Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The next person to say "The same as 1897" …

Every so often, someone knocks the MBTA. I know, I know, it's shooting fish in a barrel. But sometimes you hear that the T built the first subway in 1897, and hasn't made any real improvements since. (I'm looking at a certain "disruptive" transit service here: "Between 1897 and right now, there’s been some marginal improvements in how service is delivered to move massive amounts of people throughout a city.") In 1897, the underground transit in Boston was composed of streetcars. Mostly short streetcars. Here's the article about the first streetcar through the tunnel: a car from Allston via Pearl Street. Here's that streetcar (or one like it): a 29-foot car. Back then, a parade of 25-to-30 foot vehicles (most of them just eight feet wide) plied the subway. It was better than the gridlock at the surface, but didn't have a huge capacity.

By 1901, the Main Line Elevated operated first through the current Green Line tunnel, and by 1908 through its own tunnel. These ran four-car trains of 65-foot cars that were 9 feet wide—still narrow, but much larger than the 1897 cars.

In 1912, the Cambridge-Dorchester tunnel (The Red Line) opened in 1912, and the Orange Line cars had proved inadequate for the crowds, so the T opted bigger. These cars were 69 feet long and 10 feet wide, triple the size of a streetcar one level up at Park, but operating in four car trains. The tunnels were wider too, with fewer curves, allowing faster operation. In 15 years, there were trains an order of magnitude larger than the first iteration.

(A similar thing happened in New York: the IRT cars—in 1904—were built to approximately the size of the Orange Line fleet, by the time the BMT built their tunnels ten years later, they were using Red Line-sized cars.)

But let's go back to the Green Line. It took a bit longer, but the Green Line trains grew by an order of magnitude, too. By the 1940s, they were running three-car trains of PCCs, 47 feet long and more than 8 feet wide. In the 1970s, the first articulated vehicles showed up, and current Green Line trains are 8'8" wide, and 74 feet long. And they operate in three-car trains. That's 222 feet long—quite a bit longer than 29 feet—and, overall, nine times as big. It took some time—three car trains have only started running recent years—but the Green Line has improved capacity an order of magnitude, despite the 115-year-old infrastructure.

Oh, right, in 1897 (and 1997) you paid with a coin, now you pay with an RFID card. And sometimes the trains even have air conditioning! But that's another story.

In other words, knocking rapid transit for "marginal" improvements in the last 115 years isn't disingenuous: it's wrong.