The Blizzard of 1978 -- What Was It Like To Get Around

The Blizzard of 1978 -- What Was It Like To Get Around

The Blizzard of 1978 occurred 37 years ago. How did it Compare with the Storms of 2015??

The following historical report is intended to fill the vacuum of stories about the human impact of two major storms of 1978, and the effects of those storms on both roads and mass transit.

.........................................THE HIGHWAY SIDE OF THE STORY................................................

Two storms in early 1978 created havoc on the transportation system. A 21-inch snowstorm on January 20 and a 27 inch storm over two days Feb. 6-7 combined to create a two-storm punch. In between the storms there was some melting and freezing. Thee first major snowstorm of the year traditionally catches public works crews a bit unprepared and untrained. This pattern is also true of transit, where the MBTA fared better in the second, larger storm.

February's massive storm was accompanied by heavy surf and wind, and the coastline took a battering. The snow came down an inch and hour. Fifty-four New Englanders, including 29 from Massachusetts lost their lives. A billion dollars of property damage was done. There were deep drifts from the wind, and on my street in Cambridgeport the snow was four feet deep and stayed that way for a week until National Guard bulldozers came in and pushed their way through, sending earthquake-like tremors through our houses.

The number of "lost roads" that became impassable was probably the worst since World War II. An eight-mile stretch of Route 128 was impassable. For 3,500 drivers they either had to abandon their cars or hunker down for the night, slowly getting colder as their cars ran out of gas and heaters ceased to work. The Boston Globe front page included a huge aerial photograph showed a desolate landscape where Route 128 once buzzed, with a scattered string of dark dots where car roofs pushed through the snow layer. State officials has difficulty estimating the number of stranded vehicles. About 5,000 stranded people were rescued from cars, and the number of stuck vehicles -- many of them tractor trailers -- ranged from 2,500 to 10,000. The Governor mobilized 8,500 National Guard troops and imposed a complete travel ban on Boston, Cambridge and other areas for a week -- no private autos could be used except for certified emergencies. On February 8, 300 federal troops arrived at Logan with 24 cargo planes to be added to the Route 128 clearance effort.

By contrast, our recent January 2015 storm had less drifting of snow. An army of private trucks was called in to do road plowing. As a result no major roads were lost, and only a few deaths were recorded, usually pedestrians killed by plows. In the first few days after the storm began, local media marveled at the minimal disruption the storm had caused, with no loss of life. Only in a few more days did the depth of the MBTA's problems become apparent.

....................................................... THE MASS TRANSIT STORY ..........................................

Transit difficulties in 1978 received much less play that the ocean and highway crises. T management workers fought to keep every line of service open that they could. Remarkably, when troubles on the Orange line occurred, commuter rail was able to provide service to Melrose, while the transit trains stopped at Wellington. A similar pattern occurred with the north end of the Orange Line and the South end of the Red Line, with trains either stuck or service completely curtailed.

The highway disruption from the second storm was so extensive that the only way the public could get around besides walking (or bike) was by transit. This meant that the MBTA was the lifeline, and it was travel by car that was impossible or not allowed.

On Monday after the second storm, Boston opened up for the first full work day, even though the driving ban had not yet been lifted. Amazingly, the MBTA was able to transport 50% more riders that it would on an ordinary day. One day later the driving ban was lifted, and people could go back to driving -- taking a heavy load off the T. But the damage had been done. The strain on equipment was do great that a lack of equipment forced the MBTA to curtail commuter rail service by 25% for at least two months, to make repairs to the trains.

The most thorough report on the 1979 storms is contained in the Jan-February edition of Rollsign, the bi-monthly magazine of the Boston Street Railway Association. The following is the verbatim report from 37 years ago.


"The record blizzards of [Friday] January 20 and [Tuesday and Wednesday] February 6-7 devastated MBTA service on all lines. In the January storm the MBTA struggled valiantly to keep its rapid transit, surface trolleys and buses moving.

"But, bit by bit, the system began to break down.

_____________________________ THE JANUARY STORM ______________________________

"At noon Friday, afternoon Red Line trains were still moving slowly to Quincy, but a Blue Line train got stuck, and service to Wonderland station in Revere stopped. The Orange Line was operating only between Forest Hills and Wellington, and all the bus routes were in trouble -- although they had taken over from the trolleys on Beacon Street, Commonwealth Avenue and the Arborway Line.

"At 2:00 PM, a collision at Sullivan Square Station between two rapid transit trains injured 29 persons and shut down the Orange Line. Ice and snow had closed down almost everything else, although some trains still operated through the subways. By then Quincy-bound four-car trains were stuck on the Red Line near Freeport Street. The MBTA managed to get one back to Andrew. Then it coupled two four-car trains and sent then out to Freeport Street. They got to within 100 feet of the trains and stalled. The MBTA and the Quincy Fire Departments then joined forces to evacuate the 1000 passengers.

"On the Blue Line, another stuck train was evacuated by MBTA personnel who had to cut through a wire fence. The MBTA cut the power on the Red and Orange Lines because commuters were starting to walk down the tracks next to the third rail. By 6:30 PM, all of the passengers were out of the stalled trains. The Quincy-bound passengers had been on board for nearly seven hours.

"Efforts to plow out the tracks at Ashmont Sunday morning failed when a flat car plow pushed by an eight car train derailed. Buses were running to Andrew from Mattapan and other points and by 1:00 PM the Riverside Line was clear and running slowly. On Sunday,service was still slow and spotty everywhere.

"The MBTA had warned commuters to stay home Monday, but they came anyway, jamming buses and all the rapid transit and commuter trains and trolley and LRV cars that worked. Snow-weary MBTA employees had all sorts of problems, ranging from frozen signals to vandals who sabotaged snow-fighting equipment.

"Commuter trains carried 30,000 passengers, twice as many as usual, and using two thirds of its equipment and 50 percent of its stations, the MBTA somehow managed to carry 500,000 people, a regular day's work.

"The 16 disabled cars – the major factor in the partial shutdown of the Quincy Line – were removed on [Tuesday] January 24th. The removal was accomplished after plows and snow-blowing equipment were freed from the snowbound Cabot maintenance yard in South Boston. The track-mounted snow-blower, the authority's most effective piece of snow-fighting equipment, had been disabled by a frozen gas line.

"By Thursday … a week later, the MBTA was practically back to normal. The Ashmont-Mattapan trolley line was still closed. Kendall Station was flooded, and a bus shuttle was set up to Harvard.

"The T's greatest deficiency in this storm as well as in heavy storms of past winters has been the lack of an effective piece of snow removal equipment that does not rely on electric power and is is designed not to damage the 'third rail.'

"The MBTA has been trying to draw up unacceptable specifications for two such diesel-powered vehicles for some time. The specifications will be complete and ready for bidding in June. But the equipment will probably not be available before the winter of 1979-1980.

"When they arrive, the two locomotives will be capable of pushing snow plows and snow blowers or pulling out trains that get stuck in the snow.

________________________ THE STORM OF FEBRUARY 6 AND 7 1978 __________________________

"During the February storm the worst storm every to hit Massachusetts, the MBTA experienced similar problems in trying to operate service. Because of the severity of this storm Governor Michael Dukakis declared a ban on driving in most of Massachusetts on Tuesday [Feb. 7] and only lifted it in stages as the communities recovered. Communities outside of Route 128 were generally exempted from the ban by Saturday, but Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Chelsea, Somerville and Winthrop did not have the ban lifted until Monday, February 13.

"The Governor's ban prevented anyone except emergency personnel from traveling, except on foot, to allow cleanup crews to work unhampered. The MBTA recovered slowly but by Saturday had partially recovered. The reopening of Logan International Airport for commercial service on Saturday [Feb. 11] added an enormous load to the limping MBTA.

"On a normal weekday, the MBTA carries about 60 percent of the city's commuter traffic, but on Monday [Feb. 13] with the driving ban still on, it felt it would be forced to handle nearly 100 percent of the load.

"Under the best of circumstances, the MBTA would have difficulty carrying that number of extra passengers. With its rail lines operating at 50 to 80 percent of their capacity and only a handful of the MBTA's 200 bus lines in operation, it would probably be a long, erratic trip in and out for most commuters.

"The Blue Line, which was operating from Bowdoin Square to Airport at seven-minute intervals on Saturday (Feb. 11] offered partial service to Orient Heights by Monday. The Orange Line was running from Forest Hills to Wellington on Saturday with commuter rail serving passengers between Oak Grove and Malden Center.

"The Green Line had full service from Riverside to Lechmere by Saturday and service from Kenmore to Cleveland Circle was running more or less normally by Monday [Feb. 12] The Green Line route from Boston College to Commonwealth Avenue was still being served by buses Saturday. The Arborway route was handled by buses Monday.

"Red Line service between Harvard Square and Ashmont and Quincy Center Saturday was still limited and very slow. Shuttle trains between Harvard Square and Andrew left every 15 to 30 minutes but southbound passengers had to change at Andrew and trains to Ashmont and Quincy were leaving only at 45 to 60 minute intervals.

"Regular service to Quincy was expected by Monday [Feb. 13] and the MBTA hoped for regular service to Ashmont. However, the trolley link between Ashmont and Mattapan was not operating.

"Commuter rail trains both north and south of Boston met their regular schedules Monday. Extra engines had been added to some train to help them deal with the expected extra heavy loads. Service from North Station ran 7:00 AM to midnight and from 7:00 Am to 11:30 PM from South Station. Service between Gloucester and Rockport was restored on Saturday but service to Stoughton was still shut down on Sunday.

"On Monday morning [Feb. 13] transit officials credited a cooperative public and staggered work schedules with keeping problems at a minimum. The MBTA carried approximately 750,000 passengers, twice the normal volume as people returned to work for the first time since the blizzard started one week earlier.

"The MBTA had the Red and Orange Lines in full operation, including the Mattapan-Ashmont trolley line, by Tuesday. The Blue Lune was in full operation except for Wonderland station, which was still flooded.

"The Green Line had trolley service on the Arborway Line only as far as Heath Street. Full service was in operation on Commonwealth Avenue Tuesday. Service was also being run on the Beacon Street and Riverside lines. Virtually all bus lines were back in service Tuesday, although some minor diversions were encountered.

"Commuter rail service on the north side was normal but some additional service was added to the normal service on the south side. Special local community commuter buses were used to provide service in Boston or within their own city limits to lighten the MBTA's load.

_____________________ POST STORM CUTBACK IN COMMUTER RAIL SERVICE _________________

"On February 21, the MBTA imposed a 25 percent cutback in commuter rail service. The MBTA said that after carrying three and one-half times its normal number of passengers during the car-less commuter rush of February 13th, 21 Budd cars were put out of service for major repairs, and 26 others have only one operable engine (instead of the normal two).

"The MBTA said the schedule cuts would remain in effect 'for at least 60 days.' and that the transit authority would apply for three million dollars in federal relief funds to repair the storm damage to locomotives and coaches.

"David Gunn, MBTA Director of Operations, said repairs to the locomotives, coaches, and Budd rail-diesel cars would take two months or more.

"'Commuter rail did a tremendous public service at its 89 stations over the week of February 13-17th in carrying thousands and thousands of people two had no other way to get around,' Gunn said. 'Many coaches, with about 80 seats, carried 200 or more passengers per car. On Monday, February 13, commuter rail carried 111,000 passengers, 80,000 more than usual. 'The railroad equipment problem throughout the East is very limited following these severe storms of January and February. We contacted every major railroad and were able to locate no equipment.

"'We have done well with the aid of five Amtrak locomotives and 25 Boston & Maine freight locomotives, but Amtrak and the Boston & Maine are not going to be able to continue this level of assistance to us. In the North Station service, 75 [Buddliners] are needed for a normal rush hour schedule. As of February 21, only 64 cars were available were available for service and of these, 28 had only one operable engine (instead of 2), and 21 cars were totally out of service for major repairs.

"'From the South Station, a total of 21 locomotives were required for regular scheduled service. As of February 21, 14 locomotives were operable and only five of these could operate on the Shore Line because of the special cab signal indications required.

"'Consequently, we have asked the Federal government for storm aid through the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration,' said Gunn."

__________________ OTHER RED LINE PROBLEMS IN JANUARY _______________________

"Among other problems encountered on the MBTA's Red Line to Quincy this winter, a freak accident interrupted morning service on January 4, 1978, when power on a 1000-foot section of the line between Victory Road and Park Street in Dorchester was knocked out by a contact shoe on a four-car inbound train, which tore up a series of third-rail insulators and short-circuited the power line.

"The third-rail heaters on the Quincy Line are fully in place this winter for the first time and have been working. However, according to the MBTA the heaters cannot be expected to be completely effective in periods of heavy rain and freezing temperatures. Disruptions due to freezing rain have occurred.

"The MBTA says one of the most frequent reasons for delays is frozen compressor air line which operate brake systems and doors. New compressors with built-in air dryers are being installed.

"Another problem area, according to the MBTA, is the complicated switch at Columbia Junction, where the Ashmont and Quincy lines join. The switch has not worked well for years and, per the MBTA, if it was the old-fashioned trip type, the Authority would have the problem licked.

"Quincy Mayor Arthur H. Tobin has voiced strong criticism at the MBTA, saying he was 'completely fed up with continual breakdowns and disruptions' and that the MBTA had better start straightening things out immediately.' 'How, he asked, 'do they expect to operate this line when it is extended to Braintree, when they cannot even manage the service they now provide.'"

Source : Rollsign, the Magazine of New England Transit News, published by the Boston Street Railway Association, Inc. January-February 1978, pp. 2-4, 8.