Just because the T is super old doesn’t mean it used to be safe, reliable, or a legislative priority
Everyone from politicians to news anchors to actual riders likes to note the ancient and dilapidated condition of MBTA infrastructure. It’s true, and that wear and tear is a large part of the reason for the coming month-long shutdown of Orange Line service and multiple Green Line diversions. But at the same time, pointing out bridges, tracks, and switches that have been in service for a century can imply that trains used to run on time around here. And that is definitely not the case.
First, there’s some technical stuff to cover if we’re going to backtrack, so to speak (this is why I put Orange Line in quotes in the title, though I’m sure plenty of know-it-all schmucks will still let me know on the socials how I got it wrong before actually clicking and reading). The Orange Line wasn’t called the Orange Line until 1965, after the buses and trains we know today as the collective T were consolidated into the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority. Historically, most of the route that travels on or parallel to the path of today’s Orange Line was a patchwork of connected Boston Elevated Railway lines—one that ran through Charlestown, another by North Station, and so on. Starting in 1908, trains ran through tunnels underneath downtown and Back Bay before connecting to the Washington Street Elevated which cut through the South End and stretched down to the Forest Hills area. Everything’s been mostly underground or at least at ground-level south of downtown since the ’80s.
As you might imagine, disasters predate the earliest conceptualization of rapid citywide transit in Boston. Back in the pre-automobile 19th Century, commuter trains were the most efficient if not the only feasible connection for suburban dwellers to get to their jobs as well as services in the city. And while the steel and iron that brought passengers from places like Dedham into Jamaica Plain were typically safe, on the morning of March 14, 1887, nearly 40 people died and more than twice that many were seriously injured aboard the Boston & Providence Railroad after plunging through the Bussey Bridge in Roslindale heading toward Forest Hills. As Edward J. Sweeney wrote in writhing detail for Yankee Magazine in 1975:
The Bussey Bridge, toward which 200 souls in nine fragile coaches were heading, was by any standards, a peculiar structure. It crossed the street at an incredibly oblique angle, its spindly iron trusswork bridging a gap of some 120 feet between high granite abutments. So sharp was the angle of the span that the floor beam which ran from the center of the truss on one side rested on the end of the truss which supported the other side of the bridge. Its design was such that certain structural members carried a disproportionate share of the load of every locomotive and car passing over the structure. And this was a violation of the laws of physics and mechanics that would not be tolerated forever.
The familiar rumble White had heard as his engines crossed innumerable bridges during his career filled his ears as he passed over Bussey Bridge that morning. As the Torrey reached the Boston end of the span, however, White felt a sudden jarring of the engine’s front end, and as the drivers reached the far abutment there was a strong shock unlike anything he had ever felt passing over the bridge.
Immediately he looked back and saw the first car off the track, careening drunkenly behind him. His blood ran cold as he watched the second, third, and fourth cars dancing insanely, trailed by an ugly cloud of smoke and dust where five more cars loaded with passengers should be crossing the bridge,
Instinctively he knew that his train, save the first three or four cars, had gone through the bridge. In the seconds it took for the awesome spectacle to unfold, White’s hands pulled the reversing lever – the fastest way to bring the Torrey to a halt. By now the force of the writhing cars and their human cargo had snapped the coupling at the tender and the Torrey was free.
Sweeney noted how the nightmare may have been prevented, as “six years earlier [a state commission] had recommended a series of structural tests for the bridge, which were never conducted.” As engineer Frank Griggs wrote for Structure magazine last year, “The Railroad Commissioners of Massachusetts” issued “a 420-page report with illustrations,” concluding, “The accident was not caused by defects of the system, but the management is none-the-less censurable for its long-continued neglect to remove this undoubted element of danger. The contract for the rebuilding of the bridge in 1876 was made without proper examination as to the standing of the contractor. Those who acted for the corporation in making the contract had not sufficient knowledge of iron bridge building to enable them to pass intelligently upon the design and specifications. The design and specifications for the bridge were not such as should have been accepted.”
Sound familiar? It’s the legacy around here—ignore warnings, let contractors do whatever they want, and screw with the lives of commuters.
Another catastrophe came to the future Orange Line about 100 years ago. According to Boston City Archives, who have outstanding images from the wreck, “On Dec 4, 1921, at 11:45 pm, the last car of a train derailed at Forest Hills yard.” Amazingly, while riders were inconvenienced during the extensive repairs that followed, “Largely due to the time of the accident, no lives were lost.”
As for massive shutdowns, in December 1980, the MBTA was closed for 26 hours due to a political impasse. Not unlike in our current climate, or at least leading up to last month when an Orange Line train caught fire spurring the sudden interest in dramatic fixes, politicians left commuters in the cold via lack of will and money. From the MBTA’s own history: “By December 1980, increased demand and funding shortages resulted in a 1-day shutdown. To avoid future shutdowns, the legislature approved the expansion of the MBTA board from five to seven members, including the Secretary of Transportation.”
You know how that story ends. It’s not with lawmakers giving a shit. Just consider how the Orange Line train that took a smoke break in July was first put into service all the way back in ’80.
More recently, there have been many temporary closures due to snow, while whole parts of the Blue Line have been dark for weeks, and in 2011, the entire system was shut down as a preventative measure to brace for expected dangerous flooding from Tropical Storm Irene.
That last one reportedly left many stranded following their morning commute. But compared to the unprecedented waters we’re about to wade into with a 30-day closure, the inconvenience was a dip in the pool on a warm day.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.