THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Arctic blast leaves many frozen in place

Travel stalls, shelters fill, but warming on way

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By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / January 25, 2011

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The coldest weather to strike Boston in six years wreaked havoc on commuters yesterday, freezing car batteries across the region and leaving thousands shivering in the bitter cold on exposed platforms as they waited for MBTA trains that either broke down or were stalled behind those that did.

An Arctic blast drove the officially recorded temperature down to minus 2 at Logan International Airport, minus 9 in Bedford, and minus 24 in the Franklin County town of Orange. Emergency responders said the region appeared to be spared death and serious injury. But hundreds called to seek heating assistance and other help coping with the extreme cold, and homeless shelters were over capacity.

Eleanor Vallier-Talbot, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Taunton, said the minus 2 at Logan was the first sub-zero temperature in Boston in six years and matched the low of Jan. 22, 2005.

The mercury crept back above zero by midmorning and hit 10 at Logan in time for lunch. More normal January temperatures, highs in the 30s and lows in the 20s, are expected today and tomorrow, just in time for a predicted mix of snow, rain, and sleet, courtesy of a storm headed this way from the Gulf of Mexico.

The National Weather Service warned that the storm could bring coastal flooding, as well as the usual winter roadway hazards.

Yesterday, the problems had less to do with slick surfaces than with equipment that gave out in the frigid air, hitting the MBTA and its riders particularly hard.

Hundreds of delayed trains rendered thousands of people weary, teary-eyed, and frustrated as they waited for service, the frozen masses trying to make sense of vague or intermittent announcements and scrambling to find alternatives or keep warm until service was restored.

“It’s just very, very frustrating . . . there’s no communication whatsoever,’’ said Susan Konick of Malden. She waited 45 minutes on an exposed Orange Line platform — briefly thawing in a stalled train that temporarily sat at the station — before catching a commuter rail train instead. She eventually walked the last mile from North Station to her job on Federal Street.

“My legs are finally warmed up, but it took me all morning, ’’ she said.

As commuters slowly thawed out at their destinations, Richard A. Davey, general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, acknowledged that yesterday’s delays compounded what he called a “frustrating winter’’ for commuters, with snowfall and resulting complications well above average. Davey apologized to T riders and vowed to do better this morning, though the age of the fleet poses a particular challenge in extreme weather.

“It was not a good day,’’ said Davey, before a smoother but not flawless evening commute. “I know that our team tried as best they could. I think there are improvements that can be made, but the bottom line is, we need to do better.’’

On commuter rail lines, nearly two-thirds of the morning’s 240 scheduled trains were delayed at least five minutes, including 91 that were delayed at least 20 minutes and 17 more delayed at least an hour. Another 25 were canceled, and one was terminated midrun due to a failure in the engine that provides heat and electricity to the coaches, said Scott Farmelant, a spokesman for the commuter rail. That train had to be pulled for repairs, causing about half a dozen afternoon and early evening cancellations on the Newburyport/Rockport and Lowell lines.

The cold weather hampered equipment on and off trains, including frozen signals, switches, and gate arms at grade crossings. The delays were lengthened by longer-than-usual boarding at stations, where some customers who had driven lingered in idling cars until the last minute, Farmelant said.

On the T’s rapid-transit system, the Orange and Red lines each had six trains break down, the Blue Line had three trains break down, and the Green Line lost eight trolleys to the cold, while those disabled vehicles in turn delayed others, said Joe Pesaturo, an MBTA spokesman.

At the National Weather Service’s Boston station, the low of minus-2 — which coincided with much of the morning commute, before climbing back to zero a little before 9 a.m. — was 11 degrees shy of the January record, which also came on Jan. 24, in 1882. At the observatory atop Blue Hill in Milton, the temperature dipped to minus-7, the lowest temperature since another minus-7 day in 2005, according to observer Robert Skilling; the last time it was colder was 2004, when it reached minus-12 on Jan. 16.

In Boston, about 25 people called the city’s Inspectional Services Department to report that they had no heat, and approximately 50 called the Boston Water and Sewer Commission because they had no water, with the city responding in some cases to help people thaw pipes, said Dot Joyce, a spokeswoman for Mayor Thomas M. Menino.

No unusual weather emergencies came in on the city’s 911 lines, while workers from the mayor’s emergency shelter office made the rounds to encourage those on the streets to seek shelter and to check on those who declined, Joyce said.

The Pine Street Inn has been beyond capacity each of the last few nights.

“We’ve had between 70 to 80 additional people than we’ve had beds for, so we’ve been putting out cots for people and doing everything we can to make them comfortable,’’ spokeswoman Barbara Trevisan said, adding that the shelter has been extending the hours of its outreach vans and working with other shelters to encourage people to come indoors. “We won’t turn anyone away in this kind of weather.’’

Across Massachusetts, about 600 calls came in on the 211 line, a three-digit code for people seeking health and human service referrals that is maintained by local United Ways in partnership with the state. More than half of those were from people without heat — oil customers needing a refill, since gas companies are prohibited from shutting people off in the winter — while about five dozen calls were from people looking to find a warm shelter, said Paul Mina, executive director of Mass 2-1-1.

David Harrison of the South Middlesex Opportunity Council in Framingham said the cold winter, coupled with a challenging economy, has prompted 1,300 new households to contact SMOC seeking emergency fuel assistance, including more than 30 yesterday.

The agency, working with the Framingham police, also scouted the area for homeless and people wandering without proper protection, directing four to an emergency shelter.

Harrison, who runs the energy and financial assistance program for the antipoverty nonprofit, said the total number seeking heating help this winter could exceed the record 7,100 who sought help last year from the agency, which serves 26 communities in the MetroWest area and Blackstone Valley.

AAA experienced about triple its normal Monday morning call volume, recording its busiest day in five years, with most of the motorists on the line needing assistance for frozen locks and dead batteries.

“We are keeping up with the demand, but it is very busy,’’ said Mary Maguire, a spokeswoman for AAA of Southern New England. “This certainly didn’t catch us by surprise.’’

And while today’s weather may seem balmy by comparison, those hoping for a quick end to winter may be out of luck.

Yesterday, AccuWeather long-range forecaster Joe Bastardi predicted snow and cold weather for much of the Northeast well into February and maybe beyond, with the potential for the nation’s coldest winter since the 1980s.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.