On September 1, 1897, America’s first subway opened in Boston, when a trolley disappeared underground at the corner of Arlington and Boylston streets and stopped at a station at the corner of Boylston and Tremont. (At left is a picture of a trial run the day before.)
On January 14, 2016, the Boston subway system recorded a very different milestone: The National Transit Database released data that showed the MBTA had 219 “major mechanical failures” in the year 2014. That’s the worst rate of breakdowns among all transit systems nationwide, and it’s four times the national average. Yikes.
The Red Sox went worst to first to worst in three seasons. What are the odds the MBTA climbs to first next year?
As reported in The Boston Globe: MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo questioned the national figures, saying that “there is no uniform practice for reporting mechanical failures” to the National Transit Database. “What one rail service provider considers a failure, another one may not,” he said. He also said the agency would continue efforts to keep old trains and equipment from failing by either repairing or replacing them.
Also from the Globe:
The T’s light rail lines — the Green Line and Mattapan-Ashmont trolley — ranked third worst in terms of major mechanical system failures per train mile traveled among 23 light rail systems nationally, according to the 2014 National Transit Database, which is maintained by the Federal Transit Administration. The T’s heavy rail lines — the Red, Orange, and Blue — ranked as the sixth worst among 15 heavy rail systems nationally, the figures show. The commuter rail system ranked fifth worst among 24 commuter rail systems nationally in 2014, the latest year for which data was available.
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I was about to call for an Uber to take me downtown Tuesday when I looked at my watch and thought: Take the T. I was going to the State House to collect a nice award for “The Race Underground” from the Massachusetts Center for the Book, as one of its Non-Fiction Books of the Year (I was not the category’s big winner, that went to Elizabeth Kolbert for “Sixth Extinction).
So I walked up to the JFK/UMass station and took the Red Line to Park Street, which, of course, was the second station that the first subway in America stopped at on September 1, 1897, after first passing through the Boylston Street station. Park Street was also where a Boston Globe reporter stood in the early 1890s to count the street traffic as part of the subway debate. It was, needless to say, very congested. This is what I wrote about that moment: A reporter for the Globe went out one afternoon, stood at the busy downtown corner of Park Street and Tremont Street in front of the towering, white Park Street Church and counted 303 streetcars passing by in a single hour, or five every minute. A “mile an hour pace” is how the paper described the scene.
Insert joke here about how much it’s changed now that those streetcars are underground.
That corner is also a historic spot for another reason. The same construction engineer, Solomon Willard, who built the Bunker Hill Monument oversaw the look of the Park Street Church in 1809. And it’s where “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” was first sung in public and where William Lloyd Garrison spoke out against slavery for the first time.
Okay, history lesson over. Back to the awards.
It was a really terrific ceremony, in a beautiful part of the State House, what’s called Nurse’s Hall, beneath the golden dome. There were about 30 authors there, from categories like non-fiction, fiction, poetry, children’s and young adult. And all of us got certificates like these, really nice, signed by our legislators. And some of the local lawmakers even came and honored their local winners, like Sonia Chang-Diaz from Jamaica Plain (below, right).
Below left was a fellow author I sat with and had a terrific chat with, Katherine Howe. She’s from Marblehead, and wrote what sounds like a terrific young adult novel called “Conversion,” about a present-day North Shore private school and a mysterious illness that brings back memories of Salem and witches. Katherine and I took the pictures of each other getting our awards.
All of the writers got a moment to speak and just thank the Mass Center for the Book for organizing the event and luncheon. I said a few words about the vital importance of libraries in our communities, for research, but also just for our kids, to constantly encourage them to browse the stacks and get lost in their imagination.
I did not do any T-bashing, tempting as it may have been. It’s hard to believe that two years after “The Race Underground” was published in hardcover and a year after the paperback that these moments are still happening for me. But I’m not complaining.
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History buffs rejoice!
If you’re anything of a history geek like me, this is cool news. The New York Public Library, a place where I spent many long days and nights researching “The Race Underground,” in particular using its private papers of engineering titan Frank J. Sprague, has released digitally more than 180,000 photos, postcards, maps and other items in the public domain. And in releasing them, the library is eagerly inviting people to do what I am doing right now: Download high-res-files, grab them and use them.
Naturally, I went poking around for any cool subway photos and found a bunch, one from Boston and lots from New York. Click on each image to see it larger. I’ve seen a few of these, but they are never easy to get access to. As the New York Times, a lot of these images have been available, just not in great resolution.
Here is what a library official told The New York Times: “We see digitization as a starting point, not end point,” said Ben Vershbow, the director of NYPL Labs, the in-house technology division that spearheaded the effort. “We don’t just want to put stuff online and say, ‘Here it is,’ but rev the engines and encourage reuse.”
I grabbed a few that appealed to me quickly, including one below in color of an early train coming out of Boston’s first subway, near Arlington Street, which I had never seen before (and trust me, I saw a lot of photos!). The others are mostly of New York’s subway under construction. My book has a lot more image (sorry, shameless plug), but these are pretty cool. Enjoy.
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