Starts & Stops

The Big Apple could take a few pointers on cleaning up snow

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / January 2, 2011

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Here are headlines you didn’t see in Boston: “%#@ City ‘Left Us In The Lurch,’ Say Fed-Up Travelers,’’ “How We Drifted Into Disaster,’’ “Snowblind Mayor Admits: ‘Probably Could Have Done Better,’ ’’ “Goin’ Snow-Where!’’

All came from New York’s Post and Daily News, part of an avalanche of coverage in the week after the snow subsided Monday, documenting New York City’s bungled response to a storm that brought the city 20 or more inches of snow. While Boston — which recorded 18 inches at Logan International Airport — quickly returned to normal, New York did its best impression of a southern locale unfamiliar with snow.

Thousands of neighborhood streets in New York remained unplowed long after the storm, and even major arteries were barely passable, obstructing ambulances and firetrucks. MTA buses became snowbound, with more than 1,000 trapped at one point Monday, and 250 still waiting to be dug out a day later.

On the subway, multiple above-ground trains got stuck in the outer boroughs, including an A train bound for the Rockaways that was trapped for seven hours with passengers aboard. Officials were unable to rescue them and were reluctant to let them exit on foot near a snow-covered third rail. On the MTA’s commuter lines, the Long Island Rail Road shut down for a day, while the Metro-North service to the city’s northern suburbs gave up on a morning rush hour.

And all this in a week in which a fare increase took effect.

Compare that with the Boston area: Major highways were passable almost immediately, and municipal roads were cleared within 24 hours. A couple of bus lines had to be rerouted because of icy hills, and a few dozen buses experienced periodic sluggishness because of slowed traffic along their routes. But not a single one needed to be dug from a snowbank.

Rapid transit delays were minor, and only the 2.6-mile Mattapan High Speed Line was shut down. On all the commuter rail lines, there was just one 60-minute delay and only a few of 30 minutes or more, according to T records. That meant thousands of trains, buses, and subways ran on or near schedule at a point when people were especially reliant on public transportation, their own cars covered in snow.

“I don’t want to compare us to New York, and I don’t know what the situation was down there, but I do think that the public safety professionals who worked on the storm — including many people who work for me both at the Department of Transportation and the T — they just did fantastic work,’’ said Jeffrey B. Mullan, the state transportation secretary, after hop-scotching the region Tuesday to thank workers.

Mullan also used his BlackBerry to post photos and video online of the jet-engine snowblower the T used to clear the Mattapan line, a supercharged piece of equipment that spokesman Joe Pesaturo calls “Snowzilla.’’ Until Tuesday, the Mattapan line was replaced by buses, because snow causes failure on the engines mounted beneath the restored 1940s streetcars that operate on that line.

The MBTA had been preparing for its first winter storm since the summer, when crews began inspecting essential components, such as heating and defrosting elements and the scrapers that clear snow from electrified third rails and overhead trolley wires, so that any faulty ones could be rebuilt or reordered in plenty of time.

“When the sun’s out and it’s 70 degrees, the last thing anybody’s thinking about is snowstorms. But those things happen behind the scenes, and they show their worth come weekends like this past,’’ said Sean McCarthy, director of the MBTA’s operations control center.

Meeting through the fall, T officials refined a snow-emergency plan hundreds of pages thick that they implemented at the first sign of the coming storm. With managers from every division gathered in a round-the-clock bunker — tracks, signals, subway, bus, transit police, and so on — employees were dispatched to address problem areas. Trains ran constantly, even during the 1 to 5 a.m. hours when there are no passengers, to prevent snow build-up on tracks, and crews cleared accumulation and blocked drifts with fencing at critical switching and interlock areas above ground.

This was the first major storm for new MBTA General Manager Richard A. Davey, who was so pleased with the result that he sent a memo to all employees — 5,957 at last count — thanking them for their diligence and wishing them a happy new year.

MBTA wasn’t perfect in storm’s aftermathLest this column become a paean to storm success, reader Mary Gillis of the South End wrote to say that she had attempted to walk to the South Bay shopping center Wednesday, only to be thwarted near the end of her walk by giant snow mounds blocking the sidewalk in front of the Southampton Street complex shared by an MBTA bus maintenance facility and the Transit Police headquarters. “This organization is a disgrace, especially when one considers how highly paid their employees are,’’ she wrote.

When I spoke with T officials Thursday, they agreed to check into the matter and discovered that Gillis was right; the crew that cleared the snow from T property forgot to clear a passage for pedestrians. That evening, three days after the storm subsided, they opened a walkway with a front-end loader.

Even before he heard about it, General Manager Richard A. Davey agreed there were some imperfections in what was otherwise a well-managed storm for the T. “We could always do better, but we did pretty well under the circumstances,’’ he said.

Shhhhh, commuters. You’re in the quiet carA reminder for commuters seeking peace and quiet: the MBTA and the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad will begin a “quiet car’’ pilot program tomorrow on peak morning and evening trains on the Fitchburg and Franklin lines of the commuter rail.

Customers in the designated quiet car — the car closest to the locomotive — will be expected to refrain from using cellphones; to keep their conversations with other riders brief and whispered; and to set phones, laptops, pagers, and other devices to silent or vibrate.

If the 90-day pilot is a success, which officials expect, the program will be extended to all commuter rail lines.

In other MBTA news, the T last week retired the clunky, monochromatic “Service Alerts’’ list on its homepage in favor of an easier-to-use, color-coded replacement.