Every night in Downtown Boston at about 12:45 a.m., a procedure, in theory, occurs to allow passengers to transfer between trains downtown and not miss the last train. (This dance is called “East-West”; the name probably goes back decades.) Here’s how it should work (note that this is from an operations standpoint; passengers transfer as they normally would):
- The final Green Line trains from Lechmere, Boston College, Cleveland Circle, Riverside and Heath Street arrive at Park Street.
- The last southbound Orange Line train waits at State Street for the last inbound Blue Line train.
- Once it arrives, the Blue Line train continues to Bowdoin, loops, and waits at Government Center. The Orange Line train proceeds south to Downtown Crossing.
- The last Alewife Red Line train leaves Downtown Crossing when this Orange Line train arrives and runs to Park.
- Passengers at Park transfer between Red and Green Line trains. Once this occurs, these trains are released, and a domino effect takes place.
- When the Ashmont-bound Red Line train gets to Downtown Crossing, the Orange Line trains waiting there are released. (There’s no guaranteed last connection for Braintree passengers.)
- When the northbound Orange Line train gets to State, the Blue Line train there is released. There is a second meet (which is not necessary) between this train and the Lechmere Car at North Station.
- As these trains propagate out through the system, 56 “w” trip buses (the schedule notation of “w” means that a given bus will wait for the last train, although a few schedules use other letters) wait for transfers before making their last trips outbound, completing the domino effect.
|This is what the last train ballet should look like (thanks
to Mark Ebuña for the screen grabs). These trains would
remain stationary for more than 20 minutes. And that’s
on a good night.
|This letter costs the T at least $3 million per year. The “w” notation reads:
“Last trips wait at some stations, primarily downtown, for connecting
service. Departure times are approximate.”
This is entirely unnecessary. Earlier Lechmere trains are just as able to make the connections. There’s a train scheduled to arrive Park at 12:41. If this train were the “w” train, it could drop passengers at Park and continue to Lechmere; any later train could pick up any passenger waiting, but connections for arriving passengers on such a late train would not be guaranteed, other than for buses meeting this train at Lechmere. Or these trains could be operated as non-revenue services, and the 39 bus, which connects inbound with trains at Copley, could provide this service. Other than a few late riders inbound on the E Line, no passengers would be adversely impacted, while every other passenger on the system waiting at least 20 extra minutes (the earliest the last Red Line has left Park Street in the past 30 days has been 1:09, the average has been 1:19—thanks for the coding from @MBTAinfo) would benefit. I’m usually not one to advocate for earlier service, but in this case, either publish a later, more truthful schedule, or run the service on time.
Then there are the costs, which cascade very quickly through the system, since the single Lechmere trip which operates late causes trains on every other line, and 56 bus trips, to all experience delays of at least 20 minutes. But the operators still get paid (overtime, in fact) and the power stays on and the inspectors keep the stations open and the operations staff stays on duty until the last trains pull in. It costs nearly as much money to keep a train stationary as it does to run it, and with overtime, it may cost more. In 2014, the T reported that a bus cost $178 per hour to operate, a heavy rail car $240 and a light rail car $264. Giving them the benefit of the doubt that they’re operating single car green line trains, the cost per hour of four light rail cars (B, C, D and Mattapan), 30 heavy rail cars (five trains at six cars each) and 56 buses comes to $18,224 per hour, or $304 per minute. If the Lechmere car causes a 21 minute delay (as scheduled), this costs $6,384 per day, or $2.33 million per year. In fact, the average delay is more on the order of 34 minutes, which costs $3.77 million. This assumes that all delays are caused by the late Lechmere car; if we attribute 20% of the delays to other causes, there is still a direct operating cost of 1.9 to 3 million dollars per year. (These costs are likely even higher now.)
Two to three million dollars. All because of a “w” on the schedule.
But it gets worse. The T has precious little time between the end of service and the first trains the next morning; most lines aren’t scheduled to be cleared for powering down or work until about 1:30, leaving only about three hours and thirty minutes until service starts in the morning. A 20 to 30 minute delay accounts for 10 to 15% of this time, meaning work crews have to wait for this unnecessary delay before performing maintenance.
Then there are the passengers. If you take the last train, the schedule—and any real time data—will show it coming at a certain time. But you’ll either wind up standing on a platform for 20 to 30 extra minutes, or sitting on the train downtown for that amount of time. There is probably significant ridership loss from people who know how long the wait takes, and choose another mode. This fare revenue is probably minimal in relation to the operating costs, but certainly not zero, but the impact to passengers is more drastic. If we assume just 10 passengers per rail car and two additional passengers on each bus who don’t transfer from a train), it amounts to 450 passengers each inconvenienced by 20 to 30 minutes. That adds up to 150 to 225 hours per night, or 50 to 75 thousand hours per year.
The FMCB’s response to a budget gap has been to push privatization, which is not guaranteed to fill any such gap, but will draw the ire of the unions and potentially degrade service. Yet various measures which this page has noted have fallen upon deaf ears. There’s a lot of money to be saved at the T. There’s a lot of very low-hanging fruit. (Like publishing a set of schedules without a “w” for the 12:47 departure from Heath Street. And who reads paper schedules, anyway?) This problem would be very easy to fix: the next schedules would be amended with a different note for the E Line, perhaps “x: last trip making connection downtown departs Heath Street at 12:25.”
Making that change would go a long way towards paying for real, actual overnight service.