Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Winter on the Commuter Rail: How the MBCR has Prepared

©2012 Boston to a T
Commuters who regularly utilize the MBTA to get from point A to point B usually dread the winter months. Although last year was not as trying as winters past, the winter season still brings with it it fair share of obstacles. 

Two years ago the MBCR, the company which operates the Commuter Rail for the MBTA, was plagued by numerous mechanical failures, which ranged from broken air hoses, locomotive failure, signal problems, trackage issues, and many other problems, leaving commuters stranded on platforms in the cold or stuck on trains for hours. The most famous incident that occurred that year was when a train bound for Worcester had its locomotive breakdown in Newtonville  turning a regularly hour and a half ride into a four hour nightmare. 

Currently  the MBCR's largest obstacle for the winter months is keeping its fleet of aging locomotives, many of which are over 25 years old, in working order. Currently the agency has 76 active locomotives plus 1 ex-MARC unit being leased from Motive Power. During an average rush hour the MBTA needs exactly 60 locomotives to efficiently run service. 

Just like last year, when extreme and severe weather hits the area, the MBTA will be implementing an emergency snow schedule. This schedule, which will have the commuter rail running less trains on each of their lines, will help the MBCR free up space on the tracks to allow for more crews to clear snow and debris. Less traffic on the rails will help crews get tracks cleared quicker so that trains can return to full service as fast as possible. The reduction of trains will also free up locomotives to serve as rescue trains. The one leased MARC locomotive will also give the MBCR a little bit of flexibility when it comes to mechanical failures, but according to the MBCR it will only be used in extreme emergencies.

Last year the MBCR invested around $500,000 into purchasing new and used snow equipment for the winter. The MBCR purchased a high powered and self propelled jet blower. This jet blower, similar to the MBTA's "Snowzilla", uses a high powered jet engine to clear and melt snow that accumulates on rails and switches.The jet blower can exhaust a heat of over 900 degrees F and can travel at a top speed of 25 mph. In addition to the self propelled jet blower, the MBCR has also acquired a new self propelled snow auger which can remove snow on tracks at a top speed of 45mph. Two smaller non-propelled jet blowers, which can be attached to a front end loader, were also purchased, along with a number of Kubota tractors and 32 Honda Snow blowers. 

The MBCR has also invested in new protective sleeves that cover the air hoses and electrical wires that connect the locomotive to the coaches. These new sleeves will ensure that this sensitive equipment dose not receive any water damage. MBCR personnel at the Boston Engine Terminal (BET) have also designed a bag that will cover the coupler on the locomotive to protect it from snow and ice buildup. This bag will also make it easier, in the event of a mechanical failure, for a rescue train to attach to a disabled train. 

Most of you know that last winter wasn't really a winter at all so it will be interesting what this winter will be like. The MBCR firmly believes that with this new added investment , Old Man Winter is going to be getting a run for his money. Although unpredictable failures can still cause major delays, the MBCR seems very well prepared to tackle any type of failure when, and if it happens. For a commuter rail system that still uses locomotives that are way over their estimated life expectancy on a daily basis I feel that they are doing a great job. Let's just hope this winter is going to be the same as last year. 

 For more information on how the MBTA and MBCR are preparing for winter check out: www.mbta.com/winter

Also, if you're on Twitter, tweet your questions and concerns to @MBCR_info or @MBTAGM.

You can see photos of the new winter equipment in the slideshow below as well as on our Facebook Page!

Created with flickr slideshow.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Hurricane Sandy: What To Expect

Flickr user: Bconstant
Tens of thousands of East Coast residents are scrambling to prepare for what is said to be one of the largest Hurricanes to hit the United States in recent history. Hurricane Sandy is said to be at its strongest here in the City of Boston tomorrow afternoon. In response Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has declared a State of Emergency.

Other cities that are in Sandy's path are also declaring states of emergency and ordering mandatory evacuations and closings. In New York 375,000 people were asked to evacuate in lower Manhattan and other parts of New York City and 30,000 people were evacuated from Atlantic City in New Jersey

Public transportation has also been suspended in a few states. In New York City the MTA will be suspending all subway, bus, Metro North Railroad, and Long Island Railroad service at 7pm tonight until 12 hours after Sandy clears (which will probably be Wednesday morning). In New Jersey, New Jersey Transit will be suspending all rail and light rail service all day tomorrow.  Amtrak will also be suspending most of its East Coast rail lines they include: ALL Acela Express, Northeast Regional, Keystone & Shuttle services, Empire service, Adirondack,Vermonter, Ethan Allen and Pennsylvanian train services are suspened along with the overnight Auto Train, Capitol Limited, Crescent, Lake Shore Limited, Palmetto and Silver Meteor trains. The WMATA in Washington D.C. as well as Pennsylvania's SEPTA, and Maryland's MARC are also suspending service.

Here in Boston, the MBTA has announced that they will be suspending all service at 2pm this afternoon. There are many different obstructions that can cause the MBTA to delay service during severe weather. Here are some problems that the T has faced in recent years.

The portable dam blocking off
the Fenway Portal
Courtesy: MassDOT

  • Flooding: Tunnels all around the MBTA system are prone to flooding when a large amount of rain falls in a short period of time. Pumps do help with this but it can not always be avoided. Large amounts of water building up on track can also cause the earth and ballast under the track to wash out causing unsafe conditions. One of the most famous incidents of flooding in the MBTA system was in 1991 when the Muddy River overflowed its banks and flooded the Fenway Portal and Kenmore station. The MBTA now has a portable dam in place at the Fenway Portal that will protect the portal and Kenmore station from flood waters. 

Washout on the Riverside Line
Courtesy: MBTA 
  • Downed Catenary Wire: The entire MBTA Green Line is electrified by overhead electrical wire. On the aboveground trolley routes it is very possible that tree limbs could fall on this wire and knock it off of its supports. Catenary repairs can sometimes be a very lengthy fix so downed wires can cause major delays. In the past, the "D" Riverside branch of the Green Line has had the most problems with downed wires. The Providence and Stoughton Commuter Rail Line could also experience delays due to downed wires. 
Tree down on the Red Line during Hurricane Irene
Courtesy: MBTA

  • Downed Trees/Limbs: Most of the lines in the MBTA system run through areas where trees hang over the tracks. In high winds, if the trees have not been cut back, large tree limbs can fall onto the tracks, trains, catenary, and third rail. Although it depends on how large they are , fallen branches and trees can cause major delays. In the past the MBTA has run special trains on all lines that have special equipment to clear large debris from the tracks. 

For up to date information on the MBTA over next few days be sure to check MBTA.com or follow @mbtaGM on twitter. You can also call (617)-222-3200 for more information. I will also be tweeting about the hurricane and any updates I receive follow me @Boston_to_a_t

Monday, October 22, 2012

First MBTA LRV arrives for re-build

Type-7 #3660
at the Riverside car house.
Last June, Scott Page, a Boston to a T Guest Contributor, reported that the MBTA had approved the overhaul of 86 Green Line Type-7 Light Rail Vehicles (LRVs). The vehicles are set to be overhauled by Alstom Transportation which has a facility in Hornell, New York.

Four months later, the overhaul program is finally starting to move forward.

Two weeks ago, the first of the 86 cars (LRV #3614) left the MBTA's Riverside yard on a flatbed trailer and headed up to Alstom. This first car, the "pilot car" will take a little over a year to overhaul. Pilot cars usually take the longest to overhaul due to fact that it is the first time the contractors are working on the equipment. If the contract continues on its original schedule, the pilot car should be returning to Boston by November 7th of next year. If all goes well with the pilot car, sets of cars will then be sent up to Alstom on a rotating basis.

The 86 Type-7 LRV's that are being overhauled were built by the Kinki-Sharyo company of Japan between 1986-87. They have been the true powerhouse's behind the Green Line for the past 25 years. They have averaged almost 1 Million in-service miles since they began running on the rails in Boston.

The vehicles are now showing significant signs of age however. Although these vehicles are still more reliable than their Type-8 counterparts it is time for them to get some significant upgrades.

Here is a breakdown of what kind of work will be done to the vehicles during their overhaul.

Work Done
Full replacement with upgraded design
HVAC system, Low Voltage Power Supply, Aux. Lighting, Cab Equipment, & Door Indicators  
Replacement - in-kind
Flooring, Seating, Vehicle Insulation
Vehicle Structure, Roof, Exterior Skin, Door Systems, Braking Equipment, Trucks, Propulsion, Pantograph, and Interior. 

Body damage on a Green Line Type-7 LRV
All 86 cars will come back to Boston with a brand new paint job similar to the "Olive Green" color that the T has been painting some of the LRV's in recent years.

The re-build is said to last until 2015 but some cars should be back in active service by early 2014.

This overhaul is part of a $104 Million contract that the T has with Alstom. The project is said to create around 200 new jobs for the company. Alstom will also soon be starting the overhaul of the MBTA's 74 Kawasaki bi-level coaches. No timeline has been set up for that project yet.

Friday, October 19, 2012

MBTA Countdown Pilot Picking Up Steam

Courtesy: MBTA
Have you been wondering why it has been taking the MBTA so long to roll out their countdown clock system on the entire Red, Orange, and Blue lines? 

I too was frustrated that the launch has been taking so long. That was until I got a chance to talk with the MBTA's Director of Innovation, Josh Robin.

Over the past three months, the MBTA has been rolling out countdown clocks at several stations on the Red Line. As of today the MBTA has a total of six stations online: Andrew, Park Street, Downtown Crossing, South Station, Kendall/M.I.T. and Broadway.

So far the MBTA has been unveiling the technology at a new station along the line every two weeks. Josh Robin told me that the MBTA will be putting a new station online once a week for the next three weeks. So far, he says the pilot has been "essentially flawless".

"The MBTA's number one priority for this project has been quality" says Robin, "we would love to flip the switch and launch the clocks at every station in the system today, but we want to make sure it is done right and that there are no issues"

Quality is defiantly something an agency should focus on when it comes to systems like this. New York City's MTA began launching their countdown clock system back in 2007 and they were plagued by software issues. 

San Franciscos MUNI and BART as well as New Orleans RTA, and the WMATA in Washington D.C. are among the list of other transit authorities that are continuing to add updates to their countdown clock systems.

Although the pilot has just started picking up speed, Robin tells me that the T will be moving more aggressively with the project come the end of the year. Hopefully by the new year we will see the pilot start up on the Blue and Orange lines or maybe even sooner.

MBTA riders have been sharing their thoughts about the pilot on Twitter!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Buses replace trains north of Harvard on weekends this fall

This fall the MBTA is set to close Porter, Davis, and Alewife stations on four separate weekends in order to finish necessary track and tunnel maintenance.

The T will close the three stations north of Harvard and replace train service with shuttle buses on the weekends of Nov. 17-18; Nov. 24-25; Dec. 1-2; and December 8-9.

The closures are part of a continuing multi-year project which started in November of last year. The first phase of the project caused the Red Line north of Harvard to be closed on weekends for four months. Although this time around the closures are not as extensive, the same type of work will be taking place.

 The MBTA plans on replacing corroded and damaged sections of trackage, concrete slabs, electrical wiring, and third rail as well as plugging tunnel cracks and sealing water leaks.

The Harvard to Alewife extension, which opened in 1985, has a specialized track that runs along thousands of concrete slabs instead of wooden ties. These slabs float on rubber disks, almost resembling hockey pucks, that help to cushion the trains vibrations. Over the years tunnel leaks have caused these slabs to crack and their rubber disks to corrode, which poses the risk of rail movement.

This necessary maintenance, which is set to cost around $34 Million, will be funded out of the MBTA's Capital Improvement budget. The T also received a little over $4.3 million in stimulus money to help off set the cost of the project. Here is the funding request

The reason for the closures is that the project cannot be managed solely within the 3 ½-hour window each morning when the T is closed, without disrupting service. Materials must be hauled in and out each weekend on special trucks outfitted to drive on rails, with the nearest entry point at the mouth of the tunnel near Kendall Station two miles from Harvard and nearly five miles from Alewife. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

MBCR to hold TRAIN-Sylvania Blood Drive

For the second straight year, the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Company (MBCR), the company which operates the Commuter Rail for the MBTA, will be holding a halloween themed blood drive.

The drive which has been dubbed the "TRAIN-Sylvania" blood drive is going to be held at North Station on Wednesday, October 24th from 10:00am - 1:00pm.

All blood donated at the event will benefit patients at Brigham and Women's Hospital and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

The MBCR will have a Halloween themed train, located on Track 1 at North Station, for the duration of the event. They will also be handing out Halloween long-sleeve shirts to anyone who donates.

Anyone looking to donate is recommended to make an appointment for the event. To make an appointment contact Sherry Rosen of the MBCR at (617)-222-8127 or sherry.rosen@MBCR.net. For information on eligibility to donate feel free to contact the Blood Donor Program at Partners Healthcare at (617)-632-2568 or blooddonor@partners.org.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

MBTA Green Line train derails at Brigham Circle

All photos courtesy of Scott Page
Human error has been detrermined to be the cause of an MBTA green line derailment at Brigham Circle.

Yesterday at around 4:00 pm, MBTA Type-7 LRV #3633 derailed at the crossover at Brigham Circle station.

#3633 struck it's sister car Type-7 LRV #3634 which was sitting on the opposite track. The trains sustained minor damage during the accident. #3633 has some minor body damage (missing panels) and also sustained damage to it's center truck and articulation. #3634 also had some minor body damage. Also during the derailment, a light pole was bent over and a catenary wire bracket was broken off the line.

Most news outlets here in Boston are reporting only one form of human error was to blame in this situation. I believe, however, that there are three different ways people are at fault.

1: The Inspector at Brigham Circle Station

     -When Green Line trains terminate at Brigham Circle (which is all weekends and sometimes during the week) the inspector at Brigham must switch over the tracks so the trains can cross over and switch back outbound and return to the central subway. Today that did not happen. The inspector at the station failed to switch the track back over and subsequently the train derailed, thankfully only causing minor damage and not many injuries. I must however give the inspector a break. An MBTA press release stated that the inspector is an 18-year veteran of the MBTA who has had no prior major incidents.

2: The operator of #3633
     -Every operator that is trained to drive a trolley on the Green Line is taught to read their rail (make sure the switch they will be passing over is in the right direction) at every crossing and switch throughout the system. This however was not done today. If the operator had been paying attention to the rail in front of them, they would have noticed that the switch was not set properly and the accident would have been prevented.

3: The Administration/Inspector
     -According to the MBTA website, the schedule for the Green Line 'E' branch on Columbus day was the same as a Saturday schedule. The only exception was that trains would terminate at Heath Street instead of Brigham Circle like a regular weekend. Today that did not happen. If 'E' line trains were terminating at Heath St. this incident would have been avoided all together. This can however be blamed on a headway adjustment, meaning that the inspector at Brigham stopped the train before Heath because there were not enough Lechmere trains in the central subway (Which is done on a regular basis during the week).

Overall, this accident was not the fault of just one person and hopefully it was a learning experience for everyone involved.

After the incident, it took MBTA personnel six hours to get the trolley back on the tracks. #3633 and #3634 were then moved to an MBTA maintenance facility for evaluation and repair.

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