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What’s So Special — And Not So Special — About The New T Cars

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The first new Orange Line cars will be sent to Boston from Shanghai, China, this week, and are expected to arrive sometime in December.
Courtesy of CRRC MA Corporation

This week, the first new Orange Line cars made by Chinese rail giant CRRC Corp. will be hoisted into a boat in Shanghai. They’ll arrive in Boston sometime in December to begin testing on MBTA tracks, and will also serve as models for the full order of 152 being built at CRRC’s plant in Springfield.

But aside from a sleek new orange-on-stainless steel color scheme, what’s different about them from the old trains?

“They are going to have wider doors,” MBTA Deputy General Manager Jeff Gonneville says of the first thing passengers will notice. That’s to allow faster boarding, which should translate into less time at stations and more trains running on time.

“Moving customers on and off of our trains faster gives us the ability to operate in a more reliable fashion,” Gonneville said, adding that another innovation — a ramp that deploys from underneath the doors to narrow the gap between the car and station platform — will speed up wheelchair boarding, currently dependent on manual ramps.

Once inside, he continued, riders will notice more space. And they’ll be able to better plan their trips or changes along the way with LED displays showing where the trains are on the route.

But the biggest change won’t be visible to passengers. It’s a massive $1.6 billion automatic train control and infrastructure upgrade project that, in essence, will allow the trains to drive themselves. That, too, is intended to move the system more efficiently and reduce time between trains.

It also would mean potentially huge labor savings, though the T’s unions would surely balk at the idea. While there are precedents — Honolulu recently built a self-driving system from the ground up, and numerous airports have long had driverless people movers — Gonneville stayed clear of that controversy, saying T trains would still have operators aboard.

“The motorperson is going to be responsible still for the operation of the doors once the trains pull into a station, and obviously more importantly, if there's an emergency,” he explained. “The motorperson has the authority to stop and take control of the train at any time.”

The T’s semi-autonomous chapter won’t begin for a good five years, Gonneville says, well after the first new cars go into service a little more than a year from now. Likewise, riders may have to wait for other, lower-tech amenities that public transit users elsewhere have come to expect.

One of those innovations is the concept of open gangways — enclosed passageways that let you walk from one end of a six-car train to the other. (MBTA Green Line trolleys have open gangways between each pair of cars, but not the entire length of longer trains.)

“With an open gangway train, people redistribute themselves as the train is moving down the tracks,” said Yonah Freemark, a transportation planner and writer completing his Ph.D at MIT. He says open gangways have become standard around the world and can carry 10 percent more passengers, some with seating in the spaces between cars, as on the Green Line.

New York recently ordered open gangways for its new heavy rail subway cars, becoming the first U.S. subway system to do so. Gonneville says the T considered the idea but ultimately nixed it.

“Our vehicle engineering team looked at this very closely. There are some grade changes along with tight curves in our system ... (that are not) able to accommodate those open gangways," he said. 

Freemark disputes that.

“I don't think that makes very much sense. When you look at systems all over the world, especially places like Paris that have quite old tracks with very tight turns, they’ve been able to put open gangway trains throughout their system,” he said. “That indicates to me that systems in the United States, including the MBTA, have not done enough to really think forward, be more creative about the design of these trains.”

An even simpler amenity that the T rejected is installing USB adapters for riders’ cell phones, which New York has also ordered for its trains and already has in buses.

Stuck with a dying cell phone at Wonderland Station, Blue Line rider Andrew Sicotte says he’d love to see a USB outlet or even a standard plug somewhere on the Boston system.

“Yeah, absolutely,” he said. “I think that maybe they could put them on the trains themselves. We’re going into Boston and there’s not going to be any places to charge your phone there, either.”

Gonneville says charging outlets could be installed later, reiterating that the highest priority is getting people on and off trains quickly. But Deb Biggar of Boston Human Factors in Lynnfield says that’s exactly why you want riders’ mobile devices to be working.

“It’s the connectivity between the train and the device,” said Biggar, who has consulted to the T and Zipcar on how people use their vehicles. Ideally, she says, riders could pair their devices with those new LED displays to get information on any delays or suggested alternative routes.

That won’t work, she says, “If someone’s phone dies while they're on the train and they don't have a way to contact their people.”

That gets into reservations some would-be riders may have about the T in general, she says.

“If we want to encourage more people to use the subway, we need to make it feel like a safer place,” Biggar said. “They need to know where they're going and how long it will be until they get there, instead of feeling like when they get on the train, ‘It’s going to be crowded, my phone’s going to die; I should just take an Uber.’”

As for the half-million-plus daily riders already on the T, breakdowns of trains dating back to the Nixon administration make the main priority just getting cars that work.

Gonneville doesn’t argue with that.

“Frankly,” he said, “they can’t get here fast enough.”

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