Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Forest Hills' Gaping Hole

I could just have easily dropped a small rock from my palm as the T token this morning. The sole entrance to the way of the underground train at one of the system's busiest stations was a large open gap where two turnstiles used to be anchored.

The linesman sized T dude behind what could have been God's cuspidor -- a nearly four-foot tall stainless-steel box with a book-sized opening at top -- must have served some purpose. I suppose it was like the nun watching the playground. There was certainly no way he could have verified the dates of the passes flashed or the coins released, several or a dozen at a time from two sides.

Ironically, this was the quickest subway entry ever, faster than a token drop/spin and much faster than the Charlie system coming not very soon but very piecemeal to your stations.

Nearly two months ago, much of the Forest Hills foyer became a camp for head-high crates. These are the new gate system to replace the turnstiles.

Because the MBTA is allegedly easing us into this system, they are doing it with maximum inconvenience to the greatest number, spread out over the entire system. For example, for many months, Bostonians weary from their travel to Logan found that their tokens and cash were no good at Blue Line when they were headed home. They needed to debit or credit a decrementing pass at the Airport stop to get home. It's like the Charlie song, only in this case Charlie couldn't even get on the train.

Rather than a big, short-lived push to get an entire line converted, the MBTA has an Automated Fare Collection plan. In my case, it means that if they ever get around to replacing that huge hole with a Charlie-gate system, I'd need a decrementing or monthly pass to get on there. At Downtown Crossing, I could use my tokens. There is no accommodation for tokens or cash at the converted system.

Last Friday, I came home through Forest Hills to find the hole there as the only exit (the alleged epidemic of obese folk must enjoy this and the coming wide gates to the current sideways dance through the turnstiles). Naively, I figured that the Charlie fairies were scheduled to arrive over the weekend and magically anchor, electrify and test the new system.

A huge Boston HA! to me. Who knows when they'll actually get around to plugging in their new toys?

Also, I see these in operation at South Station. Count on constant jams at the ticket vending machines. People are as lame at using these as they are at ATMs. It doesn't speak well for our city's cognitive abilities to watch, and wait and wait.

Then the system itself is noticeably slower than drop token/walk turnstiles. Once you get a ticket, assuming it has at least the $1.25 value left, you feed it into a slot on the front of the box. Not only is that slower than dropping the token, it's like the old 5.25-inch floppy disks; there are multiple ways it fits in the slot and all but one of them are wrong.

A subtle arrow shows direction and if you do that right you can only be wrong not putting it proper side up. One would think the scanners could read the info from any of the four possible angles, eh?

Assuming all is well, the box spits the card out its top -- this stage is quick. At this point, you grab the card (which of course doesn't work on your keyring, sucker). This activates the gates. After a brief pause for the gates to open, you proceed.

So, the per-transaction time may be only slightly slower than the turnstile, assuming all goes well with the card. Yet, multiply that by the rush-hour throughput and expect a newer, more technologically advanced, less convenient system.

Some parts of the system and all card variations won't be available until sometime next year. You get a lot of chances to revel in the transportation advancement.

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