Saturday, April 21, 2018

SL3 (Chelsea Station - South Station via Airport Station)

I sprinted out of my house at 4:17 AM. I arrived at the empty main street...no cars going in either direction. Well, Sam said to wait at an inbound bus stop, so I headed over to the closest one. No cars coming. *BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP*!!!!! A vehicle was coming the other way. I dashed across the street, jumped in with Sam, Jordan, and Uillia, and we drove away at full speed, "This Is How We Do It" blasting through the radio. It was time to ride the first SL3.

We pulled into the South Station parking lot and headed down to the bus terminal. The Commuter Rail station was still closed...maybe the subway entrances were open? Tried one...didn't work. Tried another...nope. A third? Nuh-uh. They were all closed. The time was 4:55, and the first trip was scheduled to leave at 5:02. "If we miss this thing, I'm gonna be so pissed," Jordan remarked.

Finally, someone came out to open the doors to the Commuter Rail station. We ran in and went down to the Silver Line platforms, where a surprisingly small amount of people was waiting. At 5:01 AM, bus 1102 entered the station, and all eleven of us boarded the first trip of the T's first new line in over a decade. So much fanfare!

HERE IT COMES!!!!
I regret to say that this first trip was not the one I reviewed. We took it up to Chelsea (and gave a round of applause when it arrived), but then we went back and reviewed all the stations - that post will be tomorrow. After that, we got a bus back to Chelsea (we had to wait for the stupid drawbridge to come down, and I will definitely be ranting about that later) and now...let us review the journey back to South Station!

The busy crowd inside the bus. Hi, Jordan!
Our bus boarding at Chelsea!
So we began at Market Bask...er, Chelsea Station, where we boarded the bus after its tight loop. This portion of the busway ran right next to the Commuter Rail tracks, while on the other side, there were some office buildings with big parking lots. After going under Route 1, we arrived at our next stop, Bellingham Square, where you can also transfer to the Commuter Rail Chelsea Station...although that's not shown on any of the maps. Shucks.

A wide road just east of Chelsea Station.
There wasn't all that much to see after Bellingham Square (although a signalized "single-track" section under a bridge worked perfectly) until we reached Box District, which had some TOD apartments next to it. We were away from the Commuter Rail now, and we were running past industrial buildings on one side and dense houses and apartments on the other. The big Chelsea Employee Lot meant that we had arrived at Eastern Ave Station, which is also used by 77s to turn around (they also short-turn some SL3s here if they're bunching).

Some apartments running up a hill.
From Eastern Ave, the bus traversed an intersection to get onto Chelsea Street in mixed traffic. We went over the dreaded drawbridge, and on the other side of the Chelsea River, we were in East Boston. Oh boy, talk about industrial. We didn't have to deal with the area's huge vats for too long, though, as we turned onto the Martin A Coughlin Bypass Road, running in a cut underneath the neighborhood.

Alright, a view!
We popped up onto the eloquently-named Service Road, and this led us next to I-90 and the Blue Line tracks, with various industrial airport buildings on the other side. After serving the Airport Blue Line station in its busway, we ran down Transportation Way, which had I-90 to the north and a park to the south. We did some curves and passed the Rental Car Center, then it was a left onto the highway ramp into the Ted Williams Tunnel.

Here we go!
From here, it's just like the SL1 you know and love(?). Coming out of the tunnel in the Seaport District, we did everyone's favorite "Congress Street opposite Seaport Hotel" stop, then it was the ol' looparound to Silver Line Way. The wires came up perfectly, but we had no such luck at D Street, where the light (as usual) took about 80 years to change. From there, it was down through the overbuilt World Trade Center and Courthouse Stations, and on to South!

We got out at Courthouse so we could get a picture still signed as SL3. See ya!
Route: SL3 (Chelsea Station - South Station via Airport Station)

Ridership: Well, if you thought 11 people on the first trip was bad, try 1-2 people on every other trip this morning! Granted, it was a Saturday morning at a time when nobody wants to be up - I rode the route later in the day, and it was much busier. Ridership today was definitely more of the "seeing the line" type of folk, but hopefully people start to use it as a service come the work week.

Pros: Once you get past Eastern Ave, this thing is pretty good. The busway is somewhat fast, the stations are generally nice (more on those tomorrow), and the route is useful, running through the urban core of Chelsea. It's a one-seat ride to the Seaport District and to Downtown, plus this makes the trip from Chelsea to the airport much easier. There's a free transfer from the SL3 to the Blue Line at Airport Station (as long as you don't pay with cash), and that will likely be the fastest way of getting into the city using this route. Buses come often: service is every 10 minutes at rush hour, every 12 minutes on Saturdays, and every 15 minutes middays, nights, and Sundays. Finally, the multi-use path that runs along the busway from Box District to Eastern Ave is a nice touch, although it could be longer.

Cons: Okay, I hope I don't get killed for this, but...this route is problematic.
  • First, no discussion about the SL3 is complete without comparing it to the 111, and that's what a lot of these cons come from. In terms of raw frequency from Bellingham Square, the 111 beats the SL3 by a long shot, running every 3-5 minutes at rush hour, every 10 minutes or less middays, nights, and Saturdays, and every 12 minutes or less on Sundays. The SL3 can't even hold a candle to those kinds of headways. Plus, the 111 serves the square directly.
  • Whereas the 111 goes straight over the Tobin Bridge, the SL3 has to contend with the drawbridge over the Chelsea River. We arrived as it was on its way down, and we still had to wait five minutes! There's some complicated diversion the route has to do if it gets there just as it's going up, and I'm sure it saves no time at all. If the drawbridge goes up during the rush, there will be bunching. And sure, the Tobin Bridge gets snarled up during rush hour...but so does the Ted Williams Tunnel! So the SL3 has two chokepoints to deal with, while the 111 only has one.
  • I'm not going to make any conclusions about speed (I hope to stage a race soon), but I think it can be reasonably assumed that the 111 is generally, on average, about as fast as the SL3 is to the city. Even if that's not the case, the SL3 is a rapid transit fare. This means that in many cases, people are spending more money for a relatively equal service.
  • Speaking of fares, it's annoying that this brand-new BRT route has front-door only boarding. Maybe they're waiting for AFC 2.0, but still! When I rode the route midday, there were a ton of people at Chelsea, and it took way longer to board as a result.
  • The complete lack of transit signal priority along the route is insane. Buses have to wait at the Eastern Ave light, and at numerous stop signs at level crossings with side streets. What they should've done with the latter is put traffic lights for cars up that default to green, and just turn red when a bus is coming. A BRT service shouldn't have to stop for cars! Also, there's the D Street light, but that's a problem with every Silver Line route.
  • I'm not sure if this is a first-day problem or what, but the interaction with the 77s at Eastern Ave is awful. I was on a bus that got stuck behind a 77 that was boarding, and I've heard reports that this has been happening all throughout the day. This is not good. Along with the drawbridge, although to a lesser extent, this could be a huge cause of bunching.
  • Also, if the route bunches, there's no place to lay over in Chelsea, so that bunch is sticking around all the way back to South Station! Maybe even beyond South Station, since having only two layover spots in the tunnel with three routes is tough to work with...

Nearby and Noteworthy: There are lots of businesses in Bellingham Square, and some more over at the Mystic Mall (next to Chelsea Station). Sorry, I have no idea what kinds of places are worth going to, but I'm sure those who are more knowledgeable than me will comment!

Final Verdict: 4/10
Yeah, I was feeling a 6 when I finished my ride on this thing, and it only seems worse the more I think about it. Honestly, I think the money used to build this would have been much better spent creating improvements to the 111 and making it a BRT-like service. Imagine how amazing that route would be if it had bus lanes on the Tobin Bridge! But we're stuck with the SL3, and sure, that's not an awful thing - this is a fine route for what it is, and it might be faster than the 111 at rush hour if you transfer at Airport. This just isn't the golden rapid transit line that will solve all of Chelsea's transportation problems. Far from it.

Latest MBTA News: Service Updates
How the heck was I able to present at TransportationCamp after getting up at 4 in the morning? Who knows, but I had an awesome time! Thanks to everyone for coming and being a fantastic audience. We had a really interesting discussion about RTA planning, and it made me so happy to see the issue getting some attention!

15 comments:

  1. i rode the SL3 today to and i think it is a good route with potential to be great but the issues you mentioned bring it down a bit and make me think there could have been a bit better planning,the drawbridge thing is pretty bad, i suppose that can't exactly be helped but it's still pretty annoying. anyway i actually filmed my ride and uploaded it on YouTube,if you would like to watch it click this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J_wUoL2TNKA

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    1. why doesn't it show up as a link ?oh forget it

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    2. Well you could also look up "Liam j mbta and rail fan" profile and it will be the first video there.you don't have to watch btw(I don't want to it to seem like I'm nagging somone just so my video get a view)

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  2. Yeah, unfortunately there is a lot wrong with this new service, as you've pointed out (the lack of all-door boarding at the new stations is very concerning...).

    Chelsea to the Seaport seems more like a gimmick (just like Heart to Hub is a gimmick) more than anything else... I do think, though, that Chelsea to South Station / Red Line is legitimately useful: if it were up to me, the SL3 would just use surface streets in the Seaport (they're just as fast/slow as the busway -- with its restricted speeds and guaranteed bunching) which would also allow the use of regular buses for higher frequency service.

    There should also ideally be short-turn trips which just use the Chelsea <-> Blue Line section, since that could just use regular buses, and probably a good number of commuters are just looking for the fastest subway connection possible and don't care about the rest of route.

    The drawbridge really is the killer though, and there is absolutely no good way around it...

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    1. Sometimes I wonder if it would've been better to operate the line only from Chelsea to Airport Station. You could run really frequent service with just two buses, and it would serve Chelsea riders about as well!

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    3. The one negative I see to ending at Airport station (albeit it may not matter to most people) is that those who do not have Charlie Cards or Link Pass (or higher) Charlie Tickets would have to pay two rapid transit fares to get into Downtown Boston as opposed to one bus fare and maybe one subway fare for the 111 (and maybe a Orange/Green connection), unless they were allowed to enter Airport Station for free. Of course that negative could be turned into a positive of encouraging people to buy passes or use Charlie Cards, or whatever they'll use in a few years (I guess they'll have to anyway by then if indeed cash will no longer be accepted when the new system is the only one).

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    4. I've heard that the transfer at Airport does indeed work with a CharlieTicket, so it would only be a negative for those using cash. That said, it's pretty darn hard to get a CharlieTicket when there are NO FARE MACHINES AT THE STATIONS.

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    5. The Chelsea-Airport short turn is something that I had proposed / thought about as well, but it seems that there are still some major issues with that. The dedicated BRT lanes, if I recall correctly do not start until you've actually crossed the drawbridge into Chelsea, so during rush hour, the buses are still getting stuck at a major chokepoint. And of course, the drawbridge itself will always be a major issue to the silver line.

      The MBTA did have good intentions for this route and it's great that Chelsea is getting more transit options available, but allowing SL3 to be used to its full potential will require cooperation between agencies outside of the MBTA. The easiest ones IMO right now would be getting transit signal priority, especially that D street crossing, and allowing MBTA buses to use the ramp to access the Ted Williams Tunnel that the State Police currently don't allow them to use.

      In a perfect world, I'd like to see the underground portion of the silver line to be converted to light rail, as the silver line is already stretched capacity-wise during rush hour, and with the development going on in the seaport, it's not going to get better anytime.

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  3. You didn't mention the short turning at Eastern Avenue.

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    1. Oh, good point. I'll throw that in, thanks!

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  4. And all of those 11 people were taking it for fun. Although, in my opinion, when we took it midday for the field trip, it got a good amount of people for the first day.

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  5. While additional transit options in Chelsea are welcome, I would prefer that the MBTA commit resources towards improving existing public transit, which serves a much greater segment of Chelsea than SL3 will.

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  6. How many miles does the MBTA have now, with the addition of the SL3?

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