<edited 11/16/2016 to incorporate news about why the train was damaged>
It's always something on the Framingham-Worcester line. The morning of Friday 11/4 brought a new reason for delays and problems - namely, a damaged plow.
P506 (the 6:30 AM local from Worcester) struck something <edit: see the new information at the end of this post for what really happened> at the Cherry Street and Main Street grade crossings in downtown Ashland at about 7:00 AM. There were reports of a loud bang and sparks flying. Upon arrival at Framingham, an inspection of the front of the control coach revealed damage to the plow on the front of the train. Rider photos:
Here's some photos of everyone waiting on track 1 at Framingham.
However, due to the expected higher ridership on the Framingham-Worcester line as a result of the Mass Pike toll demolition project, the extra protect set had been sent to Framingham every morning since Monday 10/31. It was kept on standby at Framingham for use in case of severe overcrowding on any of the usual train trips. As many of you know, the higher ridership never materialized. Luckily for us, they kept the extra set going to Framingham each weekday morning.
Just as P506 was being cancelled on Friday morning, the extra train set was approaching Framingham from Boston. The train came through Framingham station and pulled west of the station so that the crew could 'switch ends' for the inbound trip. This extra set was much smaller than the usual 6 doubles of P506 - it had five coaches: 4 flats and 1 double.
After loading all of the stranded passengers plus some Framingham passengers intending to take P508, the 'new' P506 departed Framingham at 7:37 AM - only 26 minutes behind schedule. Immediately upon departing, some assistant conductors reported that their coaches were filled to capacity. This information was relayed to the dispatcher.
At Natick Center, the 'new' P506 was given instructions to proceed express to Yawkey, primarily due to the (perceived) overcrowding on it. P506 waited in Natick Center for a longer period of time than normal to be sure that the information was communicated and interzone passengers were able to get off at Natick Center. I was on the double on P506 and it actually wasn't SRO. The 'new' P506 may have been able to make one additional stop at Wellesley Square to squeeze on some more passengers, but it is hard to fairly armchair quarterback these decisions.
P508 was converted to a local and made all local stops from Framingham through the Wellesleys and the Newtons. Due to the overcrowding on P508, some passengers were denied boarding at one of the Newton stops (and maybe more than one). Those passengers would have been displaced to P584 which was relatively close behind P508. But those Newton passengers (originally intending to board P506 but denied boarding onto P508) would have ended up being over one hour late to Boston.
The final answers:
Replacement P506 arrived South Station at 8:18 - 11 minutes late (for passengers able to board at Natick Center or before). Passengers intending to be on P506 from any of the Wellesleys or Newtons were at least 50 minutes late.
P508 arrived South Station at 8:57 AM - 37 minutes late.
1) The pre-positioning of the extra set in Framingham clearly saved the day. Had that equipment not been near Framingham, the scenario would have been much more dire. It's also possible that the existence of the extra set influenced the decision to remove the original P506 set from service. In other words, if the extra set hadn't have been near Framingham, perhaps they would have tried to keep the original P506 set in service (maybe at reduced speed?).
The extra set at Framingham raises the larger operational issue that having a 'protect set' permanently stationed in Framingham during the AM commute would be a wonderful way to offer schedule and overcrowding resiliency. There are frequent examples when an extra set at Framingham could have mitigated serious meltdowns for the AM commute. But without enough equipment on the system, this remains an item for our wish list. The infrastructure is there - the "4th iron" siding is a perfect spot to keep a train on standby.
2) Friday ridership is MUCH lower than any other weekday. Had this been any other weekday, train capacity would have been a huge problem, with P506 passengers probably being deferred all the way to P584.
Overall, due to these first two items, we got very lucky. Had there been no extra set or had it been a regular weekday, the delays for trains P506, P508, P584, and maybe even P510 could have been more extensive & more severe. This is not to minimize the delay that P508 passengers and P506 passengers from the Wellesleys and Newtons had - I am simply saying that it could have been much worse.
3) The decision to send P506 express from Natick Center was a good decision and a creative solution to try and mitigate the delays for some passengers. P508 was already stuck close behind P506, so having P506 pick up passengers just ahead of P508 would have prevented P508 from getting to Boston any faster. Could P506 picked up at least some passengers from Wellesley Square? Perhaps, but it's hard to second guess decisions that are made in real-time with limited information.
4) Communications were a mixed bag. Some passengers reported adequate information, while other passengers reported no communications. Those situations are very difficult to manage with lots of moving parts. I was able to hear decisions being communicated to train crews as the dispatcher said them - meaning I was probably aware of some operational decisions before the @MBTA_CR customer service got the info. And that's not a dig at the customer service system - it is simply an example of how information has to move through many steps to get out to passengers via official channels. There are some things that could be done to improve communications, but overall I think they did OK on Friday morning.
<Original post text:>
I doubt we'll ever hear what really happened to the original P506 train and what it hit or why. When P508 passed over the area they did not observe any debris or damage, but they could see marks (probably on the pavement) where something had happened.
On Monday 11/14/2016, there was a regularly scheduled Fiscal Management & Control Board ("FMCB") meeting. These meetings are held generally every two weeks on Mondays and open to the public and the press. At this meeting, the Keolis Chief Safety Officer revealed that a train had struck a buffer at the end of a track at South Station in the early morning of November 4th (actually 12:25 AM). Boston Globe article here. This revelation appeared to have been in response to the concern that safety incidents were being withheld from the FMCB.
After some additional digging, the Boston Globe reporter was able to determine that the train involved in the buffer strike at South Station was the same train that was involved in the incident described in this blog post. A follow up article linked the early AM incident with the P506 issue.
The sequence of events now makes some sense to me. Without any evidence or inside knowledge, I can speculate as to what happened:
1. Strike occurs at 12:25 AM at South Station. Some trains are stored overnight at South Station, and perhaps this set was stored there. But even if it was moved to a different location, the sequence doesn't much change.
2. This set is then used for the P501 - P506 equipment rotation for the AM commute. P501 departs South Station at 4:45 AM. With the damaged plow being dragged at the rear of the train, any defects or irregularites may not have been noticed, especially with nobody at the back of the train during its transit.
3. Upon arrival in Worcester, the train 'turns' (not physically - the engineer just moves from the locomotive to the control coach) to become P506. With the damaged plow at the front of the train being pushed ahead, it is in a position much more likely to get 'caught' on something.
I'm thinking of a situation similar to dragging a rake across the lawn: drag the rake behind you and it will just skip over any rocks or changes in the surface. But push the rake ahead of you facing the wrong way, and it will easily 'catch' a rock or similar obstruction.
It also makes sense that P506 had some sort of related incident in Ashland. Travelling east from Worcester, Cherry Street in Ashland is the second grade crossing that the train would encounter. (The first one is Parmenter Road in Grafton - I can't explain why the train didn't have a problem there). A grade crossing is important to the context of this story because it is typically the only place where there is any sort of obstruction between and immediately adjacent to the rails that rises up to the top of the rail. The pavement for the road could have been enough to catch something hanging down from the damaged plow. This would also explain why there was no 'debris' or object found - the already damaged plow just struck something associated with the railroad.
The Boston Globe articles indicate that all involved are taking the incident and the failure to report the original incident very seriously. The Federal Railroad Administration is investigating along with the expected internal investigations by both the MBTA and Keolis.