‘Football train’ picks up fans
More people hopping on MBTA express to games in Foxborough
MANSFIELD - They start arriving about an hour ahead of time, trickling in in cars and trucks with slapped-on Patriots bumper stickers, most of them sporting the NFL team’s bright blue.
Lining up on the narrow platform beside the track, they chat, read, text, check the time on their cellphones. Some appear impatient, peering off into the distance, straining to hear the din and bells of the coming train.
Finally, the double-decker arrives; they crowd around in anticipation and climb on board. The conductor does one last check of the platform - then it’s off. It’s game time.
The dedicated MBTA trains that travel to and from New England Patriots home games at Gillette Stadium have become an essential for fans looking to avoid traffic, high parking fees, and just the overall hassle of driving into Foxborough. And reflecting a recent record-breaking surge in MBTA ridership, more are ditching the drive into “Foxy’’ and hopping on the so-called football train.
“We didn’t want to drive to Gillette Stadium,’’ Trevor Knell said from the driver’s seat of his idling SUV at the Mansfield T station before the train arrived for last Sunday’s game against the New York Giants.
He and his wife, Beth, decked out in a Tom Brady (No. 12) jersey, had just driven three hours from their home in Monmouth, Maine, overshooting the turnoff to the stadium on the highway by about 20 minutes specifically to catch the train.
“We wanted less hassle getting out,’’ said Knell. “You hear horror stories.’’
We all have: The pre- and postgame traffic in Foxborough is the gridlock of legend.
While there’s no way to tell exactly how many cars come through the town on game day, the stadium parking lots have the capacity for 22,000 of them, according to Foxborough Police Chief Edward O’Leary.
As he put it, people trickle into the stadium over a roughly four-hour period before the game. But on the other end, “as soon as it’s over, 60,000-plus people want to leave and head home,’’ he said. “There’s an immediate flood of cars. It’s bumper to bumper, and it’s slow.’’
Which is why some may be turning to the alternative. According to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, the current ridership for each game averages about 1,900, compared with about 1,630 in the 2006-2007 season and 1,500 in the 2002-2003 season. To accommodate the increase in passengers, the MBTA upgraded trains to double-deckers this year, allowing for more seating capacity.
Trains put into service for regular-season games have a combined 1,800 seats and for preseason games during the week, 900 seats.
And there could be even more action at the stop, based on a proposal now under consideration that would use the CSX freight line that cuts through Foxborough to run nine to 10 commuter rail trips on weekdays from Boston. There is currently no commuter rail in Foxborough, but that service, if put into place, would include the stop near Patriot Place and Gillette Stadium that now services the “football trains’’ and other special event trains rolling in and out of Gillette. It could go into effect as early as next spring, pending track and service upgrades and improvements, according to officials.
The trains that now take people to Gillette come in from the north and south, and have been running for home games and special events since 1971, according to the MBTA. They depart roughly two hours before kickoff: one from South Station, stopping in the Back Bay and Dedham before reaching the stop at Patriot Place near Gillette; the other from Providence, picking up passengers in South Attleboro, Attleboro, and Mansfield, before pulling into Foxborough. On the other end, both trains leave 30 minutes after the game ends. Riding the trains requires purchasing $15 reserved, round-trip tickets.
And it appears “more people are using the train rather than driving down,’’ said O’Leary, the police chief, whose officers are in the traffic hot zone at home games.
The very worst areas to drive before kickoff and after the clock runs down are Route 1, Mechanic Street, and Route 140, he said. Illegal side street parking also increases congestion, O’Leary said, as does the alleged misuse of a town bylaw that allows homeowners and landowners near the stadium to park up to 10 cars for a fee on their properties (a policy being analyzed by officials). As O’Leary noted, the state and local police direct cars and set up checkpoints to restrict access to some roads to local traffic.
Still, he and others noted, traffic isn’t nearly as bad as it used to be - due not only to carpooling and increased train ridership, but also traffic plan improvements and upgrades in recent years.
Even so, T riders remain dedicated. By 2 p.m. last Sunday - a half-hour before the train was scheduled to arrive on its way up from Providence - the lots on both sides of the Mansfield station on Crocker Street were packed with cars, and not just with Massachusetts plates, but also from Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Maine.
Fans stood around on the platform, a crowd of blue with lanyards and No. 12 (Brady) and No. 54 (Tedy Bruschi) jerseys, quietly anticipating the train and the game against the Giants (which the Pats ultimately lost, 24-20).
“It’s certainly a lot easier than getting into a traffic jam,’’ M. Charles Bakst of Providence, a season ticket holder and regular rider, said as he waited.
Mike Callahan of Pawtucket, R.I., also a longtime season ticket holder, has been riding the train for years.
And if you had any doubts about his fandom: He was dressed in near head-to-toe Pats regalia, including a baseball cap, sweatshirt, a lanyard boasting his season’s pass, and a baseball jacket slung over one shoulder.
“It really works,’’ he said, describing the train as typically 90 percent full.
Still, there are some downsides: As Bakst, a retired Providence Journal columnist, explained, when you take the train “you’re stuck there’’ until the game ends (so no ducking out early if there’s a wash-out, literally or figuratively).
Also, he and others noted, it can be slow, sometimes “maddeningly’’ so, taking 45 minutes to get from Mansfield to Foxborough, twice as long as the ride by car (unimpeded by traffic, of course).
But it beats the alternative, said Barbra Cournoyer of Woonsocket, R.I., of paying an average of $50 to park in or around the stadium, and of driving both ways, which is “slow and painful.’’
Dave Mager of Plainville offered an even grimmer perspective: A lifetime Giants fan, he’s driven to Gillette, and to MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, to see his team play - and the driving experiences were equally bad.
“It’s 20,000 cars on Route 1 at once,’’ he said as he stood on the platform with his 10-year-old son, Jake - both duded out in blue Giants gear - just before the train arrived at 2:45 (15 minutes late).
“You could be sitting on Route 1 forever.’’
Taryn Plumb can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.