Metro

A $3.5 billion idea: Boost Green Line capacity with new, longer trolley cars

New trolleys would replace the Green Line’s current fleet.
Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/File
New trolleys would replace the Green Line’s current fleet.

With new trains for the Red and Orange lines on the way, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is eyeing its next shiny new cars: a fleet of Green Line trolleys that could vastly increase capacity on the nation’s oldest subway line.

The MBTA is considering a number of improvements that would overcome longstanding obstacles to using bigger cars on the Green Line, such as short loading platforms and tight turns at some locations. If the right improvements are made, the MBTA would be able to buy 165 or more trolleys over the next decade that are about 40 feet longer and hold twice as many riders as those in today’s fleet.

It wouldn’t come cheaply: All together, the trolleys and the infrastructure work they require would cost at least $3.5 billion, the T estimates. But with the potential to double the capacity on a line that carries about 200,000 people a day, the project would be worth the price, said the MBTA’s deputy general manager, Jeff Gonneville.

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“We know that our trains are crowded every single day, no matter which line you operate on,” Gonneville said. “The time is right . . . that as we make investments we have to make anyway, that we’re making the investments in a very strategic way to get us more capacity.”

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The new vehicles would be about 114 feet long, compared to about 74 feet for current Green Line trolleys. They would hold as many as 400 passengers, in part because of the extra length, but also because of design changes. For example, the cars would have lower floors, freeing up space that’s used for stairs. And a new fare-collection system coming to the T soon would eliminate the need for ticket boxes.

Bradley Clarke, president of the nonprofit Boston Street Railway Association, said the proposed vehicles sound similar to the longer, low-floor trolleys in Toronto and Europe.

“They’re working in more dense cities than Boston. There’s no reason they can’t operate here,” he said, though he noted there were production delays with Toronto’s fleet.

The MBTA has about 200 Green Line cars that were built between 1986 and 2008, and another 24 are on the way as part of the project to extend the Green Line to Somerville and Medford. While the T would retire its current cars if it orders a new fleet, it would still use the cars that were ordered for the extension, Gonneville said.

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But there’s no clear funding source for new trolleys or for much of the needed infrastructure work. On Monday, though, the board that oversees the MBTA gave its preliminary blessing, approving a six-year, $35 million contract for a consultant to help plan the Green Line’s future.

Animation: Proposed new generation of Green Line trolleys

Joseph Aiello, the board’s chairman, praised the plan for new vehicles as “revolutionary thinking.”

James Aloisi, a former state transportation secretary who has called for more spending to improve the T, said the proposal is “a really positive sign” — if it is properly funded.

“The T is thinking actively about the needs to do strategic improvements,” he said. “The proof will be in the pudding . . . but the thinking is all in the right direction.”

The MBTA has plans to improve the Green Line’s power systems, signals, and tracks, at a cost of about $960 million. Next, the T would need to rebuild tracks at certain stations to create a larger turning radius for Green Line cars, strengthen the elevated section heading into Lechmere Station, and expand its maintenance facilities so they could handle the new cars.

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Initially, the T would expect to run one new car at a time, but provide more frequent service; that would increase capacity by about 15 percent, because one new trolley would fit as many people as a current two-trolley set.

Running two-trolley sets on the D and E branches would increase capacity by 50 percent, but the MBTA would first have to expand the platforms at three stations and upgrade power systems, at an estimated cost of $500 million. Down the road, the MBTA would consider expanding 27 platforms on the B and C branches, at an as-yet undefined cost.

The T is also already spending about $850 million to fully replace the Red and Orange line fleets by 2023.

This story was updated to reflect the correct date when the current fleet of Green Line cars were first built.

Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.