Boston, MA: Why does the Red Line move so slowly between Harvard and Central Square stops?

A friend of mine from Boston told me a fun story once:

Once upon a time …

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority wanted to extend the Ⓣ Red Line, and wanted to excavate a tunnel under Harvard Yard to do it. Harvard University objected. The MBTA took Harvard to court in order to exercise eminent domain and thus override Harvard's objection.

In court, the MBTA presented arguments for its position: the good that an extended Ⓣ Red Line would do for the people of Cambridge, Somerville, and the Boston metropolitan area generally.

Harvard's lawyer opened his briefcase, pulled out a letter sealed under glass, and presented it to the judge.

The judge read the letter, and summarily dismissed the MBTA's case.

The letter was an executive order perpetually exempting Harvard University from eminent domain, signed by George Washington, the first U.S. President.

Thus, in order to extend the Ⓣ Red Line, the MBTA had to go around Harvard Yard, which meant putting in a tighter radius turn into the subway extension plan than the subway train cars were designed to deal with. Ergo, the subway trains have to slow down near Harvard Square (no one wants a derailment), and they make a nasty squealing/grinding noise as they make that turn [the noise is nasty – I've ridden the Red Line many times and been subjected it].

Coda to the story: Harvard University is rather older than the United States of America. What else does Harvard have in its archives?

3 Replies to “Boston, MA: Why does the Red Line move so slowly between Harvard and Central Square stops?”

  1. The short answer is that Harvard University were livid at the project and insisted that not a bit of it could occur beneath any of their buildings AND that the existing station, quaintly old-school charming, but with no HP access and woefully puny with its own hard turn (since it was the terminus), had to stay open during the construction. The "World's Greatest University," as they call themselves, could not function if people had to take buses… how declasse!

    The fastest way to do the job was basically what I called (at the time) "Open Square Surgery," where the entire zone between Nini's, CB&T and the Mass Av edge of Harvard Yard was open to the ground. Out of Town News was relegated to a temporary structure off to the side, there was no "Pit" yet, and the station was "assembled in place from pre-fabricated parts made off site and put into place. It was quite astonishing to watch daily as the process elapsed.

    It was, so it was said at the time, in '79, iirc, to be the first offsite manufactured prefab subway station ever built in the US, at least, if not the world. The station hasn't been perfect, but it has held up well, generally handles its large foot traffic well and has worked well also as a covered bus terminal (just underground above the subway).

    The story of Porter Square Station and the entire extension itself is actually even more interesting, as well as the engineering done for that station. The Red Line, viewing purely as an engineer, is a fascinating mix of pretty daring solutions along much of its length.

    So, because of being forced to build the new station immediately adjacent to the old one, and the busways under the public land between the Common and the Yard, the sharp turn had to be left in place, forcing the slow exit from Harvard Square to Central Sq and the slow approach. Otherwise, the speeds are pretty high much of that rather long run (for an urban segment) during off-peak hours.

    Hope this adds some context!

  2. There is a sharp bend in the tracks just before the Harvard station.  They slow down to manage that turn (you can also hear the wheels squealing on the track).  I couldn't tell you why that bend is there, but I'm sure it has to do with the fact that Harvard used to be the end of the Red Line before it was extended.

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