The MBTA is suffering through the onslaught of snow – but just barely. With several full shutdowns, and running on reduced schedules, the transit agency is paying just about anybody 30 dollars an hour to help shovel snow, in addition to the fifty prison inmates they’ve recruited to do the same. Provided the city is not hit with yet another storm, they estimate an entire month before things get back to normal.
I happened to be in Boston last Saturday right as the city’s most recent blizzard was just beginning, and only hours before the system’s full Sunday shutdown. Capturing the snowy scene at West Concord, I checked out the snow-covered trains, and the restored depot on the MBTA’s Fitchburg Line. Though there are two tracks running through here (greatly reduced from when this town was once called Concord Junction and featured three railroads running through), although one is currently out of service and piled with snow as high as the station’s high-level platform.
The depot before restoration. Not as bad as some stations I’ve visited, but hardly the gem it is today. Town of Concord Community Preservation Committee.
West Concord station during the construction. Photo via the Town of Concord Community Preservation Committee.
Despite all the snow and the issues plaguing the MBTA, West Concord station is a great example of the transit agency working together with a local community to do something really good. As old stations are wont to do – the building having been completed in 1894 – West Concord was in disrepair. Altered from its original appearance with faux brick, the old depot was severely needing an update. A local community group approached the MBTA with a little money, and together they brought the depot back to its original look, with the MBTA matching the town’s money and contributing 50% of the cost to repair it. Special attention was paid to the details – stained glass windows were lovingly restored, and a local supplier matched original surviving paint chips to make the depot as historically accurate as possible. Completed in 2008, the restoration made this station quite attractive, and an asset to the community.
Did you get a chance to eat a meal at the fabulous restaurant?
“Wimps!”, I say. I wonder if the Boston & Albany, Boston & Maine, and the New York, New Haven & Hartford ever cancelled a passenger train because of a little bit of snow. MBTA, Amtrak, and New York’s MTA seem to do that at the drop of two snowflakes. Fuggedabout PA, MD, DC, and VA. Just the thought of snow shuts them down. I’d rather be on a train, BOS-ALB, than a bus, when Amtrak cancels the Boston section of the “Late Shore Limited” due to a few snowflakes..
Bostonian and MBTA rider here.
The B&A, B&M, and NH all had vast workforces to maintain tracks and equipment. The MBTA has an acute locomotive shortage (63 needed, ~40 in service), only one plow set, and just enough employees to run regular service. Even on the reduced schedules, locomotives are dying off requiring a push from the following train…which is made difficult when the couplers are packed with frozen ice and the air takes forever to charge. When that dead train dies on single track (it’s happened at least twice this month on the Fitchburg Line near West Concord) the whole schedule goes to hell. Suddenly there’s no trainset available for an outbound train (because it’s dead, stranded, or delayed an hour away) and the delays cascade throughout the entire day.
The MBTA is barely holding together. You can see it on the faces of the train crews who drive to outlying layover yards before dawn hoping that their locomotive will start up, who use crowbars to open frozen doors and fusees to melt coupler ice, who back up trains that slide past station stops because brakeshoes don’t work properly when they’re cold and caked with snow and ice, and who wonder how many people they’ll have to turn away because their train — filling in for two other cancelled trains — is just too full to stuff any more people into.
The B&A, B&M, and NH didn’t cancel trains at this scale because they didn’t streamline, underfund, and ignore the need for investment in their railroads to the point where they can no longer handle a little bit of disruption without the entire house of cards collapsing. Or maybe they did and our rose-colored glasses show only what we want to remember of a time when “men were men” and railroads ran no matter what.
Remember, back in the day we didn’t have social media and instant news to utterly destroy any company that strands its customers in a blizzard for a few hours. Without accurate weather forecasting, that happened. The trains were dug out, and business continued as usual. Nowadays if a train got stuck in a remote cut overnight with no power it would make national news and the public would scream for the heads of everyone responsible, for NOT shutting down service in the face of a known weather event.
The New Haven was shut down at least one time I know of: the Great Blizzard of 1888, when it took over a week to dig out the drifts at Westport.
I know we like to romanticize the past, but snow is snow and enough of it in a short period of time will wreck havoc with any railroad, be it 1875, 1945, or 2015. And remember, the main reason the MTA (and other systems I’m sure) shuts their systems down in extreme weather is that it doesn’t want to deal with people who should have stayed home during a blizzard whining over the fact their train was stuck for two hours.
I had some ‘neat’ experiences of “winter railroading”. I went to college at Canton, NY on the NYCS ‘St. Lawrence Division’ and remember -42 F. temperatures there. Made for interesting trips on the “Canton Creeper” (with sleeping cars!) and the RDCs “Beeliner” (only to/from Utica or Syracuse), ENR to/from Harmon, NY. Also did a Sydney, NS-Prescott, ON trip on the CNR during a semester break (January, 1959). I hitch-hiked to Sydney, but got snowed in and took the train back. Of course, most of my travels were on the Harlem Division. That could get ‘hairy’, but they never shut down. Worst winter experience was while I was working in GCT and witnessed the last “20th Century Limited”, #25, pull into the terminal, covered with ice and about eight hours late.
Sorry. Make that #26. CRS!
Sorry. Make that #26. Got a ride with Chris Dumaine, from St. Lawrence U. to Bangor, ME in his Austin-Healy 100-6. Not a great winter car! His father, “Buck” was still president of the MEC, or BAR, or B&M. CRS!