Monday, November 25, 2013

North Station Woes

Commuters were faced with significant delays coming to and from North Station this morning due to a signal problem. Delayed trains left passengers stranded outside North Station for over a half hour.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

BTAT Editorial: Over Reliance on Computers is a 21st Century Problem.

©2012 Boston to a T
A group of San Francisco subway riders were in for a frightening and wild ride last Wednesday morning when their train departed the station without its Operator. The Motorman of the outbound K-Ingleside Muni Metro train had momentarily stepped out of the vehicle at Castro Station to fix a door that would not close. When the door slid shut the train, which was in automatic mode, departed the station leaving the transit worker stranded on the platform. Passengers aboard the car scrambled to find a way to stop the vehicle; eventually using the emergency brake to stop the driverless train.

Muni trains, which operate manually above ground, switch to an Automated Train Control System (ATCS) when traveling through the Market Street Subway; a practice which has been in place since the late 1990s. When operating in automatic mode the Motorman has no control over the movement of the vehicle, but still cycles the doors at each station and makes necessary announcements.

Muni Transit Director John Haley reaffirmed his support of the automated system while attempting to squash concerns about passenger safety. Haley said “I think the point here is the train was under control by the automatic train control system at all times. The system worked the way it was designed.”

And that is where Director Haley is wrong.

While Muni’s ATCS was designed to remove human involvement from the running of trains underground, humans were never intended to be removed from the operation of trains underground.

As far as safety is concerned Muni Motormen serve an important purpose in the subway by acting as the eyes and ears of the blind and deaf SelTrac ATCS. Should the ATCS fail to brake properly or if an obstruction were to block the tracks, the Operator onboard is instructed to use the emergency brake to stop the vehicle and protect passengers.
Although Muni insists the ATCS is effective both with – and apparently without – a Motorman, the concerns over automatic train control are ones that shouldn’t be ignored.

When Muni first introduced the SelTrac ATCS in 1998 it was plagued with problems. These problems including trains that bypassed stations, trains that followed the wrong route, and trains that went into emergency for no reason at all.

Despite expensive software upgrades and years of tinkering, the ATCS is still one of the bay area transit authority’s biggest headaches.

A review of Muni’s on-time performance in 2010 found that metro trains failed to connect to the ATCS more than 200 times every month, each time grinding service in the Market Street Subway to a halt.

These service crippling computer glitches have generated a colloquialism in San Francisco over the past decade. They call it a “Muni Meltdown”.

While computer glitches that stop service may be an annoyance, other ATCS glitches around the world have caused injury and loss of life.

Two separate accidents in Beijing in 2011 injured a combined 450 people and killed 39 when newly implemented computerized train control systems failed to stop two trains from hitting stationary ones in front of them.

San Francisco’s other automated subway system, BART, has also had a series of incidents regarding their computerized controls; including a test train that ran off the rails and into a parking lot.

The most high profile accident regarding automatic train control was the 2009 DC Metro crash. The accident, which claimed 9 lives, was caused when the ATCS failed to recognize the train in front of it sending the striking train into a stopped train at full speed. A similar accident occurred on the Metro in 1996 resulting in the death of the train Operator.

As part of a safety agreement between ATU Local 689 and the WMATA the DC Metro has been run manually since the 2009 crash.

While proponents of computerized train control systems can point out accidents caused by Motormen on manually controlled subway and rail systems there is an enormous difference between the two.

An accident caused by a Motorman in manual control can be corrected through progressive discipline or retraining, and can be used as a teachable example to other Motormen to avoid a similar accident in the future.

An accident caused by a glitch in a thoughtless, heartless, and inanimate computer system cannot be predicted, cannot be corrected, and cannot be prevented.

Susan Moore, a passenger on the driverless train, perfectly summed up what it was like to be on that train. In an interview with San Francisco’s ABC-7 she described her and her fellow passengers’ concerns. “We didn’t know if a train was going to come up…” Moore said “For Muni to make light of it was really upsetting, because… You weren’t there”.

The blind faith that Director Haley and Muni have placed in their ATCS is emblematic of the over reliance our 21st century society has placed on technology.

This editorial was written and edited by Dan Lampariello & Scott Page

Monday, November 18, 2013

Enjoy the Ski Season: Take the train

                                                      Courtesy: MBTA
Ski season is slowly creeping up on us. Sugarloaf in Maine and Stowe in Vermont are a few mountains that are already open but most resorts in the New England states are expecting to open by the end of the month.

Being in a city, it's sometimes hard to find easy access to ski resorts. Well, city skiers fret not because here is my list of the easiest ways to get to some of the best mountains in New England by way of good 'ole public transportation.


In 2007 the MBTA and MBCR partnered up with Wachusett Mountain  to create the "Take the Rails to the Trails" Ski Train program and this year it is once again returning. Starting on November, 30, the MBTA will begin running their ski train every Saturday and Sunday. The train will leave North Station at 8:35 a.m. and arrive at the Fitchburg Commuter Rail station at 10:08 a.m. The train departs from Fitchburg back to Boston at 5:35 p.m. Wachusett Mountain provides a free shuttle from the Fitchburg station to the mountain. Each train is also equipped with a specially designed "Ski Coach" which makes it easier for passengers to stow their belongings. The coach has the capacity to hold 42 passengers, 34 sets of skis, and 12 snowboards. For those of you who are bike fanatics this is the same coach that the MBTA converted into a bike coach. Round trip tickets to Wachusett will cost you $20.

Amtrak: The Vermonter

Vermont is known for having one of the longest ski seasons in the country. Amtrak's Vermonter Service runs on 611 miles of rail and travels from Washington D.C. through Springfield and Amherst, MA. to St. Albans VT. The Vermonter stops in Waterbury, close to Stowe Mt., Sugarbush, and Bolton Valley. The St. Albans stop is also very close to Jay Peak Resort. Some ski areas and inns provide shuttle service from the stations, but skiers should call ahead for prices and reservations. Stowe Taxi Service charges $15 for one person or $20 for two or three people to transport skiers from the Waterbury/Stowe stop to the Stowe ski area. Shuttle service to Mount Snow from the Brattleboro stop is $26.50. The drive takes about 35 minutes. Overall, the Vermonter is not only one of Amtrak's most scenic routes it's also one of the easiest ways to get to Vermont's greatest ski resorts from Massachusetts.  The train also has a specialty baggage car that has ski and snowboard racks.

Amtrak: The Downeaster

The Downeaster is owned by the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority and operated by Amtrak. The train was put into service back in 2001 and currently runs five round-trip trains daily from Boston's North Station to Portland, Maine and three daily round trips between Portland and Brunswick, Maine. Over the past 12 years the Downeaster has become Amtrak's fastest growing service, moving over 500,000 passengers this year. 

Unfortunately, this train doesn't drop you off very close to any ski resorts in Maine. If you're a die-hard however, you can take a bus from the Portland Transportation Center (Concord Coach) to Augusta Maine and head to a resort from there. Resorts close to The Augusta Transportation Center include the Camden Snow BowlEaton Mountain, and The Lost Valley Ski Area.

I hope some of will try and take the "rails to the trails" this winter. Not only is it convenient for those of us who live in the city but it is also better than taking out another loan to buy gas for your car. 

Have a great ski season!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Throwback Thursday: Harvard Station

Photo via Wikipedia Commons

The original Harvard Square Station opened on March 23, 1912. The original headhouse on the street was a brick oval building (pictured above), which was later replaced with a simple cast-iron and copper shelter. The later shelter now stands close to its original location and houses Out-of-Town News, another Harvard Square landmark 

The station was closed on January 31, 1981 to make way for the present day station. 
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