Our trolleys just keep rolling along

The Mattapan trolley was taken off the line on Tuesday as a major snowstorm hit the region. Buses were called in to replace the small fleet of Presidential Conference cars that typically run between Mattapan and Ashmont. The T announced the move on Monday so that its riders would know what to expect.

“With projections of snow falling fast and furiously,” MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo advised, “there would be a risk of a trolley getting trapped between stations. We don’t want to put passengers and employees in such a position.”

Thankfully, it was a one-day event. The line’s future is far more secure now than it was last winter, thanks to a commitment by the T to invest in keeping the vintage cars on track.

The MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board was briefed on the latest plans for the line at a meeting two weeks ago. The agency plans to spend $7.9 million to upgrade the existing Pullman-built cars over the next year. Some of the work will be done at the T’s main repair yard in Everett and some will be done at the Mattapan car house where the 10-car fleet is housed. The fixes will include a major overhaul to the trucks that house the main mechanical components of the 1940s-era vehicles, mass production of which ended long ago.

But there are ways to retrofit, repair, and even replace the various parts of the PCC cars. The T’s highly skilled craftsmen and women have been doing just that for years.

There’s a whiff of imminent mortality in every discussion of the trolleys— quite fitting for a transit line that rattles its way through Cedar Grove Cemetery. The trolleys are 70 years old and it’s only natural to ponder: How much longer can these American-built wonders keep chugging along? Ultimately, the answer is simple: The trolleys can keep rolling as long as there’s the public and political will to keep paying for their regular upkeep and periodic reconstruction.

The actuarial tables we use to conjure our own fates don’t always apply to the machines our grandparents built. If only we could get a fresh wrap of sheet metal or a kit to rebuild our chassis to buy us 10 more years, right? Maybe that’s part of the reason the line has burrowed its way into this neighborhood’s hearts. It’s timeless in a way not even the heartiest and luckiest of us can ever hope to be.

Sentimentality alone won’t win the Mattapan line an indefinite stay of execution. T managers with colder eyes are sketching out potential alternatives. And we cast them no shade: it’s their job to be ready and to plan for the unforeseen.

“With this investment, we can be relatively confident this is gonna get us out until maybe the early 2020s,” Jeffrey Gonneville, the T’s chief operating officer, said at the briefing. “And that gives us enough time to do the due diligence study to really give us the information we need to make the right decision for what will be the future of this line.”

Bus, rapid transit, other light rail vehicles, replica trolleys, or even something really cool that no one has invented yet are all options, we’ve been told. But so is keeping our trolleys as we know them today—with regular mechanical transplants to keep them alive.

You know how we feel about the trolleys. But, in all fairness, the T has scheduled three public meetings next month to engage the main communities served by the line. The first is set for April 3 at the Mattapan branch of the BPL on Blue Hill Avenue; the second is on April 13 at Milton High School; and the third will be held at the BPL’s Lower Mills branch on April 24.