I lived in Allston when I first moved to Boston, which means I relied on the B Line to get pretty much everywhere that wasn’t in walking distance.  I survived frigid winter mornings waiting 30 minutes for a train, only to have one blow right through the station and sweltering summer days when the train was so packed with people that you didn’t even need to hold on to anything to prevent yourself from falling and you stepped off the train looking like you just ran the Marathon.

Packed in on the Green Line.

It’s not always better on the other parts of the Green Line, or the subways.  I’ve stood outside at the Mass. Ave. stop on the Orange Line just as long to wait for a train, and been on Red Line trains in the summer that felt like they had the heat turned on because there were so many people crammed inside due to some service interruption.

Wouldn’t it be great to have a transit system where days like that never happened?

Given the T’s current financial situation, that might seem impossible.  But once the T comes out on the other side of all of this, hopefully with a secure funding source in place, its first project should be implementing the technologies that can turn the impossible into the everyday.

Here are the two technologies that can do just that:

  1. Transit signal priority: This one applies to the B, C and E Lines.  These lines all run at street level, which means even though they have their own right of way, they have to stop for traffic signals.  These stops individually are not that long, but they add up quickly, and traffic on these streets can very easily slow down the trains as well.  Transit signal priority makes those problems go away.  Using similar technology to traffic signals for cars that chance when a car is on a sensor, transit signal priority changes signals for the transit vehicles as needed to move them quickly through an intersection, either keeping a green light green longer, or changing from red to green once a vehicle is loaded with passengers and ready to move.
  2. Communications-based train control/automatic train operation: These are two technologies that would benefit the subways and the D Line, as these parts of the T run completely separated from street traffic.  Together, communications-based train control (CBTC) and automatic train operation (ATO) let transit systems run trains more frequently and with longer hours by eliminating the need for human drivers.  These technologies allow transit systems to be controlled by a smaller number of operators at a remote location who can manage the entire system from computer screens, responding to demands in real time.  By relying on technology and not people, trains can be run with reduced headway (space between the trains) which improves frequency.  Also, eliminating drivers and operators means costs come way down, letting service continue later into the night – or even for 24 hours a day.

So what’s holding this back?  For CBTC and ATO, the primary hold-up is (surprise, surprise) cost.  These technologies would require a huge amount of rewiring throughout the system, and likely would need new vehicles as well.  But for signal priority, the cost would be relatively minor, and the benefits would be dramatic.

Transit systems around the world have been automated or are in the process of being automated.  If Boston and the greater Boston region want to continue to compete in a global economy, we need a transit system that rivals the best in the world.

Vancouver's fully automated SkyTrain opened in 1985.

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and a transit system is only as good as its worst line.  I’d argue the B Line represents a lot of what is holding the T back: outdated technology causing delays in service and overcrowding as a result of those delays.  Making relatively inexpensive improvements there which would drastically change the rider experience and perception should be one of the T’s top priorities.

It’s been great how much attention has been paid to the T’s current financial situation, and how much effort has gone into advocating for reasonable approaches to fixing the problem.  More people are aware of and talking about the T’s problems now than ever.  If we can channel these efforts into advocating for the improvements discussed above once the financial mess has been managed, then we will see the T become the 21st century transit system that we need it to be.

– Nick Downing, Future Boston Research Coordinator

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About Future Boston Alliance

Future Boston Alliance is a non-profit organization seeking to revolutionize our city's creative economy. By advocating for new talent and businesses and holding educational events, we aim to make Boston a hub for collaboration, innovation, and culture.

4 responses »

  1. Alon Levy says:

    If you want comparable labor saving to ATO at lower capital cost, start by bagging the conductors. Commuter trains can run with 1 operator and 0 conductors – there’s nothing inherent to the technology that requires pay-on-board rather than POP. And light rail all over the world runs with just 1 driver – no need for a driver per car as on the Green Line.

    • Alon: That would definitely be a move in the right direction in terms of cost savings. I think the MBTA is moving towards single operators for the Red Line. With the Green Line it’s a bit harder because you pay on board, so there needs to be someone to check on each car of the train, and it is similar with the Commuter Rail as well. But in the long term it’d be worth making the investment in changes to the stations so you can pay before you get on the train.

  2. […] I’ve covered this one in detail before, but here is the summary: there are technologies available that would save the T money once implemented and would simultaneously improve reliability, frequency, and operating hours. This is a situation where you have to spend money to save money, but if the T wants to be a public transportation system for a 21st century city, this will need to happen and better sooner than later. […]

  3. […] definitely not you. It’s me. But… your public transport system is kind of a diva, and you really need to figure out where you stand with that. And you’re not very accepting […]

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