Is there any way to avoid shutting down the MBTA?

Closed Friday - yeah, I get it. Closed Saturday - OK, I can see the argument, anyway. But closed Sunday too - really, now? - promoted by david

The MBTA shut down in all of its modes at 3:30 this afternoon and with mass transit vs. roads being a topic of discussion here recently I could not help but wonder if in this of all situations a higher priority should be placed on keeping the MBTA open so people who still need to get around can without driving.  I can see suspending boat and possibly bus service out of safety concerns or maybe converting to a weekend or otherwise limited schedule, but it seems that trains and tracks, both commuter and subway, could be kept clear and servicible.  In Washington, DC I believe the portions of the subway underground are usually kept open.  They are far enough north to get snow most winters, but far enough south to not know how to handle major storms.  I found when I was down there that on days like this the most powerful person in the city is the person who makes the call to shut down Metro because the city and federal governments usually follow its lead.  Back in Boston I can think of no reason to not likewise keep the underground subway open unless they are trying to keep staff away or they are so adamant that nobody be out at all that they are trying to give people no way of getting around.


38 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. Symptom of under-funding

    Subways and trains should operate in storms like this — their closing is a clear symptom of our collapsing infrastructure.

    Railroads and subways have operated in blizzard conditions since the middle of the 19th century. The technology to do so is mature and, at least at one time, was well-understood. The MBTA ran subways, trolleys, and commuter rail during major snowstorms throughout most of the time I lived here (since 1974).

    The MBTA is unable to do this, today, because it is underfunded. Equipment and tracks are under-maintained, and more likely to fail in extreme conditions. Payroll cuts mean fewer people to call out during events like this.

    In 1964, large sections of Brighton, Watertown, Jamaica Plain, and neighboring regions were served by now-closed portions of the A line (shut down in the early 1970s) and E line (shut down, without notice, in 1985). Those neighborhoods (all working class) are now served by buses — paralyzed by events like this. Similarly the “Silver Line” should have been light-rail. Instead, it is just a glorified bus and equally vulnerable to snow.

    Since the MBTA in its current state cannot operate safely in snowstorms like this, the decision to shut it down is correct. We desperately need to rebuild the subway and commuter rail infrastructure so that it can properly function as the lifeline it should be and was for most of its history.

    • This is an exceptional storm

      I am sympathetic to the argument about underfunding the T, but I suspect there were times in the pre – “starve the beast” era when unusual conditions shut down rail too. Trains are not immune to snow problems. How did the Green Line fare in 78?

      Closing the T was part of the Governor’s plan to close the state during the storm. Shutting it down at 3:30, and closing the roads at 4, led to employers sending their employees home before the bad part of the storm hit.

      We are talking high winds with gusts of up to 60 mph during heavy snow.

      And where would urbanites take the T to, today? Better to stay in.

      PS I realize that in 20 years we may discover this storm was typical of the new warmer-energy hopped-up winter storm pattern. But in terms of the historical period, it is pretty unusual.

  2. In related news...

    …just heard on MSNBC that NYC has suspended service from Penn Station on the Metro North Line into CT. I don’t know what the track record of that system is for closing vs. staying open.

  3. Fire, Police and EMS

    are going to have their respective jobs cut out for them in this weather without having to deal with people who don’t know enough to come in out of the snow. No one needs a repeat of 1978, when people were stranded for a week. There was plenty of advance warning for this storm, and hopefully, people did the needful in terms of planning. I think the goal was to force people to go home and get off the roads. I think it was the right thing to do and a smart thing to do.

    • Roads are different from trains

      This thread is about the trains — subway and commuter rail.

      Even fire, police, and EMS personnel need to get to and from their places of work. Many Massachusetts industries have manufacturing lines and other processes that can’t be simply shut down — even with a few days notice. Many shut-ins, elderly, and disabled residents need daily or hourly visits from caregivers.

      Within the areas served by the subway and commuter rail, people can safely walk to and from stations — if the trains are running — without interfering with emergency services. The concept that residents of an entire region should be literally confined to their homes is draconian and unnecessarily restrictive.

      The emergency orders were the right thing to do — motor vehicles are impossibly dangerous in an event like this. Shutting down the MBTA and commuter rail was the right thing to do, given its current dangerously under-maintained status.

      The subways and commuter rail should be able to stay open during events like this — they are, in fact, a vital component of our emergency response network.

      • Except

        The idea is to get people off the streets. And keeping the subways open (and making T drivers risk their own lives trying to get to work) invites people into town, when officials are trying to get the streets and sidewalks cleared. People cannot safely walk in 18-24 inches of snow. And if people need an emergency response, ala the caregivers scenario – they have fire, police and EMS to get them where they need to go. My son-in-law is working at an ambulance company in Somerville right now, helping people with real emergencies get where they need to go. I think 24-36 hours isn’t too much to ask for people to stay inside while the crews get everything cleared and fire, police and EMS tend to the emergencies. The key here is to be thoughtful. The T drivers have families they need to get home to, and every reason to live to see the next day.

        • Meh

          “People cannot safely walk in 18-24 inches of snow”? We get all too much of this kind of nanny-state thinking from our news media and on-air meteorologists already. People can walk in deeper snow than this, roads ARE being plowed, and some people need to get to wherever they want to go. Just because YOU don’t need to go anywhere in a snowstorm doesn’t mean that the whole world is the same.

          Subway and commuter rail operators need to be on the job during emergencies, that comes with the job just as with ambulance drivers like your son-in-law. Maintenance-way-workers need to clearing tracks and switches during snowstorms, just as they have been since the 1850′s:

          Snow-removal work in 1890

          • Who would have thunk

            you’d have so much in common with RMG, who is also bemoaning the nanny state. Look, I imagine it’s your custom and privilege to be entertained at any time. But seriously – it was 24 freaking hours to give the cities and towns the chance to clear off the roads and sidewalks, fire, police and EMS the opportunity to do their respective jobs, and yes, let the state get our transportation system up and running. 24 hours. That’s all it was. I care enough about my fellow man not to insist that non-essential folks like public transit employees, risk their lives so I can go bar hopping. There’s nothing I need to do that’s that important and can’t wait 24 hours.

            • False dilemma

              The biopharmaceutical industry is a reasonably major player in Boston. Those companies have production lines that, like steel mills, can’t be simply turned “off” and then back on again. Those production lines need workers to keep them running — and in some cases, to keep them safe.

              There are MANY reasons why people who live in a city need to get places — your allusion to “bar hopping” is, frankly, insulting.

              I get that there is nothing you need to do that can’t wait 24 hours. Just because that’s true for you does NOT mean that it’s true for the entire region.

              You create a false dilemma — “fire, police and EMS” versus “bar hopping”. The truth is that an enormous number of people fall in the middle.

            • Reading Comprehension is a really valuable skill

              How many times did SomervilleTom say that he understood and supported the shut down, given the MBTA’s lack of funding and resources? That it was necessary? Without going back and rereading all of his posts, I can think of at least two occasions, including the reply to your initial comment.

              The emergency orders were the right thing to do — motor vehicles are impossibly dangerous in an event like this. Shutting down the MBTA and commuter rail was the right thing to do, given its current dangerously under-maintained status.

              Given that you’re not one for strawman and other flawed arguments, I’m going to guess that you missed his statement or somehow forgot as you wrote that most recent reply at 9:55. Still, though, you don’t get to ignore it.

              RyansTake   @   Sun 10 Feb 12:56 AM
  4. underground

    None of our subway lines are strictly underground. Should the Orange Line only run from North Station to New England Medical? Red line from Kendall to Alewife or South Station to Park? You get the idea. Add in the concerns around the power stations that run those trains… I was on an Amtrak once from NY to Boston during a snow storm and since it was electrically run, it really struggled. I was surprised that our train infrastructure is that poor.

    This all definitely speaks to our need to invest in infrastructure.

    • Railroads have been handling snow since the 1850s

      Rotary plows kept rail lines open through Rockies during MUCH bigger snowstorms than this:

      In smaller storms, conventional plows are commonplace and reasonably effective:

      The Green Line has been using plows pretty much since its inception:

      We surely need to invest in infrastructure. We need to absolutely eliminate the badly mistaken idea that our subway and commuter rail service is some kind of optional luxury that can be shut down during snowstorms.

      The subway and commuter rail is a vital part of how the Boston metropolitan area gets through events like this.

      • Tom this is beneith you

        The parallels between this argument and the nutballs at RMG who are protesting the driving ban are painful.

        And just what are photos of MBTA snow plows supposed to signify here anyway? That after the storm is over we need to dig out? You know I’ll bet that has been going on all day.

        Really, there are plenty of actual examples of underfunded infrastructure at the T and elsewhere. Why not stick to them?

        If you have specific knowledge that, say, we have fewer working MBTA plows this year than a decade ago I assume you would say so.

        Otherwise the fact that a huge snowstorm has suspended the T (among MANY other things that are also NOT “optional luxuries”) is about as telling as saying a huge snowstorm disproves climate change.

        • Taking the T is not driving

          Surely you are able to understand that driving is different from taking the T.

          I offered pictures of plows because (a) they are iconic and (b) they have been around for as long as railroads. The MBTA announced a formal policy of closing during snow emergencies very recently. That formal policy speaks far more eloquently to its inability to handle snow than any glibly-cited links to how many snow plows it has on hand.

          This was NOT a “huge” snowstorm. “Major”, yes. It is not a “disaster”. I fully understand that particular segments of particular routes might have problems in a storm like this, that’s always been true. A formal policy of shutting down the entire system is unprecedented and dreadfully wrong-headed.

          We should view such shutdowns something like heart attacks or seizures — symptoms of a severe problem.

        • I disagree with you, so RED MASS GROUP!

          Seriously, I think it’s bizarre to try to turn SomervilleTom’s point (that the MBTA, with the right resources, should be able to stay open during a storm like this, and that staying open is important to our region’s ability to get through major inclement weather) to RMG’s (FREEEEEEDDOOOOOOM!!!!).

          He is right that shutting down during major storms is a new policy, and we should all be concerned about that, given that climate change is going to cause more of these kinds of storms over the years.

          When the roads close, it becomes that much more important to keep the T open, so things that can’t be shut down in the greater city have at least a skeleton staff, or people can go help someone in the need (ie, a grandparent), etc.

          Otherwise the fact that a huge snowstorm has suspended the T (among MANY other things that are also NOT “optional luxuries”) is about as telling as saying a huge snowstorm disproves climate change.

          That doesn’t make sense at all. Huge snowstorms aren’t exactly new to this region, but shutting the T down is, never mind for days and days afterwards. What is new now that prevents us from operating the T that didn’t exist then? I would argue it’s not terrible weather. Lack of funding is probably much, much higher on the list.

          RyansTake   @   Sun 10 Feb 1:07 AM
  5. Yes, thinkliberally...

    …what you describe is exactly what I’m talking about. On the Washington Metro subways turn around at the station just prior to emerging from underground, which basically means serving the city itself, but not the immediate suburbs.

  6. I'm with SomervilleTom

    The MBTA is an integral part of our region’s ability to cope with inclement weather. It needs to be adaquately funded so people in the area can get to and fro, if they absolutely have to. Certainly people should stay in and cancel most plans, but sometimes cancelling isn’t an option.

    Just because you can stay home on a day like today, doesn’t mean everyone can. There are people without power, or people who have relatives without power and who need help, etc. Lots of reasons to go out even in the worst of weather that aren’t purely selfish in nature.

    This isn’t our first snowstorm and won’t be the last. We can’t be the region that totally shuts down when a few snowflakes trickle on down from the heavens. The MBTA needs to be seriously beefed up and storms like this demonstrate that.

    RyansTake   @   Sat 9 Feb 6:34 PM
    • More than 2 feet of snow

      is not just a “few flakes.” This storm is likely up there in the top 10. NYC, the city that never sleeps….has a partial shut down of their mass transit service as well and had half the snow. No need to minimize the reality to make your point.

      • A blizzard is a blizzard, no more and no less

        This is Boston. It snows in Boston. I grant you that a “few flakes” is hyperbole — this storm was not, however, a major disaster.

        The point Ryan and I are making is that the subways and trains are an essential part of the emergency response of the city. Shutting them down adds to, rather than removes, the burden on emergency workers striving to handle the event.

      • I was trying to be euphemistic

        Hence, “from the heavens.” Obviously it was a bad storm, but we’re from fracking New England. We’re supposed to be able to handle it. In the past, we did.

        We’ve had other storms similarly bad without a complete shut down the T before, and NYC didn’t have a complete shut down this time, either.

        Reality isn’t minimized by me, but I think the reality that similar storms haven’t shut down the T in the past is being ignored by all too many others. The question should be why? The answer seems pretty clear: the T today isn’t able to handle the same kinds of things the T of yesteryear could. That doesn’t please me.

        How often can Boston afford to shut down the T like this? What if we started to get these kinds of storms 2-3 times a year, instead of 2-3 times a decade? And if the T is starting to lose the ability to effectively deal with storms like this, will continued erosion of the system’s resources mean even lesser storms will fall out of its reach?

        These are important questions to ask, and while we may be able to afford a complete shut down of the T this time, cumulatively damage could be done to the city now that Storms of the Century are starting to become much more frequent adventures.

        RyansTake   @   Sun 10 Feb 1:16 AM
  7. Just heard on the news...

    …that the MBTA will remain closed through Sunday, but the “good news” is that there’s time to clear the tracks by Monday AM commute. I think that just strengthens the point. Snowstorms aren’t always so conveniently timed. Does this mean if the storm were 24 hours later we couldn’t count on the T for regular Monday business?

    Also, not that he can’t defend himself, but SomervilleTom was in no way making an argument similar to those who say that a driving ban was some kind of despotic outrage. He conceded that given the circumstances shutdown was the right call, but pointed out that it may be a necessity for some and that it certainly COULD be kept open given the will and the funding. That is a far cry from saying there is an absolute right to have T access.

    • Hmm.

      I can see closing the T on Friday; I’m agnostic on keeping it shut all day Saturday. But closed all day Sunday too? That’s starting to seem a bit ridiculous.

      • Is that the metric now?

        I’d prefer to ask if the delay is justified and why, rather than just assert that it is ridiculous.

        Or, to be more formal about it, please provide the basis for knowing that it is ridiculous.

        Note: Our preferences don’t count. No one prefers to be inconvenienced, but its sometimes inevitable.

        That said, if there are steps the T could reasonable have taken and opened on Sunday, or reasonably should have been able to take but couldn’t because of lack of resources, then yeah, ridiculous.

        Is that the case?

        • We put a man on the fracking moon

          We ought to be able to get the T up and running not one, not two, but THREE days after the snow starts falling.

          What is this? Rocket science?

          RyansTake   @   Sun 10 Feb 5:45 PM
          • Someone

            probably is now wondering how much natural gas could be had by fracking on the moon.

            We put a man on the fracking moon

            I’m just daydreaming about functional mass transit.

        • Shutting down is a symptom of systemic failure

          Subway and commuter rail service during weather events is a crucial component of our emergency response. ANY decision to shut them down is a sign of systemic failure. More than a century of experience shows that most railroads and subways can handle all but the most exceptional weather events. The MBTA, conversely, has shut down three times in the past eighteen months (Irene, Sandy, and Nemo).

          We aren’t talking about “inconvenience”. We are talking about nurses who must get to their stations in order to relieve colleagues who have already been working twelve hours. We are talking about production line workers who must get to their plants in order to avoid contaminating hundreds of millions of dollars worth of capital equipment. How much did the June 2009 Genzyme contamination episode cost the company? How much did that, in turn, take out of the region’s economy?

          We must rid ourselves of the dangerously false meme that subway and train service is some kind of wine-and-brie luxury that causes — at most — “inevitable inconvenience” when disrupted or (the conservatives wet dream) eliminated altogether.

          When your exposed thumbs and fingertips stop hurting while outside, it’s time to get them warm. When safety demands that we shut down the subway and commuter rail in storms (and it, sadly, does), it’s time repair those systems.

  8. Still clearing the orange line

    I live close enough to the orange line to hear the trains and was awaken at 3;30 this am to hear equipment working on the tracks. They still are doing so.

    Let me ask this: how many of you showeled your car out or did the sidewalk at the height of the storm Friday night? I remind everyone that the T goes outside and underground in a sproadic manner.

    There are also problems with the communications center in Quincey as they had no power yesterday afternoon.
    The T needs money. To update their infrastructure, to hire workers for maintainance, to buy generators. But with the wind and blowing snow, who is to say they weren’t correct in shutting down. Maybe with more resouces the train anyway would have reopened Sunday afternoon. But don’t forget that a lot of people in Dorchester and Roxbury (and JP) don’t live on the train but depend on the bus.

    And remember Logan had trouble clearing runways also.

  9. By the way...

    Why on Earth were pubs and taverns open in Boston Friday night?

    If you want to argue that we should close down the T because we don’t want people (gasp!) *walking* in two feet of snow, then surely we ought to close down the pubs. We could too — they’re licensed, and the city could just require that they close. Easy enough.

    In fact, I think that trickle-up is on to something, as is somervilletom. The state should have told (asked?) that towns order their licensed businesses closed at 4pm Friday. Bars, barbers, I’m sure there are others. Sure, there were plenty of people who did safely walk to the pub Friday night in the snow, but there is an unnecessary risk involved at a time when emergency personnel are quite busy. So, fair enough. But somervilletom is right too. There are plenty of people who needed to travel Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday who can’t. Civil servants. Hospital employees. Technicians.

    We could drive in Boston 4pm Saturday, but we can’t mass transit until 6:30am Monday? That makes it damn clear that we value our roads more than our public transit, and that’s not so great.

  10. Underground yes, open-air no

    I don’t understand why the T couldn’t run the underground lines, but perhaps not on the open-air tracks. Historical comparisons are not really appropriate here because the technology built into infrastructure, while able to reduce labor force and react more quickly is more reactive to weather (similar to the reason they scrub space launches a lot more quickly than they used to). I’m not for running the T to prove some amorphous idea of toughness, but don’t really know why the underground portion had to be shut down. FWIW, I don’t remember the Metro ever closing in Montreal during the six years I lived there, and I certainly saw plenty of snow.

    sabutai   @   Sun 10 Feb 10:18 AM
    • Reasonable question

      though I have to point out that none of the subway lines are 100% underground. There are substantial underground segments, which perhaps is your point.

      So if the question is, How Come, I don’t know the answer, but can think of several, can’t you?

      It could be hard, or dangerous, for T personnel to come to work to staff those segments. There might be no parking for them. Then, keeping those segments running might lead more nonessential businesses to open, leading to pressure on workers to drive into town ban notwithstanding.

      By the way service limited to the underground segments really is limited. The networking externalities are much smaller. It only gets you there if there is close by. It’s slower, too and has a smaller capacity, because train turnarounds are funky and more difficult.

      Given all that the value of the service to the public is much less, and perhaps does not justify the cost to provide, OR to burden the (non-MBTA) transit and emergency system by requiring T employees to drive to work.

      See? It’s complicated. But your question is fair.

  11. T Resumes Limited Service Sunday at 2

    From Boston.Com:

    The MBTA announced this morning it will begin limited service starting at 2 p.m. today, with service on the entire Orange and Red lines and service on the Blue line between Government Center and Orient Heights. Service on the Green Line will be limited from Kenmore to Lechmere.

    Five bus routes will also go into service, including the Silver Line on Washington Street and lines 1, 23, 28, and 39

  12. What is the focus of our transportation policy?

    Do we want to encourage people to live in the urban center? Do we want to encourage people to reduce their dependance on the automobile?

    If we don’t want a car-centric Boston, we need to have a safe, reliable transit system. We need a level of service that encourages people to buy and maintain one less car. If conditions are so very bad that any travel is unsafe, we need to shut down the system. When it is safe to run service, we need to find a way. We need to find a way for folks with cars snowed in, but who can walk to the T, to get around. We need to find a way to use the T to support businesses in and around Boston.

    Right now, I can look at a clear Massachusetts Avenue in Arlington, knowing that we could be running the 77 bus through town. The fact that we aren’t is stranding folks who moved along the Massachusetts Avenue corridor because of the availability of transit, and who don’t maintain a car. There is a linear world of businesses that can’t be accessed, and with snowbanks occupying parking spots, there are many car owners who would hop on the bus to head out.

    How many restaurants could be doing a great business today, recovering from the losses on Friday and Saturday, if the transit system was up and running today? We have many businesses, restaurants, workers, who need to get back to work.

    Let’s look at our transit service as an essential service, and make sure we get it up and running as quickly as possible.

  13. Regarding walking to the T...

    …or anywhere else for that matter. Clearing sidewalks seems to be hit or miss at best, that is, IF there is a sidewalk on a given street to begin with. Driving through Lowell today I encountered people walking in the street because snow plowed from the street is on the sidewalks and still creeps a bit into the street. That strikes me as very unsafe for both drivers and walkers.

    • It depends

      During the day it may be perfectly safe to walk along a road if the traffic is moving reasonably slowly, the road is straight, etc.

      At night, it’s a bad bad bad move.

  14. I was refering to daytime.

    Like I said the snow was creeping into the street thus forcing pedestrians closer to traffic than otherwise would have been the case. Trying to give them room without getting too close to oncoming traffic required threading a needle more closely than I’m comfortable doing.

    • This happened in Swampscott, too

      I was out yesterday because we ran out of sand and went to the town’s major retail area, Vinnin Square. The roads were still in terrible shape — it was entirely possible to spin out, for example. The sidewalks were nonexistent, and even about 5-10 feet of road space was eaten by the snow.

      …. and there was a little old lady forced to walk halfway into the street, just a foot or two away from cars, in those conditions. I was livid. Any one of those cars could have tried to make a hard stop, not seeing her as they turned around the bend, and slid out of control, hitting her, as a result.

      RyansTake   @   Mon 11 Feb 5:35 AM

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