Tales from the T: Why we can’t have nice trains

Graphic by Kayla Drazan

In my previous column, we discussed the proposed West Station, a transit hub designed to accommodate a new Indigo Line, a brand-new system of rail lines slated to open in 2024. Spoiler alert: It won’t. But the story of the Indigo Line and its demise is a fascinating (if infuriating) one, and one with consequences for the entire city. 

The Indigo Line, as initially proposed, would have been a diesel, multiple unit-operated regional rail network. For those of y’all who don’t have pathological obsessions with trains and their terminology (weirdos), this would add frequent, subway-like local service on several existing commuter rail lines. And these wouldn’t use your usual lumbering commuter trains (like those passing by Boston Avenue), but rather diesel multiple units (DMUs) —  a modern train type that’s quieter, faster and more efficient. By sharing existing lines with little additional infrastructure, this would be a quick, cheap and scalable way to dramatically increase service on Boston’s rail network. 

In 2012, the Indigo Line was first proposed for the Fairmount commuter rail line. This nine-mile line from South Station, running within Boston city limits, features frequent stops in the heart of dense, working-class communities like Dorchester and Mattapan. You could not find a more perfect route for Indigo Line-style service if you tried. 

In 2014, the MBTA released a five-year capital plan, in which it envisioned Indigo Line service on six lines by 2024, expanding beyond just the Fairmount Line to bring new service locations across Greater Boston like Allston (at West Station), Chelsea and Seaport. 

In 2016, the state government yoinked funding for the DMUs, upon which all these plans depended. Credit where credit is due: The MBTA has built new stations and increased service on the Fairmount Line. But prior to the pandemic, the line often only saw only one train per hour. The Indigo Line is dead, long live the Indigo Line. 

There are many reasons why the plan failed, and I’m only allowed so many words for my column. But perhaps the biggest issue was, simply, money. Fun fact: The B in MBTA stands for broke. For its critical job in keeping Boston moving, the MBTA is severely underfunded. What’s more, a large amount of its income comes from politically unreliable federal funding. When the Indigo Line was cancelled in 2016 for lack of funding, the MBTA was considering a 10% fare increase. It had a $7.3 billion maintenance backlog, and no dedicated funding stream for it. The year before, 22% of all its funding was going toward interest and service on its debt. Perhaps the Indigo Line’s cancellation was inevitable — you are not going to further develop and improve yourself when your focus is on survival. 

Of course, the MBTA is not a perfect organization — it’s Byzantine, conservative and makes many arguably poor decisions. But let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. It is absurd that we cannot build or even maintain our trains in one of the densest, most transit-friendly cities in the world at a time when transportation emissions and climate change are universally understood threats to our survival. It is not hyperbole to say that the future success of Boston depends on the future success of the MBTA. As you vote, I suggest that you keep this in mind.


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