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PCC Survivors: The MBTA's Mattapan High Speed Line

So there I was, standing on the platform at the Mattapan terminal, bleary-eyed and sleepy, photographing vintage PCC's in their natural environment. Mattapan is truly a gem from the "classic" traction era of the 1930s. Here inbound (towards Boston) car #3230 is waiting to depart. Notice the MBTA bus waiting curbside.
Inbound car #3262 negotiates the loop at Mattapan, in the early morning winter sun. Note that the refurbished cars do not carry advertisements.
Refurbished car #3087 on the Mattapan loop. Cars were departing on average every six minutes, allowing us multiple photo opportunities at the same location.
#3087 enters the historic Mattapan shelter, preparing for the return trip to Ashmont.
#3087 waits on the inbound track at Mattapan for departure time. Even on a Saturday morning, this line was well patronized.
Inbound car #3262 departs Capen Street station. We are looking towards the Mattapan terminal, which is just out of sight around the bend. The outbound platform is behind us and to the right. The contrast in neighborhoods was startling. Capen Street is a quiet residential street in the town of Milton.
Outbound car #3087 glides into Capen Street station, passing inbound #3262. The early morning shadows made photography difficult, so we moved on.
Outbound #3262 discharges a single passenger at Valley Road. Notice the station sign that predates the "official" MBTA signage. Color code is red to indicate that the shuttle is a part of the Red Line service. The woman who got off stopped to talk with us, and told us that she had lived here her whole life, and remembered when the trolleys first ran on this line!
Upon further investigation, we determined this older sign was made from wood, and was recently re-painted! Valley Road station is also located in a quiet secluded part of Milton.
We skipped Central Avenue station and headed right for Milton. Here we see #3087 departing the inbound platform for Ashmont.
Looking the opposite way, we caught #3230 arriving on the outbound side. Beyond the fence is a bike trail built on the old New Haven freight running track.
We walked the bike trail towards Butler station, in Dorchester, and stopped on this overpass. He we see #3230 inbound departing Milton. Evidence of the New Haven freight running can be seen on either side of the trolley right of way.
Earlier, we had caught the outbound #3230 leaving Butler station. Butler is unique in that it is the only center-island platform on the line.
We walked up to Butler station, and caught #3087 outbound off the ramp over the old New Haven right of way.
Next stop was Cedar Grove, at the end of Milton Street in Dorchester. Outbound #3262 has just come off the ramp that crosses over the lead into the Red Line yard at Ashmont.

 

#3087 slows to make a stop at the Cedar Grove inbound platform. Not many clues here to separate this 2002 scene from an earlier time! The sun was starting to play hide-and-seek with us at this point.
Inbound #3262 arrives at Cedar Grove station. Next stop, Ashmont, and our connection with the Red Line rapid transit.
Inbound #3087 stops inside the Ashmont station complex. Just to the right is the inbound Red Line subway platform.
Outbound car #3230 travels around the loop at Ashmont. Buses also use this loop to turn as well. The Red Line subway runs right underneath this spot.

By Otto M. Vondrak/Photos by the author
All photos from December 2002

The President's Conference Committee car is truly a survivor. It had certainly done what the designers had intended- to serve reliably in everyday rapid transit service. So well-designed are these cars, that they often serve for more than one owner for years at a time. It used to be that most major cities in America had large fleets of these cars in service. With the retirement of Newark's fleet in 2001, that only leaves San Francisco and Boston as the only regular operators of the streamlined trolleys.

Once the backbone of Boston's streetcar and subway lines, the PCC is now limited to a unique shuttle operation serving some of the south suburbs. The Mattapan High Speed Line is one of the few places where you can still ride a PCC in regular service. A free shuttle service tacked onto the end of the Ashmont terminal of the MBTA Red Line, the ride is like a step back in time.

The Mattapan High Speed Trolley Line is a three-mile double track run that serves the towns of Dorchester (Ashmont), Milton, and Mattapan. The private right of way was converted in 1929 from the former New Haven Railroad Old Colony Branch. The original plan called for making the line an extension of the Red Line subway, but these plans never came to fruition. While the line runs on a private right of way, there are two highway grade crossings (Capen Street and Central Avenue). The trolleys also share pavement with buses at the Ashmont turning loop. At the Mattapan end, cars loop through a classic cast-concrete traction terminal that dates from 1929, while the original New Haven station has been turned into a pizza parlor.

The fleet consists of 11 cars, all originally built for Boston under a wartime construction contract with Pullman-Standard, and were delivered in 1945-46. A recent rebuilding program is restoring these cars to their original appearance, including the original 1950's orange-and-cream MTA scheme. There is also an old Type 5 trolley that has been converted to snow plow duty (5164), as well as another work car converted from a PCC.

Service is frequent on the line, averaging about 6 minutes between cars on the weekends. The day we visited, there were three cars providing shuttle service, with a fourth one on standby as needed. The difference between the restored cars and the un-rebuilt ones are quite obvious. The cars show many signs of wear and age (but not neglect), but riding the newly refurbished cars is certainly a treat.

My friend and I traveled to Boston on the weekend before Christmas to see this unique operation for ourselves. This was my first trip to Boston in ten years, and my first trip exclusively for railfanning this area. During my visit, I drew many parallels between the Mattapan shuttle and the familiar Newark City Subway: The equipment, the schedules, and the settings. However the purpose for each operation was much different. The Newark Subway was built to funnel suburban streetcar traffic into downtown, while the Mattapan Line is merely a suburban feeder line operation. Neither diminishes the fact that the Mattapan line is still one of the most interesting operations in public transit today.

We had an early start from our motel in Braintree. We took the Red Line subway in to JFK/UMass, where we transferred to an outbound Ashmont train. At Ashmont terminal, we made an easy across-the-platform transfer to the trolley cars. We boarded car #3230, one of the few remaining unrestored cars. We rode the line to the Mattapan end, so that we could scout out the run for good photo locations. NOTE: An official MBTA photo pass is required if you are going to do any photography on MBTA property. We were approached several times by employees and police officers to confirm that we did indeed have valid permits. Once we produced our passes, however, we were welcomed as long as we were safe and did not create a nuisance.

Update June, 2006:
In an effort to rehabilitate the Mattapan High Speed Line, the MBTA will suspend service for one year starting June 24, 2006. This one-year shutdown will allow for the complete reconstruction of the terminals at Ashmont and Mattapan, which both date from the late 1920s. Another goal of the project is to remove and reconstruct the viaduct ramp that allows the trolley line to cross over the Red Line rapid transit at Ashmont. The six intermediate stations will also receive minor repairs and cleaning.

During this time, bus service will be provided along the route. Some people are wary of the MBTA's "temporary" shutdown, which has resulted in the complete closure of other trolley routes in the past (Watertown and Arborway come to mind). However, MBTA recent investment in rebuilding the PCCs and its interest in maintaining the stations along the High Speed Route are good signs that trolleys will once again return in 2007.

This story originally appeared in December, 2002. It was updated in June, 2006.

Otto Vondrak, is Creative Director for RAILROAD.NET. It is coincidental that the Mattapan High Speed Line is shutting down on the same day as his birthday.

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