A lifetime on the T: Arlington’s Connolly marks 40 years at job

Photo of MBTA driver Tom Connolly.

MBTA driver Tom Connolly, of Arlington, is marking 40 years as a public transportation operator this year.

By Jim Haddadin / jhaddadin@wickedlocal.com
Arlington Advocate
Posted Nov 10, 2011 @ 04:44 PM

Arlington — Tom Connolly has a firm belief about how his lifelong passion for mass transit developed.

“I’ve come to the conclusion, at this stage of my life, that there’s a gene for these things,” Connolly said, “that you don’t actually pick your hobby or your interest — that it’s actually picked for you by the genes that you have; in other words, I was hooked from the first trolley I ever saw.”

A 67-year-old Arlington resident, Connolly has spent his career operating buses, trolleys and other vehicles for the MBTA. During four decades with the transit agency, Connolly has steered thousands of passengers through Boston’s environs and watched the agency transform its services across eastern Massachusetts.

A Somerville native, Connolly was first exposed to trackless trolleys — buses running on electricity — as a toddler, when he would travel downtown with his mother. He became a devoted “electric traction enthusiast” and applied for a job with the MBTA. He was hired in 1971 and relocated to Arlington soon thereafter.

Connolly spent his first five years driving the same trackless trolley cars he marveled at as a child. His early routes — the 71, 72 and 73 — ran from Harvard Square to Watertown, Belmont and North Cambridge. Connolly has also driven streetcars on the Green Line and piloted several of the diesel bus routes passing through Arlington.

“Except for Mass. Ave., [operating a bus in Arlington is] pretty bucolic, in a way,” Connolly said. “It’s kind of relaxing in a sense, until you get close to either Alewife Station or Harvard Station or Lechmere and things like that. Mass. Ave. is pretty hectic, but the rest of it is very nice work.”

Connolly now outranks all of his colleagues at the Bennet Street Rating Station, the MBTA equipment yard where he’s been assigned since he began driving trolley cars. As the most senior “surface transport operator” — a driver who operates trackless trolley and diesel buses — Connolly has first dibs on choosing a work assignment each quarter.

Although he became eligible for full pension benefits nearly a decade ago, Connolly has no plans for retirement, even as he marks his 40th year as an MBTA operator. Reflecting on his time at the ‘T,’ Connolly said his fascination with public transportation has continued unabated through the years, easing the rigors of driving through Boston.

“Tom’s life is transit and that’s what he likes,” said Bradley Clarke, president of the Boston Street Railway Association, who met Connolly about 12 year ago. “That’s what he does. He’s well known in the transit enthusiast community, as well as other transit professional circles.”


Like other cities with a rich transit history, Boston is home to a number of transit enthusiasts who meticulously catalogue the evolution of transportation systems in the region.

“Transit enthusiasts are sort of a rarified breed,” said Clarke, whose organization includes some 800 members. “I would guess there’s about 100,000 in the United States.”

One of the most extensive collections of transit history in the country is held at the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, Maine. Among the vehicles held on the grounds of the museum is a 40-foot trackless trolley from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, which was shipped across the continent on a flatbed truck.

The trolley is one of only 100 manufactured by General Motors that was powered by electricity rather than diesel. Connolly, a volunteer at the museum, donated $4,600 to ship the piece from Canada to Maine.

“I consider the MBTA my trolley museum and that’s why I’m still working,” Connolly said.

During a career as a transit operator, Connolly has watched the MBTA dramatically alter the landscape of mass transit in the state.

Since the MBTA was created in 1964, the elevated railway running from Everett to Forest Hills has been replaced with the Orange Line, a subway running from Oak Grove in Malden to Forest Hills. The Red Line has been extended to Quincy and Braintree to the south, and to Davis Square in Somerville and Alewife Station in Cambridge to the north.

Bus technology has also evolved; buses are now 20 feet longer and have a higher passenger capacity than when Connolly was hired. On the Silver Line, hybrid buses powered both by electricity and diesel fuel travel through a tunnel from South Station to Logan Airport and some Silver Line buses feature a flexible “diaphragm,” allowing for easier cornering.

Most MBTA buses are also now equipped with a “low floor,” meaning they can maneuver up and down to hug the ground — a blessing for people who are elderly or disabled. Drivers also have the luxury of dedicated bus lanes in some areas around Boston.

“The MBTA has had a dramatic and powerful effect on the development of eastern Massachusetts,” Clarke said, “largely through modernization and the expansion of services.”

Internal changes at the MBTA

During his time at the MBTA, Connolly said the most dramatic change has been the tenor of relations between employees and management.

“The first 10 years I worked there, it was like a family atmosphere, mostly because the union was more powerful than the management,” he explained, “and then the political situation changed; the management became more powerful than the union, so I would say the first 10 years I worked there were better than the last 30, but the last 30 have been good enough that I haven’t retired. I still like working there, but if you just come in and do your job and do what you’re told, you know, it’s acceptable, but it isn’t the family atmosphere that it was.”

In recent years, the MBTA has struggled with how to maintain services in the face of enormous debts. However, Connolly said he believes maintaining good relations with employees and customers is the most significant hurdle the MBTA faces.

And Connolly hasn’t been shy about espousing his views about public transportation; when MBTA General Manager Jonathan Davis arrived at Connolly’s 40-year anniversary celebration, which was held in Saugus on Oct. 29, Connolly didn’t waste any time pressing him on the MBTA’s plans for service expansion.

Speaking after the party, Davis said employees with “dedication, passion and skills” on par with Connolly’s are the “heart and soul of our organization.”

“I think all of the people who are coming up through the MBTA, whether in operations or whatever, should look at Tom’s accomplishments and what he’s been able to contribute,” Davis said, “not only to the MBTA, but all of the customers he serves everyday.”

Copyright 2011 The Arlington Advocate. Some rights reserved

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