The Works

Back to the Future: Boston to Reintroduce Night Owl Service on Weekends

Common before 1960 and then for a brief period in the early 2000s, late-night T service is returning to Boston.

Back in 2005, when the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority — or “the T” for short — did away with night owl buses, a spokesperson told the Harvard Crimson, “This is not like New York, the city that doesn’t sleep… This city does sleep.”

The city that sleeps, it seems, has woken up — at least on weekends. As the Boston Globe reported on Tuesday, the T is planning a one-year pilot during which it will run all of its subway routes and 15 of its most popular buses until 3am on Saturday and Sunday. (Presumably this means Friday and Saturday “nights.”) Service will run for two hours longer than it does now, ending an hour later than the city’s 2am last call at bars.

It’s something that Mayor-elect Martin Walsh, not to mention most of his competitors, had wanted, and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick is delivering before Walsh even takes office. A $20 million grant from the state will pay for the service, with the T also seeking corporate sponsors (including the Boston Globe, which may explain how it got the scoop).

Night owl buses in Boston ran from 2001 to 2005, but perhaps even more surprisingly was the late-night service offered until June 1960. The authority, then known simply (and confusingly, given that the name is now shared by seemingly every other transit agency in the country) as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, provided a network of night buses radiating from Haymarket Square between 1am and 5am, along with a few other routes passing through Cambridge and Egleston Square.

Back in 2007, one local transportation blogger pegged the end of night service to the power of the city’s taxi lobby, although mass transit was in decline across the country around that time, so it’s unclear what led to the cessation of service. That same blogger also argued that one reason late-night service was so expensive in the 2000s was because union contracts required drivers be paid double time for shifts after 2am — a much higher premium than other 24/7 transit cities pay their overnight workers. (When asked in an email if the agency will have to pay extra for nighttime hours this go-around, an MBTA spokesperson wrote back, “No double time.”)

One commonly cited reason why most subway systems around the world don’t have 24/7 service is the need to perform maintenance, which can be difficult if you’re running trains around the clock on systems without express tracks, like the New York subway or Chicago’s Red Line.

There are, however, ways of getting around this. One is to only run nighttime service over the weekends, freeing up weeknights for maintenance. Another, doable on newer, automated systems like Copenhagen’s, is to do “single-tracking,” freeing up one track for maintenance while trains run both ways on the other — something that can allow for 20-minute headways if crossovers, which allow trains to move between tracks, are frequent enough.

Meanwhile, Transport for London has announced that it plans to run 24-hour weekend service on the Tube, which has neither the express tracks of New York nor the driverless trains of Copenhagen. (Not yet, at least.) Starting in 2015, the overnight service would run only on the Piccadilly, Victoria, Central, Jubilee and Northern lines, but is planned to appear on other lines and weekdays at a later point in time.

So what’s your excuse, Philadelphia and San Francisco?

The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

Stephen J. Smith is a reporter based in New York. He has written about transportation, infrastructure and real estate for a variety of publications including New York Yimby, where he is currently an editor, Next City, City Lab and the New York Observer.

Tags: infrastructurepublic transportationtransit agenciesbostonthe worksbusessubways

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