Monday, July 22, 2024

T riders wait at the Park Street station in March. The Boston area subway system is the oldest in the country, and aging poorly. (Photo: Chris Devers)

The T did its usual thing when service stopped on the Alewife-bound red line Friday: made occasional announcements that because of a disabled train somewhere up ahead, our train would be “standing by until we get authorization” to advance to the next station.

This long period of standing around in a train that wasn’t moving followed a long period where we stood around on the platform waiting for a train to come along.

Getting from Downtown Crossing to Central probably took an hour and a half because there was a disabled train at Davis.

Standing. Waiting.

And very, very occasionally that announcement, always about “standing by until we get authorization.”

Eventually came the information there would be buses at Harvard that would take people to Alewife. But that didn’t actually get us to Harvard. It was just information they added to the announcements made while we were stopped interminably at stops before Harvard.

Why does a disabled train at Davis stop traffic before Park Street? Why were the buses at Harvard instead of at Park Street, Charles/MGH, Kendall or Central?

We don’t get told these things. We’re told only that we’re “standing by until we get authorization.”

Finally, at Central, I snapped. I left the car, stalked forward to the driver’s window and asked him and a co-worker standing worthlessly nearby on the platform whether the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority understood how bloody useless it was to be told just that we were “standing by until we get authorization” — that the information can’t be applied without some sense of how long that will be. It’s why doctors don’t just say you have a fatal illness, but actually try to estimate how long you have to live. Or, for that matter, why doctors don’t just say you’re ill, but actually try to tell you what you can do about it.

It’s why also why servers don’t just tell you that some menu items aren’t available, but which ones.

So much more to the point, it’s why pilots and airlines don’t just say a plane is delayed, but actually try to say by how long.

The T workers barely listened to me. (The driver making the announcement was surely trying to be helpful. He was giving the riders all the information the T gives him. This is the problem.)

Proving the point

The guy on the platform blustered at me that there were buses upstairs I could take to Harvard. As though eager to serve as the T’s poster boy for cluelessness, he multiplied the stupidity by telling me a No. 1 bus left for Harvard every 10 minutes.

So clearly it isn’t general knowledge that a sense of timing is valuable on a Friday evening, as Harvard Square shops close for the night, on a train well on its way toward taking two hours to go five stops. It isn’t understood that I could go upstairs and wait 10 minutes for a No. 1 bus that could then take another 10 minutes to nudge its way up Massachusetts Avenue to Harvard in evening traffic when the train I’m already on — the one in which I’d already invested so much of my evening — could be “standing by” for either another hour or a single minute.

To underscore my point, that latter thing is exactly what happened. Almost as soon as I returned to the train it rumbled to life, rode on and arrived a couple of minutes later at Harvard.

It goes deeper than this, of course. I’m also angry that the T is so happy about the smartphone apps private programmers have written to let riders know how long it will take for a bus or T to arrive. I do not have a smartphone and think it’s pathetic that our government couldn’t gather the wit — failing keeping to a schedule in the first place — to take such a step on its own. Not for smartphones. For every station, inside and outside. Duh. Maybe next we can privatize the 911 system, and maybe do it such a way that smartphone owners get other advantages.

Sure, the system is underfunded, but these problems are systemic and go back decades. To bring in more revenue, the government might try better service. Some telling deficiencies have nothing to do with money.

I’m also angry, for instance, that if you ride the T for a few stops you’ll notice it hasn’t even figured out how to keep its “next stop” announcements straight; “Next stop, Kendall Square” is a popular tune to play as a train leaves Kendall Square.

How basic can you get?

How about: so basic that MBTA managers have never figured out what information is helpful and useful when a train isn’t moving and what information is redundant and pointless?

Those of us stuck Friday did get to Harvard eventually, but it’s unclear whether the T will ever get that.