Sunday, December 25, 2011

Oh Christmas Tree!

Happy holidays and a merry Christmas to everyone! To celebrate this day, here's a post about a time-honored tradition and symbol of the holiday season--the Boston Common Christmas Tree! 

Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, the annual tree lighting is a staple of the local traditions ringing in the holiday season in the city. Thousands gather every year to storm the Common and partake in the festivities, with local celebrities performing and WCVB-TV broadcasting the event live on the air. This year's guests included Joey McIntyre of New Kids on the Block, American Idol finalist Siobhan Magnus, the Radio City Rockettes, Rockapella, the Boston Ballet and the Boston Children’s Choir. There was even a fireworks display! Once the Christmas tree is lit up, the entire city lights up with the rest of its decorations, from the lit stars hanging in Downtown Crossing, to the other trees strung with lights in the Common and Public Garden.

This tradition has an interesting history that many may not be aware of, however. For the past forty years, Boston's Christmas tree has been donated to us by the people of Nova Scotia, as a gift recognizing the assistance that the Boston Red Cross and the Massachusetts Public Safety Committee provided when the province's capital, Halifax, suffered an explosion in its harbor in 1917. The following year in 1918, the province sent its first Christmas tree, and then in 1971 the gift was revived by the Lunenburg County Christmas Tree Producers Association in order to spur Christmas tree exports in addition to acknowledging Boston's support in the disaster. Years later, the Nova Scotian government took charge of overseeing the annual gift in efforts of also promoting trade and tourism for the region. Realizing the importance the tree has come to have for both cities, the Nova Scotia Department of Naturnal Resources have defined a very specific set of guidelines for the selection of the tree. 

In addition to donating the tree, representatives of the Nova Scotion government also make a point to attend the tree-lighting celebration, and the people of Nova Scotia also tend to support Boston's major sports teams!

This year's tree is a 45-foot white-spruce, donated by Ken and Donna Spinney of Central Argyle, Nova Scotia. According to BostInno, this year is the first year that the tree will be lit extra bright using 4000 LED lights, in addition to 48,000 other ones adorning the sixty other trees lit up in the Common and the Garden. 

So, armed with your new knowledge about one of Boston's beloved holiday traditions, enjoy the rest of the day with your family and friends! In the meantime, you can also check out's photos showing what the official Christmas tree has looked like throughout the years. It looks like it used to be a lot taller back in the 30s. Click here!

Happy Holidays from Boston to a T!

-Aaron & Dan

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Commuter Rail to New Hampshire

As most of you know the MBTA's Commuter Rail system only crosses state lines (into Rhode Island) on the south side of the system. It has been proposed for many years however, to extend some of the north side lines into the state of New Hampshire.

Before the days of
these pamphlets could be found for each line!
To think NH-Zone 13 was $6 1-way!
First, let me give a brief history of the MBTA trying to bring passenger rail back into the state of New Hampshire. During the 1980's the Boston and Maine Railroad (B&M) was the contractor for the MBTA Commuter Rail system (just like the MBCR today). On January 28, 1980, the B&M started an experimental service  that would run from Boston's North Station running along the Lowell line and eventually merging onto the New Hampshire main line terminating in Concord NH. It was dubbed the "Minute Man Service". This service was very popular among tourists, but it was not as popular as the B&M had first hoped it would be, resulting in federal funding being taken away and causing its demise on March 1, 1981, only a year after it first started operating.

B&M "Minute Man Service" near North Chelmsford, MA
After the Minute Man Service's early demise, it would take until 2008 for legislation to come about that might actually allow MBTA Commuter Rail to travel into NH. In July of '08 the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority proposed a plan to extend MBTA Commuter Rail from the current Lowell terminus to Downtown Manchester, NH. The project would create nine new stops: North Chemlsford, Tyngsboro, Nashua, NH (Pheasant Lane Mall), Merrimack, NH, Manchester Regional Airport, and Downtown Manchester, NH. The plan also called for 12 to 15 round trips per day during weekdays and eight to ten round trips per day on weekends. The plan even received a total of $41 Million in Federal Grants to help fund the planning of the project. In early 2011 however, a bill was introduced into the New Hampshire legislature that would end the project's planning and give up its federal funding. Currently the project is still in limbo and, unfortunately, no one really knows what will come next.

Although the fate of this project is uncertain, another project is currently making headlines. The MBTA, NHDOT, Rockingham Planning Commision, and the Town of Plaistow New Hampshire are all working together to try and extend the MBTA's Haverhill Line from its current terminus in Downtown Haverhill to Plaistow, NH and relocate the current layover facility in Bradford to a new location on the border of Atkinson, NH. The project is currently set to cost around $25.5 Million. The projects largest obstacle however, is opposition from residents who do not want a layover facility in their area. 

The layover station has been located at Haverhill's Bradford commuter station since 1987. It is extremely small and has no room for expansion. Neighbors of the facility have complained for years that the idling trains wake them up in the early morning hours and send fumes through the open windows of homes during the summer. The new layover facility, which would be located in Atkinson, could accommodate six train sets, allowing for anticipated service expansion on the line. Like many of the MBTA's new layover facilities, when the trains are stored, they will be connected to the yard's power to allow for the train systems to run without use of power from the locomotive. The state-of-the-art energy controls and electrical systems will allow the MBTA to prohibit idling when an engine is not in active service. The facility would be owned by the NHDOT, and would be leased to the MBTA for operation.

The people of Atkinson really dislike the idea of this facility. This past Monday, December 19, 2011, The Plaistow Area Transit Advisory Committee met for the first time in more than 10 years to discuss the project. The meeting, which took place at the Atikinson Community Center, was attended by many Atkinson residents and local state officials. The meeting eventually turned into a shouting match between residents as committee member Tim Moore tried to explain the facts of the project. According to The Eagle Tribune, the meeting got out of hand numerous times, with people shouting and interrupting each other. Overall, Atkinson residents are truly showing that they do not want a layover facility in their area. 

Right now the project is still in the planning process, but they would like to have the extension open for revenue service by 2013. Hopefully Atkinson residents come onboard with the project and it can move forward as soon as possible! The next Plaistow Area Transit Advisory Committee (PATAC) will be held on February 9th. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

Boston Common Renovation Part II

Last March Aaron and I posted that historic Boston Common would be going under extensive renovation! Now, a little less than a year later the rehabilitation is almost complete.

The Liberty Mall, which runs from Park St. Station up to the Massachusetts State House, received the largest facelift from the project. Since I pass by the project everyday on my way to class I was able to follow the renovation every step of the way! The entire mall was completely torn up to take away all of the dead grass, cracked concrete, dead trees, and frost-heaved asphalt. Soon after everything was ripped up, huge amounts of loam were brought in and the reconstruction began! The entire Plaza that surrounds the historic Brewer Fountain received new granite tiles and wooden benches. All of the paths were repaved and received new granite sidings and drains. Most importantly however, yards upon yards of fresh sod was rolled down and numerous new trees were planted, creating and even greener Boston Common. To keep the new trees and grass lush and healthy all year long, a new sprinkler system was also installed along the entire mall. Currently, huge fences can still be found surrounding the newly planted sod and trees to make sure that the grass takes properly, but all of the paths are now open to allow pedestrians to walk through and see what's new! 

The visitors center under construction
this past summer
Another major part of the project was to restore the Boston Common Visitors Center. Now fully revitalized and open for business, the center received a head-to-toe facelift. All of the siding was taken down and replaced, a new granite walkway and new outside lighting were installed, and a fresh coat of paint was slapped on. The inside also received some attention with the installation of two LCD display screens, new lighting, and a totally reorganized gift shop. The center is now not only visually appealing, but a wonderful place for Boston's tourist to find out information. 

In the last post I stated that free Wi-Fi would be installed throughout much of the common and that  a stand or building would be installed near the Brewer Fountain. Currently, neither of those have happened and I have not seen or read anything that tell me they will be happening in the near future. Not to worry, though, as I'm sure they will be coming along once summer hits! Overall, the $1.5 Million project, funded by the Friends of the Public Garden, seems to be an overall success. All of the landscape development was done by Valley Crest Landscape Architects

Right now this is an eyesore but soon
it will be site of the new elevator!
View from the Red
line platform 
This post would not be complete, however, without a small tidbit about the MBTA. As many of you know, the MBTA is currently underway with its construction of a new elevator at Park St. Station. Although the project is still a ways away from its estimated completion date, Fall 2012, the project seems to be moving along full speed. When all is said and done this $8.7 million project will install two brand new elevators in the station. One will go from the Common to the Green Line westbound platform and the other will go from the Green Line westbound platform to the center platform of the Red line. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

MBCR North Pole Express!

It's almost Christmastime! For me, Christmas means hot chocolate, huge christmas trees, bright strings of lights, and OF COURSE The Polar Express!

 This year Aaron and I were lucky enough to be invited to ride on the MBCR's version of The Polar Express which they dubbed the North Pole Express! 

GM Kiley, Mrs. Menino, First Lady Patrick,
GM Davis, Secretary Davey
This past Saturday we arrived to a busy South Station that was filled with young children and adults who were celebrating with holiday spirit. The MBTA did a beautiful job decorating the station for the holidays, completing it with a large scale model train set that buzzes around in an inclosure at the center of the station. I have always had an interest with model trains and I always look forward to seeing the set at South Station! 

The MBCR invited children from local Boston charities like The Boston Housing Authority and Smart from the Start to embark on this fun adventure! The train departed South Station at 4:00pm and traveled down the Fairmount line to the Readville Yard (The North Pole) where we reversed directions and headed back to Boston.

Right as you entered the train you could tell that the Holiday Spirit was in the air. Each coach on the MBCR's special train was decorated to the rafters! Long strands of colored Christmas lights, garland, and ornaments lined the inside of the coaches. Throughout the ride each coach featured a different "celebrity," if you will, that read the story of The Polar Express aloud over a P.A. system to the families and children and they also sang christmas carols! Some of the celebrities included MBTA General Manager Jonathan Davis, MassDOT Secretary Rich Davey, MBCR GM Hugh Kiley Jr., and First Lady Diane Patrick.

When the train came to a quick halt at the Fairmount station, Santa, along with his elves and some other special guests made their way onto the train. The Children were very excited as Santa came down the isles of the train giving each and every one of them a brand new hardcover copy od The Polar Express and a single silver bell!

I had the chance to speak with the Matta family right as Santa was passing by them. Julie and Bill, brought along their three sons to the event Jared (8), Michael (6), and Josh (3). "This is our first year attending this event and we think it is spectacular" said Julie, "It is wonderful that the MBCR is doing this for the children."

After returning to the station all of the children were invited to watch The Polar Express movie (starring Tom Hanks!) on a huge blowup screen that was set up in the main concourse of South Station! A few vendors at South Station also pitched in to give out snacks for the showing. Doc Popcorn, a new vendor to South Station, gave away free bags of popcorn  and there were also some delicious cupcakes being given away!

 "We wanted to give back to our customers" said MBCR GM Hugh Kiley Jr., "this is the most rewarding part of my job". Overall, this was a wonderful experience and it was a privilege to be a part of it.

Now you are probably all wondering, being around all of those MBTA higher ups did I get to actually talk to them. The answer to that is yes! I was able to speak with Kiley and Davis, but unfortunately I was not able to talk to Secretary Davey, although I hope that day will come soon! Kiley, gave me a little more information on the new locomotive and coach procurement. He told me that prototypes for the new Hyundai-Rotem will begin arriving as early as the new year and that the first of the new Motive Power locomotives will begin arriving in 2013! GM Davis also gave me some insight into the possibility of the MBTA raising fairs. He explained to me that it is in the works to host over ten different public hearings to get customers feedback, these will most likely be happening after the new year. He explained that they will be making the process as public as possible! 

Special thanks to the MBCR!

Friday, December 2, 2011

The T opens its doors and then some

©2011 Boston to a T
For years the MBTA has struggled to keep their riders informed about whats happening behind the scenes at the nations fifth busiest mass transit organization. Over the past year the MBTA has been very busy trying to keep the system in working order. They have been plagued by their ever aging equipment, started new construction projects, deciding on what to do with their commuter rail contract, and drafting a new capital investment plan. During this time many commuters who utilize the MBTA have been looking for information in regards to what is being done behind the scenes to improve the system but have been left with few answers. But in recent weeks the MBTA has gone through a significant Public Relations overhaul making them a lot more user friendly.

The Old Website 
The New Site 
One of the largest improvements that the T has launched in the past few weeks was their new mobile website.The original site, which was launched in 2006, was considered to be cutting edge for its time. Over the past few years however the site has become subject to the ever increasing use of smartphones. The old site was very hard to maneuver on today's touch screen smartphones causing commuters to try and find other ways to get MBTA information on the go. The new site is a huge upgrade form the original design. The site is designed for large screen smartphones, with more features and a full color design. It also introduces a real-time Google Maps trip planner, a service-alerts box color-coded by subway line and mode of transit, and a customer comment form. The new comment form allows riders to report anything from a maintenance issue to an unruly passenger or they can praise excellent service all while on the go. These comments get sent directly to an MBTA customer service representative.The customer comment form is inspired by Boston’s award-winning Citizens Connect application, which lets people snap pictures of problems and beam concerns to City Hall.The most interesting feature that I have found on the new site is the fact that it can actually recognize the type of smart phone you are using and present a format optimized for that specific phone! The T paid $25,000 for the site, which was built by Usablenet, a firm that has designed mobile sites for Amtrak, British Airways, jetBlue, and others.

Social media has also been a huge venue that the MBTA has been trying to tap. In the past year the MBTA has launched a Twitter account, a YouTube Chanel, and more recently a Flickr Photo Stream. All of these social media platforms have been allowing the MBTA to become a little more transparent. The Twitter account which uses the name @MBTAgm allows customers to tweet the GM any issues questions they may have during their commute. The MBCR has also set up a twitter account (@MBCR_info) that allows Commuter Rail customers to ask the company questions and get a quick response! The T's new Flickr account (created only a few weeks ago) has been a great asset to their social media platform. The site allows them to post pictures and videos of ongoing construction project around the system. Currently the site shows some great shots of the ongoing Red Line shutdowns! Although the MBTA has been doing very well with these other social media ventures YouTube has been a bit of a struggle for them. Unlike New York's MTA , which posts new videos about construction, history, or employees once a week, the MBTA hasn't posted a new video in seven months and the quality of the six videos on the account is subpar. Other than the YouTube account the MBTA has really done a great job breaking themselves into the social media network. If they want to continue to strive however I feel like they must base what they are doing off of other transit agencies social media platforms like the MTA.

Another interesting program that the MBTA has recently launched to create more of a link with its passengers is the new "MBTA Opens its doors" campaign. This pilot program is going to allow the public to go into different MBTA buildings to check out what makes the system run behind the scenes! The buildings being featured are the Commuter Rail Maintenance Facility (BET), the Everett Subway Maintenance facility,  and the Operations Control Center. This is the first time that the MBTA has ever opened up its facilities to the public. Personally, I am very excited to get the chance to go on one of these tours. In my opinion these tours will show the public that the T isn't failing because of incompetence or lack of  laziness. If you decide to tour one of these facilities you will find MBTA employees who are working hard and take pride in their work! The only reason the MBTA is having all of this trouble is the lack of funding not lack of work ethic! I really hope these tours show the people of Boston this! Currently all of the tours for December are booked over capacity but the MBTA says they will be scheduling tours quarterly so keep a look out: HERE. Or email 

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