Friday, January 25, 2013
Dear Faithful Readers,
It saddens me to inform you that I no longer Ride The T.
I have left my longtime job in Boston to focus my time and energies on my career as a headshot and commercial photographer.
That means that this blog is officially going the way of the Boston & Maine, New Haven, New York Central, and so many other Boston-area railroads that are no more.
However, like those railroads, I will continue to operate under a different banner.
I write a new blog about my photography work in the same quirky, first-person yet technical style that so many people like about I Ride The T. I shoot for a few railroads, so you'll even find some trains in there! You can find that at tylertrahan.com.
You can also find my work in Trains Magazine.
Writing I Ride The T has been one of my favorite pastimes over the past few years, challenging me to expand my railroad knowledge, taking my writing skills from solid to publishable, and helping me find my voice in a busy new-media world. It's been a true pleasure to write for you.
January 25th, 2013
Friday, December 21, 2012
|Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection. CC BY-NC-ND license.|
It's a few weeks before Christmas on an unknown year, and the Boston and Maine Railroad yard in Charlestown is playing host to one of the most seasonal loads in the industry: Christmas trees.
Boxcars, gondolas, and old roofless boxcars usually used in pulpwood service are pressed into tree service carrying trees from the farms to cities across the nation. At railyards, team tracks, and sidings everywhere, trees are transferred to trucks or sold right out of the boxcar to families who will haul them home on sleds, shoulders, or their brand-new automobile.
|Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection. CC BY-NC-ND license.|
Tuesday, October 23, 2012
The engineer of my train is seriously good at what she does. In the midst of Slippery Rail Season, where wet leaves are ground by rail traffic into a dried slime on railheads, trains sliding past stations on locked wheels is an all-too common occurance. I was on one train the other day that slid an entire car length past where it should have stopped, so that the first door was well past the platform. We all had to walk back to the next set of doors.
This morning the sun was just beginning to burn off the fog and shiver-inducing cold as 410 slid into Lincoln. Not rolled, slid. Every wheel was locked as the first few cars passed me, filling the air with smoke and the scent of burnt leaves. Ah, Slippery Rail Season.
Luckily, this happens every morning in the fall, and engineers are prepared. The train slid nearly to a stop almost a full car length short of its targeted berthing point, a fifteen-foot-wide paved crossing over the outbound track. Then, with air brakes whooshing and the locomotive revving, the train moved the rest of the distance to a perfectly-placed stop on rolling wheels, all without stopping. Now that's what I call sticking the landing!
Any competent engineer can stop a train in a fifteen foot window under normal conditions. It takes a great one to slide 200 feet and still make a perfect station stop.
And that's why I thank my train crew after every trip. They seriously deserve our respect.
Wednesday, October 3, 2012
Waiting for 410 on Tuesday (scheduled time: 7:50 AM), the sign gets to 3 mins, and no headlight is visible. Then "The next train to Boston is now approaching," and still the train has not appeared. After a few minutes, the sign drops to "Next train to Boston not moving, please stand by."
Ladies and gentlemen, we have an excrement / fan collision. You are all going to be late for work.
As commuters start leaving in favor of their automobiles, I go over the options for what could have happened.
An unscheduled stop of a passenger train usually means something malfunctioned (mechanical delay!) or the engineer applied the emergency brake for an obstruction on the tracks. On most railroads, an emergency brake application for any reason requires the train crew to visually inspect the train, and repressurizing the train air brake line takes time. I'd guesstimate that the emergency brake application of a six car passenger train takes 10-15 minutes to recover from.
Or they could have hit someone. Just around the bend from the station is Walden Pond, a popular recreation area very close to the tracks. I really hope they didn't hit someone walking his dog on the tracks. Besides delaying my train for hours, that's a real tragedy for both the family of the victim and the train crew. The engineer can do nothing but watch helplessly as her train runs down a pedestrian—even a relatively light passenger train takes thousands of feet to stop—and hear and feel the impact, then the conductor has to get down on the ground and find the body. It sucks for everyone.
Luckily, due outbound any time now is train 453, a South Acton local. Its conductor may know what's going on, and I'll be able to tell whether there was an accident or not depending on whether the train continues or is held at Lincoln. I walk to the outbound platform across the street just as the train rolls in. The assistant conductor who opens the door nearest to me doesn't know what's going on, and the train pulls away. Whew! Process of elimination leaves just a mechanical failure.
I get back to the inbound platform just as the LED sign that is our portal into commuter rail operations announces that 410 will operate 25-35 minutes late due to mechanical problems. Score one for guessing
While I can wait in peace knowing it's just a mechanical delay, I still have to get to work. Train 412, with an 8:15 scheduled stop, is being announced on the sign as approaching, bringing hope to the commuters around me. I know better. The Fitchburg Line is current-of-traffic operations, so 410 is in the way and operating 412 on the outbound "wrong" main is unlikely. Possible, with lots of paperwork and delay, but unlikely.
I see three options. One is to run 412 around the stalled 410 on the outbound main with considerable delay. Depending on what exactly this mechanical problem is, the two trains could also join forces, with 412 pushing 410 all the way to Boston. The third is actually fixing the mechanical problem or finding a way to work around it.
As it turns out, a workaround was found. At 8:15, 410 shows up, by itself. As it gets closer, I can see the conductor sitting in the engineer's seat of the cab car and perform a Sherlock Holmes-esque logic sequence to deduce what the rest of my commute will be like. The conductor in the cab car means the engineer is operating the train from the locomotive at the rear, and the conductor is protecting the shove, calling signals, and generally guiding the engineer. As a protected shove without the engineer at the head end, our speed will be limited (to 30 mph, confirmed by another conductor) and the ride will be a bit rough. 412 must be directly behind 410, running on its yellow signals, like the one near the pedestrian bridge in the distance. It should be appearing momentarily.
Like clockwork, that's exactly what happens. 412's headlight appears, I climb aboard 410, and we're off at 30 mph.
By the time we get to North Station, we're nearly an hour late, but the fact that we made it at all speaks to the robustness of rail travel and to the adaptability of our train crew. I bet an airline would've stranded us all at a terminal for hours on end if one of their planes had control problems. Granted, trains typically don't fall out of the sky if they have mechanical problems, but an adaptation of the old adage certainly applies here.
"It's a hell of a way to run a railroad, but the railroad always runs."
Wednesday, September 19, 2012
Last week we revisited Lincoln, a station along one of my commuting routes which is mentioned quite a bit on this blog. Along the same lines, this week we're headed back to Westborough, my home station.
Westborough was a bucolic dairy town in 1834 when the Boston and Worcester Railroad entered town, and like most towns in this situation, was quickly transformed by the railroad. Business and industry sprung up, streetcar lines were built, and the railroad worked to keep up with the demand it created. By 1843, the line was double-tracked from Boston to Worcester, and in 1870 the Boston and Worcester merged with the Western Railroad and the Albany and West Stockbridge Railroad to form the Boston and Albany Railroad.
|Public domain image (copyright expiration)|
Always a railroad to invest heavily in its infrastructure, in 1890 the B&A set out to eliminate at-grade crossings of roads between Boston and Worcester. In Westborough, where its tracks ran through the center of town where the rotary is now located, a major relocation would have to take place. While the old tracks followed today's Milk and Brigham Streets at grade, to elevate the line would require it to be shifted slightly northwards, cutting off several small streets and requiring the construction of a 200-foot cut through solid rock.
The new bridge over East Main Street, built before automobiles and rebuilt during World War II, is too low for modern trucks and is often the scene of trucks getting stuck underneath. Plans to lower the road under the bridge have been foiled by the water level of the swamp that the rail line, and to some degree the town, is built upon.
|Public domain image (copyright expiration)|
The postcard above depicts the Bay State Abrasive Products Company, now the location of the Bay State Commons shopping area. You can see the original railroad line at right and the relocated line at left, apparently in some stage of the transition process before the old line was ripped up.
The relocated line opened in 1899 and was accompanied by a new railroad station built to B&A specs, which would be just out of the left side of the frame in the postcard above. While it copied the design of several stations designed by H. H. Richardson (who designed the Trinity Church in Boston), it was not designed by the man himself as he had passed away three years previously. Framingham is one of several surviving stations actually designed by Richardson.
When the MBTA took over commuter rail operations from Penn Central in 1973, it subsidized commuter rail operations between Boston and Framingham. Service to Worcester was not subsidized, and was cut back to Framingham in 1975. Worcester Union Station was abandoned.
By the 1990s, the only passenger service west of Framingham was Amtrak's Lake Shore Limited, making a stop at a corrugated steel-and-glass "Amshack" just east of the derelict and rotting Worcester Union Station. In 1994, commuter rail service was extended from Framingham to that station on a trial, rush-hour-only basis. No intermediate stops existed between Framingham and Worcester, as the original B&A stations had long since been torn down, moved to New Hampshire, or converted to private businesses. Westborough's station was in the latter category.
The service proved so popular that off-peak service was added in 1996. An infill stop was added at Grafton in early 2000, and later that year the renovated Worcester Union Station was opened, firmly planting the groundwork for continued commuter rail service on the line. Brand-new infill stations in Southborough and Westborough, outside the town centers with plenty of parking, opened in June 2002 and Ashland opened two months later.
All four stations (including Grafton) follow similar engineering styles, with large unpainted metal structures providing some way over the tracks. Southborough has an underpass rather than an overpass, but all four stations are ADA-accessible with ramps in addition to stairs and mini-high platforms that line up with the first two cars: only South Station and Worcester Union Station (and Yawkey, as soon as its rebuild is completed) have full-length high platforms.
With freight traffic continuing to share trackage with the commuter rail, full-high platforms are not possible anywhere where freight trains will be passing platforms at speed. A foam strip exists on the very edge of the platform to cushion against freight car impacts (which happens from time to time, but isn't an issue with passenger trains) and if there is a freight car that impacts, it will often do this at multiple stations along the line. Taking the mini-highs out of service until the foam can be replaced is not an issue, but if an entire full-length high platform is torn up by a rogue freight car, a much bigger problem is created.
Additionally, mini-high platforms have a removable section to allow extra-dimensional loads, which you can see quite plainly above, but altering full-length platforms at multiple stations to allow passage of an extra-dimensional load without disrupting passenger traffic is logistically impossible.
The Worcester Line is one of the most highly-trafficked lines on the system, and most rush hour trains run with mostly bi-level coaches. The 5:00 Worcester Express is the only train on the system to run with eight cars, usually seven bi-levels and a single-level "flat" plus the locomotive. Like the other infill park-and-rides, Westborough is a very busy station and a train's arrival is quickly followed by a mad scramble of commuters sprinting through the parking lot to get to their cars and get home.
Just west of the station is a green truss bridge that's closed to road traffic. It's still safe for pedestrians, however, and is a relatively popular railfanning spot. I once took a really early train home (and can't remember why, now) and decided to walk up there rather than go straight home, as an inbound train was scheduled in ten minutes.