Thursday, March 24, 2016

The T's "secret" early AM service … unmasked

In 1960, when the MTA cut overnight service (for the first time), some trips were retained. At the time the purpose of these trips was to allow MTA (and later MBTA) fare collectors to get to subway stations. This shadow system was not made "public" until 1999, but by "public" it means that the trips have different numbers combining multiple routes and are shown only on some online timetables and on printed timetables as just a note in very, very small print.

But they're incredibly useful. Say you have a 6:30 departure from Logan Airport. Without this special knowledge, your only option is to drive and pay to park or take a taxicab or TNC vehicle. Everyone loves paying $30 to get to the airport, right? The T is useless for flights that depart before 7 (the earliest outbound Blue and Silver line services get to the airport around 6 a.m.). Even though the airport runs at full capacity at 6 a.m., many flights depart earlier, and most airport staff have to arrive by 4 or 5 in the morning. Once you learn the secret of the early AM buses, you can get to the airport, or downtown, quite a bit earlier.

An outdated map of early-AM T services; the 109
service was added in 2014 after a study showed
demand for additional early services.
The network actually serves most of the region!
Here are the routes covered by the buses. There are two sort-of-separate services, the ones which operate to Dudley to connect to the 171 bus at 3:50 and 4:20 and have a later trip downtown. The others have a single trip downtown to meet the 117 for a connection to Logan (as far as I know, the T does not guarantee this transfer by having the 117 hold until connecting buses have arrived). They are as follows (I'll mention internal route numbers in the 191-197 series since those are sometimes referenced in schedules or online trip planning):

  • The 15 bus operates trips to the airport via Dudley and Andrew from Ashmont, as well as to Haymarket. The later trip follows the Silver Line's route, the first use the 171; the later trip does not have connecting service to Logan. These trips are shown on the 15 bus schedule; the later trip is officially known as the 191 (see, more confusing than it needs to be).
  • The 28 bus operates from Mattapan to Dudley and meets the 171 and 15 as shown above for transfers. These trips are shown on the 28 bus schedule.
  • The 32, 24 and 39 operate as one continual trip from Hyde Park to Roslindale to Jamaica Plain, Copley and Haymarket, and connect to the 117 to the airport. This trip is shown on the 39 bus schedule, although the route is officially the 192. This route does not operate on Sunday.
  • The 57 bus operates from Watertown to Kenmore, Copley and Haymarket, officially as the 193 although the trip is shown on the 57 bus schedule. This route does not operate on Sunday.
  • The 89 and 93 buses operate from Clarendon Hill to Sullivan Square and on to Haymarket as the 194. This is shown on the 89 bus schedule.
  • The 109 and 92 operate from Broadway and Ferry in Everett to Sullivan Square and on to Haymarket. The portion of the trip to Sullivan is shown in the 109 schedule and the 92 schedule. This should allow a transfer to be made at Haymarket to the 117.
  • The 117 operates several early morning trips inbound to Haymarket in addition to the connection outbound to the airport. 
Is there any information on the MBTA's website about these services? No! I can't explain this. The only map I could find was from a 2013 study of these services from CTPS; the T can't be bothered.

These buses run, they have plenty of capacity (well, most do) and they are, for all intents and purposes, kept secret from the traveling public. The schedules are buried, there's no information about connecting services to Logan, and no effort has been made to create an "early AM" page with information about which buses run, where the run, and when they run. Most of these buses have been running these routes for close to 60 years—and close to 20 years on public schedules—yet no one knows about them. And the MBTA's website does its darndest to keep customers in the dark.

Yeah, real helpful
For instance: if you load the 171 bus schedule, you get an error message that there are no trips, because it automatically loads the inbound schedule, which indeed doesn't have any. You need to load the outbound schedule to see the trips. And the 171 is good for Hubwayers; there's a station to drop your bike right in Dudley.

Or check out the 57 bus schedule. It shows a bus leaving Watertown Yard at 4:33 and arriving at Kenmore at 4:50 (a trip which, during rush hour, is scheduled for more than twice as long). Yet there are no times given for any intermediate stops. So does the bus make these stops? Probably. But who's to say it doesn't run express? If you want to take the bus from Brighton (Washington Street at Chestnut Hill Avenue) not only are you not given a time, but really no guarantee that the bus would actually run.

Despite this, these routes provide a good base for a discussion about how late-night MBTA service could actually be provided, not just on Friday and Saturday nights, but every day, for allowing low-income workers to get to jobs at the airport and elsewhere. With the T required to mitigate cutting late night service, and currently proposing a very weak mitigation plan, that's an additional discussion we need to have. But for now, the agency at least ought to tell people about the service they already provide!


  1. When the T asked the public to submit maps for the contest -- signing over all rights -- I decided to submit a schematic map of these early a.m. services that I drew up in 30 mins. Which is 30 mins more than the T.

  2. What would be a good layout for a table of just the earliest trips? or infographic?

  3. Somehow I thought these buses were run for drivers to get to their 1st routes or something. I guess that may not make as much sense as I thought it did.

  4. Seems very unethical - almost criminal- to keep these 'secret'.

  5. speaking of cutting late night service they also cut the 57 & 57a late night Fri/Sat service!!?! That's just crazy. I used to ride that bus all the time when I was waiting tables and it was packed. I think the MBTA just doesn't understand the concept of public transportation being a service; I mean, the utilities don't cut electricity at times that usage is not particularly high.
    [sorry for threadjacking/OT]

  6. I used to live in Eastie, and got my early morning connections via the Haymarket before 5 AM!
    Beautiful. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Small correction re the 109. Broadway & Ferry (Glendale Square) is in Everett.

    1. My Malden-born grandfather (who had a life-long limp due to a sledding accident involving a BERy car) is rolling over in his grave.

  8. From Jonathan Belcher's bus route guide on

    Employee oriented early-morning service
    191 Mattapan-Haymarket via Ashmont, Fields Corner and Dudley
    192 Cleary Sq.-Haymarket via Forest Hills and Copley
    193 Watertown-Haymarket via Kenmore
    194 Clarendon Hill-Haymarket via Sullivan
    195 Eagle St.-Haymarket
    197 Wonderland-Haymarket
    -These “routes” are in fact individual round-trips operated between 4:30-5
    a.m., primarily to provide transportation for subway station fare collectors.
    The trips are open to the general public. The routes were started in September
    1960, shortly after owl service was discontinued in June 1960. Route 195 was
    discontinued by 1979 but the other trips continue to operate. In September
    1999, these trips were listed in public timetables for the first time. Route 191
    is shown in Route 15 and 49 (later Silver Line) timetables, Route 192 in Route
    32 and 39 timetables, Route 193 in Route 55 and 57 timetables, and Route
    194 in Route 89 and 93 timetables. In addition, a new trip was restored
    between East Boston and Haymarket as Route 197 Wonderland-Haymarket.
    This trip is shown in Route 117 public timetables. In June 2001, a Sunday
    trip was added to Route 197. In March 2005, Sunday service was added to
    Route 191. Route 194 also has Sunday service, but Routes 192, and 193 only
    operate Monday-Saturday. In December 2005, Route 197 was renumbered as
    a variation of Route 117.

  9. Ari, you don't mention it, but the two 171 runs are published in the CT3 schedule.

    Sadly the 171 is one-way and does not take passengers from the airport back to Boston. Twice this winter when I've stayed long shifts, I've watched it drop-off at Terminal E and kill the lights before I walked to Maverick to wait for a late and fully packed 117. Even though Terminal E is dead quiet in the morning, I still saw at least three to five passengers get off at E each time.

    Since I'm here tonight again, I think I'll head over to Terminal A momentarily and check out the ridership.

  10. Do these trips show up in Google Maps? I think the answer is no because I asked Google Maps for an early morning trip to Logan recently and these didn't show up.

    1. They certainly do. But Google will only let you walk so far. So put in Mattapan to Logan and you get this. But put in something further and it assumes you'll want to spend 2:30 laying over in Dudley overnight. Uh, thanks but no thanks. GTFS ain't perfect.

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