Commuter Rail vs Green Line for Boston Marathon?

by Patricia

Green Line - E branch

Green Line - E branch

Green Line - E branch Copley Station, near the Boston Marathon finish line

Thank you so much for your page. I find it much more helpful than the MBTA site. I'm a small town Texas girl and not familiar with public transportation. I'll be running the Boston Marathon in about 60 days, and because of sold out situations at many hotels we'll be lucky if we can stay in Newton. I can't tell the difference between Green line and Commuter Rail or what I would need to catch from way out there. The MBTA site was confusing with zones and prices. :( Any help you can provide would be great. Thanks! :)

Susan's reply: Congratulations for qualifying for the Marathon! And thanks for your compliments about this page - I'm very happy to hear that it was helpful!

I grew up in Texas myself, and can totally empathize with how confusing Boston's public transportation system is! I can tell you that coming from Texas, you're going to be a little shocked to see how old and sort of old-fashioned the subway system is. The good news, though, is that it's really convenient and cheap. The Commuter Rail is newer - although not quite as convenient.

There are several major differences between the Commuter Rail, which is a train, and the Green Line, which is part of Boston's subway ("T") system but is really a trolley (like old-fashioned train cars running on tracks).

The Commuter Rail, like a train, runs according to a set schedule (although that doesn't meant it necessarily runs on time). From any given station, there will be several departures and arrivals each day. If these work for you, that's great - but the T offers much more flexibility. The T does not run according to a set schedule (aside from it's first morning departure), but instead runs at set intervals (usually about every 6 to 9 minutes), depending on the line and time of day. These intervals are really just theoretical, as things such as traffic cause them to vary. Large portions of the Green Line are above ground in areas with lots of traffic - they have to stop for traffic lights just like cars, and although cars are supposed to give them the right of way, in reality cars often block the tracks and delay the Green Line.

Another difference is that the Commuter Rail extends farther out in the suburbs than the T, so in some areas, it's your only choice. Closer in, the Commuter Rail's stations are usually farther apart than the T, so you may be less likely to be near a CR stop.

Finally, I believe that the CR is faster than the T - not surprising, as it's an actual train. The Green Line is notoriously slow, but since you'll be taking it at a very early hour to Boston Common, it shouldn't be too bad. The major reason why it's so slow, aside from the fact that trolleys probably aren't built for speed, is the traffic and stop lights, which shouldn't be so bad at an early hour.

Because of scheduling uncertainties, the T is probably a better bet for you than the CR. Once you have a target hotel in mind, do check the MBTA schedule ( to see the first departure time - this will be from the end-point station, so use the big T map to find the end station for the line near your hotel. Most start around 5am, so you should be fine for getting to the Common by 6am when the first shuttles to Hopkinton depart.

Another thing that I would do is to call the hotel directly (not the 800- number - look for a 617- number) and see if they might be running any sort of shuttle service to the Common or even Hopkinton for the Marathon.

Fares for the T will be $2 each way. Going into the city, you can just give the conductor $2 in cash (coins or bills) when you board, because once you get to the point where the trolleys run above ground, there are "stops" rather than stations, with no place to buy tickets. Going back, though, you'll need a ticket which you can buy in the station.

As you point out, fares for the Commuter Rail are trickier to figure out, because they depend on the "zone" - basically, distance from the center of Boston. If you have the name of your station, you can find the zone fairly easily on the MBTA site. This is the url for the page with fares:

You'll notice "Interzone" fares - just ignore those, as you're starting farther out and going to a Zone 1A station. Let's say you are taking the train from Needham Center. As you can see from the chart on the page, that's Zone 2, so you'd pay the Zone 2 fare. Like the T, you can pay the conductor directly as you board if there's no station with tickets, but if there is but you didn't get a ticket, you have to pay an extra $1-$2.

For both the T and the CR, you should have exact change if possible, as the drivers can't always make change.

Two more things to keep in mind: 1) The CR trains from the west come into South Station, which is a bit beyond Boston Common. You could get off there or at the previous stop, Back Bay, and walk to the Common. Back Bay is perhaps a block farther away than South Station, but if you take the CR, I would get off at Back Bay, because if you're not familiar with Boston and how the streets kind of wind around, Back Bay is more direct and the morning of the Marathon is not the time to get lost!

2) The Green Line has branches - B, C, D, and E. Going into the city, the line doesn't matter as they all go to the same spot. Coming back, though, it's important to know which line you need, and to make sure you get on the right train (you'll see the letter at the front of the first car).

If you have any difficulties, most Bostonians will go out of their way to be helpful. One of the things I love about Boston is how nice and friendly people are here, and I hope you get to experience this too. Although I will warn you, the Boston accent can sometimes be a little difficult to understand!

Best of success in the race, and I hope you'll have a wonderful time in Boston!!!


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