Alright, strap in for a long preamble: for me, getting the first trip on a new MBTA Commuter Rail service ain’t how it used to be. While I could’ve attempted to ride the first inbound train at 5:47 (potentially winning Patriots tickets, apparently), I wanted to do the slightly later first outbound train at 6:03. Why? Because along with the opening of the Robert Kraft Line comes a new “reverse commute” fare, valid only on reverse peak Foxboro trains. But before I could get one, I had to get to Boston from Philly.
I complain about Greyhound a lot, but despite having a complete meltdown in New York before I arrived, they actually brought me to Boston in good time. I hopped on an 8 PM bus to New York, hung around watching the 42nd Street Ballroom for two hours (something I didn’t realize I was capable of doing after surpassing the age of 5 – it’s really mesmerizing!), and taking a 12:15 AM bus to Boston. Everything was more or less on time! Although…
…Greyhound schedules the nonstop midnight trip to Boston to take four hours and twenty minutes. Yeah, during the day, sure, but in the middle of the night??? We were forty minutes early! And as you can imagine, Boston at 3:55 AM is a ghost town. At least I got to spend some time in the bus terminal listening to the delightful warbles of “Ah-TEN-shun PLEEZ” every few minutes. Yay?
The South Station train terminal opened at around 4:15. I wandered around it and the immediate area for half an hour, taking some additional time to sit down and munch on some pretzel rods I had brought. The ticket office doesn’t “open” until 5:30, but someone was sitting in there and I saw a few people walk in to presumably make transactions…what the heck, I’ll go in and get a ticket. I did want to be the first person to buy a reverse commute fare, after all.
“Reverse commute ticket to Foxboro, please,” I said. “That’ll be $8.75,” responded the ticket agent. Um, no, it definitely wasn’t. “I think it should be $4.25?” I said. He replied, “I thought that was only if you’re coming back.” Ummm. “It’s on the Franklin Line paper schedule,” I said. “There’s a little box in the bottom right that shows the reverse commute fares and the trains they’re valid on.” He pulled up the schedule on his computer. “Okay, I believe you,” he said.
But no, there was a new problem now. He kept inputting things into his machine, but reverse commute fares weren’t programmed into the system. “You might just have to buy it on the train,” he said. “Tell the conductor the ticket agent was stupid!” “I think it’s supposed to be the cost of an interzone. Maybe try that?” I suggested. “Oh yeah,” he said, tapping it in. “Okay, that’ll be $4.25, please! This is a learning curve, you know. They keep making things more complicated.” “For sure,” I replied as I took the ticket. “But you were the first one to buy this!” he said. “Maybe they’ll take your photo on the train.”
Well, I still had 45 minutes until the first train would be boarding. That was enough time to walk around a bit (including a visit to the waterfront – that was nice) before coming back to get on. There were a few technical glitches that will presumably be solved very quickly (they might already be fixed, even), but other than that, we headed out right on time. And I ran into a few friends also riding the first trip, which was awesome.
For those who don’t know, the idea of running trains to Foxboro is not a new one. Trains have been running there for special events at Gillette Stadium since 1971. But for the first time, thanks to funding from Patriots owner Robert Kraft, the station will be seeing regular weekday commuter service.
The Foxboro Pilot has about as good a schedule as it could with the amount of funding provided. It offers three round trips during each rush hour, two midday trips, and two late-night trips. It’s weekdays only for now, but the service provided isn’t bad for a Commuter Rail line! Some trips travel via the Fairmount Line and others via the Northeast Corridor; our train was a Fairmount one, so most of the ridership was just the regular Fairmount Line users who would’ve been riding it anyway. Also, we passed Blue Hill Ave, meaning that I’m two for two for somehow involving Blue Hill Ave on trips to Boston from Philly at ungodly hours to see new MBTA things!
Indeed, past Readville, things cleared up quite a bit as we made our way onto the Franklin Line. There were two stops at Dedham Corp and Norwood Central, and then we reached the bit that many riders are quite angry about: the part where the line branches off at Walpole. The way that station is set up, waiting passengers can watch as the Foxboro Line curves through Walpole’s parking lot…without stopping. Walpole has unfortunately lost a few peak trains with this new service, and it’s gotta be pure salt on the wound for its commuters to watch Foxboro trains bypass their station.
Having never ridden any train to Foxboro before (I’m not really a sports fan), this was totally new mileage for me. And even better, I got to experience it in its prime: while the branch used to only be ten miles an hour, they’ve upgraded it to up to 55 for the new service. Crawling past people’s backyards at ten? No thanks. Sailing by at 55? Yes, sign me up!
And now that our train has arrived at Foxboro, it’s finally time for the station review portion of this post. Well, the first thing I noticed was the insane gap between the train and the mini-high platform. I get that you need clearance for freight to go by, but man, an elephant could fall through that thing! The conductor deployed a steep bridge plate to help people get on, but I would hate to see the ordeal of a wheelchair trying to board here.
After having a conniption over the mini-high, I could turn my attention to the rest of the station, which was having a real pop star kind of day. News crews from every station under the sun were getting footage of everything there, while there were actually cheerleaders and a Patriot mascot celebrating the opening. Well…of course that meant photos were in order.
Okay, so the rest of the platform: it was underwhelming. Most of it is low-level, and while a good chunk of it is sheltered with benches underneath, the lack of a bench beneath the mini-high makes for a tough wait for the reverse commuters the MBTA is trying to grab. But they did add LCD screens to the northern part of the platform that only display ads for…some reason. Maybe try showing the schedule or something? I dunno, just an idea…
But we do have a really glaring issue here, and that’s with the signage. As a holdover from the special event services, the northern part of the platform is signed as “Inbound to Boston” while the southern part is signed as “Inbound to Providence”. Now first of all, the double inbound…confusing. But more importantly, because there’s only a mini-high on the Providence side, trains to Boston board there! It’s not a huge deal for a mostly commuter-oriented station (and the Providence sign does specify that it’s only for special events), but it sure is confusing.
The path to the station is super wide so it can accommodate stadium crowds. Today, little kiosks were set up: a table with Patriot Place information, and a big Dunkin’ Donuts tent with free drinks and munchkins. Can we have this stuff all the time? It’s awesome!
The path curves to a newly renovated tunnel beneath Patriot Place. It’s decked out in purple with great signage, and I really hope these balloons stick around, because they’re just fantastic. You’ve got lit-up ads inside the tunnel as well, and despite being, you know, ads, they kinda make the tunnel feel less dingy. Or maybe it’s the LED lights and shiny purple paint. It’s a nice tunnel.
The path leads to the parking lot, which offers “500+” spaces according to the news – seems like a good amount, especially when it was parking that probably wasn’t getting used before. But while the T parking is $4 a day, is there anything stopping people from parking in the free Patriot Place lot and walking over to the station? Uh-oh. And speaking of Patriot Place, the path leads straight there and to Gillette Stadium.
Ridership: It seems like it’s been pretty decent for day 1! The reverse commute train I was on didn’t have anyone going to Foxboro for a reason, but the 7:29 turn of it back into the city apparently got 44 people from Foxboro, which is a good start. Hopefully ridership continues to rise!
Pros: Patriot Place is a major enough destination to be a “town center” of sorts, putting this station in a great location for full-time service. There’s also a ton of parking for commuters into the city, so that should take pressure off of Mansfield and Walpole while also adding new riders. The entrance to the station looks awesome – they did a great job with signage and atmosphere.
Cons: Issues with the station itself come down to the mini-high and the awkward signage, but also just the drab, mostly low-level platform. I also don’t see a huge market for reverse commuters outside of retail workers…unless nearby office parks feel compelled to run shuttles to Foxboro to pick workers up. None of them look big enough to afford something like that, though, so maybe we’ll be seeing a GATRA commuter shuttle here in due time. Weekend service here could be nice for Patriot Place shoppers, but if it comes at the expense of other trains, don’t bother.
Nearby and Noteworthy: If you like big expensive outdoor shopping malls, then have I got a Patriot Place for you.
Final Verdict: 6/10
And that goes for both the station and the service. The station has some nice parts like the parking and glammy entrance, but it goes downhill once you’re on the platform. For the service, it’s definitely a nice thing to have around – I won’t complain about added trains and stops. But I also wonder if the money had come from somewhere other than Robert Kraft, maybe it could’ve been put to better use bolstering service on existing lines. Still…you get money, you spend it. I can’t wait to see how this thing ends up! And it was a pleasure to spend a total of 8 hours coming up from Philly to ride the first outbound train on it…just to spend another 7 hours going back down right after.
Latest MBTA News: Service Updates
Totally unexpectedly, I ended up in this article about future rail plans in Massachusetts! It’s right at the very end, and they talk about me as if I’m taking the transit helms and leading Massachusetts into a new rail-based future. Gosh, it really is humbling to be described like that. I’ll do all I can! Thanks to Railway Age for the really cool feature.