Tales from the T: Dumpster fire on rails

Graphic by Kayla Drazan

Welcome to Tales from the T part 2: Electric Boogaloo! Each week we’ll be diving into a story about the T and other forms of Boston transportation. Who knows, some of them might even be interesting.

For this week’s column, we’ll be discussing a hilariously awful type of train that once ran on the Green Line, the US Standard Light Rail Vehicle (SLRV). The SLRV’s story starts in the ‘60s, when many American streetcar systems were in the market for new trains, as their workhorses — the venerable Presidents’ Conference Committee (PCC) streetcars — were reaching the end of their lifespan. One such system was the MBTA, which ordered custom streetcars from Düwag in 1971 for the Green Line. Düwag was a German manufacturer, however, and wouldn’t be eligible for crucial federal funds under then-new “Buy American” legislation. The order was scuttled, but the government proposed an alternative. 

Why not kill a flock of birds with one stone by designing a single train for multiple streetcar systems? It wasn’t a new concept — the PCCs were designed this way. Like the PCC, these trains would benefit from standardized parts and new technology. And as the Vietnam War ramped down, here was a chance to harness our military contractors’ labor and expertise for something that didn’t involve committing war crimes in Southeast Asia (hopefully). So in 1973, the MBTA and San Francisco’s MUNI placed an order with Boeing for these new U.S. Standard Light Rail Vehicles. If Boeing delivered on its promises, these SLRVs would revolutionize American light rail. 

Spoiler alert: they didn’t. Problems with the SLRVs included dirty ACs, broken brakes, got delivered two years late, faulty doors, rusted parts, wheels that straight-up broke apart, we didn’t start the fire… The MBTA’s mechanics literally could not keep up with how quickly the SLRVs would break. Three months after the SLRVs were introduced, the entire Green Line was shut down because there weren’t enough functioning trains. Things got so bad that the MBTA resorted to cannibalizing some SLRVs for spare parts to keep the remaining trains running. To hide the fact that its prized new trains were now less reliable than the Joey, the MBTA hid these skeletal trains in subway tunnels, only towing them outside at night. 

By 1979, Boeing had settled with the MBTA to cancel delivery of the rest of the order and provide funds to repair the remaining fleet. The SLRVs would croak on until 2007 — not because they worked well, mind you, but because their replacements were somehow even more unreliable. 

In hindsight, not all of this was surprising. Boeing had never built ground transit vehicles (besides the 737 MAX), and didn’t know how to make the SLRVs easy to fix for the resource-strapped MBTA. The government’s desire to reinvent the streetcar meant that much of the SLRV’s technology was unproven and over-engineered. And there were inherent design compromises due to the MBTA’s and MUNI’s drastically different demands that limited the SLRV’s usefulness to both. The SLRV was ambitious, but perhaps doomed from the start.