Ready, set, commute

With the launch of the Greenbush, four Globe reporters race to see if the new train is the fastest way downtown

This story was reported by Noah Bierman, Tania deLuzuriaga, and Andrew Ryan of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Billy Baker. It was written by Bierman.

The sun was just peeking over the rocky coast of Cohasset one recent morning when four commuters gathered in the parking lot of a Super Stop & Shop to settle an expensive debate: Is the new $513 million Greenbush commuter rail line the fastest way into town?

The Globe organized a one-day, four-person race to ascertain an answer. One reporter would ride the rails, another would take the MBTA commuter boat out of Hingham, another would catch the Red Line in Braintree, and the fourth would drive up the famously clogged Southeast Expressway.

All four would leave from the same point on Route 3A, at the same time, with synchronized watches and a common destination: the Fidelity Investor Center at 155 Congress St. in Post Office Square, where thousands of harried commuters converge each weekday.

There would undoubtedly be many lessons, but only one winner.

And at the crack of 6:55 a.m., they were off.

With just a mile drive to the Cohasset Station, the train passenger appeared to have the early advantage; by 6:58 a.m., he was looking for a parking spot. He stuffed two crisp dollar bills into an antiquated parking pay box and set aside $5.75 for his train fare to Boston.

The train would not leave for another 18 minutes, so he had time to buy coffee at "Spanky's Top Dog" lunch van.

Only a few dozen other commuters were parked in the lot, including one man who sat with his car running, sipping coffee, avoiding the cold, whipping winds.

The boat passenger did not have the luxury of taking his time. He had 20 minutes to drive 6 miles to the Hingham Shipyard, find a space, pay for parking, buy a $6 ferry ticket, and board. If he failed to make the 7:15 boat, it was another 30 minutes until the next one - meaning almost certain defeat.

He boarded the boat two minutes before launch, a little frazzled. It was crowded to capacity, with hundreds of men and women in business suits reading newspapers in comfortable chairs. The low hum of the Today Show provided background noise.

By the time the boat left shore, the highway commuter had already hit her first slowdown. She was crawling at 25 miles per hour on Route 228 in Hingham, staring at the car in front of her, listening to National Public Radio reporters talk about the presidential election. It had not taken her long to drive through Cohasset and most of Hingham - about 20 minutes - but those first 10 miles were a tease.

By 7:29, near Braintree, she ran into one of those phantom dead stops, the kind that make drivers wonder whether this is the tail end of an accident or a temporary glitch from merging traffic. She numbly pressed the gas, then the brake, then the gas, then the brake. The pretty fall foliage didn't provide much of a balm. Every turn in the road carried the potential for another delay.

The T rider could only wish for that kind of boredom. He was headed to the Braintree T station garage when he plunged into a sweaty stress. His cousin had warned him that the garage fills by 7:25 a.m., and it was already 7:29. It took the T rider five minutes to scan the garage and confirm that his cousin was right.

So the T rider switched to Plan B, a diversion to the Quincy Adams station. But it cost precious time, 20 extra minutes, after he got stuck behind a dump truck on Cleveland Street.

As he waited on the platform of the Quincy Adams T stop, he noticed a large flock of birds flying back and forth, without making measurable progress. He sympathized.

By this point, the train rider was deep into his journey, joined by commuters taking advantage of the new rail line that finally opened Oct. 31 after decades of legal infighting. The golden foliage and cedar-shingled houses that rushed by during the first miles of the trip had given way to a view of traffic crawling along I-93. He had a couple of mishaps - some spilled coffee on his knapsack and a lost ticket - but was able to relax as riders around him pecked on a laptop computer, played solitaire on a Blackberry, and struggled with a Sudoku puzzle.

The boat rider was every bit as calm, passing harbor islands, bridges, and a plane overhead on its way into Logan Airport. He wrote an e-mail to his boss, bought a cup of coffee on board, and chatted with fellow travelers.

Nothing of the sort on the Expressway, where the driver was hitting a high of 5 miles per hour by the Granite Avenue exit. An hour into her ride and she had begun to feel alienated from her job, her life, the entire world around her. She began talking to herself about her predicament: "This is the worst idea ever."

By 7:57, the T rider had finally boarded an inbound Red Line train. It was probably better that he didn't know the boat passenger was at that very minute no longer on the boat. There was an available seat, which he offered to a middle-aged woman who seemed shocked by the gesture. So there he was, crossing over the Neponset River, clutching a pole, packed so tightly between passengers that he could smell the Old Spice on the man beside him and follow the progress on the Sudoku puzzle of the woman hunched below him.

Without cellphone service on the T, he had no way of knowing that it had already become a two-man race between the boat and the train. At 8:03, the train was rolling into South Station at the end of an effortless, even soothing, ride, and the passenger was plotting how to be graceful in victory. He knew it was a short walk to Post Office Square; he couldn't imagine the journey could be done faster.

But it could - by sea. The ferry rider had arrived at Rowes Wharf a full 17 minutes earlier, at 7:46 a.m. He crossed Atlantic Avenue, strutted onto High Street, turned onto Congress, and saw the glass doors of the Fidelity office beckoning him. He reached the finish line at 7:57 - a commute of exactly 1 hour and 2 minutes.

Sixteen minutes later, at 8:13, the train passenger sauntered through Post Office Square and arrived at the office building. The clanking sound was his jaw hitting the ground when he saw the ferry rider sipping a cup of coffee across the street at a cafe in Post Office Square Park.

Was it a fair race? Start a few minutes later and the train might have won. Depart a few minutes earlier and the T rider would have had a fighting chance. Rough waters, broken trains, highway crashes, or snowstorms could have each fouled up a trip or two.

For the record, the driver didn't reach the Fidelity doors until 8:26, in no mood to recount the pitfalls of her journey. Her only bit of good news: She wasn't last. That honor went to the Red Line passenger, who came in at 8:31, fuming over his decision to try the Braintree garage.

By that point, the ferry rider could have finished an omelet at nearby Cafe' Fleuri. Of course, he didn't need to wait that long. They sell pastries on the boat. 

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