Friday, August 28, 2015

Poor transit planning: an example that proves the rule

One of the most infuriating things about transit planning is when an agency does something which is designed to cause delays and for which there is an obvious solution. Customers have some understanding about things that are beyond the railroad's direct control: trespassing, downed trees, even (to an extent) equipment, track or signal failures (although these are more preventable). But when your bus or train takes longer than necessary because of a stupid decision by the transit operator, it is far more maddening. These would include things like fare policy (the front-door boarding on the Green Line, which causes completely unnecessary delays for passengers). But that comes in relatively small doses, and it's hard to compute.

A far more concrete example is what happens late every morning on the Haverhill Line. Starting this week, all midday service between Haverhill and Boston has been sent via the Lowell Line to allow for track work on the southern section of the line. What the T did is to take all of the scheduled Haverhill trains and run them express via the Wildcat between Ballardvale and North Station. They maintain their original arrival times, but by running express via faster trackage should arrive at North Station 15 minutes early, so the arrival time is schedule padding. Except in the case of one train, 210, which will arrive late every day, because of a scheduled conflicting move.

210 leaves Haverhill at 9:05 and is scheduled in to Ballardvale at 9:29 before its express trip to Boston. Amtrak's first northbound Downeaster leaves Boston at 9:05, Woburn at 9:23 and Haverhill at 9:53. During normal operations, this works fine: 210 clears Wilmington Junction staying on the Western Route (the track towards North Wilmington) around 9:30, and Amtrak approaches northbound on the Wildcat a few minutes later. With the schedule change, however, Amtrak takes precedence on the extended single track, from Wilmington all the way past Andover, a distance of 8 miles (there is a double-track project in the area which will mitigate this issue; it is proceeding at a decidedly glacial pace). So the commuter train has to sit there for 15 to 20 minutes waiting for Amtrak to pass. Every single day.

But there's an easy fix to this: the commuter train could leave Haverhill 15 minutes later. There are no schedule conflicts, no track conflicts: the train runs 15 minutes later, approaches the single track at Andover just as the northbound Downeaster gets on to the double track, and proceeds in to Boston. Everyone on the train has a ride that's 15 minutes shorter. Everyone is happy.

I'm sure the argument against this would be something like "people are used to the train showing up at a certain time and we don't want to change the schedule on them." This is why you have a schedule change. The train would be moved later. A few people who don't pay any attention will wind up waiting 15 minutes at their station the first day. Some of them might consult a schedule posted there and realize that the schedule was changed, and not come 15 minutes later the next day. No one will miss the train, only a few people would have a longer wait. Which they are going to have anyway, because nine days out of ten the train is going to be held for conflicting traffic (unless the Downeaster is delayed significantly, and it's been running on schedule more frequently recently).

Plus, the current delays will lull passengers at Andover and Ballardvale in to thinking the train will always be 15 to 20 minutes late, so they'll start showing up then anyway (Pavlov's dog, etc). Then, on the one day that the track is open and the train operates on schedule, people will be left behind (at least 212 operates rather shortly thereafter). So by not changing the schedule to reflect reality, the following occurs:
  • All passengers from Lawrence north have a 15 to 20 minute on-train delay every day north of Andover.
  • All passengers at Andover and Ballardvale have a 15 to 20 minute on-platform delay.
  • On the occasion that the train operates on schedule, any passengers who decide to come at the actual usual arrival time at Andover and Ballardvale run the risk of missing the train, although they may decide that the 15 minutes saved most days make up for the 40 minute delay once a week.
Pushing the departures back 15 minutes would solve all of these problems, and give passengers a very fast trip in to Boston express from Ballardvale. So why doesn't this happen? Perhaps institutional inertia. Perhaps incompetence. Maybe the T doesn't even want people to get used to a faster trip when the trains are shifted back to the local schedule in a few months. But it's a sad state of affairs when the T and Keolis decide that a 20 minute delay is acceptable—every day—and the passengers are the ones who pay. 

And then they wonder why the passengers lose all faith in the transit providers. This is why.


  1. These types of miscues, the poorly-planned implementation, are the ones that bug me about the T. The solution is typically some small change that could significantly improve passenger experience.

    I have a good example for you: I often take the Green Line up to Lechmere. There have been times when I take the C to North Station, and wait on the platform for the next E train. Now, there are two-car C trains that come through, where the operators have to switch their roles and from one car to the other. Instead of moving the train along into the northbound tunnel and having them switch cars on a service platform, the MBTA has the operators switch at North Station. I've seen them walk from one end to the other, restart the cars, etc. while there is clearly another train waiting to get in. More infuriatingly, there have been times where I'm watching the two operators chat and catch up outside the train, while an incoming northbound train waits to enter the station, delaying everything behind it. Ridiculous to do this on a line where the trains are so closely spaced. Clearly, no one thought about passenger experience in this strategy.

  2. Transportation is the most important in our day-today life. Most of citizens depend on it but the bad transit condition became headache, especially the train times. I appreciate that you have posted this issue and have putted a question mark on the rules. Despite depending on the train it's better to find another means of transportation. Ventura Transit. I think this post will work to make correction of the rules up-to some extent.