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Transportation in Boston facts for kids

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MBTA services sampling excluding trolleybus
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority provides services in five different modes (trolleybus not pictured) around Greater Boston.

The Boston transportation system includes roadway, subway, regional rail, air, and sea options for passenger and freight transit in Boston, Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport) operates the Port of Boston, which includes a container shipping facility in South Boston, and Logan International Airport, in East Boston. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) operates bus, subway, short-distance rail, and water ferry passenger services throughout the city and region. Amtrak operates passenger rail service to and from major northeastern cities. A major bus terminal at South Station is served by varied intercity bus companies. The city is bisected by major highways I-90 and I-93, the intersection of which has undergone a major renovation, nicknamed the Big Dig.

Rail transportation

Boston has two discrete rail networks. One of these, the MBTA, widely nicknamed "the T", includes elements of light rail/streetcar operation as well as traditional subway technology. (The Red, Orange, Blue, and Green Lines have no physical rail interconnections with each other, though they are all operated by the MBTA and exchange passengers in shared stations.) The second network forms the Boston area portion of the North American rail network, and provides commuter rail, intercity passenger rail and freight rail services.

Although the two networks are essentially unconnected, they do in some places run alongside each other in the same right of way. Interchange stations allow interchange of passengers, but not trains, between subway and commuter rail services. Parts of the subway network also use former common user rail rights of way.

Subway network

Red Line subway train crossing the Longfellow Bridge
MBTA Green Line B
Green Line subway/surface train on street track
Train Arriving at Airport Station (MBTA)
Blue Line subway train at the airport
Test train at Massachusetts Avenue station, June 2019
Orange Line subway train at Massachusetts Avenue station

Boston has the oldest subway system in North America, with the first underground streetcar traffic dating back to 1897. Today the whole subway network is owned and operated by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA).

In the early 1960s, the then newly formed MBTA hired Cambridge Seven Associates to help develop a new brand identity. Cambridge Seven came up with a circled T to represent such concepts as "transit", "transportation" and "tunnel." Today, Bostonians call their rapid transit network "the T", and it is the fourth busiest in the country, with daily ridership of 549,000 trips excluding the Silver Line bus. This compares with the Washington Metro's 910,100, the Chicago 'L''s 596,300, and Los Angeles's 126,900, but is overshadowed by New York City's 6.0 million average daily weekday trips.

The one-way fare is $2.40 with a CharlieCard or $2.90 if paid with a CharlieTicket or cash. Monthly commuter passes, and day and week visitor's passes are also available for purchase. There are four subway lines in the metropolitan Boston area: the Red Line, Green Line, Orange Line, and Blue Line. The colors of each line have a symbolic meaning: the Blue Line runs under Boston Harbor; the Red Line used to terminate at Harvard University (whose school color is crimson); the Orange Line used to run along Washington Street, which was once called Orange Street; and the Green Line runs along parts of the Emerald Necklace into the leafy suburbs of Brookline and Newton.

The Green Line is actually four different lines; it starts as one trunk line but then splits into four different branches, the B (Boston College), C (Cleveland Circle), D (Riverside) and E (Heath Street) trains. Because the split is only relevant on the outbound direction of travel, one may take any train inbound, but when going outbound one must be careful to board the correct train. The Red Line splits as well, with southbound trains going either to Braintree or Ashmont.

Though most of Boston's rapid transit network is powered via third rail, the outermost portions of the Blue Line, as well as all of the Green Line and Ashmont–Mattapan High Speed Line, are powered via overhead lines. The name "subway" is something of a misnomer; as with other systems, large segments run above ground when far from the city's downtown. Additionally, the Green and Ashmont–Mattapan High Speed Lines are technically light-rail services, using LRVs and streetcars rather than typical multiple unit heavy railcar equipment. The Ashmont–Mattapan line uses refurbished classic pre-war "PCC" trolleys on an exclusive right of way; the Green Line relies on modern high-capacity LRV cars from Japan and Italy.

Like the New York City Subway, Boston's subway system in theory does keep to an exact fixed schedule. Starting around 2011, the MBTA introduced overhead displays at the train platform level which indicate estimated arrival times for the next two trains in each direction. In addition, real-time information about train location (and bus location) is available via an Open Data protocol on the Internet, enabling a large number of third-party smartphone apps and web sites to display expected arrival times throughout the MBTA system. The Green Line relies more on operators than its signal system compared to other lines, especially where trams are driven across or even in automobile lanes on surface rails. Due to a sparsity of data collected by the existing system, real-time Green Line arrival predictions are not expected until tracking infrastructure upgrades are completed in 2015.

Elevated sections

Despite the first rapid transit segment being built underground, many later parts were built as elevated railways. A century later, most of these elevated railway sections have been replaced by cut or tunnel routing. The only remaining classic elevated structures are the Green Line's Lechmere Viaduct, including the Science Park station, and a short segment of the Red Line at Charles-MGH, connecting the tunnel under Beacon Hill to the Longfellow Bridge.

The Boston Elevated Railway was the company that owned all the elevateds and subways. The following Els once existed:

  • Causeway Street Elevated (closed 2004), from the Haymarket Incline to the Lechmere Viaduct
  • Washington Street Elevated (closed 1987), from Forest Hills to an incline north of the Masspike
  • Charlestown Elevated (closed April 4, 1975), from the Haymarket Incline to Everett
  • Atlantic Avenue Elevated (closed 1938), from the Washington Street El at the Castle Street Wye at Herald Street (Tower 'D') to the Charlestown El and Causeway Street El at North Station (Tower 'C')

Common user rail network

Unlike the subway, which is owned and operated by the MBTA, the common user network is owned and operated by a mixture of various public and private sector bodies. In the Boston area, trackage is owned by a mixture of the MBTA and several freight railroads. Commuter rail services are operated by the Keolis Commuter Services (KCS) under contract to the MBTA, intercity passenger services are operated by Amtrak, and freight services are operated by the various freight railroads. Trackage rights allow trains of one operator to make use of tracks owned by another.

Commuter rail

Wellesley Hills station
Commuter Rail train at Wellesley Hills

The MBTA commuter rail system brings people from as far away as Worcester and Providence (Rhode Island) into Boston. There are approximately 125,000 one-way trips on the commuter rail each day, making it the fifth-busiest commuter rail system in the country, outranked only by the various systems serving New York and Chicago suburbs.

There are two major rail terminals in Boston: North Station and South Station. Commuter rail lines from the North Shore and northwestern suburbs begin and terminate at North Station; lines from the South Shore and the west start and end at South Station. There is no direct rail connection between North Station and South Station, so that interchange between the two stations generally requires the use of two different subway lines (Red/Orange or Red/Green). However, passengers on commuter lines serving Back Bay Station can interchange directly from there to North Station using the Orange Line, and passengers on the Fitchburg Line can interchange directly from Porter to South Station using the Red Line.

Intercity rail

Amtrak 623 & Acela 2007 at South Station 2019 jeh
Acela (left) and Northeast Regional (right) locomotives at South Station in 2019

Boston is served by four intercity rail services, all operated by Amtrak. The Acela and Northeast Regional services both operate on the Northeast Corridor to and from Washington, D.C., with stops in places such as New York City and Philadelphia. A branch of the Lake Shore Limited service operates to and from Chicago. The Downeaster service operates to and from Portland, Maine.

The Northeast Corridor services terminate at South Station, as does the Lake Shore Limited. The Downeaster service terminates at North Station, primarily because the Downeaster Amtrak line is intended for points north of downtown. The Northeast Corridor and Lake Shore Limited services also stop at Back Bay station. The lack of a direct rail connection between North Station and South Station means that passengers transferring to and from the Downeaster are faced with a transfer between stations. Although most such transfers can be achieved using the Orange Line between Back Bay and North Station, Amtrak recommends passengers with luggage to use a taxi.

Within the Boston area, most Amtrak services operate over commuter rail track owned by the MBTA, who also own the Northeast Corridor track as far as the Rhode Island state line.

Freight rail

CSX is the only class I railroad serving the Boston area, which it reaches by its Boston Subdivision line to Springfield, and by trackage rights over the Northeast Corridor. CSX also has trackage rights over much of the southern half of the MBTA's commuter rail network. In February 2013, CSX moved freight operations from its Beacon Park Yard in Allston to a newly refurbished double stack intermodal yard in Worcester and a new transload facility in Westborough.

The other significant freight railroad in the Boston area is Pan Am Railways (PAR; formerly known as the Guilford Rail System). PAR is a class II railroad that operates lines to the north and west of Boston, reaching destinations in New Hampshire, Maine and New York as well as Massachusetts. It also has trackage rights over much of the northern half of the MBTA's commuter rail network. In May 2008, PAR announced a venture with Norfolk Southern Railway to create a jointly owned freight corridor, branded the Patriot Corridor, linking Boston to a newly refurbished intermodal yard in Mechanicville, New York, just north of Albany.

Only a few rail freight customers remain in or near Boston, including a chemical packager in Allston, and food distribution facilities and a scrap metal processor in Everett. The Class III Fore River Railroad serves two major customers in Quincy. A plan to ship ethanol by rail to a gasoline mixing plant in Revere was reviewed in 2013. In the face of community opposition and pressure from the state legislature, the company withdrew its proposal on July 2, days before the Lac-Mégantic derailment.

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