The Streetcars of Mattapan and Boston


It is possible to take the train from Toronto to Boston, but you need to be in the right frame of mind for it. The Maple Leaf and the Adirondack (from Montreal) get you to New York City only, and they get you in rather late. And for some reason, Amtrak rolls up its services between New York and Boston during the evening. The last train to Boston that day departs around 9 p.m., which is nearly an hour before the Maple Leaf arrives at Penn Station.

There is, however, one later train. Departing Washington at 9:40 p.m., it gets into New York at 1:25 a.m. and then just sits there until 2:40 before rolling slowly out and dropping us off in Boston bright and early just before 8. Fortunately, if you ask Amtrak personnel nicely, they will let you board the train as soon as it arrives in New York, and you can find a coach or business class seat, and sleep on it. I've done this before, waking up in coach in Denver or in Indianapolis, and it actually saves me a hotel bill, but I don't understand why Amtrak doesn't just offer sleeper services on this overnight train. I'm sure business travellers would gladly pay a premium for the luxury of lying flat on their backs.

Anyway, I arrived in Boston early Sunday morning, and South Station is surprisingly busy, even compared to Toronto. Commuter service is extensive even at the start of the day of rest, and subway service begins at 6 p.m., just like any other day. Before I headed to breakfast, I took the Red Line to Ashmont to ride the Ashmont-Mattapan streetcar.

The Ashmont-Mattapan is one of these transit oddities that one should see, especially considering that it may not be around for much longer. It's a streetcar appendage to a branch of the red line subway, running a couple of miles to the community of Mattapan over a former railroad right-of-way. The high speed tracks give the streetcars an advantage over local buses, and that has kept the line in service, even though it's isolated from the rest of Boston's streetcars, and still uses PCC cars, which older Torontonians should recognize.

Indeed, these vehicles are now 70 years old, and may be the only ones operating in regular, non-enthusiast-related service. El Paso, Texas and Kenosha, Wisconsin are special tourist circulators built to rehabilitate their respective downtowns, and San Francisco's Market Street line thrives off of the hard work of its volunteers and other personnel in its museum department. Philadelphia recently took their rebuilt PCCs off the streets, citing a need to replace or rebuild the aging equipment, and Boston's not far behind, frankly. I'm pleased I got to see both of these vehicles in operation, now, before they disappeared.

I had breakfast at something called the Brother's Cafe which, like the Main Street Cafe in Niagara Falls, NY, is one of those under-appreciated, family-run community institutions that the neighbourhood really benefits from. The eggs were good, as were the toast and hash browns, and I was pleased to give them my custom.

As I type this (which is now yesterday --jb), I'm now in Cleveland Circle, at the end of one of the branches of Boston's Green Line, a streetcar subway that operates underground through the downtown, and comes to the surface in the middle of the road through the inner suburbs. Toronto should have had this sort of LRT from the start, be it 2013, or even 1975. It'll take the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT to show Torontonians what LRT can do, and do inexpensively, and Doug Ford still wants to bury the line's western extension, wasting billions of taxpayers' dollars. Shame. Look to Boston. Boston's doing it pretty well.

Well, almost. One thing that I didn't appreciate about Boston's transit is its refusal to use forward facing seats. All their subways, all their LRVs, everything except their buses and the Mattapan streetcar have side-facing seats, which are not condusive to looking out the window and enjoying the trip as much as you should. Shame about that, because Boston is a beautiful city, even in February.


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