The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (the metonym "The T" can describe either this organization in general, or refer specifically to the subway system it runs) is the public transit operator for Boston and most of its surrounding cities and towns. It consists of a subway/streetcar/trackless trolley system, a network of buses, the T Commuter Rail (which shares large amounts of trackage and station space with Amtrak), and a harbor ferry service. Like many American subway services, it originated out of privately owned streetcar and elevated train lines built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, though unlike in many other American cities, practically all the now-existing lines were always operated by a single company. The color-coding and the "T" symbol were introduced during the 1960s, in the years following the MBTA's takeover of the system formerly known as the MTA and before that as the Boston Elevated. One of these lines, the Tremont Street Subway (now part of the Green Line), began service in 1897, giving the T the title of "oldest subway in America." The T is the fourth-busiest subway in the United States, moving just short of 600,000 subway riders and a total of 1.3 million fares across all modes daily.
The T proper consists of four subway lines (Green, Red, Orange, Blue), as well as a high-speed bus line (Silver).note The four lines meet in a quadrangle of transfer stations in downtown Boston. In the pre-MBTA period, the lower-level platforms at some of the central stations were distinguished by having the word "Under" appended to the station name: Park Street Under, South Station Under (which was originally under an elevated station that was later demolished), Scollay Under. Each line uses its own type of equipment, even though in the early 20th century what are now the Blue and Green Lines were both operated with trolleys and the Tremont Street Subway was temporarily rebuilt to accommodate elevated cars.
Green Line: The Green Line is a light rail system, using articulated vehicles to negotiate tight curves. Extends from Lechmere on the Cambridge side of the Charles River, on a viaduct across to the Museum of Science, then past North Station and south through Tremont Street and around Boston Common, west under Boylston Street through the Back Bay (the "E" branch splits off past Copley Square and heads more sharply southwest along Huntington Avenue, underground at first but surfacing at Northeastern University and passing the Museum of Fine Arts and the medical area, finally turning to reach its current terminal at Heath Street), continuing west to Kenmore Square, where it splits into three streetcar lines that soon surface, "B" (due west past Boston University and along winding Commonwealth Avenue to Boston College and the city line), "C" (west-southwest along the median of straight Beacon Street to Coolidge Corner and Cleveland Circle), and "D" (west-southwest past Fenway Park and following the meandering route of an old railroad branch through Brookline and Newton all the way out to Riverside). The "B", "C" and "D" lines nearly converge at Chestnut Hill Reservoir.note Two extensions of the Green Line to the northwest of Lechmere terminating at Union Square station in Somerville and at Medford/Tufts station in Medford opened in stages in 2022, with the extensions being serviced by the "D" and "E" branches, respectively.
Red Line: The longest of the heavy-rail lines, the Red Line extends from the Alewife parking garage in north-western Cambridge, east under a railroad turned bike path to Davis Square in Somerville, south back into Cambridge in a very deep tunnel, tightly curving around Harvard Yard and running east underground towards the MIT campus, surfacing to cross the Charles River on the Longfellow Bridge, briefly becoming elevated before going into a tunnel under Beacon Hill and the Boston Common, then connecting with the Green and Orange Lines on a lower level and continuing underground south through South Boston, surfacing in Dorchester. Here it splits into two branches, one due south to Quincy and Braintree and one south-southwest through Dorchester to Ashmont. (The Mattapan High Speed Line, a heritage streetcar line operated with PCC streetcars that formerly served the Green Line, functions as an extension of the Ashmont branch, heading due west and straying across the Neponset River into Milton.) Technically a north-south line, but never acknowledged as such by Bostonians or official signage (which uses "inbound" and "outbound" to indicate directions).
Orange Line: The main north-south line... kind of. Originally elevated over city streets for most of its length (with an elevated branch along the waterfront that was finally scrapped during World War II), its outer ends were entirely rebuilt along railroad rights of way in the 1970s and 1980s. It starts in Oak Grove way up in Malden, continues south through Charlestown, tunnels under the river, and, after meeting the Green Line at North Station (where both lines once ran on elevated structures), runs through downtown under Washington Street. (The four innermost stations originally had different names for the northbound and southbound platforms, none of which lie exactly opposite each other and in the case of State are several blocks apart.) It continues south-southwest in an open cut next to the Amtrak main line through the South End, Jamaica Plain and Roxbury, ultimately ending in Forest Hills.
Blue Line: The second oldest subway line in Boston, including the second oldest underwater vehicular tunnel in North America. Cutting on a northeast diagonal through the city, this line starts downtown at Bowdoin, tunnels under State Street and Boston Harbor into East Boston, surfaces near Logan International Airport, and from there past Suffolk Downs and along the shore to Revere Beach and Wonderland. This line is unique in that the line runs on electric third rail in the underground section from Logan Airport to Bowdoin, but on the aboveground line from Airport to Wonderland runs with overhead catenary. The underground section was originally operated with trolley cars that continued along East Boston streets from where Maverick station was later built, while most of the aboveground section was built along part of a defunct suburban railroad. The reason for the use of overhead wire on the aboveground track is to prevent the icing that normally happens on third rail-equipped tracks in winter.
Silver Line: Opened in 2002, it basically is a pair of disjointed bus routes that were inaugurated for two separate reasons. The southern portion, which started first, is a limited stop bus running on Washington Street to a couple of different downtown loops. It was launched as a partial replacement for the Orange Line when it was moved from the Washington Street Elevated to the new alignment alongside the Amtrak and commuter tracks. With little to separate it from a regular bus route, and running in regular mixed traffic, it has been roundly criticized as a pointless exercise, especially since it took 15 years to launch. It's been dubbed the "Silver Lie" for its entire existence.
The northern portion, which opened in 2004, has been better received. Built as the mass transit component of the infamous Big Dig, it consists of an exclusive tunnel between the South Station rail terminal and the waterfront area, in which the dual-mode buses run using overhead trolley wires (to avoid fumes in the tunnel). After surfacing, they switch to regular engines and take one of three routes. One takes a short loop route near the waterfront that includes the Boston cruise ship terminal, while the other two loop into the Ted Williams Tunnel to cross the harbor to Logan Airport. One route loops around the airport, stopping at the terminals before heading back through the tunnel, while the third (and most recent) uses a combination of airport bypass roads and a private roadway (a former railway ROW) to reach Chelsea.
The two parts share a common name because the original plans were to connect them through a tunnel segment between South Station and Washington Street, but the cost and disruption has put that part on indefinite hold. The only connection between the two is the ability to transfer at South Station, which is on one of the downtown loops of the southern portion.
As subways go, the T falls somewhere on a continuum between the outright filth of New York's subways and the antiseptic Washington Metro. It's very safe, reasonably clean, and far, far more efficient than trying to brave the hells of driving on congested streets filled with Boston drivers (made worse by the fact that much of Boston's street grid, with the notable exception of the Back Bay, more closely resembles the web of a deranged spider than any sort of actual, you know, grid). Likewise, the T isn't quite as iconic as NYC's subways or Chicago's L, but just about any work set in the Greater Boston area will show the T somewhere, even if it's just in a stock scenery shot. (Red Line trains crossing the Charles River tend to show up very often in film and TV.)
References and appearances in media:
- "A Subway Named Moebius" by A.J. Deutsch.
- St. Elsewhere shows the old elevated Orange Line in the opening credits. The elevated Orange Line ran over Washington Street through the South End, and the building used for external shots of the hospital is at the corner of Washington and Newton Streets. During the last season, the elevated Orange Line was demolished and relocated to the Southwest Corridor about a half mile to the north, but the elevated tracks were still anachronistically shown in the opening credits.
- "Charlie on the MTA" was originally written as a campaign song for Walter O'Brien's unsuccessful 1949 mayoral bid, protesting a recent fare increase (The song is about a man who didn't know about the rate hike, only brought enough money for the previous exit fare, and thus was not permitted to leave the station, forced to ride the subway forever over a nickel). The song was popularized ten years later by the Kingston Trio and ultimately became an Ascended Meme when the MBTA rolled out its CharlieCard/CharlieTicket fare system in late 2004.