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Rail-line switch at Forest Hills croaks; that means delays for lots of folks

The MBTA is blaming "an Amtrak switch issue" at Forest Hills for massive delays on all the lines out of South Station that use the Northeast Corridor.

Hank Layfield reports from a Needham Line train:

Total meltdown on @MBTA Northeast Corridor routes this evening. Left #BackBay 40 minutes ago, haven't even reached #ForestHills. #NeedhamLineBlues

Nick Tortola reports:

I’m on the 917 stoughton train and there’s a switch failure at forest hills. They’re going to try to manually throw the switch to get trains moving.

Brian McDermott isn't happy:

If the delays are due to an Amtrak switch issue, then why did the Acela that was next to my train (the 5:20 to Forge Park/495) move on 15 minutes ago and we are still sitting here. Stuck between stations.

Lauren PG is a bit peeved as well:

I'm sitting on a stopped train. Because of these "Amtrak issues" this stopped train is overstuffed, so no one can make it to the bathrooms. Can you say recipe for disaster!?! We pay you a lot of money for 4 cars at rush hour and getting to pick up our kids god knows how late?



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And now we are "3rd on line". Seriously, if they had known this it would have been nice to tell us before they left ruggles...

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Adam and UHubbers: Anyone hear what the "Fire Department activity" at Forest Hills was all about this afternoon?

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Someone fell off the platform. The favored track was closed and there was one track operation, causing the southbound trains to be paused for “schedule adjustment”. For commuters, it was reminiscent of the construction just completed. I got to the Hills a bit before 5. EMTs looked to be there along with various sundry T people. I caught the sound of fire trucks arriving while I was speed walking up Hyde Park Ave.

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Where a transformer or something that is in a trench somehow got struck by lightning.

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Why oh why did they not tell us of the delay before we pulled out of Ruggles?

I m sure many JP and Roslindale riders would have jumped off the train and hopped on the Orange Line.

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If there was a switch issue at Forest Hills, then the scheduled movement of trains between tracks for inbound trains cannot happen. This is necessary at Forest Hills so inbound trains can get to the platform at Ruggles. The station was designed for only 2 tracks to be served. Construction has started at Ruggles to add a platform for the un-served track but that project is a decent 1-2 years to completion.

With the switches not responding to remote control, they might be moved manually provided that the system was powered and there are localized controls, and staff would have a set of printed instructions in hand on what trains have to move to what tracks and a mile of paperwork is completed in compliance with federal regulations -- in advance. That said, the equipment at Forest Hills doesn't have a set of local access controls and the motorized switches do not have hand-throw handles. And it would take a day to fill-out and complete hard paper. Yes, Virginia. Sometimes trains operate on printed orders. Radios are deemed a convenience and are unreliable in places so they are not used.

So... manual switching at Forest Hills isn't happening.

This means that inbound Providence and Stoughton trains have to be put on the track that serves Ruggles way out in Canton. Franklin trains have to be routed to the correct track at Readville. Under normal circumstances some of them operate on different tracks but under these conditions they now are all on one track. The other track that serves Ruggles is for the outbound traffic. So rather than having 3 tracks which allows for more trains to be moved between Readville and Forest Hills, they were down to 2. One in, and one out.

Federal rules also are very clear that heavy rail (commuter rail) trains have separation measured in miles, not in thousands of feet like subway trains. So when one train is occupying the lone track, the rest have to sit and wait until the track is cleared per federal regulations. Any deviation from that can and does get people fired, and sometimes charged with violating federal laws, so no dispatcher and no train operator is going to take that chance.

Amtrak doesn't stop at Ruggles so inbound trains can be routed onto the track that was essentially lost in the equation. The lone outbound track would not have been fouled in most cases on the inbound side of Readville, but the switching at Canton (normally done at Forest Hills) would foul that track during maneuvers and there would be inbound movements on the outbound track between Canton and Readville.

Once the new add-on platform at Ruggles is complete all of the schedules on the south side will get an adjustment, which is expected to be an improvement since there will be fewer switchings necessary -- if at all -- at Forest Hills, except for the Needham line which joins the main line there.

So dead switch at Forest Hills means 3 branch lines trying to get inbound on one track, with inbound traffic on the outbound rails between Canton and Readville. Once there the train moves to the correct track.

Result... major backlog.

It's worth noting here that this is not a unique problem to the MBTA. This could happen to any rail system, and has.

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during the evening commute? The vast majority of passengers were waiting on packed outbound trains for emptyish inbound trains to pass. #priorities

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You need to bring the trains IN to Boston in order to go OUT from Boston, and you have limited tracks on which to do that.

Amtrak also has certain priorities by contract that says if you have a problem, they still get to go first. Also, Amtrak is the entity that controls train movements on that stretch of track. It's a system like air traffic control.

Block operations (blocks or sections of track that have trains moving on them) is managed at South Bay Tower, a small trailer-sized building actually, located in the South Bay rail yard. In days gone by it was actually a raised "tower" where the operators could look over the rail yards but it is all computerized now.

When switching issues like this happen, they have to shut automation and take over and run it manually by hand and before they set a switch it has to be written down on paper (special forms) and radioed out to all trains on that track so that everyone is on the same page. This is because if there were an accident, everything has to be fully documented for the Federal Railroad Admin (FRA) for any follow-up investigation.

Delays of this nature are there to assure safety and to fill federal laws mandating such.

Remember, if there is a problem at an airport, an air traffic controller can radio a plane and tell them to veer off and come around again. Happens all the time. Automobiles can pull over or make a U-turn and go a different way. But trains have no place to go, so if there is a problem, they all have to stop like a set of falling dominoes.

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