Tipster Helga Burre of Hyde Park rides the MBTA commuter rail and says all she wants to know is where she's going. "Getting on a train at Back Bay station is always nerve-racking. You can never be sure of which train has arrived since a) There is no name on the train; b) The announcements often don't match the train that is arriving; c) The conductors are totally unpredictable," Burre writes.
"Some announce in a wonderful clear voice, emerging as soon as the train gets into the station. Other conductors seem to hide on the train and just emerge to wave the train off. It is especially difficult when the platform is very crowded, or some trains are delayed. Even if the conductor stands outside the train, you have to fight your way through a crowd to ask them which train it is."
As an example, Burre tells GlobeWatch she missed the 5:20 p.m. train to Stoughton on Oct. 17 because conductors didn't call out the name of the train as it arrived, didn't get off the train to help passengers waiting on the platform as they typically do, and the MBTA's public-address system didn't announce the train's destination.
"The train was late. As I waited on the platform, the 5:25 Needham train was announced. I saw a friend who was looking for the Needham train. As the train pulled in, we couldn't see or hear any conductor. We both got onto the train and asked people and some said it was the Stoughton train and others said it was Needham. My friend stayed on the train and I got off looking for a conductor. I saw a conductor at the head of the train and ran up to ask him. He said 'Stoughton' and then didn't let me on as the train started to move. So I got off the right train and my friend ended up on the wrong train and that had consequences for both of our families.
"When I went upstairs at Back Bay station to complain to the announcer, she said that she can't see what train is in the station, just what the computer system tells her is on the tracks [from] South Station. She said she has complained to management about the problem but nothing has been done."
A visit by a Globe reporter last week found some announcements over the public-address system about train destinations and stops were clear and detailed, while others were hurried and muffled.
Similarly, while one conductor on an arriving train loudly declared the train's identity for those on the platform, another from the train said nothing.
One conductor on a different train simply stated her train's destination once in a speaking voice too quiet to be heard over the station noise by anyone more than a few feet away.
Signage also appears to be a problem, as only one TV monitor listing the trains numbers, arrival times, track numbers and destinations served the platform for tracks 1 and 3. The monitor's screen was so dark and in such disrepair, it could not be read unless viewers stood directly under it. Two red LED signs overlooked the both sides of the platform, but only one was working and contained no train information, just an endless scrolling message, "Thanks to all our guests for riding the Commuter Rail!"
The MBTA responds
"The current system at Back Bay station is extremely dated and does not reflect technical advances now available," said Lydia Rivera, an MBTA spokeswoman.
The T currently is spending $4 million to install new track assignment boards at Back Bay, South Station, and North Station that will display departure times, track assignments, and train status, and a new train-arrival-tracking system, she said. "When both systems are in place, train arrivals and departures will be automatically displayed on terminal displays, something that cannot be done today." New public-address systems will be installed as part of the overhaul. Work at North Station was completed this month; South Station should be done by early next year (2008) and Back Bay by June, she said.
Conductors are expected to announce their train's destination as they arrive at each station platform and it's "especially critical" they do so at Back Bay and Ruggles Station, Rivera said. The authority is aware that "some do, some don't" and welcomes feedback from customers. With the new systems in place, passengers will have other ways to get train information and not have to rely on conductors, she said.
WHO'S IN CHARGE
Daniel A. Grabauskas
Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority
10 Park Plaza, Suite 3910
Boston, MA 02216