Friday, August 24, 2012

A Guide To Boston's Subways

As a public service for those planning a trip to the Boston area, I present this quick guide to The T, Boston's public transportation system.


The T was America's first subway system. The oldest part, dating from 1897, is the segment encompassing Park Street and Boylston on the Green Line. History literally comes alive on that stretch as descendants of the original 1897 rats can sometimes be glimpsed.

How The T Works

There are four main lines. They are color-coded. Here's a map!

The first thing you'll notice is that, even though I told you there are four color-coded lines, there are more than four colors on the map. Ignore the purple and the silver. The purple is commuter rail. Nobody within the city proper considers it part of The T. Its purpose is to keep people in the outlying suburbs from getting to work on time. The Silver Line likes to call itself rapid transit, but in reality it's just a stinkin' bus. You may find it useful if you wish to get to and from the airport, but that's mostly hearsay.

The next thing you should note is that some of the lines are split into multiple routes. The main reason for this is so that those people living along different parts of the Red Line can bitch about how the other train always arrives before the one they ride. For the Green Line, multiply by two and consider taking a cab.

Last, but certainly not least, note that Ashmont is listed as a transfer station from the Red Line to the Red Line. This is not a mistake. Should you wish to go beyond Ashmont, you will have to disembark from your subway car and get on a trolley.

The charming little trolley in question is the most pleasant ride on the system. This is to make up for the Braintree train having arrived first earlier in your journey.


What with Boston desperately trying to avoid becoming a world-class city, The T operates approximately 19.5 hours a day. Should you find yourself exiting a drinking establishment at the legally-mandated 2 o'clock closing time, you will be unable to get home via the subway. You will have to drive, instead. This is Boston's way of thinning out the population of college students. Likewise, if you've just been hired to work odd hours in some sort of service industry, you will be unable to get to your new job prior to 5:30 or so in the morning. This is because Boston hates you and doesn't wish to see you advance.

Etiquette On The T

Pants are optional.

If you feel the need to grope a fellow passenger, please do so in a discreet manner. Otherwise, we will have to hunt down an MBTA policeman. Since most of them are in squad cars driving around the streets, rather than in the subway, this will present a horrible inconvenience to all concerned.

We would appreciate it if you don't offer your seat to an elderly person or someone with an obvious physical disability. It makes the rest of us look bad.

It is OK to cut your toenails so long as the fragments don't fly into the sandwich being eaten by the person sitting next to you.

Smoking is forbidden. If you find that you've somehow fallen onto the third rail, however, we will try to make allowances.

If you're wearing a backpack, please try to hit as many of your fellow riders as possible with it. If you take it off, please put it on a seat so that someone else won't be able to sit there. This advice also applies to shopping bags and briefcases.

It is always appreciated when a baby stroller is positioned directly in front of the exit doors, so please try to do that if you have one. Also, everyone loves a screaming child, so please be sure to exacerbate all situations wherein you are transporting a crying infant by yelling at said child to shut the fuck up rather than using a soothing tone of voice.

Finally, if you are a man, it is your right to spread your legs as far apart as possible to accommodate your enormous testicles in a comfortable manner. If you can do so in a fashion that takes up a full seat on either side of you, that would be fine. Bonus points if you wear shorts and your testicles can actually be glimpsed by the rest of us.


The T provides multiple ways to pay your fare.

You can pay cash in certain situations, but this is frowned upon because The T employs many known felons and the temptation has proven overwhelming to them in the past. Therefore, in an effort to provide more fodder for landfills, you are encouraged to purchase either a Charlie Ticket or a Charlie Card. The difference between the two is that one will end up costing you more for each individual ride than the other. However, that inconvenience is made up for by the startling lack of service provided by the station agents who are supposed to be helpful in your decision of which one will best suit your need. When all else fails (I'd say it's even money) just hop the gate. Nobody cares.

(In case you're wondering why these things are called "Charlie" cards and tickets, it's because of an entirely illogical old song called Charlie On The MTA. The song was originally a campaign song for Progressive Party candidate for mayor, Walter A. O'Brien. A new "exit fare" had just been instituted, in order to raise revenues without having to upgrade existing equipment, and Charlie found himself stuck on the train because he didn't have the additional nickel to pay to get out.

Cute? Indubitably. However, as with most other things, progressives failed to consider the simplest answer in their rush to rail (excuse the pun) against the fare increase. To whit, a lyric from the fourth verse:

Charlie's wife goes down
To the Scollay Square station
Every day at quarter past two
And through the open window
She hands Charlie a sandwich
As the train comes rumblin' through.

If, instead of a sandwich, she had handed him a damn nickel, he could have come home immediately and that would have been the end of it.)

See Something, Say Something

In an effort to guard against possible terrorist attacks (of which there have never been any on The T, so it must be working) you are encouraged to "See Something, Say Something". What this means is that suspicious packages should be reported immediately to a T official (should you be able to locate one.) In theory, this will allow for the suspicious item to be removed, and safely disposed of, without any disruption in service due to inconveniences such as a bomb exploding and killing you. In practice, it means that your fellow passengers will curse you out because whatever line you report something on will then be shut down until the suspicious package is carefully checked out and found to be somebody's laundry.

As a final treat, here are some points of interest you may wish to explore on your journeys.

Station You're Most Likely To...

... Never Reach - Lechmere.

This is because not all trains marked "Lechmere" actually go there. The possibility always exists that you will be told to get off at Government Center, instead, and have to wait for another train marked "Lechmere", which may or may not end its run at North Station.

(By the way, despite the spelling, it is pronounced LEECH-meer, not leh-SHMEER. If you ask directions and don't pronounce it correctly, you will be mugged.)

... Wonder Where That Other Set Of Tracks Goes To - Boylston

There is a set of tracks at Boylston, visible from the outbound platform, leading down into some sort of secondary tunnel. No trains ever go on these tracks. It has been conjectured that those tracks may lead to Dante's fifth circle, but this is untrue. Boylston IS the fifth circle.

(OK, actually the tracks lead to a closed off section of line unused for around 80 years. Every so often, some wise guy suggests reopening that route for service, but it will never happen because it makes too much sense.)

... Get Caught In A Crowd Of Drunken Sports Fans - Kenmore and/or North Station

Homes to Fenway Park and TD Garden, respectively. If you're a tourist and somebody told you to go to "Fenway" on the Riverside line in order to get to Fenway Park, you've been had. Backtrack to your original point of departure, find that person, then punch him or her in the nose. After that, you can all go have some Chinese food at Orient Heights.

... Not Understand Why It's Called What It Is - Wonderland

Unless you know something about the history of that area, you will have no idea why the station is called Wonderland. There is nothing there bearing that name. There used to be, but I'm not going to tell you what it was. This station does, though, hold the distinction of having starred in a movie. That's more than you can say, so cut it some slack.

... Wonder Why There's A Station There - Bowdoin

It's about a one-minute walk from the Government Center stop on the same line and it's closed at night and on weekends. But, there it is! God only knows why.

(A close runner-up is Capen Street on the Mattapan-Ashmont trolley line.

It's located on a dead-end side street in Milton and is basically a personal station for the folks living on that street. It serves 58 passengers a day according to the latest ridership statistics. I know hookers who serve more riders a day.)

... Get Pissed When You Get Off The Train And Find That You Can't Reverse Direction Without Paying An Additional Fare - Copley

Arlington, too, as I recall. And Boylston, for that matter. Also Ashmont. Probably some others I'm forgetting at the moment. Heck, just be prepared to pay more at some point if you get lost.

(Returning to "Charlie" for a moment, they used to charge you an extra fare to leave the station when you got off at Braintree, but if you'd never been there before, it was a grand surprise. It was to me, anyway. Maybe they still charge an extra fare to leave that station; I don't know. Ever since the first time I went there, I've refused to go back out of general principles.)

... Choose The Wrong Direction Of Travel - Park Street

There are three platforms in the Red Line part of the station and four tracks in the Green Line part. There's a concourse that leads to the Orange Line at Downtown Crossing, and there are also an unusually large number of stairways that don't necessarily tell you in great detail where you're headed. I'd estimate your odds at no better than 50/50 on your first time there.

... Feel In Danger, But Will Probably Be Safe - Valley Road

In order to access this station, you need to travel a walkway from the street through a patch of woods and then go down a long double flight of stairs. Except for your possible attacker, it is quite likely you will be the only person on the platform during most hours. Once on the platform, and out of reach of the stairs, there is absolutely no way to get away from a possible attacker unless you hop a fence and dive into the Neponset River. However, the station is located in a quiet residential neighborhood with relatively little crime, so it's unlikely you will be attacked. There were NO crimes reported at Valley Road station in 2011.

(Of course, now that I've published this and given would-be attackers the lowdown, you should probably carry pepper spray just to be sure.)

(By the way, I now find that I owe an apology to Capen Street. According to statistics I've just seen, Valley Road has even fewer riders each day - 44. And that includes a couple of misguided muskrats that wandered into the station from out of the river.)

... Not Get Out Of Alive - Forest Hills

Well, all right, I suppose that's overstating things. However, Forest Hills easily leads in number of assaults reported per year. There were 52 assaults reported in 2011. That doesn't include 4 instances of unspecified sex offenses, nor does it include 30 robberies of one sort or another. You'll probably get out alive, but maybe without either your wallet or your dignity.

And now I'll tell you a secret. As much as I've made fun of The T, I love it. I grew up with the sound of the Mattapan-Ashmont trolley coming through my bedroom window at night - the bell rung by the driver at the Central Avenue grade crossing, the squeal of the steel wheels as it made the turns, the whir of the motors, the opening and closing of the doors. To my ears, it was a lullaby. The system has always gotten me where I needed to be. It has been my ride to work, and then back home; to Christmas shopping and Easter celebrations; to a thousand different entertainments; to relatives and their home-cooked dinners; to church and to hot dates. The cost has never been prohibitive (and has, in fact, been a bargain, all things considered.) For every time I've had a bad ride, I've had a hundred that were efficient. As much as I love some other subway systems of the world, I wouldn't trade The T for any of them. It may be an old and cranky system, but it's MY old and cranky system, damn it, and if you ever insult it the way I just did, I'll feel it my civic duty to punch you in the nose.

Enjoy the ride. If you want company, call me.

Soon, with more better sTuff.


Anonymous said...

I so want to go to Boston and ride the T with you.

joeh said...

Classic!!! Very Funny- good for two snickers, 16 chuckles, and two of the very rare belly laughs!

I remember the song, made famous by the Kingston Trio.

NYC subway system is just as annoying, but without the charm.

(not necessarily your) Uncle Skip, said...

So there I was, with GS, walking past Boylston Station on the way to Park Station, when I heard what sounded like Godzilla getting ready to erupt from the Earth. I was much relieved when I realized it was only the Green Line train braking to a stop.

"If you're wearing a backpack, please try to hit as many of your fellow riders as possible with it. If you take it off, please put it on a seat so that someone else won't be able to sit there. This advice also applies to shopping bags and briefcases.

It is always appreciated when a baby stroller is positioned directly in front of the exit doors, so please try to do that if you have one. Also, everyone loves a screaming child, so please be sure to exacerbate all situations wherein you are transporting a crying infant by yelling at said child to shut the front door rather than using a soothing tone of voice."

That sounds a lot like the flight west from Logan to Denver.

BTW - whatever it's limitations and foibles, I would venture the T beats the alternatives.

(not necessarily your) Uncle Skip, said...

Oh, yeah... I heard that song all the way to Cambridge. So did GS.
Isn't imagination wonderful.

Anonymous said...

As Jim's WIFE'S BROTHER, the MBTA provided my first exposure to public transit, and I will always love it.

However, as 15 year NYC resident, I have to disagree with joeh. The system here is very complex... nobody who lives in the 5 boroughs truly knows all the lines, and it can be confusing for visitors. It is also much grimier than the T.

But in almost every other regard,(value for money, hours of operation, multiple station options, coverage area, variety of buskers and other entertaining lunatics), the NYC subway is superior to Boston's.

Suldog said...

Haphazard - Whenever you wish, love!

(not my) Uncle Skip - "... yelling at said child to shut the front door..."

You quote me there, but I don't believe those were my exact words...

Yes, The T does beat most alternatives (see my final paragraph!)

Suldog said...

Joe H & MY WIFE's Brother - I love the NYC subway. Confusing? Yes, it can be. Grimy? Without doubt (but I consider that aspect a part of its particular charm, actually.) The one thing I will absolutely give NYC over Boston is the customer service. Boston's customer service SUCKS (you may have gotten that idea from the piece.) NYC, on the other hand, has always been a pleasant interaction for me whenever I've had to ask directions, request help with fare machines, or whatever else.

Caveat to above: I don't live there, so my interactions have been limited. Still, I think it's a wonderful system, overall, and it is always a high point of my visits to my bro-in-law's city.

Jeni said...

I know absolutely zilch about riding any subway systems! I left the DC area long before they built the Metro there and where I live here in central PA, we don't even have bus transportation any more. (Something we did have when I was a kid but modernization and things like that pushed that out of operation.) I have to tell you I totally enjoyed reading this piece even though by posting it, you have now created one massive earworm for me and I will no doubt be hearing the refrain "Oh he never returned, no he never returned and his fate is still unlearned. He will ride forever 'neath the streets of Boston, he's the man who never returned." Good thing I always liked the Kingston Trio, isn't it?

Michelle H. said...

I've written so many articles about Boston, including the T, that I'd probably only partially-kinda-sorta get lost after five minutes of getting there. And it might be longer than five minutes if asking for directions.

It definitely sounds better than all the types of public transportation here. We have so many routes disappearing that most people don't even know if they can take the same bus home that they took to work that same day.

Tabor said...

I will never complain about the DC metro again!

Suldog said...

Tabor - I found the DC Metro to be efficient, but basically soulless. That is, it certainly functioned well, no complaints in that regard, but there was little there to latch onto and love. Most of the stations have similar designs (from my limited experience) and you can easily mistake one for another unless you actually read the signage. In Boston (and NYC, and Chicago, and London, for that matter) many of the stations have character that makes them completely distinguishable from other stations. I didn't find that too often in DC.

i beati said...

I miss trolleys so much even those at tourist sites. Can you believe they are shooting again today ??The world is in such discontent and chaos..I just lost my job Tuesday after 5 years - contractual dispute.

Ami said...

I LOVE the 'charlie ticket'. LOVE it. That was one of my most enjoyed songs as a kid, I still have the Kingston Trio singing it on CD, and my baby girl used to dance to it on occasion, picking her belly button when the guy picked the banjo. Thanks for making me smile this morning.

Here in the armpit of the West coast, we have the MAX trains. The powers that be keep taking our money even though we VOTE NO to build trains because it makes them hard to play with big electric train sets.

The system does not pay for itself, in fact is a huge money drain. This is exacerbated by OUR fare structure. You can buy a monthly ticket, a daily ticket, or a one ride ticket. Or, you can just get on the train without paying. It runs ON THE HONOR SYSTEM, and it seems that many citizens of our fair city are not honorable.

Nope, I am not kidding.

Buck said...

Awright... that's all well and good, but does the T sell cool tee shirts (ahem), posters, model cars and trains, and other assorted paraphernalia like London Transport does with the Tube? (Which: MY favorite subway in all the world, and I have both tees and posters of it. You've seen both.)

You ain't World Class without a tee shirt. Just sayin'.

The T stole London's map, too.

Craig said...

Hmmph. . . I left a comment here before. . . what happened to it?

I was pronouncing it LECK-meer; must be the German part of me. . .

And, you know, Charlie's wife might not have WANTED him to get off the damn train; ever think of that? Maybe it was WORTH a damn sandwich to her to keep him away. . .

Suldog said...

Ami - OMG. The Honor System? On a subway??? That is just too bizarre to be believed.

Glad I could provide a smile. The thought of the honor system has done the same for me!

Suldog said...

Buck - I have, in a kitchen drawer at home, a map of The Underground on a dish towel, purchased circa 1970. I absolutely adore The Underground. As for T merchandise...

Suldog said...

Craig - Yeah, I suspect a guy who didn't even have a nickel in his pocket might get such reaction from some women...

I actually heard someone say it as "LETCH-mer" one time. Needless to say, he was mugged soon after.

Buck said...

As for T merchandise...

Alrighty, then. World Class it is!

lime said...

oh this just made me smile and remember the various tips you and my cousin lisa had given me for riding the t when i came to boston. and i have to say it's something i look forward to every time i visit. i'm pretty sure i still have my charlie card from last time.

to anyone else reading i can attest to the whole LEECHmere lehSHMEER thing. i made the error and cause quite a bit of raucous laughter as a result, which is far better than being mugged.

i think at some point or another i've been on each of the 4 colors and i even survived the orange line going thru roxbury crossing. ;)

Hilary said...

Oddly enough, the only subway system I've traveled a few times (aside from my native Montreal)is Boston's. I can remember riding the red line (from Alewife) and transferring to get to the MFA a few times during various visits to Massachusetts. It was always a fine ride. And similarly, you're humourous post is always a fine read.

messymimi said...

sort of the way we feel about our crook politicians.

If i ever get up there, i'll ride it with thanks.

stephen Hayes said...

Tell the guy exposing his saggy man berries to keep the "mouse in the house!"

Patricia B. said...

We Bostonians love to complain about the T but I agree with the sentiment. Could you imagine a shiney, clean, ontime system with happy employees available for any and all questions? It wouldn't be Boston. Just last night my daughter and I came back from a Red Sox game and got a kick out of some (must have been out of towners) sticking their fingers in their ears as the trains braked. Its music to my ears. In fact, at my wedding many years ago, the groom and all the ushers had to sing the Charlie on the MBTA song. Its part of my history as well and i've passed it along to the next generation. Loved this story, thanks for it Jim.

Juli said...

Braintree still charges to get out. And for the most part, I'd say you are dead on about the entire system. :) I lived in the city, back before the commuter rails were running, and LOVED the T. I didn't need a car for 3 years, it was fabulous. And if you are a people watcher, there is no better place.

Fenway said...

Arlington you can switch directions without paying.

In Cambridge - Kendall and Central you can not.

The Silver Line to the Airport does work if you are using the Red Line.

Why Bowdoin is closed makes NO SENSE as with Charlie it can be open.

Lowandslow said...

Thanks for the primer. I've reduced and copied this and I'll forever keep it in my wallet, and if I'm ever in your beloved Boston, I'll refer to it often. ;)


Cricket said...

Amen to all of this.

Great stuff. Recently found among my possessions and mementos, an "Ashmont dollar." In the charming little burgh where I grew up, you had to take a short bus ride to Ashmont to get into Boston proper. The fare was $1.

You see where I'm going with this?

Anyways, being economically-minded little punks, and this being well before the days of dollar-eating machines, we tore our dollar bills in half, and crammed one half in for the ride in, one for the return fare.

I must have got a ride home or something, but I still have, literally, a half-dollar. Heh, heh.

And then there are the "free token dispensers"... but I'll share that secret with you another time.

Suldog said...

Patricia - At our wedding, we had tables decorated to reflect our love for certain things Bostonian. One of our tables was "T" table. On that table, we placed a cassette player that had a tape of a ride on the Red Line loaded in it. Believe me when I tell you that the folks at that table played that tape over and over again, enjoying the sounds of wheels squealing, doors opening and closing, announcements by the driver, etc. It was the hit of the wedding, in many ways!

Suldog said...

Juli and Fenway - Thanks much for the updated info. I'm glad I have readers I can count upon to do my research for me :-)

Suldog said...

Cricket - Yeah, our favorite trick was to ALWAYS ask for a transfer even when we didn't need one. We'd save them and then use them for free rides on other days. I recall they were coded in some way (color, perhaps?) but could usually be pawned off in one way or another later, maybe by sorting through them until you found one that matched (there are only so many colors, so it had to show up again sooner or later?) In any case, if you put on a sad enough face and said, "But, that's what the driver just gave me!", they'd usually let you on gratis.

Daryl said...

I cant tell you how many times over how many years I wondered why the heck she didnt just give him the damn nickel.... but that was when I was single .. now I know why ... trust me, much as I adore Toonman I'd give him a sandwich too .. for a few days .. then I'd breakdown and give him the damn nickel .. ;)

Karen said...

Funny! I've never ridden a subway and am sure I'd get lost in no time. So, the farther apart a man spreads his legs, the bigger the balls? I'll have to remember that.

Jenn Flynn-Shon said...

The only exception to taking the wrong stairs at Park is if you're going to a game at Fenway. Then just follow the shirts. Unless you're coming from a game as a tourist leaving the city then yeah, you're pretty much screwed.

As a side note, a friend of mine gave me a pair of earrings made from old T tokens many years ago when tokens fell by the wayside. And I also kept a token I never had to use (the assignment ended - details below) because I was able to convince the (one) T employee I found at the time that I meant to get off the train sooner. Orange line turned into an express right before my stop and I ended up in Oak Grove. He believed me & waved me in. I was broke as a joke & only had cash to buy the one token I would need to get to work the next day when I'd pick up my paycheck. I kept the token as a token of reminder that I should remember to help people too. Late teen years. Good times!

Jenn Flynn-Shon said...

Sorry - details were I was a temp & got a message when I got home that my check would be mailed & to report to a new place the following Monday. Didn't need to use the token after all.

3GKnight said...

Very good! I lol'd numerous times. And yes, I think I will make room for my enormous testicles. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I love how you love your city. I didn't grow up with subways, but wish I had! I've only had experience with the ones in London, Paris, and DC.

Anonymous said...

Once or twice a year when we come for a visit, we always take the T. It's great!
I mention the T over here, no one knows what I'm taking about. Ha I then say, "Oh, the subway."
We won't be coming this fall so I will have to wait until spring to try out your favorite cafe/pizza place. :)

Chris said...

I seem to remember a similar ditty about the NYC subway system, except the subject of the story got knifed.

david mcmahon said...

A map? You're giving me a map? Jim, you KNOW that I am the only bloke who gets lost even with a GPS!!