For some good background that is helpful for this blog entry, please read my previous entry: "Framingham-Worcester: which track is which?"
As many riders will notice, the rush hour Framingham-Worcester trains board on the same platform for both inbound and outbound rush hour trips between West Natick and Wellesley Farms. The MBTA and Keolis call this the "inbound" track but it is actually track 2. So why do they use track 2 for all the rush hour service here?
For most train operations where there is more than one track over a long distance, the routing of trains is usually similar to roadway traffic in the US: trains stay on the right side track. This practice is followed between Ashland and Grafton: there is an "inbound" (track 2) and "outbound" (track 1) arrangement that is almost always true. The recent construction has meant shuffling of service on this stretch, but that is a temporary condition due to the construction. Worcester's platform is only on a siding accessed from track 1, so that's the problem there.
So what is going on between West Natick and Wellesley Farms?
Before May 15, 2006, the section between West Natick and Wellesley Farms actually used the same pattern all day long: track 1 was always outbound and track 2 was always inbound. You fellow long term riders remember this - boarding on one side in the morning and getting off on the other side in the evening. That's what the Grafton to Ashland passengers do every day even now (ignoring construction related changes).
Prior to May 15, 2006, the MBTA (and MBCR) distributed this notice to announce the change to the track usage pattern, instituting the pattern that we have now: track 2 is used for both inbound and outbound rush hour trains between West Natick and Wellesley Farms.
The notice that was published hints at the reason: safety.
Those of you familiar with the West Natick and Wellesley Hills station know that they are unique among the stations on the line. At both of those stations, the only access to the track 1 platform is via a wooden walkway from the track 2 platform across both sets of tracks. There is no access to the 'outside world' from the track 1 platform at either of those stations - the West Natick track 1 platform is up against neighborhood backyards, and the Wellesley Hills track 1 platform is up against a giant cliff (where an excavator tried to tumble onto the tracks, but that's an entirely different story, with pictures, of course...).
This picture from the Wikipedia entry for the Wellesley Hills station shows the walkway and illustrates the issue quite clearly.
So everyone who gets on or off a train on track 1 at those stations has to cross the wooden walkway across both tracks. A less than ideal situation. During the morning, it's not a problem - track 2 is the 'natural' inbound track. But in the afternoon, prior to May 15, 2006, the large volume of commuters would get off on track 1 at those stations and have to cross both track 1 and track 2 to get to the parking lots or sidewalks or anywhere.
Moving all the outbound rush hour trains to track 2 in the afternoon means that the largest volume of afternoon / evening passengers no longer have to cross the tracks.
Also remember that the only 'cross over' switches in this area are near Framingham(CP 21) and between Wellesley Farms and Auburndale (CP 11, what I've nicknamed the "Weston Switch"). See the map for the locations of these switches, and see the glossary for definitions of "CP," "interlocking," and the "Weston Switch." The locations of the switches explain why the track 2 usage affects all the Natick and Wellesley stations - there is no way for trains to change tracks in the middle of this stretch of the line (or between Wellesley Hills and Wellesley Farms, for example).
Also convenient is the fact that the only platforms at the Newton stations are on track 2. So even prior to May 15, 2006, all rush hour inbound and outbound trains were using track 2 along the Newton stations in order to provide those stations with 'normal' (AM inbound, PM outbound) rush hour services. The May 15, 2006 change just extended the existing practice along the Newton stations all the way to West Natick.
Why did this become an issue in 2006 after years of operations without the track change along the West Natick to Wellesley Farms stations? As with most issues, a fatality may have played a role.
Prior to July 2004, a walkway across tracks 1 and 2 also existed at the Wellesley Farms train station. This walkway existed even though there was a sidewalk on the track 1 side and a stairway on the track 2 side that led to the Glen Road bridge.
In December 2003, Wellesley Farms was the location of a fatality. Quoting from one of the decisions regarding the wrongful death lawsuit:
"On December 6, 2003, Robert McTague, an employee of MBCR, was helping to clear snow from the railroad tracks at the Wellesley Farms commuter rail station during a storm. A CSX freight train passed through the station, striking and killing Mr. McTague."
News reports from the time indicate that a snowblower was being used along the tracks and that the freight train struck the snowblower which then struck Mr. McTague. There was never any reporting that Mr. McTague (or anyone) was on the cross-tracks walkway at the time of the incident, and it also isn't clear that Mr. McTague was actually operating the snowblower.
Sometime prior to July 2004, news reports indicate that the Federal Railway Administration (FRA) received complaints from Wellesley residents that the cross-tracks walkway at the Wellesley Farms station was dangerous. In collaboration with the FRA and the MBTA, MBCR decided to close the walkway with a fence to prevent pedestrians from walking across the tracks.
There is no indication that the fatality in December 2003 was a factor in closing this walkway, but all the parties involved in the collaboration would have been aware of the fatality and my guess is that it could not have been completely ignored. But there are no reports directly linking the closure of the walkway to the worker fatality.
After the walkway at Wellesley Farms was closed, commuters using that station were upset that they were being inconvenienced by being required to walk up to Glen Road to access the parking lot on the track 2 side of the station after deboarding their evening train on track 1. Many passengers would just walk east along the tracks and go around the fence between the tracks, rather than go up and over. I can recall seeing passengers make this walk behind the back of outbound trains.
A news report from March 2005 indicated that the issue had "reached a fever pitch." 200 passengers signed a petition asking the MBTA to re-open the closed walkway at Wellesley Farms. The MBTA held firm and I believe the fence was even extended at each end to make it less attractive as an alternative to the 'up and over.' MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo is quoted in the March 2005 article: "If we hear about people trying to jump the fence, then we'll grease it."
Clearly the issue of walkways and shortcuts across tracks was a hot topic during this time period (2003 to 2006). The wrongful death lawsuit regarding Mr. McTague ensnared the MBTA, MBCR, and CSX (then the owner and dispatcher of the line) starting in 2004. Again, although there is no public documentation or reporting regarding it, I have to believe that the fatality and the incredibly stupid and dangerous trespassing by commuters at Wellesley Farms kept the cross-track access issue on the front burner.
Given that context, it is natural to see how the FRA and all parties took a look at the situation not only at Wellesley Farms, but also at West Natick and Wellesley Hills - the only other stations with cross-track walkways on the line. Which leads us directly to the May 2006 notice and implementation of the idea to just get the bulk load of evening outbound commuters off of track 1. An elegant mitigation for a potentially hazardous safety issue.
The May 2006 track switch also alleviated the complaints at Wellesley Farms - evening passengers were now being discharged on the track 2 platform, directly adjacent to the parking lot. So no need to walk around the fence or 'up and over.'
As noted in the May 2006 notice, with the outbound rush hour trains on the "inbound track" (track 2), the inbound trains have to use the outbound tracks. Passengers going into Boston in the afternoon and evening must still use the walkways at West Natick and Wellesley Hills. But that is far less passengers crossing both tracks than forcing all of the outbound commuters to use the walkways.
This leads to another operational rule put into effect around the same time: trains are not allowed to pass each other within the West Natick or Wellesley Hills stations. This is to avoid the potential for a passenger to deboard the train in the station and then immediately cross the walkway behind the departing train - and not see a train coming from the opposite (or even same) direction on the other track. So you may notice your train stop or slow when approaching West Natick or Wellesley Hills (even if you are on an express train that isn't making a station stop there) - this is probably because another train is in the station on the opposite track.
Unfortunately, the issue of "board inbound trains on the outbound" track is quite confusing, and I have always disliked the naming of tracks by "inbound" and "outbound." For rush hour commuters between West Natick and Wellesley Farms, track 2 is always both the "inbound" and "outbound" track!
The problem is that the only clear labeling on signs at those stations is "inbound" and "outbound." There are no clear signs indicating track numbers. This is poor communication design in my opinion. But correcting it would cost money even if the powers that be agreed with my opinion.
At some point in the recent past, the MBTA and/or Keolis customer service decided that this afternoon track 'switch' needed to be announced EVERY DAY. One of our twitter friends likens the deluge of messages to the boy who cried wolf: