Ten year ago, in “Season of Lights” , I wrote:

Personally, at least for now, I prefer the old-fashioned incandescent types. They seem warmer, with a better distribution of color. The reds and oranges are brighter, the blues less prominent. The newer LED lights seem to be too heavy on the blues. Their blue lamps are quite bright, and  their oranges and reds less bright in comparison. I suspect that this is something that will get fixed in time–the manufacturers need to make light strings where the warmer colors are brighter.

I think the manufacturers are finally starting to get it. I have a couple of strings on my tree that seem a little more well-balanced, and I’m noticing as I drive around town that there are more lights that have the characteristic LED deeply saturated blues, but also have decently bright reds and ambers. And for the first time, it feels to me like old fashioned incandescent lights seem reddish.

I’m also noticing that there are warmer “white” LEDs — the trees in front of the police station are covered with them, though they still seem just a touch greenish.

A few months back I took a ride on the new Green Line extension to Union Square. The new branch to Medford/Tufts opened last week, and I took a ride late Sunday afternoon. Like the Union Square branch, it starts off elevated headed out of Lechmere, then runs at ground level. Unlike the Union Square branch, it goes quite a distance. It’s sort of like the Riverside Line in that it’s fully grade separated with decent spacing between stops; unlike the Riverside Line, there are sound barriers along most of it, which kind of feels like you’re riding in a canyon. And boy, have the walls already been heavily tagged. There seemed a fairly decent ridership for late afternoon on a Sunday.

Chasing the Type 9

The MBTA is in the process of adding 24 new streetcars, called the Type 9, * for the Green Line for the extension to Somerville. The first one, #3900 went into revenue service in December, and I’ve been wanting to ride one since.

A gentleman by the name Stefan Wuensch has created a site showing real time location data of each train on the system, and I’ve been monitoring it to see if I could see #3900 running. Yesterday, it was running on the B line with #3902, and I decided to head into town.

I got to Riverside, and checked the site again. #3900 was inbound from BC, and I was curious to see whether we would get to Kenmore before or after it. The B line is shorter, but also slower. As we approached Fenway on the D Line, I could see it approaching Blandford Street on the B. As the lines merged at Kenmore, it was one train ahead of us.

I saw that the Type 9 train was terminating at Park Street. I decided I wanted to see if I could take it back outbound. Decisions, decisions. Do I take my train all the way to Park Street, and hope it takes some time to turn the Type 9 around, allowing my train to catch up, and allowing me to board an empty train? Or do I get off at Boylston? That way, even if the train is turned around fast, I’m still going to be ahead of it. It also means I will have to pay to re-enter on the outbound side, and possibly getting onto an already crowded train. I decided to get off at Boylston, walked fast past the old PCC and Type 5 parked on the outside inbound track, up to the Common and back down to the outbound platform.

First up was a Type 8/7 combo bound for the B Line and Boston College. “Great,” I thought. “The Type 9 will be less crowded. The train loaded, and left, and I saw the the next train approach. It was the Type 9, and it was now signed for the C Line. “Great,” I thought. “It’ll be easier to get back to the Riverside line”. As the trolley pulled into the station, I grabbed my phone, and took its picture.

MBTA Type 9 #3902
MBTA Type 9 #3902

And then it continued on, without stopping. Curses, foiled again.

* The MBTA uses the same “Type” nomenclature to designate models of Boston streetcars that its predecessor, the Boston Elevated Railway, did. Types 1 – 5 were Boston Elevated models, dating from the early 1900s up to the early 1950s, before going to an industry standard streetcar, the PCC streetcar in the 1940s. When it came time to replace the the PCCs, they prototyped a Type 6 car before going with the US Standard Light Rail Vehicle, manufactured by Boeing. When the Boeing LRV failed to live up to expectations, the T went with a custom design, the Type 7, which is still in service, along with the Type 8 cars, which are a “low floor” car designed for wheelchair accessibility.

The Green Line’s “Great Cavern”

I first started using the MBTA in 1977, commuting to Boston College. Up through high school, I’d been dependent on either walking, getting a ride from my parents, or the very limited Canton-Mattapan bus line. I still remember my first trip over to BC that summer, checking out the route to school. The rapid transit line wasn’t very rapid, and the very decrepit PCC streetcar to BC was slow, dirty, bumpy and noisy. I distinctly remember being alarmed by the wheel squeal as we went through the curves in the subway.

But the MBTA opened up new worlds for me. I could get around on my own now. And as I learned to navigate it, I became a railfan. The Boeing Light Rail Vehicles were just being introduced, and I loved them. They were modern, clean and good looking, and if they were a little unreliable, well, they were new. Park Street Station was in the middle of renovations.  I started reading up on the history. And at some point, I noticed that the subway widened out between Arlington and Boylston.

I gradually realized this widening was unusual – most of the Green Line is a two track tunnel, with no space between it. This area is quite wide, with some stub end tracks in the middle, and a lot of empty space. Because it’s wide, underground and  unusual, I dubbed the area “Great Cavern”. But why does it exist? The answer starts with the original opening of the subway.

The Public Garden Incline

The Green Line was not originally a “line”, per se. It was simply a short length of tunnel designed to get all the streetcar lines off the street in the heart of downtown Boston. Tremont Street, where all the lines converged, had become incredibly congested. The solution was to put the streetcars underground. Construction started in 1895, and the first section ran under Tremont Street to the corner of Boylston, including Boylston Station, and then down Boylston Street to the Public Garden, where it veered out of the street and up an incline beside the street within the Garden itself. That incline would become the first part of Great Cavern.

The Boylston Street Subway

The original Tremont Street subway was a great success. It was one of those public works projects that really did what it was supposed to do – reduce congestion – and it helped spur a round of additional subway building. In 1911, the Legislature approved the building of the Boylston Street Subway. The subway was to be built from the junction of Commonwealth Ave and Beacon street, under the Muddy River, then going east along Boylston street to the corner of Tremont street… and there things got unclear. The legislation contemplated an additional two track tunnel under Tremont Street, or adding two more tracks to the Tremont Street tunnel. There were proposals from the Legislature to extend the new subway to Post Office square.

The Boston Transit Commission coped with the uncertainty by building the western sections of the new subway first, but by 1913, got permission to suspend work on the Tremont Street section of the new subway, and “temporarily” connect the Boylston Street Subway to the existing Tremont Street subway. That temporary connection remains today.

Keeping the original Public Garden incline would have required a “grade crossing” – outbound subway Boylston street traffic would have crossed over the inbound surface track, something that the engineers of that day sought to avoid at all costs. And yet, an incline was still necessary at that location, because streetcar traffic from Huntington Avenue would still be surface-running, and needed to enter the subway there. The solution was to widen Boylston street at that point, seal off the original Public Garden incline, and build a new incline in the middle of Boylston Street, between the inbound and outbound tracks. Enough of the original incline was left underground to act as a siding for car storage.

1914 Boylston Street Incline

1914 Boylston Street Incline. From the 1915 Boston Transit Commission Report.


The Transit Commission chose to deal with the Post Office Square question by deferring it; the Dorchester Tunnel (Red Line) was already under construction and the commission felt that the new tunnel would change traffic patterns; instead it was decided to enlarge Park Street Station.

The final part of the story came in 1941, with the building of the Huntington Avenue Subway. Streetcar traffic was rerouted from the surface of Boylston Street to the new subway, rendering the Boylston Street incline unnecessary. It was sealed off, leaving the large cavern we see today. The MBTA still uses the stubs of the tracks that once led to the surface for equipment storage.



Red Line at 100

Yesterdays’s post about the Boston Trolley Meet was more about playing with the iOS WordPress app, and the HTML 5 <video> element, but it did remind me that there was another recent local centenary that I’ve been meaning to talk about: the 100th anniversary of the opening of the initial section of the MBTA’s Red Line. The original section of the Red Line opened from Harvard Square to Park Street on March 23, 1912.

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