Okay, I’m gonna take an SRTA break here to cover a one-off WRTA route. And hey, it’s the final long-distance route on that system! Ready to go to the exciting town of Southbridge on the 29? I know I am!
Ah, right. The WRTA runs with “flag” service outside of Worcester. Apparently that means that they couldn’t be bothered to put a sign up at the “Southbridge Library” terminus. This was a busy stop, too, especially for a Saturday morning! People were just standing around, and I wasn’t the only one who wasn’t sure where the stop was.
We instantly turned onto Central Street from Main Street, although Southbridge’s main drag is really further down Main. Here on Central, there were a few straggling businesses and an old train station, but it got residential after we crossed the Quinebaug River. Mind you, these were big, dense apartments, probably old factory housing.
Southbridge’s claim to fame is producing optical products, and apparently it still does that – we went by a manufacturer called United Lens. After that, the road we were on had those dense factory houses along it, but there was practically nothing beyond them. The street, Worcester Street, was basically an island, aside from a few apartment developments.
We entered Charlton, the road becoming Southbridge Street, and after one last optics manufacturer and a warehouse, we were basically in the woods. Any houses we did go by were hidden behind a curtain of trees. We turned onto Route 20, briefly entering civilization in the form of suburban businesses, but we left it again when we turned onto Masonic Home Road.
In between the woods and farmland was a huge development called The Overlook, a retirement community and health center. Have fun getting up the narrow, sidewalk-less road there from the main road, though. This was a timepoint, too! When we turned onto North Main Street, I guess we were in “Charlton Center”, but it was just a few businesses with parking lots and a post office.
Returning to Route 20, we entered the express portion of the 29. Literally express – you’re not allowed to board or exit the bus on Route 20. It’s not like there was much along here, though. We flew by just a ton of forest, plus the occasional business like “Dick’s Tire Barn” or “The Barkwood Inn Pet Resort”. And if you think those places sound exciting, just wait until you discover “Zoink’s Fun Factory”! It’s a real shame you can’t take the bus to the place “Where ‘Fun’ Is Our Middle Name!” (written in comic sans, no less)
Weirdly, despite the “express” service, the screen up front was still showing the “stop” names for the intersections we were passing! We sped through Oxford, and right on the border with Auburn was the first stop, just outside of a Walmart. Now buses could be flagged again, and there were now a lot more suburban businesses along Route 20 (although the road was just as fast and dangerous as before).
We turned onto Route 12, going by a mini-golf course among other businesses. They were broken for a bit by a huge highway interchange between I-90 and I-290, and soon after that, we deviated into the Auburn Mall. Some people got off, some people got on, and now it was time for the home stretch to Worcester along industrial Southbridge Street.
We entered Worcester, going under I-290 soon after the border. Although there were a few pockets of dense housing on the side streets, Southbridge Street was still very much industrial. There were a number of tunnels underneath railroad tracks, then we merged onto Francis J. McGrath Boulevard. This highway-like road sped us to our final stop at Worcester Union Station.
WRTA Route: 29 (Union Station Hub – Southbridge – Charlton)
Ridership: The poor 29. If the numbers now are similar to how they were in 2014, the 29 is the least-used route on the WRTA. It got 137 people per day that year, with a farebox recovery of just 5% and a subsidy of $19.34 per passenger. My Saturday ride only got 14 people, so I think ridership is still low.
Pros: Southbridge definitely needs bus service. It’s a dense town with relatively low incomes, and a bus to Worcester gives residents freedom.
Cons: Every two hours is barebones service. At least the route runs Saturday service, but if WRTA somehow came across the funds to do this, hourly service would probably increase ridership a lot. Also, the Charlton jog got no one on my trip, so I wonder if it could stand to be skipped. That would speed up service a decent amount, which is especially important when driving takes half the time that the bus does.
Nearby and Noteworthy: Do you have a passion for eyeglasses? Visit the Optical Heritage Museum in Southbridge! It’s a ten-minute walk from the last stop in Southbridge, it seems like a really interesting collection, and as far as I can tell, it’s free! I didn’t know it existed when I rode this route, but I’m genuinely interested in taking a look at the tiny museum. Also, this is the closest bus route to Old Sturbridge Village, a huge tourist attraction…the closest bus route if you don’t mind a 90-minute walk, at least. But hey, it looks like a nice place!
Final Verdict: 6/10
This route is basically in the same boat as the 42, another long-distance WRTA bus that runs every two hours. It needs better service to be more useful, and it’s probably going to keep its low ridership until that happens. Will it ever get better service? No, probably not. But it sure would make the route a heck of a lot more useful.
Latest MBTA News: Service Updates