Monday, January 23, 2017

Commuting by Train - One Man's Story

As Washtenaw County and its neighbors  consider funding commuter rail service, I realized that most Michigan residents don't have a good idea of what it looks like to live with passenger trains as a commuting option. I prevailed on my friend Hugh Gurney of Howell to give us a picture of how commuter trains fit into his life in the Boston area. As you'll see if you read this, Hugh is an accomplished writer and has painted an interesting word-picture for us.
"I did commute by train for nine years, 1975-1984, when I was working for the National Park Service in Boston, Massachusetts.

"When I accepted the position in Boston, the office was located in a building adjacent to the North Station and many of the employees were commuting by train.
As my wife and I began thinking about where we would want to live, we began looking at communities which had commuter train service into Boston.  After looking at a number of communities, we purchased a house in Ipswich, a community on the North Shore about 30 miles from downtown Boston.  
MBTA commuter routes shown in purple; subways and light rail shown in other colors.
I've circled North Station and Ipswich in red. Note that service on the Ipswich line now extends to Newburyport - LK

"In part, our reason for selecting Ipswich was that it had frequent train service.  Inbound, there were trains at 6:20 a.m., 6:59 a.m., 7:20 a.m., then 9:20 a.m. and every two hours afterward throughout the day.  Outbound, there were trains at 4:20 p.m., 5:05 p.m., 5:35 p.m., 6:30 p.m. and then every two hours until 11:00 p.m.  About 15 miles south, from Beverly, there were additional trains, including an outbound at 11:59 p.m.  At that time, the last trains out of Boston on all lines were at 11:59 p.m. and all MBTA [Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, locally referred to as "the T"] service shut down.

"As a general rule, I took the 6:59 a.m. train each morning.  Ipswich was at the end of the line at that time, so seating was no problem.  We lived about a mile from the train station, so I generally drove into the town center, parked in the free municipal parking lot, purchased a cup of coffee at a little restaurant across the street from the train stop, then boarded the train. If it was snowing or if snow was predicted, I would walk to the station because we lived near the top of a steep hill which was hard to get up in heavy snow.  

"The train always departed on time and always arrived in Boston at the scheduled time of 7:50 a.m.  After a year or so, the National Park Service purchased a ten story office building along the Freedom Trail in downtown Boston for both a Visitor Center and headquarters for the North Atlantic Region.   It was probably about a mile from the North Station, but I was young and healthy and could easily get to the office by 8:00 a.m., even with a stop at a little hole in the wall coffee shop across the street from my office.  Even though most regular train riders bought a monthly pass that permitted them to ride on all the Boston subways and buses, and there were two subway stations adjacent to the train station, most train riders walked the mile or so into downtown Boston except if it were pouring rain, snowing or bitter cold.

"On the inbound trip, I generally reviewed material that had been accumulating in my inbox throughout the previous day, signed off on reports, etc.  When really under the gun, I could write a full report longhand (no laptops in those days) and hand it to my secretary to type as soon as I got to the office.  For the most part, this was an hour with no interruptions, phone calls, etc.  This was the major reason I took the train in lieu of a harrowing ride down U.S. 1 and across the Tobin Bridge,  even though I could have parked for free at the Navy Yard and taken the Park Service van to the downtown office.  I would have missed a very useful hour of work on the train.

"Of course, there were other people riding the train including some from my church who might want to discuss church business, other Park Service people who might have something they wanted to discuss with me and colleagues from related agencies such as the Boston Redevelopment Authority (we shared responsibility for the Navy Yard) who had something to bounce off me.   Some people became friends.  So the hour on the train in the morning was very well used. 

"Occasionally, I would schedule an early dental appointment, then take the 9:20 a.m. train to Boston and be able to work the better part of a full day.

"I generally took the 5:35 p.m. train home, arriving back in Ipswich around 6:30 p.m.  Unless there was pressing work to be done, I would read the newspaper.  Occasionally, I fell asleep.  Since Ipswich was the last stop, I had no fear of sleeping through my stop, though the train staff knew just about everyone on the train and would wake them up if need be.

"The Boards of Trustees at the various historic sites along the Freedom Trail often had their monthly board meetings in the late afternoon.  If I were attending one of these, I usually could catch the 6:30 p.m. train home, arriving around 7:30 p.m.  If I missed the 6:30 p.m. train, I would usually call my wife to come to Beverly and pick me up there.  The Gloucester branch trains ran on the mid day hours and evening hours that the Ipswich train did not run.  The Gloucester branch followed the same route as the Ipswich (officially the Portland East Line) between Boston and Beverly, then branched off to Gloucester and Rockport.

"There were three options for paying one’s fare.  You could pay cash to the conductor, buy a twelve ride booklet at the North Station or buy a monthly pass at the North Station.  I almost always purchased the monthly pass, which cost around $48.00 at that time.  When the conductor came through the train, I simply showed mine] as he walked by.  The pass also was valid for all buses, streetcars and rapid transit trains in Boston and for all commuter trains within Zone 5, the zone Ipswich was in.  So in the course of the day, if I needed to go anywhere in the Boston area, I simply either showed or swiped my pass.

"On weekends, my pass was good for two adults on the train (still just one for other MBTA transit) and my daughter rode for free because she was under six, so we sometimes took the train to events like the circus, baseball game, etc. in Boston.  The Boston Garden, somewhat the worst for wear, was directly [above] the North Station, so the circus was a natural.  Trains generally ran every two hours on the weekend, so we would have time for a bite before or after at the Iron Horse restaurant within the station or at fast food restaurants in the immediate vicinity.  The Boston Garden is gone now, but replaced by a new combination North Station and venue for hockey and basketball called the TD Center.

"If we were going to Fenway Park, we would take the Green Line from its North Station stop downtown, then transfer to a Green Line train going to within a block of so of the ball park.  Or we could take the Orange Line train that went downtown if that was our final destination. 

"When the commuter train schedule was inconvenient, we could drive closer into Boston, park at the Oak Grove station on the Orange Line and take the Orange Line into Boston Proper.  At different stations, the Orange Line connected with the Green Line, the Blue Line and the Red Line, the other rapid transit lines in the city.  This worked well if we were going to a play or other evening event.  Again, I just swiped my pass, though my wife would have to pay the required fare.
Boston & Maine rail diesel cars, designed and manufactured by the Budd corporation of Philadelphia.
Photo from the unofficial Boston & Maine Historical Society. - LK
 "Several years prior to my arrival in Boston, the MBTA had purchased the tracks and passenger equipment from the Boston & Maine Railroad, but the Boston & Maine continued to operate the trains and though it was a MBTA pass, we made out our check each month to the Boston & Maine Corporation.  The train crews were all employed by the Boston & Maine.  The equipment was all self propelled rail diesel cars we referred to as Budd cars.  They were really on their last legs, and a blizzard in 1978 finished off any pretense of being self propelled.  The blizzard hit on a Monday and by order of the Governor, we were totally grounded for the remainder of the week.  One day during that week, we walked into the center of town and found National Guard troops at the railroad crossing turning anyone in a motor vehicle back.

Current MBTA commuter rail equipment
Photo by Tracy Levin - LK
"During that week, the Boston and Maine hauled out some of their faded blue freight locomotives out of mothballs and hooked them to a string of four or five Budd cars to make push-pull trains, which were in service for the remainder of my tenure in Boston.  The motors on the Budd cars remained in service for lights and heat.  Only rarely did one find a car where the air conditioning actually worked.  The cars were very heavy and the seats were cushioned, so the ride was quite comfortable.  But both summer and winter, the cars were hot and stuffy.  However, the trains ran on time and were always full.  At night, these trains were put on sidings about ½ mile south of Ipswich and left running, summer or winter.  I don’t recall them ever not running because of weather, except for the Blizzard of 1978.  

"Commuter rail worked for me during my time in Boston.  The fact that the MBTA was a totally integrated transit system where my commuter rail pass was good on all forms of public transportation was a plus."

-- Hugh
January 15, 2017

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Whither Michigan's Economy?

Today I ran across an article in Bridge Magazine that kicked me into getting back on the blog. It's a great, data-based article by Mike Wilkinson, titled "Michigan's Economic Axis Tilts Away from Detroit". (As before, all links are at the end of this blog entry.)To whet your appetite, here are some quotes that set the scene:
Plentiful jobs and rising wages have been the byproduct of a dynamic, growing economy in the Grand Rapids region, making it the strongest economy in Michigan and one of the faster growing metropolitan areas in the country...
Meanwhile, the hardest-hit and slowest to recover has been the tri-city bay area: Bay City, Midland, and Saginaw. Why? The economy depends heavily on chemical and automotive business, and though both have stabilized, they've stabilized at a much lower level of output that before the Great Recession.
The [Saginaw] region's leaders are hoping to lure more educated workers, more people with doctorates who might invent the next great thing that the region's workers could build.
A glance at education statistics show how important a college degree can be to the local economy: those counties with the highest percentage of workers with a bachelor's degree or better were in the regions doing the best.
In Washtenaw County, part of the Ann Arbor metropolitan area, 55 percent of adults have a college degree; In Oakland (part of the Detroit region), 44 percent have degrees; Kalamazoo County, 39 percent, and Kent County, 34 percent.
This business about the value of education is certainly not news! But with an incoming administration that has made far-reaching promises about restoring good working-class jobs, it bears a lot of repeating: good-paying, low-skill jobs will continue to get fewer and farther between.

How do we stack up against the rest of the country? the world?

Wilkinson did a great job comparing Michigan regions with each other. But what about the rest of the country and the world? Again, our incoming administration has promised prosperity by raising tariff walls and physical walls to cut us off from foreign competition.
This brings to mind the oft-repeated image of the ostrich hiding its head in the sand. It doesn't work for the ostrich, and it won't work for us.
Let's face facts and compare our Michigan economy with the rest of the country and the world. Let's learn what's going on, take the best of it, give it a Michigan twist, and soar with it.

To learn more: