money on plans to extend the Green Line to Cambridge, Somerville, and Medford. That money would be “better put to use fixing Red Line cars,” he asserted.

Despite the age of the cars and operational delays, the Red Line can be fairly reliable and punctual. The T suggests that the ride from JFK-UMass Station to Ashmont should take 11 minutes, and that proved to be the case on several trips taken in late March.

Madoline Mahoney, visiting from Maine and knowing nothing about the Red Line, found herself one day at Ashmont when she wanted to be at Harvard. Still, she thought that her Red Line run the wrong way was a positive experience. “I’ve gotten a little bit lost. It’s my fault, though, not the Red Line’s,” she said with a laugh.

Mahoney also compared the T to the New York subway system and noted how much more accommodating and clean the Red Line was.

Frequent riders like Anthony Sandstrom just tolerate the trash left by other passengers. “I mean, its public transportation, so it’s clean enough,” he said.

By John Dwyer and Samuel Lauf
Commuters heading into Boston at 7 a.m. on a recent Thursday morning crowd the Braintree MBTA Red Line stop, waiting for their trains. Coffee in hand, Zack Stenstrom, a student at the UMass- Boston, waits at the station in tight quarters with other students, business men and women, and other commuters. The scene is one of backpacks, newspapers, and coffee cups.

Stenstrom, who rides the Line to school Monday through Friday, says, “It definitely beats driving into the city during rush hour. The trains get crowded, but it’s a lot better than being stuck in traffic.” That was the common assessment on the trains and in the stations during several recent rush hour trips.

By 7 a.m., the trains into Boston have become crowded. A half-hour later, all seats on all trains are filled; it’s standing room only leaving the station. By the time the cars reach the North Quincy stop, commuters have trouble finding any room at all to place themselves. Luckily, a Red Line train comes by about every five minutes at rush hour, so most commuters do not have to wait long to get a ride.

Some eight hours later, a full set of Red Line trains pulls out of Park Street and heads to the Downtown Crossing stop on its way to Ashmont Station in Dorchester. Riders boarding trains from Alewife up to Andrew Station have a choice to make: Take the train to Braintree or wait on one going to Dorchester. This Ashmont train is as crowded as the one in Braintree in the morning until South Station, where many passengers get off, most heading for commuter rail trains to the far-out suburbs. By the time it reaches Ashmont, there is no crowding at all.

You can even find a happy camper or two if you look around. A 30-year veteran of the Red Line, Tom Whalen, called it “the best ride around for $1.70.” Peter Joyce, another Red Line regular, agrees. “The Red Line is better than driving. It’s cheaper than driving. Even though it has had problems before, it’s just more reliable. As for cleanliness, that is the responsibility of the riders to make sure they leave the trains clean.”

A Quincy resident who declined to give his name had a decidedly mixed view of the line. “It’s not the cleanest, best maintained, or the most reliable. It is notorious for problems. The commuters are poorly informed if and when the Red Line is having problems, which is too often. Even so, I take it to work every Monday through Friday.”

By Celena Homsyand Manisha Punjabi

If you’re going to take the Route 22 bus from Ruggles Station to Ashmont Station, the conventional wisdom seems to be that you’re better off taking it in the morning. On a recent morning, the 8:05 carried about 10 passengers from Roxbury to Dorchester. The run is advertised as being 30 minutes long, and on this morning it arrived right on schedule at Ashmont, at 8:35.

During the evening commute that day, Route 22 bus was due at Ashmont at 5:13 but instead arrived five minutes late, which didn’t seem like a bad deal. But not to Luce Mendell, a frequent rider who was waiting at Ruggles. “The bus is a terrible experience. It is filthy, never on time, and 80 percent of the drivers aren’t friendly.” She then chuckled as her point was made when driver drove off, even though a woman was running for the bus and yelling for the driver to stop.

The evening bus had a lot more trash on the floor than in the morning and as six people were still trying to find their seats, the driver started moving, causing a couple of them to stumble.
When asked about their ride, several passengers on the evening run said they hope for an improvement of the punctuality and cleanliness of buses on Route 22.

What does it all mean? For most users, the Red Line is what it is, a mostly dependable service that gets them where they want to go on a schedule that doesn’t uproot the rhythm of their lives. Riders have but one goal, getting there, and ideally on time. Everything else is in second place.