Tales from the T: Next stop, Montreal

Graphic by Kayla Drazan

The Green Line Extension is scheduled to finally open in December. Once in service, it will bring accessible, convenient rapid transit to much of Medford and Somerville and provide a slightly more convenient ride for SMFA students. And most importantly (for this column), it will restore rail service to Tufts after over four decades. 

The first trains ran by Boston Avenue in 1835 with the Boston and Lowell Railroad, between Boston and Lowell (railroads usually aren’t known for creativity). Built when railways were in their infancy, the line used the best technology and standards available — the 1830s-equivalent of high-speed rail. This meant a flat, straight route with minimal road crossings. It also meant, briefly, laying the rails on granite blocks, which had the minor effect of jolting trains apart. 

The Boston and Lowell Railroad was created to serve, and excelled at serving Lowell’s booming textile mills, proving superior to the existing canals (apparently Boston has a slight tendency to freeze in the winter?). This did mean, however, that passenger service was initially a mere side hustle. It wasn’t until 1889 that College Hill Station opened where the Joyce Cummings Center will stand. This was replaced in 1900 with Tufts College station, roughly where Bacon Hall stands. The Boston and Lowell Railroad’s passenger traffic, however, plummeted after streetcar lines started popping up (including two along College Ave and Broadway by 1925). 

Or what was the Boston and Lowell Railroad — in 1890, it was acquired by the Boston and Maine Railroad. Freight and local commuter trains soon ran alongside the Boston and Maine Railroad’s express trains serving, yes, Boston and Maine, but also Albany, Washington D.C., and even Montreal. This was the golden age of railroads, when silver-haired conductors would check pocket watches as parents tearfully waved at their children as they faded into the horizon and toward new life. 

This (admittedly idealized) period ended after World War II, when the rise of automobiles and airliners — and subsequent tectonic shifts in travel patterns — led to intercity, freight and commuter traffic spiraling faster than a pre-med student during finals week. Tufts College Station closed in 1958, a victim of system-wide service reductions. Intercity trains were slowly axed, and it seemed commuter trains would follow. 

Locals did not vibe with this, and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority was founded in 1964 to support failing transit throughout Greater Boston. It purchased the B&M line in 1973 and has operated commuter traffic since. It even opened Tufts University station in 1977 on the site of Tufts College station, but this closed after two years. 

Which brings us to today. The line — now the MBTA’s Lowell Line — still carries commuter, intercity and freight traffic, and the Green Line Extension will soon add transit to the mix (albeit on separate tracks). With an increase in automobile traffic ironically causing a resurgence in rail traffic, this almost-200 year-old railroad will remain a key piece of infrastructure well into the future.


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