A Look at the Future of Boston's Subways

The Drive checked out the MBTA's mock-up of the new Red Line trains for ourselves.

Justin Hughes

Under a tent within sight of the Government Center station sits a mock-up of the new subway cars for the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority's Red Line. By 2022, 252 of these will be in service under the streets of Boston and its suburbs, a 15 percent increase over the current fleet's numbers. Additionally, 152 nearly identical cars will be in service on the Orange line, a 28 percent increase. Having commuted on the Red Line myself for a number of years, I am intimately familiar with the current service and its limitations, so I took the opportunity to see what lies ahead for the future.

Justin Hughes

The new Red Line cars get a new but familiar look.

The exterior dimensions are identical to the current cars, some of which have been in service since the 1960s. This particular mock-up on display is two-thirds the length of the final production car. All exterior lighting and signage is now LED for brightness and efficiency. The sides combine the red-white and red-unpainted aluminum color schemes currently used on the Red Line, looking slightly different but easily identifiable as a Red Line subway.

Seats on the old cars were originally vinyl but have been recovered with a strong fabric throughout the years. On the new cars, the seats are hard plastic, making them much easier to clean. There is also no gap between the seatback and the wall, which will stop people from dumping trash behind the seats. The new seat bottoms appear shorter, and the backs more upright, providing slightly more room for people standing in the center of the car. According to the MBTA consultant I spoke with, many people say the new car seems wider although the interior dimensions remain the same as current cars. 

There is actually less seating on the new cars than the old ones. One reason for this is requirements for accommodating wheelchairs that were not in effect when the older cars were made. Two areas of each car will have no seats so wheelchairs may park there. Another two areas will have seats that fold up, which can also be useful in crowded cars to fit more standing people in the space where three used to sit.

The other reason there is less seating is to intentionally carry fewer passengers. This is the opposite philosophy of the "Big Red" cars currently in use at peak times that have no seats but fit significantly more people inside as a result. The T intends to have trains arriving at stations every three minutes instead of its current five-minute intervals. The increased frequency of trains will make up for the lower passenger capacity on each one. Additionally, the side doors are significantly wider than the current cars, enabling faster entry and exit to decrease the time spent stopped at a station. All in all, the T expects to transport an additional 10,000 passengers per hour at peak times with more trains despite lower capacity in each car.

Justin Hughes

An animated screen replaces the old cardboard maps of the subway system.

The LED signs and automated station announcements common to newer Red Line cars will continue to be used on the new ones. But an informational screen replaces the static map of the entire MBTA subway system, showing the train's current location, destination, and upcoming stops. This will vastly simplify the process of figuring out how far away a stop is for passengers unfamiliar with riding the T.

Justin Hughes

Subtle security cameras record everything and allow the driver to see anywhere inside the car

One significant enhancement on the new cars is security. Small cameras are installed in the ceiling to record everything that happens inside. Video is automatically recorded, and the driver can choose to watch the view from any camera in real time. These are also tied into the passenger intercoms, which are already in use on Red Line trains, so that when a passenger reports a problem the driver can watch what's happening and radio ahead for help if necessary.

All in all, the new Red Line (and Orange Line) cars appear to be an evolutionary improvement from the existing trains. There is nothing radically new about them, but they seem to be what Boston needs to replace some cars that have been in service for fifty years. But will the T be able to actually keep trains moving smoothly enough to get them to stations more frequently to make up for the cars' lost passenger capacity? Only time will tell.