Tales from the T: The cooler Green Line

Graphic by Kayla Drazan

The Red Line currently has the distinction of running both the newest and some of the oldest trains on the MBTA. The newest trains entered service in December 2020, while the oldest entered service in 1945. That’s not a typo — these trains began running during World War II, and were built according to an even older Depression-era design. But you won’t be able to catch these trains from Davis. (You won’t be able to catch the new trains either — they couldn’t last three months in service before being withdrawn — but that’s a different story.) Instead, you’ll have to take the Red Line down to Ashmont for a transfer to the Mattapan trolley. 

The Mattapan trolley, known to its friends as the M Line and to its mother as the Ashmont-Mattapan High Speed Line, is quite the quirky (insert sparkle emoji) little line. Shuttling between Ashmont and Mattapan, it’s part of the Red Line, but runs streetcars (trolleys) instead of subway trains. And these aren’t the Green Line’s modern streetcars, but PCC streetcars, a revolutionary 1930s-era model whose innovative, reliable engineering made it a mainstay on streetcar lines across the globe. 

That’s cool and all, but why are PCC streetcars still in service nearly 80 years later? Some context: the Mattapan trolley runs on the Dorchester and Milton Branch Railroad, which was built in 1847. In 1923, a Red Line extension from Andrew south to Mattapan was approved. Original plans called for the line to continue via the Milton branch to today’s MBTA Fairmount Line. Trains would then run back to Andrew via the Fairmount Line, creating a massive loop encircling Dorchester. 

Ultimately, the Red Line was cut back to Mattapan. It was deemed too costly to extend subway service from Ashmont, and so streetcars were chosen. The Ashmont-Mattapan High Speed Line opened in 1929, the name a nod to the line’s separation from road traffic from its steam railroad days. (It’s likely still faster than the Green Line.) 

As modern streetcars were too heavy for the line, the Mattapan trolley’s PCCs soldiered on through the decades — first out of necessity, but increasingly out of nostalgia. With its scenic riverside route and elegant vintage fleet, the line is perhaps the most gorgeous in the MBTA. The line’s special maintenance needs blacksmiths to make spare parts and jet engine-powered snowblowers to clear snow, all of this cementing its uniqueness. 

Thanks to loving maintenance and several rebuilds, the PCCs should last for another six years for over 85 total years of service. But you can’t run from your past forever (believe me, I’ve tried). The fleet’s increasing unreliability during harsh weather and its noncompliance with ADA and safety regulations have made its replacement inevitable, with new Green Line-style streetcars to be introduced after track upgrades. After all, nostalgia aside, the residents of Mattapan deserve modern, reliable transit too. But for the time being, the PCCs are here to stay. 

(A reminder that we are, of course, in a pandemic. Transit is generally safe, but nonetheless avoid all non-essential trips until it’s safe for you to travel.)


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