History of the MBTA

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The history of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) and its predecessors spans two centuries, starting with one of the oldest railroads in the United States. Development of mass transportation both followed existing economic and population patterns, and helped shape those patterns.

Mass transit in Boston, Massachusetts began as a family-owned and operated ferry in around 1630.[1] Ground transportation started in Boston with a private stagecoach operation in 1793.[2] The first rail line, which was horse-powered, began on March 26, 1856. Soon there were more than twenty privately run rail lines. In order to regulate fares and reduce competition, the General Court of Massachusetts passed the West End Consolidation Act to consolidate the rail line operations.[3]

Railroad era begins[edit]

Steam railroads in Boston in 1880. From the United States Census Bureau.

The steam locomotive became practical for mass transportation in the 1810s, and came to the United States in the 1820s. The private Boston and Lowell Railroad was chartered in 1830, connecting Boston to Lowell, a major northerly mill town (which was also connected via the Middlesex Canal). It was one of the oldest railroads in North America and the first major one in Massachusetts. This route marked the beginning of the development of intercity railroads that eventually evolved into the MBTA Commuter Rail system and the Riverside Green Line "D" Branch. Origins of the various rail lines are listed below:

Boston and Maine Railroad[edit]

The Haverhill Line was originally chartered as the Andover and Wilmington Railroad in 1833 and extended to Haverhill in 1837 as the Andover and Haverhill Railroad. The line became the Boston & Maine's first acquisition, as the result of a consolidation of three railroads between Boston and Portland, Maine.

Lowell Line — Boston and Lowell Railroad, chartered 1830

Fitchburg Line — Fitchburg Railroad, chartered 1842

The Newburyport/Rockport Line was originally chartered as the Eastern Railroad in 1836. The line first opened between Salem and East Boston in 1838.[4] The railroad expanded until it was running from Portland, Maine to Boston, putting the line in direct competition with the Boston & Maine. In 1884, the Eastern Railroad was leased by the Boston & Maine, ending the competition and leading to an outright purchase in 1900.

Penn Central[edit]

The Penn Central Transportation Company came into existence in 1968 when the New York Central Railroad merged with the Pennsylvania Railroad, absorbing the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad at the beginning of 1969.

New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad[edit]

New York Central Railroad[edit]

Old Colony Lines[edit]

Acquired by the large Old Colony Railroad, much of which was since abandoned, and which later merged into the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad and then the Penn Central Transportation Company.

New York Central Railroad[edit]

The Grand Junction Railroad, built between 1847 and 1856. was owned by a succession of railroad companies, culminating in ownership by CSX Transportation. In 2010, this trackage, along with several other portions of CSX-owned track with current or potential future MBTA service, was purchased by the state for the MBTA. For years, the MBTA had used it only for non-revenue movement of trains between the northern and southern halves of its commuter rail system, but it now has plans to use the tracks to route some trains from west of Boston into North Station, to supplement existing routes into South Station. As of 2012, there is some community opposition from the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and it is not clear if or when such service will begin.[5][6] The Grand Junction trackage has also been considered for the proposed Urban Ring Project, intended to bypass severe overcrowding in the Downtown Boston rapid transit stations.

Streetcar era begins[edit]

Planned West End Street Railway system, 1885; consolidation of these lines was complete by 1887. See also Boston horse railroads map.jpg 1880 horse railway map.

The Cambridge Railroad was the first streetcar company in Massachusetts. It was chartered in 1853 to connect the West End of Boston to Central Square and Harvard Square in Cambridge via the West End Bridge (which was at the site of the modern Longfellow Bridge, itself completed in early August 1906), using horse-drawn streetcars. This is the same route followed by today's Red Line subway, but on the surface street network. Another streetcar company, the Dorchester Railroad, was chartered in 1854. A profusion of streetcar lines were laid down throughout the Boston area by these and other competing companies.

In 1885, the West End Street Railway was chartered. The company consolidated ownership of existing streetcar lines in Boston and the inner suburbs, and began converting the animal-drawn vehicles to electric propulsion. The first electric trolleys ran in 1889, and the last horsecar went out of service around 1900.

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, two other streetcar companies gained consolidated ownership of many smaller lines. The Middlesex and Boston Street Railway came to control the western suburbs, and the Eastern Massachusetts Street Railway came to control the northern and southern suburbs.

Streetcar subways and elevated rail[edit]

Park Street on the Green Line soon after opening, circa 1898

Severe streetcar congestion on streets in downtown Boston created the need for subways and elevated rail. These grade-separated railways would add transportation capacity, and avoid delays caused by intersections with cross streets and growing congestion in mixed street traffic. The West End Street Railway was renamed the Boston Elevated Railway (BERy), and undertook several such projects.

Boston's subway was the first in the United States and is often called "America's First Subway" by the MBTA and others.[7] In 1897 and 1898, the Tremont Street Subway opened as the core of the precursor to the Green Line.[8]

In 1901, the Main Line Elevated, the precursor to the Orange Line opened. It was a rapid transit line running as an elevated railway through outlying areas and using the Tremont Street Subway downtown, with the outer tracks and platforms reconfigured for Elevated trains.[9] The Atlantic Avenue Elevated opened soon after, providing a second route through downtown. This was the first elevated railway and the first rapid transit line in Boston, three years before the first underground line of the New York City Subway, but some 33 years after the first elevated railway in New York.

In 1904, the next line to open was the East Boston Tunnel, a streetcar tunnel under Boston Harbor to East Boston. This replaced a transfer between streetcars and ferries, and provided access to the other subways downtown. The tunnel was converted to rapid transit specifications in 1924, with an easy cross-platform streetcar transfer at the East Boston end.

In 1908, the Washington Street Tunnel opened, giving the Elevated a shorter route through downtown and returning the older Tremont Street Subway to full streetcar service.[9] Various extensions and branches were built to the Tremont Street Subway in both directions, bypassing more surface tracks. In addition, when the Main Line El opened in 1901, many surface routes were cut back to its Dudley and Sullivan Square terminals to provide a transfer for a faster route downtown. Further elevated extensions, as with the Charlestown Elevated, were soon built on each end, and more streetcar lines were connected.

In 1912, the Cambridge Tunnel opened, connecting the Downtown Boston routes to Harvard Square in Cambridge. It was soon extended south from Downtown to Dorchester as the Dorchester Tunnel. The Dorchester Extension, opening in stages from 1927, took the line further along a former New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad branch through Dorchester, with the Ashmont-Mattapan High Speed Line continuing along the old right-of-way to Mattapan. This, too, resulted in cutbacks in streetcar service to its terminals.

As built, many of the key rapid transit transfer stations were prepayment stations, in which free transfers could be made between surface streetcar lines and grade-separated subway or elevated lines. This was made possible by the operation of all services under one umbrella; some suburban services that operated over the same streetcar tracks used different areas outside fare control. Some of the streetcar levels in transfer stations were later converted for bus or trackless trolley operation; other such spaces have been closed. Some of the prepaid transfer areas still exist architecturally, and faregates enclose all subway stations (but not most above-ground Green Line stops).

Free in-station transfers were eliminated in October 1961, except among subway routes at the transfer stations in Downtown Boston. Transfers between bus and rapid transit were restored, in a limited capacity in 2000, and in full in 2007 as long as a CharlieCard is used. Transfers between bus and subway are reduced price but not free, while a single transfer between one local bus and another is free.

Prepayment stations included Andrew (still in place), Arborway, Ashmont, Broadway, Dudley, Egleston, Everett, Fields Corner, Forest Hills, Harvard (still in place), Hynes Convention Center, Kenmore (still in place), Lechmere (still in place), Maverick, Ruggles (built for buses, still in place), Savin Hill, Sullivan Square, Watertown (only served surface and surface-subway streetcars) and Wood Island (built for buses).

Decline of streetcars and railroads[edit]

The Boston Elevated Railway started replacing rail vehicles with buses in 1922, a process later dubbed "bustitution". The last Middlesex and Boston Street Railway streetcars ran in 1930. The BERy started replacing some rail vehicles with trackless trolleys in 1936.

By the beginning of 1953, the only remaining streetcar lines fed two tunnels — the main Tremont Street Subway network downtown and the short tunnel (now the Harvard Bus Tunnel) in Harvard Square. Gasoline-powered buses could not be used in the tunnels due to the problem of venting exhaust fumes.

In 1958, the Harvard Square tunnel routes were replaced with electrically powered trackless trolleys, which were the only such MBTA routes. A short non-revenue connection from the terminus of the #71 trackless trolley out of Harvard Square runs to the Watertown Carhouse for maintenance. In the 21st century, with the new Phase 2 Silver Line in South Boston, trackless trolley services were extended for the first time in decades.

The old elevated railways proved to be an eyesore, and several sharp curves following Boston's twisty streets became more problematic because of severe speed limitations, high maintenance, and noise. The beginning of the decline of the Atlantic Avenue Elevated line was the Boston molasses disaster of 1919, which interrupted service on the line. After another serious accident in 1928, the Atlantic Avenue Elevated was partially closed, running as a stub shuttle. In 1938, it was completely shut down, and then demolished for scrap metal in 1942.

In 1944, passenger service on the Fairmount Line was canceled by the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad after a long period of declining ridership. As rail passenger service became increasingly unprofitable, largely due to the increasingly popular automobile, government takeover became necessary to prevent abandonment of commuter rail services by bankrupt railroad companies.

MTA incorporation and takeovers[edit]

In 1947, the newly formed Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) purchased and took over subway, elevated, streetcar, and bus operations from the Boston Elevated Railway.[10] The original MTA district consisted of 14 cities and towns — Arlington, Belmont, Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, Malden, Medford, Milton, Newton, Revere, Somerville, and Watertown.

The last two streetcar lines running into the Pleasant Street Portal of the Tremont Street Subway were replaced with buses in 1953 and 1962, and the portal has since been covered over by a public park.

Between 1952 and 1954, the Revere Extension (now part of the Blue Line) opened to Wonderland, mostly along the former narrow-gauge Boston, Revere Beach and Lynn Railroad right-of-way.

In 1959, MTA streetcar service opened on what is now the Riverside Green Line "D" Branch, connecting to the Boylston Street Subway and using trackage purchased from the New York Central Railroad, which had stopped running on the line the previous year. The new service required much more rolling stock than expected, due to heavy ridership.

Also in 1959, with the opening of the Southeast Expressway, the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad halted passenger service on the former Old Colony Railroad lines. Replacement rapid transit service was promised. but did not open until a dozen years later, with the service finally going just beyond the new Expressway's southern end nine years afterwards.

Maps gallery[edit]

MBTA incorporation and commuter rail takeovers[edit]

On August 3, 1964, the MBTA succeeded the MTA, with an enlarged service area of 78 cities and towns. A 79th community (Maynard) joined in or before 1972 and left in or after 1976.

The MBTA was formed partly to subsidize existing commuter rail operations, provided at that time by three private railroad companies — the Boston and Maine Railroad, the New York Central Railroad (via the Boston and Albany Railroad), and the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad — with the B&M running the north-side lines and the NYC and NYNH&H (both merged into Penn Central in 1968, and taken over by Conrail in 1976) on the south side. The MBTA soon began to subsidize the companies, and acquired the lines in stages from 1973 through 1976, but with major cutbacks in service and coverage area. Since then, many of these lines have seen service return, most notably the Old Colony Railroad (NYNH&H) lines to the South Shore.

By 1964, commuter rail service to Worcester was being provided. In 1965, the Boston and Maine Railroad started receiving MBTA subsidies for its commuter service. In 1973, the MBTA bought most of its present-day commuter rail trackage from the Boston and Maine Railroad and Penn Central (into which the New York Central Railroad and the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad had merged). It also purchased rolling stock at this time. Trackage between Framingham and Worcester was not acquired by the agency, and due to a lack of state subsidy, commuter rail service on this portion was cut in 1975. Service was resumed in 1994, though the track was still privately owned until the state purchased it from CSX Transportation in 2011. The Fairmount Line was purchased from Penn Central in 1976. Passenger service resumed there in 1979 during diversion of other lines during Southwest Corridor construction, and was continued even after the project was complete.

Bus expansion and streetcar cutbacks[edit]

In 1965, the MBTA assigned colors to its four rapid transit lines, and lettered the branches of the Green Line from north to south. However, shortages of streetcars, among other factors, eventually caused bus substitution of rail service on two branches of the Green Line. In 1969, the "A" Branch was replaced by bus service in its entirety. In 1985, the portion of the "E" Branch from Heath Street to Arborway was replaced by buses.

In 1968, the MBTA purchased bus routes in the outer suburbs to the north and south, from the Eastern Massachusetts Street Railway. Western suburban routes were purchased in 1972 from the Middlesex and Boston Street Railway. (Both of these companies had long since ceased running any streetcar service). A few routes to the north were taken over from Service Bus Lines in 1975, and one in the south in 1980 from the Brush Hill Transportation Company. As with the commuter rail system, many of the outlying routes were dropped soon before or after the takeover, due to low ridership and high operating costs, and out-of-district communities refusal to join or contract with the MBTA.

Rapid transit expansion[edit]

In the 1970s, the MBTA received a boost from the BTPR areawide re-evaluation of the role of transit relative to highways. Following a moratorium on major highway construction inside Route 128, numerous transit lines were planned for expansion by the Voorhees-Skidmore, Owings and Merrill-ESL consulting team.

The Charlestown Elevated, part of the Orange Line north of downtown Boston, was replaced by the Haymarket North Extension in 1975.

The Braintree Extension, a branch of the Red Line to Braintree, opened in stages from 1971 to 1980, upgrading an existing rail corridor. The Red Line Northwest Extension to Alewife opened in 1985, with an intermediate opening in 1984, partly along a railroad corridor and partly through a newly built deep-bore tunnel.

The southern part of the Washington Street Elevated lasted until 1987, when the Southwest Corridor was opened, rerouting service from discontinued elevated trackage to new facilities in a parallel existing rail corridor. The closure of the Washington Street Elevated south of downtown Boston brought the end of rapid transit service to the Roxbury neighborhood, which was eventually replaced with the Silver Line Bus Rapid Transit.

These extensions provided not only additional subway system coverage, but also major parking structures at several of the terminal and intermediate stations. For example, the Route 2 freeway ends at the Red Line terminus, Alewife station, where there is a large parking garage operated by the MBTA.

With the 2004 replacement of the Causeway Street Elevated by a subway tunnel connection, the only remaining elevated railways are a short portion of the Red Line at Charles/MGH, and a short portion of the Green Line between Science Park and Lechmere.

MBTA expansion and the Big Dig[edit]

In 1999, the district was expanded further to 175 cities and towns, adding most communities that were served by or adjacent to Commuter Rail lines (again including Maynard). The MBTA did not assume responsibility for local transit service in those communities, some of which run their own buses, and some of which depend on private bus services.

Prior to July 1, 2000, the MBTA had been automatically reimbursed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for all costs above revenue collected (net cost of service). Beginning on that date, the T was granted a dedicated revenue stream consisting of amounts assessed on served cities and towns, along with a dedicated 20% portion of the 5% state sales tax. Going forward, the MBTA now would have to live within this "forward funding" budget.

The Commonwealth also assigned to the MBTA the responsibility for increasing public transit to compensate for increased automobile pollution from the Big Dig (see "Big Dig remediation projects" below). The T rebuilt Haymarket and North Station, and submerged a nearby elevated portion of the Green Line during Big Dig construction. However these projects have strained the MBTA's limited resources, because the Big Dig project did not include funding for these improvements, and they were instead financed by an enormous increase in the MBTA's debt load.

Debt concerns, route cutbacks, and fare increases[edit]

Claims have been made by the Pioneer Institute that since 1988 the MBTA has been the fastest expanding transit system in the country, even as Greater Boston has been the slowest growing metropolitan area.[11] However, research by the Frontier Group finds that "no category has the MBTA been the “fastest-growing” of the nation’s largest transit agencies, and in only two categories does it crack the top 10. However, the MBTA does crack the top 10 in another category: absolute growth in transit ridership."[12]

When, in 2000, the MBTA's income was capped, the agency began to run up large debts from already-scheduled projects and obligatory Big Dig remediation work. As of 2012, the MBTA has the highest debt of any transit authority in the United States. In an effort to compensate, rates were hiked on January 1, 2007, from $1.25 up to $2.00 per subway ride with a CharlieTicket, and $1.70 with a CharlieCard.[13] Increasingly, local advocacy groups are calling on the state to assume $2.9 billion of the authority's debt, which totals approximately $9 billion. The interest on this debt is a large proportion of the MBTA's annual expenses, and severely limits funds available for any further required projects.[14]

In April 2012, the MBTA Advisory Board approved major fare increases on all MBTA services, and cutbacks or terminations of some transit routes. In July 2014, fares were increased further by an average of 5%.


On 10 October 2007, the MBTA introduced a pilot program in North, South, and Airport stations called T-Radio. The program would have been expanded to pipe in music, light news, weather, entertainment tips, and eight to ten minutes of commercials each hour to every MBTA subway station.[15] After the agency received an overwhelming number of e-mails — 1,800, mostly complaints — it decided to shelve the program on 25 October.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The Ferry Five". MBTA. Retrieved 15 December 2016. 
  2. ^ "The Omnibus". MBTA. Retrieved 15 December 2016. 
  3. ^ "Horsecars on Rails and the West End Street Railway Company". MBTA. Retrieved 15 December 2016. 
  4. ^ "Eastern Railroad Company of Massachusetts Records, 1839-1840, 1874-1877". Harvard Business School. HBS Baker Library. Retrieved 12 August 2014. 
  5. ^ Dyer, John (16 June 2010). "Much is Riding on Worcester Rail Deal". Boston Globe. Retrieved 11 October 2011. 
  6. ^ Moskowitz, Eric (9 August 2010). "Signals crossed on Worcester link". Boston Globe. Retrieved 4 September 2010. 
  7. ^ "Famous Firsts in Massachusetts". Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Retrieved 2006-11-13. 
  8. ^ The Boston Daily Globe, Experiences of the first Subway Riders in Boston, The Boston Daily Globe, September 1, 1897
  9. ^ a b Koebel, Romin (2005). "Boston Transit Milestones". MIT Open Courseware. Archived from the original on 2006-09-20. Retrieved 2012-08-01. 
  10. ^ Boston's Green Line Crisis
  11. ^ "T expansion on wrong track". The Boston Globe. May 24, 2006. 
  12. ^ "Pioneer Institute Says MBTA Is Fastest-Growing Transit Agency. It's Not". The Pioneer Institute. March 3, 2015. 
  13. ^ MBTA.com > Information on Fares and Passes
  14. ^ Legislators, Advocacy Groups And T Riders Call For MBTA Debt Relief — MASSPIRG Archived 2011-10-02 at the Wayback Machine.
  15. ^ Bierman, Noah (2007-10-11). "T gives music a test run". The Boston Globe. 
  16. ^ Bierman, Noah (2007-10-25). "After two-week trial, T Radio is silenced". The Boston Globe. 

Further reading[edit]

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