Boston’s transit ready to batten down the hatches

The MBTA gears up for winter to prevent last year’s equipment issues, track problems and unhappy riders

November 07, 2011

The Massachusetts Bay Transit Agency (the MBTA, or the T) will be running fewer trains in severe winter weather conditions to avoid the miscues of last winter, when thousands of passengers were stranded in the snow and cold because of equipment failures and track problems, the Boston Globe reported.

Commuter rail passengers will be impacted the most. The commuter rail runs less frequently than the subway and bus service, but its 400 miles of exposed track make it more vulnerable to snow and ice delays. A problem on even one train or track section can hold up multiple other trains–– and this was the case last winter, when on several days, three of every four trains were late, and some were stalled for hours.

This year, 23% of commuter rail trains will be canceled in advance to give workers and equipment more time to keep up with storm fighting while giving remaining trains a better chance of arriving punctually. Buses and subways will see less dramatic reductions.

“What we learned from last year is trying to maintain a full schedule will be difficult for us in a severe storm, both on subway and commuter rail,’’ said Jonathan R. Davis, acting general manager of the MBTA, told the Boston Globe.

Davis said he hopes customers will be understanding, particularly if the T does a better job of providing real-time information about problems and conditions.

Transportation miseries last winter were compounded by communication issues, which included website crashes amid heavy storm traffic and difficulty relaying real-time information to customers about storm delays, cancellations and reroutings––meaning passengers were stuck at stations without knowing when or if their ride was coming.

The winter schedule is not bound to a specific snowfall amount or temperature reading. Instead, T operations officials will confer on a case-by-case basis, asking riders to turn to a new website, where they have posted the foul-weather schedules and created a clearinghouse for winter transit issues. A redesigned home page and mobile website are supposed to make it easier for riders to find useful information quickly.

The cash-strapped MBTA has invested about $800,000 to purchase or lease the first new additions to its snow-fighting fleet in years and has reassigned employees to make more people and equipment available to clear snow.

The T’s commuter rail contractor, the privately held Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co., has similarly invested about $500,000 in equipment, including two jet engine-powered snow blowers and a steam-cleaning system to remove the hardened ice and encrusted snow that cause wheels and axles to jam. It also shrink-wrapped and elevated nearly 500 cables that provide power from the locomotives to the coaches, to keep out moisture and keep them from hitting packed snow.

The T’s new equipment includes 20 handheld snow-melters, three plow trucks and spreaders, and a specialized, self-propelled work vehicle for the Green Line, which is powered by overhead lines that are susceptible to falling trees.

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