Sunday, March 31, 2013

How do you move 1000 bicyclists by train?

This seems like it should be a rhetorical question. It's not.

In 2010, about 70 bicyclists got onboard the late train to Worcester at 11:00, biked to the start of the Boston Marathon at midnight, and rode back in to the city. In 2011, 250 bikers showed up. Last year, by most estimations, 750 bicyclists made the trip, 150 on an early twilight ride and 600 on the traditional midnight ride.

If history is any guide—if the event triples again in size—2000 bicyclists will attempt to cram aboard the train and get 25 miles west to Hopkinton. Even if the growth of the event slows, a good 1000 bicyclists will likely show up to the event. (It is being advertised as "limited space" right now—we'll see what happens.) The issue here is that with 600 bicyclists last year, the MBTA (well, really the MBCR, which operates commuter rail service) had to couple two trains together with 14 cars in order to accommodate these travelers. Any significant increase will have to have advanced planning, or some riders will get left behind.

While no one will lose their job if they can't fit on the train (i.e. no one is missing work due to an overcrowded train), it would be lost revenue for the T, and bad publicity. The event garners some news coverage and probably will continue to do so, and if these cyclists are unable to cram aboard the Midnight Marathon train they're less likely to take their bikes aboard trains the rest of the summer, and genrally at off-peak times. This is discretionary ridership which adds revenue without adding operating costs (or crowding rush hour trains). It's in the T's best interest to make sure everyone gets onboard and happy.

The problem is that unless changes are made, the train is nearly maxed out. So, there need to be some strategies to maximize the number of cyclists per train, streamline boarding and detraining, and have enough room to get everyone to Southborough, and staging them not in an intersection. Oh, and garner enough revenue for the MBTA that it is worthwhile to run extra trains to accommodate these passengers.

Maximizing cyclists on each train. Last year, when lines of cyclists snaked through South Station and on to the platforms, there were few guidelines to maximizing the number of bikes on board. The T ran single-level coaches (so cyclists didn't have to haul bikes up and down stairs—this is probably for the best) with, for the most part 2-3 seating. For the most part, bikes were set in to the three-seat side of the car, and people sat in the couplets. This meant that, for all intents and purposes, 40% of the seats on the train were occupied.

This can be improved. With a minimal bit of cajoling, three bikes can be fit in each row. This means that every six rows of seats can see 15 bikes and 15 passengers. How? The first row has three bikes and two seats, so there's a leftover passenger. The second row has three bikes and two seats, so there are now two leftover passengers. This goes on until you get to the sixth row which has five extra passengers and, very conveniently, five seats. Fill those up and start from scratch. You've raised capacity from 40% to 50%. With a seven car train and 120 seats per car, you can now accommodate 420 passengers.

How do you assure that there are three bikes per seat? Get volunteer riders-turned-ushers to enforce these rules. Have them walk down the cars from either end and assure there are three bikes to a seat and nothing goes empty. This doesn't have to fall on T employees (who were mostly amazed at the turnout last year); I'm sure a couple dozen volunteers could be marshalled in to showing up at 8 to make sure everyone gets on the train. I'd probably be one.

Streamline boarding and detraining. Boarding is relatively simple at South Station. It's time consuming, but with wide, level platforms it is relatively easy. The goal should be to get people on the train early, and board multiple cars at once. Last year people seemed to board one car until it was full and then move to the next. If we know how many bikes can fit in each car (and we should, see above) we can shepherd carloads of cyclists down the platform to the further-down cars and have everyone board at the same time.

Last year was that the extra train called in didn't arrive until after 10, and people spent a while waiting (although the service did leave on time). If there are multiple trains, when a train is full, it should go. Last year the train had to be staged—detrained in sections—which more than doubled the time it sat at the station. In fact, here's an idea. The 11:00 train makes all stops to Southborough. It should be boarded full except for one car, which can be reserved for "normal" passengers, and leave at 11:00 and make all stops. A second special train could begin boarding a bit later—say, at 11:00—and make an express run to Southborough (in about 35 minutes). It could cross over at some point and detrain on the inbound track (since it would then turn back to Boston) at the same time as the first train, doubling the speed people can get off. If there was a need for three trains, an early express could make a run out to Southborough and clear the tracks before the later trains arrived. It's not like there is a lot of traffic on the line on Sunday evenings, so all of this would be possible.

In fact, there is a large parking lot on the inbound side, which would be a better place to assemble than last year when cyclists took over the streets (not that there was much traffic).

Sell and collect tickets. This worked well last year, for the most part. One change is that this year many participants may use smart phones to buy their tickets, and a question is whether there would be an issue with checking these tickets en masse. A certain suggestion would be to cordon off the platform at boarding time, and check tickets before boarding, so conductors wouldn't have to ply the coaches en route.

Finally, it might be advisable to suggest that Midnight Marathoners buy a higher-zoned ticket to help the T cover the costs of this train. If the ride organizers told everyone to buy a Zone 8 one-way ticket, it would only be a dollar or two more for each rider, but it would be a few thousand extra for the cash-strapped T. Furthermore, requesting that riders buy a specific ticket ahead of time (Zone 9, for instance, which otherwise serves only the TF Green airport) could give a pretty good read on expected turnout. They are doing a tremendous service to the community by running extra-long trains, or extra sections, and putting a little extra money—which most anyone riding their bike at midnight on Marathon Monday can afford—in their coffers is good for all.


  1. Great post! You're pretty much on the money- amazing considering you haven't been to any of our meetings where we've come to pretty much the same conclusions. Maybe next time you should :-D

    Greg Hum, founder of the ride, referred me to your post. I'm one of the organizers. Both we and the MBCR were really surprised with the turnout last year- based on the online RSVPs, we expected about half that. I don't think we'll see it triple this year... in part because it can't.

    A lot of the things you recommend here are in fact being put into place. Unfortunately, you're also right- we're about maxed out. We're also a bit behind on planning due to delay in getting clearance from the MBTA and MBTA Police to actually proceed with the event. They were initially reluctant but met with us and the good folks at the MBCR to come up with a solution for safety, cost, and efficiency.

    The event definitely garners good publicity for all involved parties, but I too made the false assumption this is extra revenue for them. I made that assumption based on the idea the ride would be profitable. It is not. The cost of running an extra train down the line is nearly $13,000 due to the enormous cost of fuel, extra staff, insurance, cleaning, etc

    Considering we can only get about 50% occupancy due to bikes in the seats, that staff would need to work overtime, and that a regular ticket is only about $7, it's lose/lose/lose for them all around. The tracks are also shared with freight and there are regularly scheduled trains too, so coordinating an extra departure (with turnaround back to the city) is a real hassle. If they were running a train w/ low occupancy already, it wouldn't matter much (they're losing on that departure anyway; this let's them lose less albeit with some inconvenience), but what we need are extra trains.

    To break even the ticket would need to be upwards of $30. Considering the quote/unquote 'free' publicity it garners, the goodwill towards a desireable demographic (largely younger professionals without cars), and the fact the MBCR seems to simply like the idea in general, they are graciously providing a single dedicated depature for us, though with a higher ticket price of $15.

    Several staff members at the MBCR are volunteering for it rather than getting paid. We will also be seeking a couple dozen volunteers on our side (interested?) to help with loading/unloading and other issues. The ticket price goes entirely to operating the train. Greg and I and everyone else are volunteering our time. For all intents and purposes, this is essentially still free.

    Unfortunately it's not simply a matter of cost. There is a Red Sox game that night so the other trains and the station are expeted to be packed. The game prevents us from adding additional trains this year. This is another reason why there is limited space. If you can't make the train, you'd need to taxi it out there or get a ride from someone. Bike riders wishing to do the Midnight Marathon ride will not be allowed on any of the other departures.

    The Midnight Marathon depature requires a special ticket that can only be purchased at South Station- it cannot be purchased with a smart phone or at the automated kiosks. It'll have a special design making it easy for us to spot while loading people up. Only Marathon ticket holders will be allowed to board- there will be no regular passengers. The train will go directly to our destination.

    We're hoping that with the extra time to plan next year we'll be able to secure enough sponsors to cover the cost of getting multiple departures. Unfortunately this year your only guarantee is to head to South Station on Monday April 8th when the tix go on sale and ask for the Midnight Marathon ticket. You could show up at the station and try to buy one then, but if they're out, you're out of luck. :-(

  2. Wow, awesome that you are putting so much thought it to it, and the the T is as accommodating as they are. I'd be glad to help out in any manner possible if need be (such as, as I mentioned, marshalling people in to the cars to make sure everyone fits); let me know. And it's really great to get the support of the MBTA, the MBCR and the T Police. They could easily put the kiebash on this sort of event, but by instead encouraging it, they put a really good face on the oft-maligned agency.

    I was guessing at the cost of running an extra train and wasn't off by orders of magnitude, but certainly guessed low. If you use an already-running trail (the 11:00) the marginal cost of the extra riders is minimal. I'm somewhat surprised by the costs, but with fuel prices where they are and staffing costs on Sunday and after hours, I understand that everything can add up quickly.

    As far as the Red Sox game, I don't think that will affect the 11:00 departure since it's a 1:00 game (unless it goes 25 innings). But, yes, there will probably be crowds on the earlier train. Although from what I recollect, there were only a couple hundred bicyclists on that last year. Any chance MBCR could borrow the bike coaches for this run? Or is this even more complicated with the Grand Junction bridge out of commission?

    One other option for folks who don't get the ticket: take the 9:20 train to Franklin. It gets in at 10:12, and from there it's a 12 mile ride to Hopkinton. That's certainly further than Southborough, but not so far that it should take more than an hour. Looks like a pretty nice ride, too.

    Good to hear the plan is in place. Sponsors for next year would be exciting; and kudos to the MBTA/MBCR for the event. We ought to get the Guinness Book of World Records on the case; I wonder if we'll set the record for most bicyclists on one train!