PCC Survivors: The MBTA's Mattapan High Speed Line
By Otto M. Vondrak/Photos
by the author
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:
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.