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Seeing Red On The Green Line

Philip Burrowes

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, despite last year’s fare hikes, provides a relatively pleasurable subway service. Each line is clean, clearly scheduled, and (reasonably) crowded.

That is, each line save one. This line stands apart with constant overcrowding, dingy facilities, confusing destinations, and an arbitrary schedule.

No, it’s not the Orange -- although Downtown Crossing can get pretty bad -- but the anachronistic and embarrassing Green Line.

Distinguishing the T from many other metropolitan rail systems is the one rail/one line setup under which only one “color” train travels given tracks into a station. A system like D.C.’s Metro, however, lets trains with various destinations pull into the same place. Both methods have their pros and cons, but either way the plan is usually maintained throughout the railway.

Not so with the Green Line. Trains leaving Lechmere end up splitting into two, three, then finally four different sub-lines (to Boston College, Riverside, Cleveland Circle, and Heath Street/Arborway). Except the Red Line’s separation into the Ashmont (Mattapan) and Braintree lines -- which doesn’t count because nobody rides the Red Line past South Station, anyway -- all other T lines maintain one rail/one line, thereby leading to confusion whenever a passenger ventures to the Green Line for the first time.

Compounding the Green Line’s procedural aberration are its physical abnormalities. Where other lines have a depression adjacent to the passenger platform, the Green Line’s tracks are level with the waiting area. Electrified third rails power the other trains while the Green Line runs on an overhead source. Combined, these two unique features allow passengers to easily walk in front of a Green train’s path, and that is in fact often necessary when trying to get to other parts of a station.

As disconcerting as it might be to run along tracks for the first time after years of shying away from lethal third rails, the most shocking part of the Green Line is the train cars’ design itself. The first glance is often reminiscent of a San Francisco trolley, but the inside gives an altogether different impression. The forward orientation of the seats, closeness of the conductor, and folding doors are unmistakably bus-like. Any newcomer could be easily forgiven for attempting to find the appropriate stop-cord.

Regardless of the aesthetic incongruity of these pseudo-cable cars, their carrying capacity cannot be neglected. This is a deficiency, however, not a positive aspect. Green Line cars are noticeably smaller than those of any other line. Even worse, trains are usually only one or two cars long, leading to chronic overcrowding. While this is slightly offset by shorter intervals between arrivals, that to leads to confusion as riders speculate on which car to take.

Some would argue that these problems are both explainable and negligible. The line has to split up to service otherwise isolated areas such as Fenway and BU West. Design differences can be attributed to the line’s relative antiquity -- it is the oldest subway in the nation, after all. Isolation should have produced disparate lines, however, such as the Harvard-oriented Red. As for age, that should be a greater impetus for updating than maintenance.

That such an oddity as the Green Line should persist in marring an otherwise excellent and innovative mass transit system is a travesty. Massive reconstruction is not the answer, however; the Big Dig is causing enough problems as it is.

Instead, I suggest symbolic and ineffective criticism. In grand MIT tradition, that means the Big Screw. Is there any designee more fitting than a subway line which thinks its passengers too foolish to realize they’re riding an underground omnibus only without the “omni-” and at 133 percent of the price? For now, don’t expect to shake the odd premonition that your next stop will be besides King Friday in the Land of Make Believe.