“Attention, this train is disabled and being taken out of service. There’s service right behind us.”
These disturbingly common words came over the PA system on one of my daily trips down Commonwealth Ave. this week. What was uncommon, however, was the fatigue with which the conductor stomped out of his seat and motioned at the passengers to pull the headphones from their ears, “Get off the train. It’s broken!”
I have sadly observed the mounting frustration and desperation with which MBTA workers have attempted to continue doing their jobs despite an ever-looming collapse. Political posturing and grand schemes of expansion aside, it is a point of pride for these people to march on with their entrusted mission of helping fellow Bostonians get to and from where they need to be every day. It is hard not to be disheartened by the look of shame and disappointment in their eyes as you dismount yet another broken train, the conductor left holding the responsibility for systemic failure.
Grumbling, we evacuated the defective train only to very surprisingly find service actually “right behind us” for once. As the rest of the passengers boarded the waiting replacement, I paused to snap a picture of the aging car I had just dismounted. Rot was devouring the faded metal and rust bubbled up through the kelly green stripe of the line’s once-proud livery. It seemed to me a perfect metaphor for the MBTA itself, the crumbling chips of paint on that carriage no less fragile than the institution it belongs to. Bearing the bright pretenses of its former possibilities, but beset by cancerous rot, decaying from the inside out.
I settled into the worn matching green seat of the replacement train and reopened my book as the new conductor notified us that we’d be standing by as the MBTA figured out just what to do with the broken train. Some of the passengers groaned, but fortunately I was on my way home and so simply settled into the distraction of those eggshell pages. Sometime later the conductor came back on and notified us that the train was getting rerouted back to BC. We would have to dismount yet again and wait for service that was assured to be “right behind us.” He sounded past disappointment or embarrassment—he was in disbelief.
We trundled off the train and, much more predictably this time, found the supposed service nowhere to be found. As the second train slinked away, I considered whether there was any chance to save the T with another harsh winter headed right at us.
I rode the T to JFK/UMass all through middle school and high school, first the cushy Commuter Rail with its broad purple stripe, and later the Braintree Red Line with its wacky cloth seats. Service was never this bad. Over the past decade of commuting to school in Boston I have watched the MBTA deteriorate like an aging pet or that elderly aunt you only see on holidays, slowly losing function and faculties. It seems like a day doesn’t go by now where the T is free of inconvenience. Whether it’s the frustrating delays, breakdowns, and gaps in service, or the puzzling decision to go express at some random point between BU and BC, leaving all but the few students and myself left to take the non-stop remainder of the trip to school.
Local government and the MBTA are trying to fix the problems that ail the aging infrastructure.—they certainly have to if anyone is to get anywhere this winter. But it isn’t enough to just begrudgingly tackle this massive problem by scribbling it down on our to-do list like some common chore. We can’t just prop it up or jury-rig it with household tools from Lowes. Necessity shouldn’t motivate us to fix and maintain the T, optimism should. We shouldn’t focus on fixing the T because we have to, but because we owe it to ourselves. We owe it to ourselves to not arrive at Park Street after a long day at work or school and see that the train has been delayed by a half-million hours due to an electrical fire somewhere, leaving us to just haggardly stew on the packed platform with the rest of the Bruins jersey-wearing sardines.
Boston had the first subway in the United States. This city is full of innovators and pioneers, always has been, but somewhere along the way we got lost. We should be leading the country in our infrastructure and showing our peers what sensible transportation looks like in the 21st century, not suffocating under rapidly piling mountains of debt and faulty facilities. If I had a nickel for the worried look on every visiting parent’s face when the Green Line comes to an emergency stop bucking and braying with their precious prospective student flying into walls I’d have enough to fix the T. The MBTA as it stands isn’t indicative or representative of our city or who we are. It doesn’t reflect well on us, our schools, or our quality of life.
Public transportation isn’t a luxury; it’s the fulcrum by which all other daily essential needs are achieved. The T carries us to work and leisure, our homes and our stores. And whether you have a personal vehicle or not, it’s indisputably the most sensible option for getting into Boston to all but the luckiest of commuters. Even if you live outside the greater Boston area, the next time you want to catch a game at Fenway or the Garden chances are you’ll do it by way of the T. Public transportation builds our economy. It builds our community. And it’s high time we stop looking at fixing it as an inconvenience and start viewing it as a convenience we want, need, and deserve. If we fail, surely the best days of public transportation in Massachusetts will be “right behind us.”
Featured Image by Francisco Ruela / Heights Graphics