Quote of the day

From Harvard PhD student Jake Anbinder, in Democracy Journal:

We need not defend the specific works of the midcentury master builders to recognize that the model that has replaced them—where some planners spend their evenings being berated by neighborhood busybodies and others bill governments rather than work for them—has produced its own undesirable outcomes.

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Commuter rail schedules for the Plague Year

At a couple of recent MBTA board meetings, the authority’s staff have made it clear that they expect the passenger volume on MBTA commuter rail to remain depressed for significantly longer than that of the subway, light rail, and bus networks, as demand recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic and related business closures. These conversations have been happening in the context of the MBTA’s financial situation and the fiscal year 2021 budget, which the authority is about to approve at a special board meeting on Thursday, because reduced income from sales of expensive commuter-rail passes and parking fees has an outsized impact on the operating margins of the service (much of the operating cost of which is set by the T’s contract with Keolis, which has another two years to run). Much of the discussion centers around how the commuter-rail service is built for 9–5 office workers who live in the suburbs and drive to a station where they park all day, and whether some significant fraction of those workers will continue working from home for the rest of the year, or their employers will otherwise arrange for them to no longer commute into the urban core, especially considering that suburban homeowners are more likely to be older. But all of the commuter-rail lines serve cities where a significant number of residents are service workers, work in research or medicine, or otherwise have schedules that the current commuter-rail service fails to address.

Currently, the commuter rail is running on the “reduced service” schedule, which is a modified Saturday schedule, but in the governor’s “reopening plan” announced on Monday, it was suggested that the commuter rail might not resume its previous operating schedule — and a lot of people raised some eyebrows about that. I want to argue that this is a good thing, and that this crisis provides a tremendous opportunity to fix the damn schedules at a time when ridership is already reduced.

What do I mean by “fix the damn schedules”? Well, we could start by looking at what the MBTA board voted in favor of last fall: all-day, bidirectional service on clockface headways, as proposed in the Rail Vision report. (What’s a “clockface headway”? In essence, it means that the train schedule at every station is the same every hour of the day: a train that arrives at 6:07 also arrives at 7:07, 8:07, 9:07, and so on. Having a memorable schedule all day long is important to reduce the cognitive load and stress for riders, regardless of what Stephanie Pollack may think, and is also key to the “Swiss model” of scheduling, because you only need to make the schedule for a single hour and just repeat that across the entire day.) Rail Vision proposed 15-minute and 30-minute headways, which are today a substantial challenge due to long-standing facilities constraints, garbage rolling stock, the lack of electrification, and the lack of full-length high platforms at many stations. This all takes time and money to fix (although not as much of either as the MBTA’s management is trying to make it take) — but the question naturally arises, in this pandemic year: What could we do now, within the constraints of the facilities and equipment that we already have, given that demand is substantially reduced?

The answer, as it turns out, is quite a lot.

For starters, nearly all lines (Old Colony excepted) could run all-day bidirectional service on 60-minute headways using significantly less equipment than is required for “status quo ante” schedules. The five two-track main lines can run all-day bidirectional service on 30-minute headways, with careful scheduling of meets on a couple of lines that have single-track sections. These are all local trains — no expresses or other non-standard service patterns — so they’re easy to schedule uniformly; some expresses would be possible but I haven’t run a constraint solver to actually see which ones. (As a practical matter, the MBTA currently only runs expresses on the Providence, Worcester, and Fitchburg lines.) I’m making relatively few assumptions beyond the availability of track slots from Amtrak and Pan Am on the various routes they control dispatching for. Here’s a table showing my thinking:

Route Cycle time Consists required
Status quo ante 60′ headway 30′ headway
Fitchburg 240′ 6 4 8
Lowell (NHML) 120′ 5 2 4
Haverhill (Western Route) 180′ 5 3 x
Reading (Western Route) 90′ * *
Rockport (Eastern Route) 180′ 4 3 x
Newburyport (Eastern Route) 180′ 4 3 x
Beverly (Eastern Route) 120′ * o
Worcester 210′ 8 4 7
Framingham 150′ * *
Needham 120′ 3 2 *
Franklin 180′ 3 3 x
Providence 180′ 7 3 6
Wickford shuttle 90′ 2 *
Stoughton 120′ 2 2 *
Totals 47 31 43

* Not studied.
x Service precluded by infrastructure constraints.
o Main line of the Eastern Route receives 30-minute service as a consequence of 60-minute headways on the two branches, although they may not be evenly spaced due to the need for scheduling the single-track through Salem.

Cycle times were calculated by taking the current reduced schedule, which makes all local stops, and adding at least 15 minutes turnaround time at each end. It turns out that for some services, like the Haverhill and Fitchburg lines, single-track sections restrict the feasible schedules such that the turnaround time is much longer at one end of the route than the other. (I assumed for the Fitchburg line that westbound trains would hold at Fitchburg until the eastbound train clears the Wachusett crossover, about five minutes on the schedule, to ensure that as few passengers as possible are inconvenienced; adjusting the schedule earlier in the trip would make the meet in Waltham much chancier and delay far more passengers. Unfortunately, both Wachusett and Fitchburg are single-platform stations, even though the Fitchburg Line is double-tracked all the way from Waltham.) Finally, implementing 30-minute headways on the Worcester Line might be impossible with the current configuration of Worcester Union Station; in that case, most of the benefit can be had by simply running short-turns to Framingham (which wouldn’t reduce the equipment requirement — note that cycle times have to be padded upward to make a multiple of the headway, and ideally you would like the extra padding to be at the out-of-town end of the line, except that you then need layover space that won’t foul the platform tracks, which isn’t always available).

What does this give us? Well, obviously, it provides “less” service than the status quo ante as the MBTA would normally measure things. But it provides vastly more service at times when non-office workers are more likely to be traveling, and serves the state’s public-health goals by supporting a more spread-out, less peaky commuting pattern for everyone. And, of course, it completely eliminates the (false perception of a need for) midday layover facilities. On the other hand, it does potentially increase staffing costs; I have not studied this and don’t know what the actually required staffing levels are, particularly if trains can run with shorter consists (meaning fewer conductors per train, but balanced out by the overall increase in trains per day). I’ve completely ignored the Foxboro pilot service. I also haven’t seriously looked at scheduling optimizations that could be done, such as running all Franklin service via the Dorchester Branch or running all Haverhill service via the New Hampshire Main Line, or other low-cost interventions that might reduce cycle times and improve equipment utilization such as increasing speed limits or eliminating some very lightly used and inaccessible stops.

But if we did do this, then we would establish a different, in my view superior, baseline — call it a “new normal” — to which commuter rail passengers could grow accustomed and expect to see maintained or improved as passenger volumes return and we move forward with the “Rail Transformation”.

Posted in Transportation | Tagged , , ,

Giving away some ebooks

Long time no see, blog fam!

I wish I could blame the COVID-19 situation for my lack of posting so far this year, but in fact I’ve had very limited energy at all this whole year, and indeed going back into most of 2019 as well. The pandemic did cancel my trip to Montreal, where I was going to attend the World Figure Skating Championships (at least I got my money back — those tickets are not cheap). But even before that, I had a fairly long thing I was trying to write back in mid-January about how we can take the next steps to fix our transportation system. That post has, as we say, been overtaken by events, and now it’s going to be a struggle to get people back onto public transit, and the state legislature has completely failed to demonstrate leadership in the face of cratering oil and gas prices, just as they failed to do in the 2008–9 financial crisis.

I’ve posted twice before (both posts in 2016) about the Canadian fantasy writer Graydon Saunders’ “Commonweal” series. I’ve been trying to get more people to read these books, which have a lot of big ideas, ever since I first read the first two titles (The March North and A Succession of Bad Days) three and a half years ago. Since then, three more books have come out: Safely You Deliver, Under One Banner, and released just this past January, A Mist of Grit and Splinters. I have a great deal of difficulty writing about literature in the best of times (have some sympathy for my high-school English teachers) and these books are particularly difficult to describe: they’re all secondary-world — or perhaps post-apocalyptic, it’s unclear — fantasy, but March, Banner, and Mist are all military adventures told from multiple perspectives (principally senior officers’), whereas Bad Days and Safely are sorcerer-school stories told mainly from the perspective of the students. That is not the interesting part, but it may influence which books are interesting to which readers. (It’s all one contiguous story, but books 1, 2, 4, and 5 are all reasonably entry points.)

The interesting part is an exploration of an egalitarian alternative to the traditional, feudal or at least strictly hierarchical social structure of most secondary-world fantasies. How does such a society defend itself from outsiders who would enslave them? How can the needs of military discipline be compatible with strict equality? How does any society deal with the prospect that some people may, through innate ability or experience, have several orders of magnitude more productivity than others, while maintaining adherence to the principle of “no fixed hierarchies”? There’s a lot there for people to engage with, and I’ve been pushing people on Twitter to do so. Obviously there are many differences between the world of the Commonweal and our world today, notably the fact that we don’t have working sorcery and they do, but these are definitely books that are trying to engage with issues present in our world, not just wish fulfillment.

So a week ago I launched a book giveaway on Twitter. I promised to give up to 50 copies of either The March North or A Succession of Bad Days away to anyone who responded. Sadly, only three people responded, and one of those turned out to be in a territory where the book was not licensed for sale. So I’m inviting my blog followers to do the same. If the description above made you think you might be interested in reading this book, send mail to book.giveaway@bimajority.org before 11:59 PM EDT on April 30 (0359 UTC on May 1) and tell me which book you’d like to get, and I’ll send you a Google Play gift code which can be redeemed for a downloadable copy.

Terms and conditions: limit one book per recipient, and you must have a Google account activated in a territory where Google Play Books is available and this book is licensed for sale. Not responsible for email delivery delays.

Posted in Books | Tagged

Upgrading FreeBSD from 11.3 to 12.1

Now here’s something more like what I was originally expecting the content on this blog to look like. I’m in the process of moving all of our FreeBSD servers (about 30 in total) from 11.3 to 12.1. We have our own local build of the OS, and until “packaged base” gets to a state where it’s reliably usable, we’re stuck doing upgrades the old-fashioned way. I created a set of notes for myself while cranking through these upgrades and I wanted to share them since they are not really work-specific and this process isn’t very well documented for people who haven’t been doing this sort of upgrade process for 25 years.

Our source and object trees are read-only exported from the build server over NFS, which causes things to be slow. /etc/make.conf and /etc/src.conf are symbolic links on all of our servers to the master copies in /usr/src so that make installworld can find the configuration parameters the system was built with. The first phase, because this is a major version upgrade, is to install the new kernel:

# zfs snapshot -r tank@before-12.1
# mount /usr/src
# mount /usr/obj
# cd /usr/src
# make -s installkernel
# shutdown -r now

(If this were a minor version upgrade, it would be a lot simpler.) We then boot single-user and get the server back on the network:

OK boot -s
# mount -u /
# /etc/rc.d/zfs start
# sysctl net.inet.icmp.icmplim=50000
# /etc/netstart
# /usr/local/etc/rc.d/unbound start

I might stop here and do some tests to ensure that /etc/netstart has actually brought the system back up with full connectivity — and if we’re using CARP, to down the CARP interfaces so that we don’t unintentionally become a non-functional CARP master for whatever service would normally be running. IPv6 can be a sticking point, because the build server has AAAA records but not all of the other machines have IPv6 connectivity. Now time for the userland part of the OS upgrade:

# mount /usr/src
# mount /usr/obj
# cd /usr/src
# etcupdate -p -t /usr/obj/ref-12.1-etcupdate # much faster to use a tarball built once
# make -s installworld
# etcupdate -t /usr/obj/ref-12.1-etcupdate
# unset EDITOR                                # probably not necessary in single-user
# etcupdate resolve

Next we clean up old crap. This would be a lot simpler except that make delete-old wants to delete configuration files that are actually required by packages we install and managed by our configuration management (which we don’t put in /usr/local because we don’t want to have to hack our Puppet modules to figure out whether these services are running from packages or the base install). /etc/ssh is a symlink to /usr/local/etc/ssh in these systems, but make delete-old has no way to avoid traversing the symlink.

# make check-old-files | sed -e '1d; /^\/etc\/ntp\.conf/d; /^\/etc\/ssh/d' | \
  xargs rm -v
# make delete-old                            # (say "no" to /etc/ntp.conf and /etc/ssh/*)

This just cleans up the mountd database on the build server:

# cd
# umount /usr/obj
# umount /usr/src

Next we update the boot blocks. Our servers vary a lot in terms of which devices are the boot drives, but always use GPT and have the boot meta-loader on partition 1. The most typical case is mirrored SATA, but newer devices may have a single SSD for booting instead:

# gpart bootcode -b /boot/pmbr -p /boot/gptzfsboot -i 1 ada0
# gpart bootcode -b /boot/pmbr -p /boot/gptzfsboot -i 1 ada1

Next is to handle the package upgrades. Before doing the OS upgrade, all servers will have been upgraded to our latest package build for 11.3, so this should be a practical no-op other than switching from the 11.x ABI to the 12.x ABI, but in reality we’ve found a number of things that require manual intervention. In particular, if the python2 package is still installed, pkg upgrade -f crashes. We manually install the rcs package on systems where it’s likely to be needed (servers with some local data still managed in local RCS files) because RCS was removed from 12.x. Note that our pkg.conf has HANDLE_RC_SCRIPTS enabled by default, but in this specific case, since we’re still running single-user, it’s important that the startup scripts not be run because they would start services prematurely.

# pkg-static install -f -y pkg
# pkg remove -y python2
# HANDLE_RC_SCRIPTS=NO pkg upgrade -f
# pkg install -y rcs
# pkg query '%n %q' | fgrep -v :12:    # consider whether any of these outdated packages should be deleted

Finally, some minor configuration tweaks to handle features that were introduced in 12.x (or suppress misfeatures that were introduced in 12.x, as the case may be):

# pkg install -y devcpu-data
# sysctl hw.model
(check /boot/firmware to see if there is an appropriate microcode file
for this machine's CPU type; this is correct for current devcpu-data
on Intel processors)
# echo 'cpu_microcode_load="YES"' >> /boot/loader.conf
# echo 'cpu_microcode_name="/boot/firmware/intel-ucode.bin"' >> /boot/loader.conf

# echo 'kern.cryptodev_warn_interval=0x7fffffff' >> /etc/sysctl.conf
# echo 'ntpd_flags="-p /var/run/ntpd.pid"' >> /etc/rc.conf
# reboot

For jails, the process is much the same but with the appropriate DESTDIR or chroot flags to allow the updates to be installed into each jail from the jail-host side.

After a few weeks, I’ll go back into all the machines, delete the before-12.1 snapshot, run make delete-old-libs to clean up obsolete shared libraries, and zpool upgrade to enable the latest ZFS features.

I would really have liked this to be the point at which I set up ZFS boot environments for all the servers, but since the actual requirements seem to be totally undocumented, I was rather stymied on that and will have to do it in a year when we’re going to 12.2. Perhaps by then “packaged base” will be in a usable state as well.

Posted in FreeBSD, ZFS | Tagged , | 9 Comments

My decade, 2010–2019

Attention conservation notice: about 8,500 words about me and what I did for the past ten years, what I previously wrote about that, and how I feel in hindsight. Minimally edited, rather disjointed, and jumps around in time a lot to follow various threads of attention. If you are my father, please stop reading here, it’s extremely uncomfortable to have you looking over my shoulder like this.

It’s time for one of those big rollover-of-the-odometer New Year’s celebrations, and like a lot of other people, I decided that I would write an essay about what happened in my decade. This sort of introspective piece is something I’ve done before — one of my very earliest posts, back in January of 2014, was a musing about growing older as an introvert — but in all honesty, other than that one, these sorts of posts attract very little engagement and none of that especially helpful to whatever subject I’ve been trying to work out for myself. I feel very similarly about my Twitter presence: the things I actually want to engage with my followers on either pass unnoticed or receive entirely unhelpful comments, whereas I get decent engagement when I respond to the thoughts of someone else. So this is an attempt to sum up what’s happened to me since shortly after I turned 37, and parts of it are going to be very personal, but I’m now somewhat inured to the fact that the only people who react in any way are likely to be people I wish hadn’t read it.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a good episodic memory; most of what I can remember distinctly as events is simply too mortifying then and now to relate in a public forum. However, I started this blog in the summer of 2013, so I have at least one good corpus of my own writing to help scaffold this post in some of the places my own memory is not so reliable. The first part of the decade, pre-blog, is really, really hazy: I know what was going on in the broader world, but events in my life are not necessarily so easy to connect to the real world. But as the decade opened, I am pretty sure about a few things.

In January, 2010, I had just turned 37 years old, and the country was nearly two years into the Obama presidency. There was still a sense of hope; we in Massachusetts heard about those “tea party” things, but after the 2008 elections it was clear that our fellow Americans weren’t that ignorant and racist, were they? I, on the other hand, was incredibly lonely and really fat, under medical treatment for pre-diabetes and hypertension. It was beginning to become clear that some of the choices I had made early in the millennium — to stay in the Boston area, yes, but to buy a condo out in the car-dominated suburbs far from anyone I might connect with socially and forty minutes’ drive from anything interesting — were really starting to hurt, and the suspicion grew that the lack of companionship might be permanent. My parents had moved to Massachusetts a few years previously (from California and Rhode Island; they had been living apart for employment reasons), but one Sunday dinner a week really does not make up for the lack of shared experiences.

One of my only friends was and is Scott Fybush, who is now fairly well known as a radio historian, consultant, and station broker. We first met shortly after I moved to Boston in 1994 — at the time he was a news writer for WBZ (1030 AM) — and while he got married and moved back to his home town of Rochester, N.Y., a few years later, we had stayed in touch and did nearly annual week-long road trips starting in 1998. By 2011, these trips were becoming more difficult to schedule; my work was becoming more tied to the MIT academic calendar, to reduce disruptions, and Scott had his own obligations to his growing family as well as professional obligations to attend various trade shows and conventions. It appears that the last time we did a “Big Trip” was in 2011, when we actually had two of them: one in February to see a Space Shuttle launch and Spring Training in Florida, and another in April before the annual National Association of Broadcasters trade show. In 2012, we had a few shorter trips but no Big Trip, but the tradition resumed just once, in 2013, when we did a trip to Minnesota in conjunction with a convention of one of the hobbyist radio clubs. I’m able to piece most of this back together by looking at old and mostly unpublished photo galleries, named at the time but never edited or described for publication. (I hope some of this material will eventually make it onto my SmugMug site because much of it is now of historical interest.) When I got back from that 2013 trip to Minnesota, I redecorated my bedroom, without a doubt the most expensive project I had done on the condo since I bought it twelve years earlier — and in more ways that than, the summer of 2013 seems to have been a real turning point for me — but I’m getting a bit ahead of the story.

Sometime in the early-to-mid-2000s, I had bought a low-end Vision Fitness stationary bike, and parked it in my living room in front of the TV. For the first several years that I owned it, I barely used it, and it just sat there, accusatory, while I continued to gain weight after my second hospitalization and the subsequent three months of recovery. But something snapped in the early part of this decade — I’m not sure what exactly did it, but I suspect it was the very real prospect of full-blown diabetes, a lifetime of medication and finger pricks, and eventual loss of my eyesight — and I somehow found the wherewithal to throw myself on the stationary bike for an hour a day, every day, and my weight actually stabilized. (Still in the “obese” category according to my physician, but 25 pounds below my historic maximum was something of a victory, although it wasn’t yet within the ballpark of “feeling good” either in the abstract or specifically about myself.) I wish I understood how I managed that, because I could sorely use some help in that regard now. (Again, there’s that lack of companionship — uninformed comments from strangers or even physically distant friends aren’t helpful.)

After a 15-year layoff (occasioned by my loss of access to Canadian TV), I had started watching the Olympics again in 2008. By the time of the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, there were enough NBC-owned channels in my cable bundle that I could watch events that Americans weren’t expected to win, and for the 2012 Olympics in London there was even live streaming access to the unedited international feeds on my new laptop. These really helped to reinforce my time on the stationary bike: I could record events on my DVR or hook my laptop up to the TV and watch something interesting on the TV when the NHL took a break for the Olympics or the Red Sox were playing poorly. Granted that a lot of the interest was beefcake — especially for diving and gymnastics (OMG those hot, flexible, muscular dudes!!!) or beach volleyball (oh wow those tall sweaty women in bikinis!) — but I also revived my interest in a lot of international sports that I had deliberately put on the back burner when forced to endure NBC’s patronizing, jingoistic coverage. Comcast was an investor in something called “Universal Sports”, which was eventually discontinued but replaced in the cable lineup by a US version of “Olympic Channel”, so I could actually record these sports on my TiVo and watch them later, sometimes months later, as a reward for getting on the stationary bike. (The “reward” bit didn’t last, sadly.)

After a number of my colleagues left the group under rather acrimonious circumstances, in early March of 2012 I signed up for a Twitter account, initially with the hope of keeping track of those former colleagues and what they were up to when I no longer had them nearby to bounce ideas off of. I have always flatly refused to use Facebook or even have an account there, but Twitter’s publish/subscribe model seemed somewhat less Orwellian than Facebook (and so it was later revealed to be, but this was long before Cambridge Analytica and other scandals). I didn’t end up using Twitter in quite the way I had expected: I became a high-volume consumer and producer of tweets — thanks to a command-line client I can determine that I’ve received, although not necessarily read, nearly 10 million tweets, and after analyzing my personal Twitter data dump I can say with more specificity that I’ve actually made about 12,450 original tweets. (This count, unlike the public Twitter profile tweet count, excludes replies and retweets, which don’t count as “original” in my book.)

While the 2012 Olympics were going on in London — and wow did that seem hopeful to watch the Brits doing well in the aftermath of the financial crisis — my office had what I think was our first ever celebration for Sysadmin Day. The whole lab was invited, and I think we got about 200 people to squeeze down into our lunch/meeting space and eat cake and ice cream. I got to talking to a sporty grad student who I rather fancied about the Olympics and what events I was watching, and I managed to dreadfully embarrass myself. In the aftermath, I started to wonder, as I was approaching 40, if there was any way I could meet people outside of the office. I had learned that my then officemate had met her husband on OkCupid, so I signed up for an account, answered all the questions, but never had a mutual match with anyone and found the overall expectations to be well beyond what my introvert social brain was capable of enduring. (In particular, the expectation at that time — this was before Tinder was really a thing, and most mobile dating apps were intimately tied to Facebook — was that guys would send messages to thousands of women asking to meet at a bar or coffee shop, and maybe one would respond. I simply couldn’t endure writing to all those people, and apparently a lot of other guys had the same problem, because most of the women’s profiles had comments about how they would ignore thoughtless, copy-and-paste introductory messages.) I gave up on that within a couple of years, although I still occasionally log in to my account, to see how bad it still is.

In November, 2013, the USENIX Large Installation System Administration conference, the one industry conference I regularly attend, was held at the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington. I ran into another attendee who I didn’t recognize but who recognized me (which is the normal state of affairs, I have a very poor memory for faces as well as life events); I believe it was David Parter but that’s my mushy unreliable memory talking. In any event, he thought the reason people didn’t recognize him was that he had lost a lot of weight, and out of shame I went along with this explanation; I learned that he had been using a smartphone food-tracking app, MyFitnessPal, and had found it helpful in meeting his weight-loss goals, particularly thanks to its food database and flexibility (i.e., it wasn’t written for people who only eat standardized fast food and microwave dinners). When I got back home from the conference, I installed the app on my phone and started using it — and it was immediately clear that I was eating much, much more than I thought, and consequently, much more than I should have been to actually lose weight after accounting for the exercise I was forcing myself to do.

Over the next 18 months, I lost 115 pounds. By April, 2015, I was feeling self-confident enough that I was willing to be seen outside in athletic-cut garments, and I took my old Cannondale touring bike to REI to have it overhauled, so I could actually ride outside. On Sunday, April 12, 2015, I put on my brand-new outdoor cycling kit, got on my 24-year-old bike, and taught myself how to escape from my new clipless pedals without falling over in the middle of the road. Before long I was riding 10–12 miles nearly every morning, while still keeping up with my daily 70-minute workout late every evening. I bought a Garmin cyclecomputer early on, and with its help, developed a number of what I still think of as “my” cycling routes. Having built up my confidence doing local rides in the 25–40-mile range, on July 3 I rode all the way to the office, ate lunch in Cambridge, and then rode back home — a 42-mile round trip. If I could somehow figure out a schedule and find some place to shower other than the disgusting shower in the basement men’s room of our building, I could plausibly consider bike commuting. Meanwhile, my doctor gave me a clean bill of health, took me off all my medications and monitoring, and said he’d never seen a case like mine before.

My mother was working for a small bicycle manufacturer at the time (in a corporate finance role), and she responded to my progress by encouraging me to test-ride some of her company’s bikes so that I might buy one for myself using her employee discount; I went to one of the few local retail shops that carried them and fell in love with an exceedingly expensive racing bike, which I went on to buy when the next model year’s bikes were shipped from China. I got the new bike in August, 2015, and absolutely loved it, but I still wasn’t ready to bike commute — but I was, it seems, ready to stop devoting eight hours a week to the stationary bike. After I hit 160 that June, my weight started to go up and I’ve gained 20 lb/year consistently ever since. Now it’s maddening, dispiriting, but early on, I just figured I was actually putting on some muscle now that I was actually riding in a variable-resistance setting, not just my fixed-resistance stationary bike. There are so many confounds — I’ll get into another one in a moment — but I have to wonder to what extent going off the medication was responsible for the weight gain: my calorie budget never increased, and I at least thought I was being pretty disciplined logging food and exercise in MyFitnessPal, because comparing the activity records in Garmin Connect with the graph of my body weight it’s pretty clear that I started gaining weight almost immediately after I stopped taking the medication, whereas I didn’t cut back on my stationary bike until the spring of 2016, by which time I had already regained ten pounds.

I signed up with the MIT Cycling Club and joined a few group rides a year (although not from the official start point, which would involve getting up far, far too early), and even led a group ride once. During the spring of 2016, by asking around I was able to find out that the men’s shower facilities at the fitness center at work would likely be acceptable to me, and in May I joined MIT Fitness just for the ability to shower and have a locker near my office — the following month, I started bike commuting. It was very difficult at first, because even with Daylight Saving Time, sunset is too early to bike home safely at my regular hours — I had to figure out how to shift my wake-sleep cycle two hours earlier, and my work schedule one hour earlier, to be able to leave work 90 minutes before sunset. As the sunset receded after the solstice, I had to get up even earlier, and by late September determined to just leave work an hour early and finish up after I got home. This schedule worked out when the weather was consistent and predictable — I think the first summer I tried there was a serious drought — but the severe schedule whipsaw when weather was unsettled meant that there were numerous fine days when I just couldn’t wake up early enough to ride, and likewise wet days when it wouldn’t be practical to resume my stationary bike routine because I’d have to go to bed before midnight. Despite all that, in my first year of ownership, I rode the new bike 3,000 miles, with weekend rides even in the winter when it was warm enough for the roads to be snow-and-ice-free.

As for that other confound: somehow, and rather to my surprise, I became a food blogger in 2014. I started this blog in 2013, mostly because I wanted to publish opinion essays a lot like this one, which couldn’t fit in 140-character and as-yet-unthreaded Twitter, and as I explained in my very first post I had become convinced that outsourcing the administration was the only practical way to have a blog and maintain the interactive social features that were then still considered important without undertaking an enormous amount of pointless make-work. In the very beginning, I posted mainly about topics that were already significant focuses of my attention: books and publishing, computing and computer networking (which is, after all, what pays the bills), extended quotations from writing that really struck a chord with me, and broadcast media. But as an outgrowth of my book habit — I have more than 1,500 physical books in my personal library — I had ended up with a surfeit of unexamined cookbooks, close to a hundred in all, and I felt embarrassed that I had spent all this money acquiring food porn. Most of the books I had bought on the basis of their photography or their subject matter, but I almost never actually used any of them for proper food preparation.

So starting nearly from the beginning of the blog, I used WordPress’s “pages” feature to add static pages of what I called “recipe pointers” — the result of scanning every single cookbook in my possession for potentially interesting recipes and writing down the bibliographic reference so that I might be reminded to try them some day. I made these public because they might be useful to someone else, too. Around the same time, I started to write about recipes I was encountering online, and about cooking I was doing for the big holiday set-piece dinners at Thanksgiving and Christmas. With my weight going down surprisingly steadily, I was becoming more and more confident that MyFitnessPal was working out, and while MFP’s recipe editor wasn’t exactly easy to use, I became comfortable with entering everything I cooked or baked into it. Having done the data-entry work, and with my camera equipment sitting otherwise idle when I wasn’t going on radio tours, it wasn’t much of a leap for me to start writing up my experiences as photo essays for the blog. And I had all these recipes that I wanted to try! As a result, in 2014 — while I was losing two pounds a week! — I was making, photographing, and writing a new recipe nearly every weekend. I began to organize these posts under the rubric of “Other people’s recipes” (always very clear to credit the original author and not to copy their instructions), and even started writing about some of my own recipes, not that I have many.

In the summer of 2014, I decided to organize a group chocolate tasting at work, with a different set of fancy chocolates every week and single-blind ratings by whichever panel members were able to meet; of course I wrote those up for the blog, too, although we also had a work wiki where I was keeping track of all of the products and the ratings. The success of that project — which broadened my limited social circle by quite a bit — led me to do a pumpkin-pie festival (with evaluations) in October of that year, and I followed that up two months later with a fun holiday baking event, both for the whole lab. In summer of 2015, I took a week off of work to ride every morning and then bake brownies every afternoon, with the result being the highly successful “Browniefest”. But after doing all the organizational work for the chocolate tasting and nearly all the baking for three major events, I was feeling a bit burned out on the format, and decided that I’d happily bake for the whole lab again if and only if someone else organized and found enough other participants to spread the load around. No one ever did (although quite a few people have asked “Are you going to do that again?”) and so these events have passed into both CSAIL’s and my personal rear-view mirrors.

I continued posting recipe write-ups at a rapid clip through the summer of 2016, but with very little evidence of interest or audience engagement, and with my weight continuing to increase without a clear explanation, I became demoralized and over time stopped cooking many new recipes, stopped buying cookbooks, and just didn’t have the enthusiasm to dedicate an entire evening to a photo essay about food. The series came to an end (at least so far) this year with a single write-up, published back in May. All told, after reviewing the data, I posted 206 articles about food — most of them recipe write-ups.

One of the other factors involved in my reduced baking activity gets down to that lack of companionship again. While my lab-wide events in 2014 greatly expanded my (very limited) social circle, the vast majority of people I ever meet are graduate students — who are in general a minimum of 15 years younger than me, often closer to 20. And of course grad students graduate and leave MIT; only very rarely can they get hired (for good ethics and diversity reasons) and even less frequently would they want to. Essentially all the people I met and stayed in contact with after those events are gone now, except research scientists Sue Felshin and Boris Katz, who were the most reliable attendees of my chocolate tasting series. I’ll still occasionally drop by Sue’s office and share a new chocolate I’ve found (and flame about the MBTA), and there are one or two people I’ve met since who can sometimes be enticed to try something I’ve baked, but it’s become much more difficult to reliably give away food to people, which is a necessary precondition to most of my baking projects. (Because most recipes make at least a dozen servings, and with my weight once again out of control I simply can’t have that much of anything baked at home where I could easily eat it, since I live alone and thus have nobody to either share or model good behavior.)

By 2016 it was becoming clear that my interest in and time for the radio hobby had waned substantially. At heart, what I found interesting was not the long days driving across cornfields in Iowa and wheat fields in the Dakotas, it was really the physical historic sites and artifacts of one of the 20th century’s most significant technologies. But the consolidation of the 90s and 2000s had greatly diminished the level of interest I could muster in current radio programming — my last airchecking for legal IDs appears to have been the Bay Area in February, 2016 — and the facilities themselves, except for the oldest stations under the most stable ownership, are now so generically modern as to maintain little interest. So as Scott’s travel schedule changed, I had less interest in adjusting my schedule to accommodate, and now we only see each other a few times a year, when chance or conspiracy brings us to the same city for a few days.

For my part, I was also becoming much more sensitive to the perilous position the world is in with regard to climate change, and I resolved to limit my “purposeless” travel: I was (and am) still willing to travel, long distances even, but not without a specific, perishable, external impetus to do so — a sporting event, or some major structure that was opening, or closing, or a conference or convention — a reason to travel to a specific place and time, not just travel for its own sake. As someone who is stuck living in the suburbs for the foreseeable future, cutting back on travel that doesn’t directly serve a specific, time-limited desire seems like the least I should do. I was willing to, and did, take overnight flights halfway across the country to see a hockey game, but a week driving around to see things that (a) weren’t especially interesting in their own right, and (b) would still be there some other time when I had a better reason to travel, didn’t seem to be worth the energy whether chemical or metaphorical. (In retrospect, Scott and I were extremely lucky — and Scott more than I — that so many historically important broadcast facilities, from Columbia Square to the Empire State Building, were still around and accessible to those who were interested enough to ask the right people for a tour, back in our decade-and-a-half of travels from 1998 to 2013.)

On my way into work in February, 2016, I passed a billboard which would make a lasting change in the content of this blog and how I would occupy much of my personal time. The World Figure Skating Championships were being held in Boston that March, and there were still tickets available for sale. I had been watching the skating at the last couple of Winter Olympics, but I really hadn’t watched any of the other competitions since I had lived on the mountain with my parents in the 1980s and watchws mostly Canadian television because we couldn’t get ABC or PBS. (I’m suddenly stuck trying to remember who did figure-skating commentary for the CBC after Toller Cranston, it was a couple of Canadian pairs skaters but I’ve forgotten their names and that’s really embarrassing. If I still had a working VHS transport, I have videotapes from the 1988 Calgary Olympics that I could probably play back and be reminded.) It took me a little while to make the connection between “hey, this is something interesting to watch on my tiny little television” and “hey, you should go and see this in person like you do baseball and hockey” — and by that time only a few of the events had any tickets left for sale, but I did take time off from work to go and see a couple of the events at the Garden. (I don’t recall which exact ones and I didn’t bring my camera to the arena, but I remember having a great time seeing those jumps and spins in person.)

I bought the printed program when I was at the 2016 Worlds, and I saw a full-page advertisement for the next year’s championships, in Helsinki. Because the Winter Olympics are held in February, before the World Championships which are in March, the 2017 Worlds were a qualifying event for the 2018 Olympics and would see more athletes from more different countries than usually travel to the world championships. I checked the terms and conditions, and it seemed that there were surprisingly few restrictions on fan photography — mostly just the usual prohibition on flashes — so if I went I could even comprehensively document my experience. (Onerous photography restrictions are what kept me from later attending the Gymnastics World Championships when they were held in Boston a few years later, although I understand with so many little girls competing they have a legitimate desire to prevent pervy guys from making photo galleries of underage athletes.)

I had ~complicated~ feelings about going to Finland. In 1988–89, I was an exchange student in Finland, mostly in North Savonia, attending a school in a rural area that has since been annexed to the city of Kuopio. It did not end well, and very nearly flattened my self-confidence, particularly when it came to speaking other languages. (It also practically demolished my former competence in French, up to then decent enough to carry on a conversation, thanks to a year off from study and practice.) But 2017 was the centenary of the Finnish Republic, and the state had offered generous subsidies to get major international events hosted in Helsinki that year. In addition to the World Figure Skating Championships in March, there was also the World Science Fiction Convention in August, which I had always wanted to try despite my embarrassment over my limited reading (and indifference to film and comics) in the field. At first I thought that I could only do one, and the skating would be a lot less uncomfortable since I could just go there and watch and take lots of pictures without having to really interact with anybody. So I went ahead and made plans for March, bought an all-event pass to Worlds as soon as tickets went on sale, and once advance bookings opened up, found a reasonable air itinerary (with a 20-hour stopover in Reykjavík) and a reasonably priced hotel with easy public transport access to the arena.

When I finally got to Helsinki, I found that — while my scattered remnant knowledge of Finnish helped decipher signs and menus — the overall level of English usage and competence in the capital had vastly increased since 1988. In shops, restaurants, public transport, and elsewhere, English had for all practical purposes overtaken Swedish (an actual official national language) as the country’s second language. There were far more immigrants, and more visible minorities, and I never had occasion to even attempt to speak a word of Finnish. (I was frankly fearful that doing so would give a much greater impression of competence than I actually had, and the vast majority of my vocabulary had long since fled — there’s not much need in day-to-day conversation for “Viisi kalaa ui vedessä” (five fish are swimming in the water).)

The skating was an amazing experience, even if I ended up spending nearly all of every day indoors and ate mainly fast food from the concession stands — I chronicled Worlds in a series of blog posts here, several published in real time, but was somewhat stymied by the poor fit of a WordPress blog to presenting photo galleries. But my experience of public transport in Helsinki was a true revelation. The hotel I had chosen to stay for the week was the Radisson Blu in Hietalahti, overlooking the west harbor and within a short walk of three tram lines. The public figure skating events took place at Hartwall Arena in Pasila, a commercial-industrial district centered on a former railyard that was rapidly being redeveloped. One of the tram lines went all the way to Pasila (and in fact terminated there) but I quickly realized that the commuter rail would take me there much faster, and thanks to HSL’s integrated fare structure, I could take the tram to Helsinki Central Station and transfer to the commuter train at no additional cost on my multi-day, all-modes transit pass. Even with the transfer time and having to walk from the tram stop across the street and through the train station, there were trains departing every five minutes or less and all I had to do was look at the departures display to see which track the next one was departing on.

When I got back home, I finished up my photos of the figure skating and started to figure out what I wanted to do with the other pictures I took. I had taken some broadcasting-related pictures as well — Finland’s state broadcaster Yleisradio and commercial channel MTV3 had major facilities in Ilmala, a short walk along the pedestrian paths east of the arena — but I continued to be struck by my experience of a high-functioning (extraordinarily usable by American standards) public transit system. This eventually left to a series of three blog posts, “Every American transportation planner should spend a week in Helsinki” (1 2 3), and I still absolutely believe that title with every fiber of my being. There could be few better uses of my state taxes than to send the entire upper management of the MBTA and MassDOT, for example, to Helsinki for a week with the proviso that they were not allowed to use a private car or taxi for the entire trip, and make them come back with proposed legislation to increase transit mode share.

The end result of that one trip was that I unexpectedly became a transit activist, and that has been the vast majority of the content on this blog since. I also took a look at the at-a-glance for Worldcon 75 (the 75th World Science Fiction Convention) and discovered that the venue for that event was the Messukeskus (convention center) immediately adjacent to Hartwall Arena and Pasila station — and my experience getting around Helsinki for Worlds made me feel comfortable enough that I decided to go back in August for Worldcon. I had never gone to any science-fiction convention, ever, so it’s a bit weird that my first one would be a Worldcon, and a Worldcon in another country at that, but sometimes things work out that way, and the fact that it was the 75th Worldcon gave it some interest above and beyond the usual. And frankly, Helsinki felt pretty comfortable — I was even beginning to feel like I could live there, especially after the depression and anxiety consequent to the 2016 elections, so long as I was independently wealthy or at least had a job at one of the universities — although I probably couldn’t manage it without actually marrying a Finn first, which seems like a tall order.

I also decided that the figure skating was fun enough in itself, and that my financial situation was robust enough, that I wanted to go to Worlds regularly — but it would be a lot more fun if I had some companionship on the trip. Unfortunately, I still didn’t (and don’t) know anyone who would fit the bill, certainly not to the extent of sharing a hotel room. But I decided that I would go to Milan in 2018, because at a minimum it would be much more affordable than attending the Winter Olympics in South Korea, and many of the Olympians would be ending their seasons if not their careers at Worlds. For lack of a better option, I decided to ask my by-then-fully-retired parents if they were interested in going, and they were. Even better, they had done a lot more travel in Europe than I had and were adept at finding lodging deals through vacation-rental services rather than hotels, so we could share an apartment rather than staying in a hotel. Given the lack of good airline connections to Milan from Boston, I decided for that trip that I would fly to Geneva instead and take the train to and from Milan — with a stopover in the car-free ski-resort village of Zermatt on the way back. The 2018 Worldcon was going to be in the Bay Area, and few things excite less than spending four days in San Jose in August, even if it’s mostly indoors. But Worldcon site selection is voted on and announced two years in advance, so while I was in Helsinki in August 2017, I learned that the 2019 Worldcon would be held in Dublin, and one of my favorite authors, the American-Irish fantasy writer Diane Duane, would be among the guests of honor — so I immediately bought a membership and started making plans to visit Dublin. Likewise, I knew that the 2019 World Figure Skating Championships would be in Saitama, Japan, which was muchfarther than I wanted to travel, especially alone, so I would be looking forward to the 2020 Worlds in Montreal. (The 2020 Worldcon is in New Zealand, which again is beyond my limit for traveling — I would have to take two entire weeks off to make it worth doing, and while I can can take that much vacation, August is not a good time for me to be gone that long. I’ve already bought a full membership for the 2021 Worldcon in Washington, D.C., which I can get to in under three hours and is in the same time zone.)

Anyway, my parents and I had a great time in Milan, despite the apartment rental they found being very inconveniently located relative to the arena where the figure skating was at, so we mostly had to take a hire car to and from. My parents were much more eager than I was to get out of the arena to eat “real food” — even in Italy the concession stand food isn’t good or healthy — and after I headed back to Geneva via Zermatt, they joined up with my Aunt Diane and Uncle Bob and spent another week in Italy doing whatever it is that retirees do in wine country. At some point, hopefully I’ll upload my photos from Italy and Switzerland to my new SmugMug gallery so other people can see them too.

Skipping back to 2017 for a moment, I decided to do a couple of other, less-travel-intensive, winter sports events — both in November. First was the IBSF Bobsled and Skeleton World Cup race at Lake Placid; like with the World Figure Skating Championships, this was an Olympic qualifying event so teams that didn’t normally make it to the North American stops on the World Cup would be sending teams in order to earn points towards the very limited Olympic athlete quotas in the sports. The second was the post-Thanksgiving women’s slalom at Killington, only a few hours’ drive away, and the first FIS Alpine World Cup event to be held in the eastern US in decades. I had a great deal of fun at the IBSF event, and as I’ve said here a number of times before (including last week) the atmosphere is really great and there’s a lot of close interaction with the athletes in a way that there isn’t with the more popular sports. The skiing, by contrast, was a lot less fun: tickets to sit and shiver in the stands were expensive and in any case sold out, so the only place to watch was standing and shivering on the bottom part of the hill — and for a whole bunch of reasons including the size of the crowds and the much greater fame of one American skier in particular, there is essentially no unmanaged interaction interaction between fans and athletes. I didn’t even try to take pictures of the skiing; it would not have served any purpose to do so. Ski racing thus goes on my list of “sporting events that are actually much better on television than in person”, even if I have to endure the endless “suck up to Shiffrin’s publicist” job on NBC for the next decade.

I really haven’t said a whole lot about what was going on at work over this decade, for good reason: nothing much has been going on. I saved the lab a lot of money by figuring out how to turn donated equipment into high-performance file servers, starting in 2012, and as a backhanded reward, nearly all of the interesting parts of my job have basically been crowded out by file-server operations ever since. I did a two-part series on the original server architecture here on the blog back in 2013 (part 1, part 2), and I’ve mostly avoided talking about it since then because it’s not actually interesting to me, never mind anyone else. (I’m in the process of retiring those original servers now.) Right at the beginning of the fall term in 2014, I had a badly designed “feature” of most IPv6 stacks cause a network meltdown; I had to pull an all-nighter and spend way too much time talking to Juniper technical support to figure out how to “fix” it, and I wrote about that, too — which has consistently been the most visited single post on this blog ever since, thanks to links from Hacker News and elsewhere. Somehow they continue to give me raises, although I’m basically topped out in my pay band now and have neither prospects of nor interest in moving into management, which would be the only advancement path so long as I stay with MIT.

My job, such as I would like it to be, really doesn’t exist anywhere else outside of maybe USC’s Information Sciences Institute in Marina Del Rey, so career prospects are pretty slim without a major change in direction (and probably a great deal of investment in training, because the Real World is no longer anything like the world I live in now — but it’s also a lot less interesting unless you work for one of the three-ish companies that now own all of everyone else’s infrastructure). I don’t really mind this that much; I’m not one of those people who looks at work as the defining aspect of my identity. Work to me is how the bills get paid so that I can do what interests me, and so if it’s a bit frustrating at times — or even if they’re trying to take away the interesting work to leave me more time for the boring parts — I try to take it in stride. During the prior decade, I invested way too much of my personal identity in my job, and I found myself both emotionally and financially disadvantaged as a result, so I resolved that I would take a healthier view and just do the job without getting so caught up in what the job actually was.

After more than a year of soaking in the stress hormones thanks to the despicable bigot my fellow citizens voted not to put in the White House, I decided in 2018 that my financial situation was sufficiently clear — especially with no travel planned after Milan in March — that I would start putting more significant money into political campaign contributions. With my personality, the last thing that I wanted to do was actually get personally involved in campaigns, which are clear “introverts need not apply” zones, but since I had money that I wasn’t planning to spend otherwise, I could certainly do my best to fight the fascist takeover of our federal government. I was particularly motivated by the efforts of Maciej Ceglowski, owner of the bookmarking service Pinboard, both to raise money for Democratic House candidates with real potential who had been dismissed by the national DCCC organization as “unwinnable” and to raise the level of campaign information security skills and awareness in light of the foreign intrusions into 2016 campaigns. I think I ended up giving a few thousand dollars in the 2018 cycle — far from “maxing out” but an order of magnitude more than I had ever spent before on any political activity.

At the same time, I was stepping up direct advocacy on transit improvements, particularly to our failing 1850s-era commuter rail service — because cutting back long-distance travel is one thing, but if I and my neighbors could actually stop driving to work every day that would be a much more significant effort to avert the climate catastrophe. The commuter rail service here is poorly managed and has entirely failed to learn the lessons of 1960s Japan and 1970s France and Germany, never mind the 2000s in anywhere with competent administration, and as a result it is simply inadequate to meet the needs of our region. It’s not really even fit for purpose in the one market it does attempt to serve, middle-class 9–5 office workers with jobs in downtown Boston, never mind shift workers, those who have children in school or daycare, or those who don’t work in the Back Bay or the Financial District. I began lobbying my state senator, Karen Spilka, but this didn’t seem to have much of an effect despite talking on the phone and exchanging emails with one of her aides. She was elected President of the Senate shortly thereafter, and I decided to concentrate my lobbying on other places: first and foremost the MBTA board, whose weekly meetings I began taking time off from work to attend and comment at, and more recently my state representative Jack Lewis. I’ve now amassed a fairly substantial record of testimony calling out the board and the MBTA management for their short-sightedness, some of which I’ve posted here. As a private citizen, when TransitMatters released their Regional Rail plan, I got on board immediately as it reflected many of the important lessons I had taken home from Helsinki in 2017, starting with 100% level boarding, full electrification, full fare integration, and frequency, frequency, frequency.

That brings me nearly up to 2019. Obviously, I was gratified with the 2018 midterm election results, although most of the candidates I supported did not win. I went back to the IBSF World Cup in Lake Placid, which for the 2018–19 season was in February, 2019, and did so again for the 2019–20 season jut this past month (although for reasons I only attended the skeleton races). After a budget shortfall at work in the spring, I pushed hard to get our group doing better long-term planning, especially since I’m the one responsible for poerating a majority of the hardware for which we need to budget replacement costs and on call if it fails.

But beyond that it was a very difficult year. I’m still lonely af, with no prospect for any improvement and more of the people I sort-of know and like from work either graduating and leaving town or preparing to do so, especially Marzyeh and Tristan who both left in the summer of 2018 (she’s now on the faculty at Toronto and he went to work for a Seattle tech company). My one sliver of companionship — just in the minimal sense of being able to sit with people in a no-pressure setting and talk about things other than work, not any real social or personal connection — is the weekly graduate-student beer night, and I don’t even drink. Meanwhile, I’ve continued to gain weight at 20 pounds a year, and the whole year I had practically no energy at all — I only managed to bike commute three days during the entire summer, and I barely did any more riding at home, either, a far cry from the 3,000 miles of a few years previously. Most of my cycling kit doesn’t even fit me any more, and after my first bike commute in late May, I got severe heel pain that after a week sent me to Urgent Care, where the doctor told me to stay off the bike for another two weeks and take a thousand milligrams a day of naproxen; while the pain went away, my will to get up early in the morning and throw myself on the bike never really recovered.

I could wish that my trip to the 2019 Worldcon in Dublin in August had been a bright spot, but between the travel disruptions and the logistical issues at the two Worldcon venues, about the best I can say was that I finally did get to meet Diane Duane, if only for a few minutes, and got her to sign a book for me. If there’s one real highlight of 2019, it was the MBTA Control Board finally voting in November to proceed with a “transformation” of rail service, based on a small part of the Regional Rail plan. It’s baby steps, and a number of elected officials are already downplaying the necessity of modernization, including our photo-op Republican governor, Charlie Baker, and, disappointingly, Democratic state senator Will Brownsberger, who had been a member of the Rail Vision committee.

What of the the new decade, now that we’re firmly in it? I’ll continue to lobby for a serious response to the climate emergency, including increasing fuel taxes, taking road space away from cars, and sensibly decarbonizing public transportation by electrifying bus and commuter-rail services using proven overhead catenary power distribution. I’ll advocate for restoring passenger rail service on the Agricultural Branch, too, because there’s a whole swath of this region that isn’t adequately served by commuter rail despite having an active rail line that could bring thousands more passengers out of their cars. And I’ll be making campaign contributions to the candidates I believe can best restore sanity after four years of the Orange Menace and his neo-fascist enablers. As for myself? I still need to figure out a way to lose weight again, so I can look myself in the mirror without disgust. I need to find a way to boost my energy levels, too, so that I can actually get back on the bike and enjoy myself outside again. It sure would be nice if I could meet someone interesting somehow, but the door on that has been closing for several years now and it seems as hopeless as ever.

Since I’m posting this here, I wanted to end this with a couple of summaries of the decade (well, six-plus years) of blogging on this URL. I got a WordPress export of all the blog posts, and used some scripts and a lot of manual effort to extract a few interesting bits from the data. (I wish I could do the same thing for my Twitter feed, but 12,000 tweets is way too much to analyze with the Mk.1 eyeball!) First is the posting frequency by year:

Year Posts
2013 (3 mos.) 32
2014 112
2015 137
2016 43
2017 54
2018 27
2019 8

The trend here is really clear: writing the sort of blog posts that I’m most interested in writing takes a lot of effort, and if it’s going to totally uncompensated — not even the minimal sort of “engagement” that the social features of WordPress.com allow for — then I’m not going to be much inclined to put that effort in. The slight bump in 2017 is almost entirely due to sporting events where I made the blog sort of substitute for a proper photo gallery, because I still hadn’t found a photo gallery system that I was comfortable with. Much of what I posted in late 2018 and in 2019 was transit advocacy, and several of those posts were really just verbatim recitations of comments I had made to MassDOT, to the MBTA board, or to my state legislators.

I looked at my posts by category as well — mostly recategorizing on the basis of post titles rather than the WordPress categories you see below each post, because those have changed over time — and came up with the following:

Category Posts
Administrivia 33
Books & Publishing 5
Broadcasting 4
Cars 7
Computing 20
Food & Cooking 209
Language 2
Philosophizing 12
Law, Politics & Economics 5
Quotations 28
Self-reflection 5
Sex & Gender 3
Sports 32
Transportation planning / MBTA / MassDOT 29
Travel 7
 
Junk 12

The smallest categories are a real surprise, because they reflect the things I originally thought this blog was going to be about; those were the things that I had been interested in for much of the prior decade, and those were the subjects that I spent a lot of time editing Wikipedia (and Wikiquote!) to improve coverage of. But it turned out that, other than travel and electoral politics, they weren’t subjects that I’d be devoting a substantial amount of time to in this decade.

Finally, my book recommendation of the decade: read Graydon Saunders’ Commonweal novels. Seriously. Even if you think you don’t like fantasy, or don’t like military fiction.

Posted in Administrivia, Books, Computing, Food, sports, States of mind, Transportation, travel | Tagged ,

A little XSLT hack for extracting titles from WordPress exports

In preparation for writing my end-of-decade review, I wanted to get a quick, plain-text listing of my posts on this blog, so I requested an export from WordPress — but then I realized that the export was in a modified RSS format, not anything that’s easily parseable, and it includes “posts” for every single photo upload even though I didn’t request any media as a part of my export. RSS is an application of XML, so I dug out my rusty XSLT knowledge (acquired in the early 2000s while building a homebrew photo-gallery system) to hack up a quick transformation of the XML into a list of post dates and titles. (Originally I did titles only, but decided that the dates would be useful information to include.)

Here is the script:

<?xml version='1.0'?>
<xsl:stylesheet xmlns:xsl="http://www.w3.org/1999/XSL/Transform"
                xmlns:wp="http://wordpress.org/export/1.2/"
                version='1.0'>
  <xsl:output method='text' encoding='utf-8'/>

  <xsl:template match="/">
    <xsl:apply-templates select="/rss/channel/item[wp:post_type = 'post']"/>
  </xsl:template>

  <xsl:template match="/rss/channel/item">
    <xsl:value-of select="wp:post_date/text()"/>
    <xsl:text>: </xsl:text>
    <xsl:value-of select="title/text()"/>
    <xsl:text>
</xsl:text>
  </xsl:template>
</xsl:stylesheet>

(Also available as a GitHub gist)

To use it, extract the dump from the ZIP file you downloaded from WordPress, save this file as post-titles.xsl and run xsltproc post-titles.xsl *.xml.

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Trip report: 2019–20 IBSF Skeleton World Cup, Lake Placid #2

Three Fridays ago, I again went to Lake Placid, site of the 1932 and 1980 Olympic Winter Games, to watch the third BMW IBSF World Cup skeleton competition of the year. Why third? I had already gone to (but didn’t write up) the 2018–19 season’s races, which were held in February, 2019, because the season-ending IBSF World Championships were held in Whistler, B.C. The schedule for the 2019–20 season returned to the usual practice of starting out in North America, but the venue for the season’s first races, Utah Olympic Park, had a malfunctioning refrigeration system, and so those races were relocated to the Lake Placid track — making for a busy two months of racing at Mt. Van Hoevenberg. (In addition the two weeks of World Cup races, Lake Placid also hosted the FIL Luge World Cup and the IBSF North American Cup series; not only is Lake Placid the US national training center for bobsled and skeleton, but because it’s the first track open and the last to close most years, it’s also a major training venue for many other national teams.)

My plans were made before the Park City cancellation was announced, so I did not attend the rescheduled races the previous week. I reserved a hotel room in the Quality Inn on Lake Placid (just outside the village proper, to the west). Last time I stayed there, the hotel was hosting the Austrian team, and I found when I arrived that this was once again the case. On checking out, I found that the hotel was also hosting the Swiss team this year. (In 2017, team Monaco was traveling with the Austrians.) The hotel is unfortunately not within walking distance of any of the good dining options in the village proper, but it worked well enough for my purposes despite being a 15-minute drive from the actual venue.

I was pleased that the race as originally scheduled would use the traditional three-day format with only two two-heat races per day, making my experience photographing the competitors much less stressful thanks to a later (10 AM) start. Because of the beating the track would take from four consecutive weekends of racing, the competition schedule was adjusted to run the first (rescheduled) races on a compressed schedule, but also to run two two-man bobsled races the first weekend, with the second weekend — the one I was at — a double four-man weekend. This was a bit disappointing to me, since the only suspense in a four-man race is which particular German driver would win. (In general the women’s races are less predictable and that’s what I actually go to watch.) Furthermore, they scheduled the first of the four-man races for Saturday morning, before the women’s bobsled, and the weather forecast was calling for rain all day, so I ended up leaving Saturday morning after seeing only Friday’s skeleton races — I would have stayed for women’s bob if they had been in the morning.

(Women can participate in the four-man races, as drivers and brakemen, and Team USA pilot Elana Meyers-Taylor has done so regularly in the past, but she is taking this season off for maternity, and in any case, because of the weight difference, women are rarely competitive with the top men. Speaking of weight, Martin and John on the IBSF TV broadcast the previous week were saying that there was a rules change this year increasing the combined driver-and-sled weight limit for women in skeleton, and several of the racers responded by putting on a few kilos. I wouldn’t have seen any evidence of this, given that the weighing takes place in private and they’re all wearing speed suits anyway, but that suggests it’s time to go back through the IBSF athlete database and update the women’s Wikipedia pages with their new competition weights.)

I’ve been feeling for at least a year that one of the things keeping me from getting my photos annotated and published has been the amount of writing and editing work required. I still have a whole bunch of pictures from Helsinki in 2017 that have never seen the light of day, not to mention Geneva and Milan in 2018 and my trip to Lake Placid last February, and it seems a shame to have them stuck on my laptop without ever serving the purpose they were taken for. For the past seven years, whenever I’ve taken pictures on a trip or at an event, the only way they’ve been published has been in the context of an extended photo essay here on this blog, and that requires both a substantial amount of difficult writing work (often involving additional research) and a very severe hand with the photo editing in Lightroom, because in essay format there just isn’t room for multiple perspectives of the same scene or multiple pictures of the same athlete in slightly different poses. The mechanics of posting photos on the blog also mean that some aspect ratios and “landscape” orientation are strongly favored over what might otherwise be the best presentation of a scene. So I signed up for a SmugMug account, which comes with a Lightroom plugin to make publishing a two-click operation. About a year ago, I looked at a few other services, including SmugMug’s sister operation Flickr, and decided that SmugMug had the right balance of “pro” features and service costs. (One of my main concerns was making it easier for people to buy prints if they are so inclined, and to do so without violating my copyright. On the minus side, Flickr would have made it easier to import photos into Wikimedia Commons, which I do authorize for some photos.)

That’s all a very long-winded way of saying you can view my four photo galleries from the December 13, 2019, skeleton races on my SmugMug site under “2019–20 BMW IBSF Skeleton World Cup, Lake Placid” — and you can buy prints if you’re so inclined. I’ll point out a few of my favorite photos below.

The overall experience for the IBSF races at Lake Placid is still really fun and fan-friendly, and one of the really great things about small sports like skeleton and bobsled. I have no idea if the feeling would be the same in Germany or Russia, the two powerhouses of the sliding sports, and the Lake Placid Combined Track was built for much smaller crowds than you see on TV in the other venues — doubtless the paucity of tracks in North America and the specific inconvenience of Lake Placid (a five-hour drive from Boston, four hours from NYC, and two hours from Montreal) ensures that there are fewer fans making the trip. Nonetheless, ORDA (the Olympic Regional Development Authority, a New York state agency that owns and operates the Olympic legacy facilities in the Adirondacks) is investing heavily in the Olympic Sports Complex ahead of the 2021 IBSF World Championships and the 2023 Winter Universidade, including a new biathlon stadium and a new base lodge for the Combined Track, as well as new recreational facilities such as a mountain slide partially on the site of the 1932/80 bobsled run.

Skeleton in particular is a very small sport; there are probably only a hundred active skeleton pilots in competition outside of Germany. Everyone knows each other, and many of the smaller teams share coaches and travel together — particularly for European teams on the North American leg of the World Cup. This year, the Austrians and Latvians are working together, and in most of my pictures of the Dukurs brothers from the men’s race, you’ll see Austrian pilot Janine Flock helping out (or carrying their sleds). Another part of the “family” feeling is in the stands; a lot of the fans attend every year, and some of the fans follow their favorite athletes around the whole tour. The racers themselves join the fans when they’re not racing, and I’m not just talking about the hotel breakfasts I shared with the Austrian team: after she came in fourth in the women’s skeleton, Mimi Rahneva tossed her race bib to someone in the audience, and later during the second run of the men’s race, she and another Canadian slider stood right next to me at the finish area to cheer on all of the racers. (Neither of the Canadian men made the cut; for the first run, I’m told the Canadian women had been cheering from the start house in their Ugly Christmas Sweaters.) At the medal ceremony, the American team was standing next to a gas fire right behind me, and I found women’s winner Elena Nikitina standing right next to me, after accepting her own medal, to take pictures of her compatriot Alexander Tretiakov, the winner of the men’s race, on her phone.

It was in general a very Christmasy feeling. The IBSF TV crew were all wearing Christmas Sweaters, and a number of the athletes put on a “Santa hat” while waiting in the leader’s box, especially those who leapfrogged a number of other competitors, either on their own or after encouragement from the spectators. (I particularly remember the two Canadian women next to me shouting to Tomass Dukurs to put the hat on — as this is an outdoor sport, the athletes normally wear team or sponsor hats when not in their racing helmets.)

Because the audience side of the finish area is elevated above track level, many of my photos were taken looking down the track at the athletes sliding up the long, steep outrun into the finish area, or looking down at their heads as they walked past me. While I applied perspective correction in editing to the extent possible, it’s impossible for me to get as good a view or angle on the athletes as the official IBSF photographer, who also didn’t have to shoot around the hands and apparel of other spectators. Also, the men come into the finish with enough momentum to carry them much higher up the ramp, often well past my location, and since Tomass Dukurs leapfrogged half the field, for many of the men I only have pictures of their backsides at best. (Which is not a bad view, if that’s the sort of thing you like, but not something I’m going to publish much of.) For all of these pictures I used my 70–300mm f/4L zoom lens, which is great for looking down the track and perfectly serviceable for the leaders standing in the finish, but isn’t great for someone who is right next to me, whether in the stands or walking up the track accepting congratulations from the fans.

With all that said, here are a few of my favorites:

A few things you’ll notice…. Most of the women have ponytails tucked into their speedsuit hoods. Everyone wears a mouthguard, and the first thing many of the athletes do after taking off their helmets is take it out and tuck it into the neck of their jersey. The German athletes are very disciplined at immediately removing their helmets and putting their knit sponsor hats on (“they do what they’re told” is the reply I got when I noted this to one of the Canadian women). The dock for the truck that takes the athletes and equipment back up to the start house is right next to the leader’s box; if you listen on the TV broadcast, you can hear the truck’s back-up annunciator beeping through the trackside microphones.

One thing you won’t notice: the audience-facing TV monitor was connected through a faulty SDI–HDMI converter and was constantly flaking out; for the first five or so women in run 1, the monitor wasn’t even turned on. The venue staff had a bit of a time getting it to work properly before they hit upon power-cycling the converter, which was mounted on the metal column next to the TV, wrapped in white fabric, rather than on the TV.

One regret: I had three opportunities to find out if Benny and Liz Maier’s child had been born yet, and completely chickened out. (Or I could have congratulated Benny on the happy occasion in the hotel breakfast room!)

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Comments on today’s Rail Vision decision by the MBTA board

I don’t usually write blog posts with my comments before the MBTA board, but after today’s momentous decision, with which I mostly agree, I wanted to memorialize my own comments in a more public place than the video replay of the meeting. I could not stay for the whole meeting due to a medical appointment, so I have not done a recap of the excellent comments made by other speakers nor the deliberations of the board, about which you have already read. After the meeting, I sent additional comments to the board by email, along with a copy for the record of my spoken remarks as originally written, as is my usual practice. (I still have no idea where the actual public record of written comments to the board actually ends up — I should ask Owen Kane in person because there are occasionally other people presenting written testimony and I want to know what they’re up to.)

My spoken comments, as prepared

Spoken comments are limited to two minutes, unless you’re a politician, so I had to pick and choose my points carefully — otherwise I would still be talking.

Today you will vote on a preliminary direction for the Rail Vision program. I want to emphasize that there are significant things the board can do, in the time it has left, to move towards the transformative change that commuters are demanding.

First, you need to define priorities for the lines to be upgraded. A full transformation will take a substantial length of time, but different lines present different engineering and operational challenges; you need to FILL THE PIPELINE WITH PROJECTS that will deliver meaningful improvements to commuters in the short term while longer-term projects are in design and construction phases. I believe most advocates are agreed that the Providence and Fairmount lines should proceed first, because they are the easiest, followed by Worcester, but more difficult lines like the Eastern Route need to enter design and permitting right away so that they can be ready to go soon after in sequence.

Second, you need to open a study directly comparing an Orange Line Extension to Regional Rail on the Needham Line. This was out of scope for Rail Vision, but the investments required are both very similar and in substantial conflict — this is a question that needs to be resolved now. Both alternatives need to be considered in their effects on the bus network in Roslindale and West Roxbury.

Third, start building full high platforms now, on a line-by-line basis, rather than the piecemeal approach taken heretofore. Use the line priority list to ensure that construction happens at the right time.

Fourth and finally, start procurement for lightweight 80-meter articulated EMUs for the Providence Line NOW — all plausible alternatives include this upgrade, and at $380 million for the full complement of 32, this represents the ONLY large investment needed for a full transformation of the Providence Line.

My additional comments, written after the meeting

I am gratified by the action the board has taken today to move forward with a true transformation of the MBTA’s commuter rail service. While it is not precisely the action I would have taken, I recognize the board’s desire not to overspecify the actions being required of the staff at a time when both financial arrangements and the Authority’s future governance structures are still being debated in the legislature. I further appreciate the substantial effort that the North Shore delegation has put into making the case for the needs of their communities, which have put up with substandard service for far too long. I am copying my state representative on this message and I hope and expect that he will support the bonding authority and new revenue sources required to execute this transformation, as well as the additional procurement flexibility that I have advocated and that the board’s resolution 4 requests. I do believe and expect that, when the staff completes the analysis you have directed, it will support substantial investment in the Worcester Line sooner rather than later.

I am writing at this time, however, to correct a factual claim made by the Secretary at today’s meeting. The Secretary asserted that the only reason to install high-level platforms was for ADA accessibility, and that only the previously established PATI priorities should be considered. This is entirely erroneous.

Building high-level platforms at all stations is entirely justified by the long-term operational improvements that result from such construction. It is the construction of new platforms that then triggers the authority’s obligations to bring stations up to current accessibility standards. These operational benefits accrue only if all of the stations served by a particular line or service have level boarding. Those benefits are:

  1. Elimination of door traps, an unreliable mechanical component which cannot be operated remotely by the train operator.
  2. Eventual (once we have full proof-of-payment fare collection) elimination of conductors and the adoption of rapid-transit staffing practices on the commuter rail system.
  3. The ability to buy standard(*) articulated EMUs rather than yet another custom, MBTA-only vehicle design. This is absolutely essential for a service investment with a 100-year lifetime; we cannot continue lock ourselves into buying inefficient equipment with a minimal global market, little competition, and no economies of scale.
  4. The ability to have more numerous, wider, passenger-operated boarding doors with automatic gap fillers for mobility-impaired users. I would note, in line with Marilyn McNabb’s comments at today’s meeting, that modern, single-level, articulated EMUs have much better provision for wheelchair access than anything the MBTA operates today, with large multipurpose areas for mobility devices, wide central corridors, and numerous fold-up seating positions.
  5. As noted by many commenters, much faster dwell times at stations, particularly when combined with the elimination of bi-level coaches. Faster trip times and faster turn-around times not only benefit current and future riders, but significantly reduce the vehicle requirements necessary to maintain clockface scheduling with current and projected passenger demands.

Because of the network effects — in particular, the ability to use doors without traps as required by any modern EMU — it is absolutely essential that all the stations required by any service be upgraded before the service begins. Given the time required to procure new rolling stock, this is entirely practical, and would provide direct benefits to all riders even before the new service begins.

I share the Chairman’s skepticism about the estimated cost of $100m per station to upgrade the five current low-platform stations on the Providence line, and I strongly suspect that these estimates are being larded up with unrelated costs beyond platform raising and the actually required accessibility improvements. All of these stations have mini-high platforms already and are thus considered “accessible” in the MBTA’s official maps.

I am also concerned by director Shortsleeve’s emphasis on new ridership. Yes, expanding ridership is an important factor to be considered — but improvements for the reliability, comfort, and convenience of the existing ridership must not be overlooked. The MBTA cannot afford to take its current riders for granted, or, as we have seen on bus and rapid transit, they may well decide that the MBTA is not adequately serving their needs and take their jobs and economic activity elsewhere.

My estimate of 32 cars and $380 million for the Providence Line, as given in my original testimony, is based on schedule simulations indicating that 30 80-meter vehicles are required to give every current passenger a seat, with a padded trip time of 48 minutes each way, 8 three-EMU trains per hour during the peak, and a 7% spare ratio (as appropriate for the much more reliable EMU vs. the 20% that Rail Vision assumed). Service within Rhode Island would require an additional four vehicles, but that would be sufficient to operate a full-time Westerly-to-Pawtucket shuttle with timed transfers for continuing service to Boston. The cost per EMU of $11.8m is based on the 2016 Helsinki order of 75-meter Stadler FLIRT EMUs, adjusted for currency conversion, inflation, and a slightly longer vehicle to optimally match the MBTA’s standard 800-foot platform length.

(*) Currently, no EMUs are being made with both ACSES for positive train control and 1220mm NEC high platforms, except the heavy and inefficient Metro-North type M8, but all major EMU manufacturers are offering designs that would easily accommodate both of these requirements without requiring substantial redesigns or more than the usual vehicle engineering work that accompanies any procurement, and if we bought such vehicles, there would be an immediate market from other agencies with NEC platform height. While the difference in platform height may seem to be a disadvantage or mitigate against buying a Euro-standard EMU design, it is actually helpful in this case — it’s much easier to alter a 600mm low-floor EMU design to support 1220mm high platforms than the other way around.

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A quick look at congestion tolling for Boston

I’ve written in these pages before about creating a cordon-type congestion charging zone (à la London) for Boston, and argued for it to be geographically quite large to reduce shunpiking. And I’ve also supported doubling the motor fuels tax — did you know that if we did that today, the price of gas at the pump would not the same as it was at this time last year? But in preparation for a meeting with my state rep this week, I wanted to think a bit more about other possible revenue sources, and in particular about using congestion tolling on our existing toll facilities to generate revenue that could be earmarked for the specific benefit of transit projects that parallel those roadways.

My specific proposal is to double Turnpike tolls in both directions between Millbury and the Back Bay for eight peak hours every day, with the revenues earmarked to support capital and operational expenses of modernizing the Worcester Line. Unfortunately, the public traffic data does not seem to have an hourly breakdown so estimating the revenue collected is a pure shot in the dark. I didn’t let that stop me, though; I just made an assumption that the equilibrium traffic — that is, the daily cars passing each toll gantry after drivers adjust their behavior for the higher tolls — during the peak hours is 50% of the overall average daily traffic at that location. I assumed that the peak-hours surcharge would be a fixed amount exactly equal to the current in-state E-ZPass toll in each location, and came up with the following table using the online toll calculator and the state’s interactive traffic count map (which includes counts for vehicles passing each toll gantry). I also looked at the harbor tunnels and the Tobin Bridge, with the thought being to finance first the Red-Blue Connector and then in the future (part of) North-South Rail Link and the electrification of the Eastern Route.

Here are the numbers (traffic counts and revenue estimates rounded to thousands):

Location Toll ADT Est. revenue
11–11A $0.45 98,000 $22,000
11A–12 $0.25 93,000 $12,000
12–13 $0.25 113,000 $14,000
13–14 $0.25 132,000 $17,000
16–17 $0.35 130,000 $23,000
17–18 $1.00 133,000 $66,000
20–21 $0.35 146,000 $25,000
Total for Turnpike mainline $179,000
Williams Tunnel $1.50 73,000 $54,000
Sumner/Callahan Tunnels $1.50 40,000 $30,000
Tobin Bridge $1.25 84,000 $53,000
Total for Tobin and tunnels $137,000

That’s the daily revenue, so to convert that to an annual amount, multiply by the number of non-holiday weekdays in a year — that varies a bit because of the fixed holidays, but 250 is a good approximation. That gives you $34.2 million in annual revenue on the tunnels-and-Tobin revenue center, and $44.7 million a year on the Turnpike. Multiply that by 30 to get a very rough estimate of how much bonding that revenue could support — all told, about $2.4 billion before interest, which is more than sufficient at current rates to fully electrify the Worcester Line, build Red-Blue, and get construction started on NSRL.

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About those stations on the Providence Line…

Two Sundays ago, instead of going for a bike ride in the nice weather like I should have, I went on a road trip of sorts to look at the condition of the six stations on the MBTA’s Providence Line that don’t have full-height platforms. Those six stations are Hyde Park, Readville (where no trains currently stop), Canton Junction, Sharon, Mansfield, Attleboro, and South Attleboro. I took notes on the site conditions at all six stations so I could make an attempt at guessing the cost of the actual station upgrades required. All six stations are already equipped with “mini-high” platforms and an accessible path of travel to street level and accessible parking via ramps (none have elevators), but the overall condition of the facilities varies greatly. At all stations on the line, signs direct passengers to board trains via the mini-high platforms (which are always at the south end of the platforms) except during inbound peak periods — presumably this is to reduce dwell times by avoiding dropping door traps to open doors at the low platforms. There is also an automated audio announcement system, tied in with the signals, warning passengers of approaching trains. All stations have fencing preventing pedestrians from crossing the tracks at grade. Beyond that, the stations vary greatly; here are my observations.

Hyde Park

The northernmost pre-ADA station on the line is located on Folsom St., south of River St. and a block west of Hyde Park Ave. in the center of Hyde Park. Pedestrian access is served by straight ramps down from the River St. overpass and by side streets connecting Hyde Park Ave. to the station parking lot, which is at rail grade. There is an embankment on the west (southbound) side of the station, which prevents any platform or access expansion on that side. There is a single express track for Amtrak between the northbound and southbound tracks. MBTA buses 32, 33, 40, and 50 serve the nearby business district.

Overall, with the exception of the concrete ramps and the relatively newer mini-high platforms, this station is in poor condition. The low-level platforms lack tactile edging and are cracked and uneven in places. The station signage is worn out, and other finishes and amenities such as lamp standards need replacement. I do not know whether the current ramp system meets MAAB requirements for accessibility, or if it would have to be either replaced or augmented by a second means of egress — especially for the southbound platform, which lacks access to the parking lot. Possibly the station wound need a pedestrian bridge at the south end of the platforms, which would be expensive to construct over the live catenary.

Readville

There are four platforms at Readville, inexplicably numbered 2 through 5. The Providence Line runs past platforms 2 and 3 — platform 4 is for the Fairmount Line and Franklin trains that run via the Dorchester Branch rather than the Southwest Corridor, and platform 5 serves the remaining Franklin Line trains. I say “runs past” because neither Stoughton nor Providence trains currently stop at Readville; any plausible scenario for frequent service on the Providence Line will require shifting most or all Franklin trains to run through onto the Fairmount Line, via the single-track platform 4, because capacity on the three-track Southwest Corridor is limited. In this scenario, especially during the transition period, Franklin Line passengers will want to transfer to the Providence Line trains to access Longwood Medical Area and Back Bay, so improvements should be made to this station to give passengers some weather protection. This is somewhat challenging because the accessible parking at Readville is located between the top of the platform 2/3/5 ramp system and platform 4. Platform 4 is also much too short, just 300 feet, although there is room to extend it further north. The northbound Providence Line platform is at grade with one of the four parking lots serving the station, additional ramps and stairs would be required to connect it to the lot after raising. Finally, in order to maintain the desired all-day schedule on the Fairmount Line without fouling the Franklin Line during peak, an additional platform will be needed for turning Fairmount trains, and it is not at all clear how to make it accessible.

Canton Junction

Like Readville, Canton Junction has a complex system of ramps to provide access to all of the platforms from street level. The station has four platforms, which for some reason are identified with letters A through D rather than numbers; the Stoughton Branch diverges from the main line at the station, and platforms B (Providence northbound) and C (Stoughton southbound) are located in the infield of the junction and accessible only by the ramp system (or the parallel stairs, which are integrated with the structure). The station building is located on platform D (Stoughton northbound), and there are large parking lots both east and west of the tracks. The east lot has a ramp directly to the platform D mini-high, which is just south of the station building, and that ramp would also serve for access to a full-high platform, although stairs would need to be provided north of the building. The only canopy at the station is on platform D, which may account for the surprisingly high passenger loading on the Stoughton Line at this station. The west lot is at grade with platform A, so it would require the construction of additional ramps and stairs, for which there is plenty of room. The mini-highs on all four platforms are farther south and have their own ramps.

Sharon

This was my mother’s station when my folks lived in Sharon and later Foxborough. There are parking lots on both sides of the tracks: one is restricted to Sharon residents and one is available to non-residents. There is a station building adjacent to the northbound track, but set back far enough that it wouldn’t impede platform construction — it would need additional ramps, however, as it is nearly at the north end of the platform and the existing mini-highs are at the south end. The station was renovated relatively recently, but the only wheelchair access between the two platforms involves a very long journey on the Rt. 27 overpass via two ramps; I’m not sure this really meets MAAB standards, but if it does, that would make this station relatively simple to upgrade. (Moving wheelchair users to the north end of the platform would significantly improve their travel experience when parked in the lot opposite their desired platform, but it really feels like disabled passengers were treated as an imposition in the design of this station.) Both platforms are at grade with the parking lots and would need additional ramps and stairs.

Mansfield

Oy. What can I say about Mansfield? The MBTA is nearly finished spending $7.1 million to renovate this station and didn’t build proper high platforms. This has been an ADA and MAAB requirement since the 1990s, yet somehow they managed to weasel out of it in 2015. The station does have mini-highs on both tracks, and it has a new system of ramps and stairs to connect the MBTA parking lot (south and west of both platforms) to the station; there is also a large private parking lot adjacent to the southbound platform. This site is highly constrained, with a viaduct over Chauncy St. at the south end of the platforms and a single-track junction with the Framingham Secondary immediately north of the southbound platform. This station has been widely reported as being a problem for clearances for military freight trains (heading from Framingham to Cape Cod), but if the hinged platform edges on the brand new mini-highs are sufficient for STRACNET purposes, there seems no reason the same treatment wouldn’t be sufficient on full-length platforms as well — especially since the Framingham Secondary can only access the southbound track. Longer term, it would be preferable to build a third track where the current southbound platform is: the right of way broadens to four tracks just north of the station, and giving intercity trains a bypass would not be a bad thing, but this is likely too expensive a project for the short term, so conflicts with Amtrak will have to be managed through careful scheduling.

On the positive side, there seems to be a good amount of transit-oriented development taking place on the parcels adjoining the station, and it sees a substantial number of daily boardings, so building full high platforms would be entirely justified on the basis of the current service pattern, never mind a modern service. If only the state hadn’t just blown millions building the wrong thing! (The people to blame for that error of judgment, by the way, are Brian Shortsleeve and Stephanie Pollack.)

Attleboro

The line runs through Attleboro on a four-track embankment; the original station structures on both the northbound and southbound tracks still stand, but the southbound platform has been relocated farther south and the original station (now leased out to office tenants) is no longer accessible from the platform. The two station buildings are bracketed on either side by underpasses for city streets, Mill St. on the north and South Main St. on the south, and the northbound platform continues across Mill St. for some distance. There is a substantial parking lot on the southbound side, and GATRA operates a substantial bus station adjacent to the lot, which they also own. A smaller lot serves the northbound platform and station building, but there is no direct access between the two platforms; passengers must descend to South Main and cross the tracks via the underpass.

South Attleboro

The sixth and final station is in many ways the worst. South Attleboro is located hard up against an embankment to the south (constricting the northbound platform) and in the shadow of Newport Ave. (Rt. 1A) overhead just to the east. There is an interchange on divided Rt. 1A just to the north, and the road past the station (at grade with the southbound platform) is busy with traffic from I-95 south to a power center on the northbound side of 1A. The parking lot for South Attleboro station is across this street, and there is a single crosswalk connecting it to the southbound platform; the beg button was not functioning when I visited, but perhaps the signal only operates on weekdays.

The only way to access the northbound platform is via a single structurally deficient pedestrian overpass and ramp system that connects to the parking lot but not to the southbound platform — the stairs to the southbound platform have rusted out and are blocked off at both ends. The stairs on the northbound platform have also rusted out, but at least the ramp down from the overpass connects directly to the mini-high at the west (railroad south) end of the platform. I cannot believe that this station meets code, and it will require a substantial investment whenever any change is made, to add a second means of egress from the northbound platform and likely a second overpass. I’m somewhat surprised that it’s even still open at all — and yet, it serves more than a thousand daily boardings, so clearly there is substantial demand. (A license-plate survey would be interesting: are these passengers mostly from Rhode Island, in which case perhaps they would prefer to go to the new Pawtucket station when it opens?)

Upgrade costs

I’m no construction estimator, nor am I an architect or civil engineer. But I can make a semi-educated guess about how much high platforms ought to cost. My most basic assumption is that a train platform can be effectively constructed like a reinforced concrete box girder, but with integrated overhangs for the foundation slab and the platform surface itself. This allows for a variety of construction techniques, both cast-in-place and pre-cast, and the hollow cross-section reduces the materials cost and provides a convenient chase in which to run cabling for platform lighting and signage. Segmental construction makes it possible to keep stations open during construction, if necessary. I estimated that the materials cost of two such platforms would be about $350,000 (at $200 per cubic yard of concrete), and figured that labor would be roughly twice that (depending on construction sequencing and whether it’s cast on site or precast). When you add in new platform signage, canopies, precast stairs and ramps, safety railings, and so on, a figure of $2 million would seem to be reasonable. Why, then, do MBTA station projects seem to cost so, so much more? I don’t know, and I would like to see a more detailed analysis of what is actually going into these projects.

That said, I can at least make a stab at the total upgrade costs for the whole line.

Hyde Park gets the fewest daily passengers of any of the stations under discussion, so it would seem like an obvious candidate to close for a few weeks in the summer and just build everything in place. However, it will be somewhat more challenging to construct due to the lack of easy access to the southbound platform for construction equipment, and the need to maintain clearance for through trains. Doubling my base estimate to give an upgrade cost of $4 million here.

Readville should be the easiest, because it doesn’t have scheduled service at the moment, but it would be silly to upgrade the Providence/Stoughton platforms and not upgrade the Franklin/Fairmount platforms as well. There are similar site constraints to Hyde Park and additional problems with the Franklin/Fairmount lines layout, so I’ll go for $8 million — add another $20 million if you want to augment the ramp system with elevators here. I’d probably also add at least $10 million to twin the Franklin Line overpass, which is probably necessary in the long term to support frequent service on the Fairmount (which needs to have a second platform added when the remaining Franklin trains get through-routed).

Route 128 obviously needs no work; it’s already a high-platform station. Canton Junction should be relatively easy, even though there are four platforms, because all of the platforms are accessible without crossing the Corridor and its overhead electrification. So I’m going with a flat $4 million, on the assumption that the existing ramp system is adequate and can be easily altered to support the new platform height. Sharon and Mansfield should be similarly easy, although Sharon may require an additional investment in vertical connectivity. Assume there’s an extra $1m in costs at Mansfield related to the hinged platform edge system, and you’re at $5m for the two.

Attleboro should be relatively easy, and there’s already adequate egress, but both platforms have sections that may be difficult to access from the street. This may be an ideal opportunity to do cast-on-site and then close the line and shut off power to crane a new platform in in large pieces. Attleboro is the third-busiest station on the line so obviously closures need to be kept to a minimum. Call it $4m.

Then there’s South Attleboro. It has all of the same problems as Hyde Park plus the decrepit overpass needs substantial refurbishment. The street that passes between the southbound platform and the parking lot will need to be narrowed to widen the platform and provide a safe ramp down to street level. If it cost less than $8m I would be very surprised.

That brings the total to $43 million. Rail Vision is probably estimating it at an order of magnitude higher, which is MassDOT’s way of ensuring that either nothing gets done, or all their friends in the contractor and consultant industry make a hefty profit. Add to that the cost of upgrading Sharon substation (maybe $20m?), building a new maintenance facility for EMUs (might as well do it in Pawtucket, since Readville will be otherwise occupied for a while), perhaps $30m, and actually acquiring the new EMUs (24 120-meter EMUs, including the Rhode Island shuttle and two spares), $288m. All told, $360 million for a complete modernization of the Providence Line. These investments will also support electrification of the Fairmount Line as the second step in the full electrification of the network.

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