In a quiet, wooded area just outside of the city, a Boston streetcar chugs along its tracks. Its cheerful orange exterior is free from rot or rust; Its interior is lit by the warm glow of ceiling lamps. Passengers sit on rows of red wooden benches and watch the scenery go by. The operator looks at her watch: she’s on time.
If this vignette for Boston, with its myriad public transit breakdowns, seems unusually easygoing, that’s because it is. A long time ago, this #5821 semi-convertible streetcar carried passengers from Boston to Everett and back along the Boston Elevated Railway (BERy). However, after 30 years of operation, it was decommissioned in 1954. It now lives in Kennebunkport, Maine, and the only trips it makes are around the 1.5-mile track at the Seashore Trolley Museum.
Why doesn’t the Green Line have an A branch?
The Metropolitan Transit Authority – which later became the MBTA – absorbed BERy in 1947. Gradually, the MTA phased out older streetcars such as #5821 in favor of newer models, buses, and trackless streetcars. And the modernization didn’t stop there: over the coming decades, the T regularly replaced outdated trains with updated versions as new innovations in design and accessibility rendered the older models obsolete.
Workhorse T-trains often last a long time — too long, cynical commuters would say. (Today, the oldest operational trains in the MBTA system are the 78-year-old PCC cars that serve the Mattapan line and entered service in 1945.) But so are those MBTA is short of funds must let the old models die at some point.
Then the question arises: What about the discarded trains? What do you do with 30,000 pounds of aluminum and steel (and sometimes lead paint and asbestos) when it reaches the end of its useful life?
Restoration: A “work of love and patience”
For trolley #5821, you can find the answer to that question at the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport.
The museum was founded in 1939 as the New England Electric Railway Historical Society. Since then, it has amassed a collection of over 250 transit vehicles from around the country and the world, as well as a variety of transit-related artifacts – including about 80 trains, trolleybuses, and various transit heirlooms from Boston.
Run by a small staff and army of volunteers, the Trolley Museum painstakingly restores old trains to their original glory. Visitors to the museum can view the refurbished trains on display, watch others make repairs in the restoration shop, and take a ride in historic wagons through the Maine countryside along the 1.5-mile “interpretation railroad.”
Restoration isn’t just about matching paint colors. It can take 20 or 30 years of research, fundraising, material sourcing and labor to fully restore a vintage train. That’s “several generations” of volunteers working on a single car, said Katie Orlando, the museum’s executive director.
The museum often receives trains whose “trucks”, that is, the brakes, engines and equipment underneath the car itself, have been removed. Volunteer researchers go to great lengths to track down spare parts (pun intended), and sometimes find them in unexpected places. Orlando recalls hearing a rumor that an old streetcar company in Paris, Maine had gone bankrupt and dumped a bunch of old trucks and wheelsets in a nearby swamp – a potential treasure trove for the museum.
“For decades there was a rumor that the swamp was real and had trolleys and trucks hanging out there, everything you ever wanted,” laughed Orlando. “It just so happened that one of our transporters from Lexington, Massachusetts needed these types of trucks, so our volunteers drove there, found the swamp, and sure enough, the trucks were real.”
When it comes to restoration, compromises must be made between absolute historical accuracy and modern standards of safety and health. For example, the museum’s Red Line trains from around 1963 were built with asbestos floor tiles and lead paint. Volunteers are looking for a way to renovate them safely but “still reasonably historically accurate,” Orlando said. “We research, hold talks, clarify ethical dilemmas.”
The Trolley Museum has a longstanding relationship with the MBTA, as well as with the agency’s predecessors, the MTA and BERy. Volunteers have made the trip from Kennebunkport to Boston and back to pick up their achievements—usually trains, but occasionally a piece of track or other artifact. Perhaps the most memorable trip came after MBTA decided to demolish the elevated Orange Line and replace it with underground tracks in the 1980s, when the agency donated the Northampton Station building, which previously stood on the elevated line, to the Trolley Museum had. The transport of the 97 ton structure to Maine took a whole year (1989 to 1990) and required the acquisition of an oil rig. Volunteers had to remove the roof and transport the station in two pieces for the last five miles because it was too tall to fit under the city’s utility cables.
“It takes a lot of love and patience,” Orlando said of the preservation process. “There are no words to put the hard work of our employees into perspective.”
Sometimes members of the Trolley Museum collection appear as extras in historical plays. Such was the case with BERy #396, a streetcar that operated in Boston from 1900 to 1950 and appeared in the film The Cardinal (1963) and the miniseries The Best of Families (1977).
There’s something about public transportation that keeps visitors and volunteers coming back to the Trolley Museum, Orlando said. The preserved trains evoke a sense of history, nostalgia and connectedness. Visitors just realize that the Seashore Trolley Museum is a special place.
“People really respect what we’ve done,” Orlando said. In 1947 a forest fire in the forest on the edge of the museum grounds threatened to destroy the collection. “Our neighbors literally sacrificed their own farmland to pour water on our land.”
But not every MBTA train gets a comfortable retirement package with such dedicated stewardess.
“It could come back as anything”
If, like me, you had a penchant for the blocky profile and imitation-wood trim of the somewhat run-down (retro?) MBTA Orange Line trains decommissioned last autumn, then I have to say, unfortunately: these cars are being chopped up into small pieces.
That is, after the asbestos removal.
Because the majority of the old T-trains can’t retire to greener pastures in Maine. Instead, they are sold to the highest bidder, usually a dismantling company, and dismantled into scrap metal.
Dan Costello directs Costello Dismantling in Wareham, Massachusetts in 2022 won the bid To scrap 120 Orange Line trains that entered service between 1979 and 1981. This isn’t the first time Costello has worked with the MBTA, and he’s well versed in train deconstruction.
Once the trains are asbestos-free, “we disassemble and cut the material with big scissors and heavy equipment, sort it, and store it,” Costello explained.
The trains are cut up into two- to five-foot pieces of scrap, sorted by material, and shipped to the end user, who recycles them into new metal products.
“I couldn’t tell you exactly what it would be,” Costello said. “It could come back as anything.”
Costello had bad news for train enthusiasts hoping there might be a converted MBTA train out there to call home for the night — in the spirit of AirBnB listings like this one Vintage “galley hut” in Waynesville, North Carolina, or so affectionately restored railcar from 1941-for summer rental in Lockhaven, Pennsylvania.
In the past, private buyers would have contacted him about buying old T-trains, he said, but their half-baked ideas of converting them into cheap, novel housing hadn’t factored in the “prohibitive” cost of hauling the giant trains, meaning a “strictly regulated and permitted process”.
Just moving the old Orange Line trains from Boston to Wareham will require a series of engineering surveys by the Department for Transport to ensure the roads they travel on are structurally strong enough to support the trains, as well as a police escort, said Costello. A little more complicated than the average Transit fan can handle.
Exactly what these old Orange Lines will be reborn as may be a mystery even to Costello, but one thing is for sure. Lovingly preserved or summarily recycled, MBTA trains never really die.
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