There’s a time machine on the south side of Boston and it only cost $2.25 to ride.
An MBTA PCC stops at Milton in 2008. Photo by Justin Franz.
The Ashmont-Mattapan High Speed Line is a minuscule piece of the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority’s sprawling transit system that connects every corner of the city but it is without a doubt the most interesting to rail enthusiasts. Decades after most American cities sidelined and scrapped their fleets of Presidents' Conference Committee streetcars, MBTA has maintained a small fleet of these orange and cream time machines in Mattapan. While PCCs can still be found in regular service in Philadelphia and San Francisco, the Boston fleet is the only one to have never been retired from regular daily service (although there was a period in the mid-2000s when the cars didn't run when the entire route was rebuilt), serving as a direct connection to the heyday of the American streetcar.
This week, MBTA announced it was investing $7.9 million to into the PCC fleet in an effort to keep them rolling for another decade. While the investment is good news for transit fans, it comes with a caveat. The transit agency is also hiring an outside consultant firm to look at the future of the 2.6-mile line between Ashmont and Mattapan, including the possibility of replacing the PCCs with modern light rail vehicles or buses.
My advice to any PCC fans out there is simple: head to Boston and ride the Mattapan now. Far too often in this hobby, railfans wait until the last possible moment to photograph or ride a train. After the Iowa Pacific announced they would no longer be operating the Hoosier State, my Facebook was flooded with posts from friends lamenting they never had ridden the train or frantically planning one more ride. Trust me, I’m guilty of this too. But MBTA has just presented us all with a perfect opportunity to enjoy one of America’s most unique transit operations so don’t wait. And in the end, if the consultants tell MBTA brass that keeping the PCCs is the right idea, I promise that you will not have regretted taking the time to visit. After all, at $2.25 a ride, the Mattapan is a sensational deal. Better yet, splurge and buy a 1-day Charlie Card and jump on and off the PCCs at your leisure, taking time to shoot some photos along the way. At Cedar Grove, hop off and walk a few blocks down to the nearby cemetery to shoot the PCCs flying past tombstones. Two stops further and you’re at Milton where the High Speed Line runs past old factory buildings that provide the perfect backdrop of old industrial New England. Lastly, spend a few minutes at Mattapan - in the morning if you can - and watch the PCCs parade around the loop at the little terminal there just as they have since the 1930s.
All that for the price of an extra large coffee at Dunkin' Donuts.