Restoring passenger service to the Agricultural Branch

I’ve written here a few times in the past about the prospect, under Regional Rail, of operating passenger service on the former Agricultural Branch Railroad through Framingham. Twitter user @h100gfld convinced me to take another look, and I identified a number of potential station locations and traced out the length of the line on aerial photos. To run service all the way to downtown Clinton, a relatively old, and therefore dense, Worcester suburb, you would need to reconstruct and twin most of 24 miles of track, including building new signals and electrification, some of which will be in an environmentally sensitive area (the flood plain of the Nashua River near Wachusett Reservoir), which would be unlikely to cost less than $10 million a mile in addition to the nine stations. I had another nice Twitter discussion with Sandy Johnston, a planner at MassDOT, about how you model reverse-commute service into areas like this, which currently have a heavily car-dominated mode structure: understanding the potential for some of these stations requires a good model of how transportation demand management can operate in highly suburban areas of the metro. A station where there are already private shuttles (operated by individual employers, office-park developers, or Transportation Management Associations) or public transit services (operated by the MBTA or a local agency) would have more reverse-commute potential than a parking lot surrounded by undevelopable conservation land, even if the latter is actually the location of a historic passenger station. However, as @h100gfld pointed out, there are a number of locations along the Ag Branch with significant potential for “traditional” commuter rail services.

While some of the Regional Rail advocacy emphasizes the transportation value of reverse-commute and suburb-to-suburb services, especially when some of our “suburbs” are themselves urbanized areas larger than the core cities of other metros. In my own modeling of the Framingham/Worcester Line, I’ve emphasized the need to treat Worcester as a “first-class citizen” destination in its own right, rather than assuming that nobody would ever want to work or be entertained in downtown Worcester. (That this is clearly wrong will be even more demonstrable in a couple of years when the Red Sox’ AAA affiliate moves from Pawtucket, R.I., to a new ball park immediately adjacent to the railroad just west of Worcester Union Station. It would be a great shame if a platform is not built there to allow Worcester trains to be extended to the park on game nights.)

But let’s at least look at the “traditional commuter rail model” for the Ag Branch, and what that would imply about where you want to put stations. As it’s practiced today, you’re looking to intercept car commuters convenient to their residence or close to a major highway, and give them a big flat parking lot (cheap) or garage (expensive) to park on. This means that you tend to avoid putting stations in the historic downtowns they used to serve (and which would provide potential for TOD or have existing destinations desirable to travelers) — as witness the Westborough, Southborough, and Ashland stations on the Worcester Line, which are located well outside walking distance from anything other than their own parking lots. It also means that you don’t want to build stations on separate lines “too close” to each other, because the federal funding paradigm only rewards new riders, not riders diverted from an existing station by the addition of a more convenient station. This was one of the conclusions from the last time the Ag Branch was studied as a potential commuter rail line: it would not draw enough new riders, but rather, it would just take riders away from the Framingham Line. Because the Ag Branch service was viewed as “competing” with the Worcester Line service (which had not yet been restarted at the time of the study), it was not advanced out of preliminary study into more formal planning. Of course, there have been many, many changes in both land use and transportation (not to mention congestion) since then which mean that the conclusions should be revisited. Since the time of that study, the branch continuing through Nobscot into Sudbury (the former South Sudbury Industrial Track, part of the former Framingham & Lowell Railroad) has been abandoned and tracks lifted — and even more unfortunately, the branch from Marlborough Junction to downtown Marlborough, which is now something of a destination in itself, has been totally obliterated by development.

One thing the Regional Rail paradigm gives you, even for a relatively peaky, commuter-oriented service, is a lower stopping penalty — thanks to electrification, all-door boarding at high-level platforms, and lightweight, quick-accelerating electric multiple-unit trains, adding a station stop typically means less than a minute in travel-time penalty for through passengers. That means that you can have both downtown stations and big park-and-ride interceptor lots where the traffic justifies them, and with frequent all-day service, travelers who are parked at a P&R can get off at a downtown station to shop or dine without having to worry about being stranded there waiting for infrequent off-peak or reverse-peak service.

This then leads me to a route map for passenger service on the Ag Branch that I created in Google My Maps. This map shows nine station sites, two of which are redundant with each other. The map also shows an approximate half-mile “walkshed” around each station location, indicating which businesses and residents would have car-free access to the train.

Clinton
Downtown at the old station location in Depot Square
Berlin
On West St. at the old station location; probably shouldn’t be built unless the towns of Boylston and Berlin agree to pay for it as a somewhat anemic P&R site replacing what appears to be a public-works yard just north of the old station
Northborough/290
A park-and-ride site straddling I-290, about a mile and a half north of Northborough’s old downtown station; local traffic entrance on Bearfoot Road, and you could probably do half of an urban interchange on the west side to intercept cars coming from Shrewsbury on I-290
Northborough Center
I surmise the historic downtown station either is Mama’s Pizza or was located there; there are plenty of amenities and a reasonable amount of residential within walking distance
Marlborough/495
Take the Suburban Propane facility off Simarano Drive on Cedar Hill St. for a large surface P&R lot a half mile from I-495. Note that I did not put a station at Marlborough Junction, although there is surely room for one, because there simply isn’t anything there: the Simarano Dr. location would be more convenient for most drivers and there are neither walkable destinations nor much in the way of residences near Marlboro Jct. This is a location that would be a prime candidate for an infill station if Marlborough either committed to funding shuttle service to downtown or changed zoning to encourage high density around the potential station location.
Southborough
I’ve moved the platform north from what I think was the original station location to put the north end of the platform close to Southborough Medical Center. I would rename the existing Southborough station to Cordaville, which is the historic name of the neighborhood, so that the station in the center of Southborough can be named “Southborough”; the two stations are just about three miles apart along Route 85. Note that even though the Cordaville station is not convenient to the Turnpike or I-495, its large P&R lot regularly fills up before 7 AM on weekdays, so there is justification for building a new station that would attract traffic from the northern part of the current station’s commutershed.
Framingham Technology Park
I’ve discussed this station location frequently in the past. It’s within walking distance of Bose corporate headquarters and a large Sanofi (Genzyme) facility, and has existing MWRTA shuttle service; it’s just off Route 9 and at the Mass Pike interchange; on the other side of Route 9 is Staples corporate headquarters. All told there are probably five thousand jobs in this area, plus a big hotel, and the whole industrial park is ripe for higher-density development made possible by frequent rail service.
Salem End Road
I’ve illustrated two possible station locations for Framingham State University. Both are located at existing FSU parking lots and have site limitations that restrict platform length, but this whole line is probably limited to 600-foot platforms at best. (With the equipment I’ve proposed, that’s more than enough to carry 500 passengers per train, and with service every 15 minutes at peak that would be more than enough to meet the demand on this line.) The northern station location is at Salem End Road, very close to the grade crossing at Route 9. It’s the clearly superior location in terms of access to Framingham State’s campus and to other businesses and residences in Framingham Center, but if a grade separation needs to be built over Route 9 it might not be constructible.
Maple St.
The second Framingham Center station is south of Maple St. and just north of the existing bridge over the Sudbury River. You could possibly justify building a station at Mount Wayte Ave. instead, or building both Salem End and Mt. Wayte (the north end of the Salem End station site is about 7/8 mile from Mt. Wayte Ave.) but if so, it should be paid for by the owner of the shopping center on Franklin St. Maple St. is within walking distance of more residences than Salem End Rd., which tends towards the commercial, but I think there’s a stronger case for Salem End if you can actually build it.

In terms of priorities, I would build this project in four phases: phase one is to Tech Park, phase two is to Simarano Drive, phase three is to I-290, and phase four is the rest of the way to Clinton, probably at least 20 years out unless someone can make a compelling case for doing it faster.

For any passenger service, it will be necessary to construct additional platforms at South Framingham (the current “Framingham” station at Routes 126 and 135 in downtown Framingham). Because CSX needs to get wide freight loads from Framingham (Franklin St.) yard to Mansfield via the Framingham Secondary, there needs to be a freight bypass, or else expensive and maintenance-intensive automatic gap fillers at the new high platforms. And in order to have even a minimal-length, 600-foot platform, the existing western wye track needs to be relocated. I’ve put together a diagram in Google Maps showing how this all fits, and you can see it below:
Diagram drawn on a Google Maps aerial photo showing new platforms and tracks at Framingham station

Relocating the wye track, in addition to making room for the necessary platforms, also opens up more than an acre of land to expand the MBTA’s parking lot. In order to compensate CSX for the loss of parking behind their building, I show about a third of an acre as parking for CSX employees in addition to an expanded MBTA lot. Longer term, it may make more sense to move CSX operations back to the “south” yard (east of route 126 near the Ashland town line), and if it’s not too expensive, building a completely new freight track directly from the south yard to the Framingham Secondary would be not be difficult and would be operationally beneficial for passenger service. Indeed, redevelopment of the Franklin St. yard — which is on a large pond that could make it desirable for transit-oriented residential development — might well pay for building such a connection. (I’ve drawn two plausible routes from the south yard to the Framingham Secondary on yet another Google map. Construction of either alternative would permit the abandonment of the north end of the Framingham Secondary and closure of one of the two remaining grade crossings on Route 135 in downtown Framingham, and would simplify the elimination of the grade crossing of Route 126.)

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Next steps for Regional Rail

At the October 1 meeting of the MBTA’s Fiscal & Management Control Board, there was an extended discussion of capital investment planning. The presenter, in the capital projects department, noted that in past years, the MBTA had been unable to spend all of its capital budget due to a lack of a program pipeline, due in large part to a lack of management capacity to oversee and close out contracts on a timely basis. FMCB chairman Joseph Aiello noted that the plan for remedying the MBTA’s investment backlog over 15 years, which was part of the revitalization program the board approved, has a “hockey stick” graph in expenditures, hitting nearly $1.5 billion (in 2015 dollars) in fiscal 2021 and remaining level (in constant dollar terms) for the next ten years. Aiello expressed concern that the agency may not be issuing enough contracts for capital construction and vehicle purchases to be actually making the $1.5 billion investment on schedule, because these projects would need to be in the pipeline now for the actual expenditures to be made in the out years.

On my way home from the meeting (which had no public comment session) I tweeted that I could think of two easy ways to quickly ramp up that spending: building the Red-Blue Connector and making a full commitment to Regional Rail. Red-Blue doesn’t count as “state of good repair” (SGR) spending, but a big chunk of the bill for Regional Rail — replacing all of the rolling stock and upgrading yards and maintenance facilities — does. In addition, building high-level platforms at all stations will entail both accessibility and SGR improvements for platforms and station structures at more than a hundred stations. That got me thinking — of course, the state hasn’t committed to Regional Rail — but supposing they did so before December, what would that mean for the project pipeline? What plans and “early action” procurements need to proceed immediately, in the current fiscal year, to be able to obviate future SGR spending on obsolete commuter rail equipment? I came up with a list of five:

  1. Design/Build: Mansfield high platforms and freight bypass (or automatic gap fillers — if practical, faster to implement, and maintenance costs are not much higher than the bypass)
  2. Design: Sharon substation expansion to full capacity (should be relatively easy because the existing Amtrak traction substation was built with this in mind, and it’s not on the critical path to converting the Providence Line itself; it’s needed for Stoughton, Franklin, Framingham, and revenue Readville service) (construction contract to be advertised 1Q FY20)
  3. Planning: initial procurement activities to support EMU purchase and FRA waiver application; target 2021 delivery of pilot trains (probably includes hiring a consultant to develop the RFP, evaluate bids, develop the testing program, and oversee the rolling stock production and delivery) (rolling stock RFP 1Q FY20)
  4. Design/Build: remaining Providence Line high platforms and any vertical circulation required under ADA; Readville and Fairmount station upgrades after substantial completion of Providence Line
  5. Design/Build: yard electrification, maintenance facility upgrades, and additional required catenary installation at Providence Line station sidings and layover facilities; Fairmount Line catenary

I added Fairmount catenary to the “early action” list (which wasn’t in my original Twitter thread) because it supports the maintenance and testing of the EMUs; you’ll need to test the pilot train(s) somewhere, and the Fairmount is short, adjacent to two major yards that will need electrification, and a potentially viable alternate route with a (current) low level of scheduled service to interfere with. The Fairmount Line is already being used to move diesel trains from the Readville layover yard to South Station to start service in the morning, and it is an ideal location to test the new trains until revenue service is ramped up sufficiently.

Ari Ofsevit came up with an intentionally pessimistic station platform upgrade estimate of $3 million, plus $20 million wherever new vertical circulation is required — but the new high-level island platform at Worcester Union Station, including track and signal work and vertical circulation, is forecast to cost only $4 million in design and $8–$12 million to construct, so hopefully this is closer to the actual figure. Various numbers exist for installing main line catenary, but it’s harder to find the cost of catenary special work like turnouts and yard tracks, and harder still to estimate them without a good track map. Figure $3.5–$4.5 million per mile for the Fairmount Line itself.

Mansfield is separate because it needs high platforms but can’t have them currently due to a requirement for wide freight to pass the existing station location; the site is rather constrained, because the Framingham Secondary joins from the west immediately north of the station, and just south of the station is a two-track viaduct. However, the land on the west (southbound) side of the station is mainly parking lots, so it’s conceivable that you could shift the southbound platform west and north, leaving the existing southbound track as a bypass track. Whatever solution is chosen, this station needs vertical circulation and will probably cost on the order of $20–$30 million to upgrade — and this needs to start now because there is no other option for Mansfield commuters; the special work alone could take a year to procure, so the specifics of the design need to be settled quickly. The other stations that need high platforms are Attleboro, South Attleboro, Sharon, and Canton Junction; it appears that none of these stations need additional vertical circulation. Hyde Park station also needs upgrades, but that stop can be serviced by the Franklin Line until it’s upgraded, so it’s not an “early action” station.

Once the “early action” items are in process, a somewhat slower process can be engaged with longer-term contracts to finish the job. A single design firm should be engaged to handle platform and circulation upgrades at the remaining stations, with design packages coming up for construction bids on a line-by-line basis, in priority order. Another firm should be engaged to plan the electrification infrastructure, starting with identifying any clearance issues so work to fix them can be contracted as quickly as possible, and substation locations for traction power on the other lines so permitting and land acquisition can begin. (Sharon substation can service Providence and Fairmount, but not any of the other lines because of distance limitations.) If you want to build my Framingham State/Tech Park extension, now would also be the time to bid a design package for double-tracking, electrification, two stations, and the layover facility.

What about that priority order? While nearly everyone agrees on prioritizing the Providence and Fairmount lines — Providence because it’s already (mostly) electrified and Fairmount because it’s an alternate route to Boston, requires no substations, and it’s an environmental justice community that would benefit from faster, more frequent, non-polluting trains. I tweeted this question with my own proposed list, and Ted Pyne of TransitMatters responded; I have no reason to disagree with his suggestions, so here is the list we seem to have agreed on:

  1. Providence
  2. Fairmount
  3. Framingham/Worcester (and you should go back to treating Framingham short turns as a “branch” with an independent service and its own layover facility to support early-morning and late-night service)
  4. Eastern Route (Newburyport/Rockport, also serves Chelsea, Lynn, Salem, and is the busiest of the North Side lines)
  5. Lowell
  6. Haverhill
  7. Fitchburg
  8. Franklin
  9. South Coast Rail phase 2 (New Bedford/Fall River via Stoughton)
  10. Old Colony (Kingston/Plymouth, Middleboro/Lakeville, Greenbush — the newest lines, opened 20 years ago)
  11. Needham (should be replaced by rapid transit rather than implementing Regional Rail)

Do you electrify the Wildcat Branch, or is that now pointless? Should you do the Stoughton Branch before you actually settle on the final South Coast alignment? (Everyone who isn’t a Bristol County state legislator seems to agree that South Coast phase 1 is a bad idea, myself included.) You’ll want to do a longer-term study to figure out what kind of rapid transit the Needham Line should have — I think there’s broad agreement on extended the Orange Line to West Roxbury, but not so much agreement on what happens to the rest of the Needham Line, which has no other connection to the rail network now that the Millis branch of the Needham Junction wye has been rail-trailed.

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Service delivery standards for Regional Rail

Relax, this is not going to be another 2,500-word opus, just a few thoughts on how the MBTA’s service delivery standards need to change for Regional Rail. The Regional Rail concept encompasses a significantly expanded rail service over existing MBTA commuter rail, but has to satisfy the needs of existing traditional peak-hours Boston commuters in addition to the intra-urban, suburb-to-suburb, and reverse-peak trips that Regional Rail hopes to enable. The MBTA already has a Service Delivery Standard for commuter rail, which was approved by the Fiscal & Management Control Board in 2017, and not all aspects of it need to change, but some of them do.

Span of service (page 12)
Weekdays: 5 AM to 12 midnight in the peak direction, 6:30 AM to 11:00 PM in the reverse-peak direction
Weekends: 8 AM to 11 PM Saturday and Sunday
Rationale: Providing earlier and later service supports service and shift workers whose work day begins before and ends after traditional office workers’ schedules, particularly in the food and hospitality sectors. Earlier service also supports access to Logan Airport for both workers and travelers, as many airline schedules have early departures prior to the first commuter train arriving in Boston, and rail service would reduce the number of automobile trips to Logan and suburban Logan Express bus terminals, as well as parking requirements at both locations, especially on the South Side network with direct access via the SL1 bus from South Station. A later start in the reverse-commute direction allows the reverse-commute service to be operated by returning early-morning trains, providing better equipment utilization and reducing storage requirements in Boston. Extended late evening service enables riders to engage in late-evening activities in the urban core which are not available in many suburban locations, such as dining, concerts, and sporting events, without fear of missing the last train home. Extended weekend service enables more day-trips to destinations like Salem, Newburyport, and Plymouth in addition to the core urban area, and gives returning travelers the opportunity to change to an outbound train at the Boston terminal; it also supports better access to Logan Airport.
Service frequency (page 14)
All days: four trips per hour on trunks and two trips per hour on branches
Peak periods: not less than six trips per hour on trunks and not less than base service on branches
Rationale: this is the point of Regional Rail, and also is necessary in order to meet the maximum loading standard with fully accessible, single-level articulated EMUs given the limitations of the fixed plant (notably platform lengths), which are in turn necessary in order to provide the speed and dwell-time improvements that both partially justify Regional Rail and are necessary in order to operate more frequent service.
Vehicle accessibility (page 19)
All vehicles shall be 100% accessible, and shall have wheelchair bays sufficient to accommodate all passengers requiring them.
Rationale: access is a civil right.
Passenger comfort (page 27)
Peak passenger loads shall not exceed 125% of the seating capacity of a train more than 5% of the time, and shall not exceed 150% of the seating capacity more than 1% of the time. During off-peak periods, passenger loads shall not exceed the seating capacity. Sufficient space shall be available for wheeled conveyances including bicycles, non-powered scooters, and strollers/baby carriages at least 90% of the time, and trips which regularly do not meet this standard shall be so noted on published schedules if crowding cannot be timely remedied. Charging ports and electric outlets in all ports shall function according to the relevant electrical standards.
En-route facilities (not in current service delivery standard)
All trains shall have a functioning public wireless network meeting Wi-Fi Alliance standards in effect at the time of installation. Passenger toilets shall be clean, unclogged, and have sufficient supplies.
Customer convenience (not in current service delivery standard)
Clockface headways shall be used during all dayparts when fewer than six trains per hour stop at a station. Trips which are intentionally off-headway due to non-MBTA rail traffic shall be explicitly called out in the schedule.
Rationale: When trains come at least every ten minutes, travelers typically do not need to schedule their activities around a train schedule, they can just show up at the station and wait. Typically, when trains are less frequent than that, travelers will need to know the schedule and plan for it; it is much easier to remember that a train comes at :26 and :54 every hour for a broad variety of passengers, including those who do not use mobile phone applications to plan all of their trips. This also enables more spontaneous travel during off-peak periods, improving the utility of the service to passengers and businesses at stations.
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Rolling stock for Regional Rail: What and how to buy

If you’ve been reading these posts at all in the past weeks, you’ll have noted that I’m very high on the JKOY Class Sm5 electric multiple unit trainset (pictured above if you’re using a desktop browser) used on Finnish railways for the Helsinki region commuter rail service. I think that Massachusetts should be buying basically this train to replace the diesel locomotives and unpowered bilevel coaches in the current Commuter Rail service. But you can’t sole-source a $2.4 billion government procurement, especially if you have some hope of getting matching funds from the Federal Transit Administration. (Well, you can, but it stinks of corruption and you’d have to be a well-connected Republican and Friend of The Donald to get away with it.) So I wanted to spend some time articulating (no pun intended) what makes this train the right one, in a way that doesn’t explicitly say “it will be a 75 meter electric FLIRT from Stadler” so that other manufacturers would have the opportunity to bid. I’ll also say a few words about a different sort of electric multiple-unit train that I think is Bad and Should Not Be Bought, at least not for the sort of service Regional Rail envisions.

First, though, a long digression about the situation in Finland. When the railroads in Finland were first constructed in the 19th century, Finland was a Grand Duchy in the Russian Empire, and the railroads were built to Russian standards with mainly Russian equipment. This means that the track gauge is Russian, not Standard Gauge as is used on most railroads in North America (and Europe, for that matter). After Finland declared independence in 1917, railway equipment standards in the two countries drifted apart, especially in the modern days of electrification and automatic train control, but they are still compatible if equipment is built to wide enough tolerances. (For most of the 20th century, this served as a trade barrier: Finland was often considered too small a market for European builders, and the Soviet Union did not want to use its hard currency reserves to buy capitalist rolling stock when it could build its own.) However, the Finnish loading gauge — the width of each train at platform level — is almost exactly the same as ours, and wider than the usual European standard, which means that the seating layouts and accessibility could potentially transfer right over.

Prior to Finland’s accession to the European Union in the 1990s, the railway infrastructure, rolling stock, and standards-making were all in the hands of a government department, Valtion Rautatiet (VR, “State Railways”), which had a legal monopoly on all rail transport. In preparation for EU membership, the Finnish government enacted a wide-ranging reform of state-owned enterprises, moving standards, trackage, and rights of way into a new Transport Agency (Liikennevirasto) and creating a new corporate status for VR as VR-yhtymä (“VR Group”), but until 2018 VR maintained its legal monopoly on rail transport. All third-party railroads wishing to operate service in or into Finland could do so only by forming a joint venture with VR, and as of 2017 when I visited, there were only two such joint ventures, one with Russian State Railways to operate passenger services to St. Petersburg (Karelian Trains), and one with the Helsinki regional transport agency to operate Helsinki’s commuter rail network (JKOY). That latter venture is the entity that purchased the class Sm5 rolling stock, starting in 2008; 75 of them had been delivered, in two orders, by the 2015 opening of the Airport Ring Line. They primarily operate on short-distance commuter routes, with longer-distance routes using older VR equipment. In accordance with EU law, JKOY held a tender, and Stadler proposed a cold-weather version of their FLIRT system, already in service in Stadler’s home market of Switzerland and elsewhere in Europe, but this was the first non-Standard-Gauge FLIRT sale; when it entered service it was assigned the class number Sm5. All of the units are owned by JKOY, leased to the regional transportation agency HSL, and operated under contract with VR by VR’s unionized train operators.

Helsinki is a maritime city, but both of the major lines radiating out of the city (the Coast Line to the west and the Main Line to the north and east) run well inland of the Baltic Sea in the parts of the region served by commuter trains. (The Helsinki Metro runs much closer to the sea, and indeed under it in places.) As I noted, the longer-distance commuter trains are operated with VR-owned rolling stock like the class Sm4 EMU, which is somewhat less rapid-transit-like and is more comfortable for the middle-distance journeys some of the express trains make from as far as Finland’s third city, Tampere, 100 miles distant. While Helsinki proper is very dense, especially the districts immediately surrounding the CBD, it is surrounded by large swaths of relatively car-oriented (by European standards) suburbia, and the population density of the entire metropolitan area is not hugely different from the Boston Metropolitan Statistical Area’s — although the absolute population is about a quarter of ours. It’s snowy, cold, and dark in the winter, even more so than here. It’s plenty sunny, but not very warm, in the summer: this means that the HVAC system of the Sm5 is obviously not a perfect fit for Boston: we need less heating and more cooling, but at least we know that these trains are perfectly capable of operating at design capacity even in the winter, with proper maintenance.

(Helsinki even has its own version of North-South Rail Link, with similar financial obstacles; the Urban Rail Loop would be a large, underground “balloon loop” serving three stations in the CBD, allowing trains to enter the city on the Coast Line, serve major employment districts, and then continue without reversing onto the Main Line. If implemented, the I and P trains on the Airport Ring Line would then become true counter-rotating loop routes. While Helsinki has only one Central Railway Station, it is a stub-end terminal and all trains must reverse to continue service.)

Now back to the USA. What are the features of this particular class of train that I think make it close to ideal for Regional Rail in Boston? Here’s a list, with some justifications.

  1. It’s part of a system with broad international adoption, including by other commuter railroads in the United States. Unlike some competing builders, Stadler would not have to build a final assembly plant in the U.S. to qualify for “buy America” because they already have one in Utah to serve their customers here, notably TEXRail in Fort Worth (which is buying a diesel version that has almost exactly the size and interior coniguration we’re looking for). This means that they’ve also been through the Federal Rail Administration’s qualification process for rolling stock that shares track with freight trains — although, thanks in part to acquisitions, the same applies to Stadler’s two biggest competitors, Bombardier and Alstom, as well as the Chinese company, CRRC, which is assembling all of the MBTA’s new rapid-transit cars in Springfield.
  2. They are fully accessible, 100% level boarding, barrier-free trains. This not only respects the civil rights of our mobility-impaired neighbors, it also speeds boarding dramatically, because there are no steps to negotiate, passengers do not need to be concerned about boarding by a specific door or in a specific coach, and passengers can move directly from the wide doors through the aisles into any available seats.
  3. The capacity is right. The existing MBTA bilevel coaches seat about 180 passengers, and single-level coaches seat about 120. The Sm5, which includes an accessible bathroom and ample space for standees and wheeled conveyances as wheelchairs, strollers, and bicycles, has 232 fixed seats in a “3 + 2” configuration and an additional 28 folding single seats which can be used when the space is not occupied by standees or wheelchairs, for a total capacity of 260 seated passengers. In my personal experience, there is plenty of room for standees in addition to the official folding-seat areas, and under load in more rapid-transit-like situations, like the Framingham Line between Auburndale and Back Bay, they could easily accommodate another 50 or even 100 standees. (TEXRail is buying basically this train with a diesel engine stuck in the middle, and they are claiming 230 seated and 217 standees.) That means that, with the sorts of frequency improvements Regional Rail is all about, most trains should be well below the maximum load with only two trainsets in a consist, and all off-peak and weekend service can be accommodated with single-trainset consists.
  4. The physical size is right. These trainsets are 75 meters long, which works out to just under 250 feet. The MBTA’s standard platform length is 800 feet, meaning that for the most crowded runs you could accommodate three Sm5’s on a platform with plenty of slop for inaccurate stopping or slippery rail conditions. A standard Amtrak platform is 1050 feet long, which means that for the initial implementation along the Providence Line you could even run four-unit consists for expresses serving Providence, Route 128, Back Bay, and South Station while finishing high platform construction, performing acceptance testing, working out the schedules, and training operators on the equipment.
  5. It’s ready for AFC 2.0 and conductorless operation. Regional Rail assumes full high-level platforms at all stations, meaning train doors can be released by the operator, rather than forcing passengers to wait for a conductor to drop the traps and open doors manually. As presently operated in Helsinki, there are no conductors, just fare inspectors, since the entire HSL system, including trams and the metro, has adopted proof-of-payment. (Until the middle of 2017 there was a ticket sales agent in one trainset of each consist, but this was phased out in favor of on-platform ticket machines.) At each boarding door, there are two ticket validators: a contactless one for stored-value fare media and a mechanical one for traditional single-use paper tickets. (HSL does not require passengers with daypasses to validate or “tap in” on trains: the ticket is validated on issue, and passengers can keep it stashed away until asked by a fare inspector to present it.) Under FRA and union work rules, it is likely that at least initially a conductor will be required in each trailing trainset of a consist. For Regional Rail, we will eventually want to attrit the conductors and give those who wish to stay the opportunity to train as an operator or become a fare inspector, which is almost the same job, but there should not be nearly as many fare inspectors needed as conductors today.)
  6. Ingress and egress are efficient. Unlike US systems that operate trains based on conventionally coupled self-propelled coaches, like the LIRR and Metro-North, the FLIRT is a permanently coupled articulated train with no gangways. This also means that there do not need to be doors at the ends of every coach. Door locations and seating layouts can be optimized for increased capacity and faster ingress and egress: you can allow passengers in the articulations (seated and standees, not just passing from one section to another), and the articulations need not be spaced 90 feet apart as those traditional US-designed EMUs do. All of these factors increase the capacity of both the trains and the service, and allow for greatly improved dwell times at busy stations and more consistent running times. Boarding doors on the Sm5 are wide, automatic, and passenger-operated, which speeds alighting, enhances passenger comfort, and saves energy by keeping conditioned air inside the train at stops where few passengers board or alight and not all doors need to be opened.
  7. The electric FLIRT accelerates fast and has a maximum speed of 100 mi/h or more. The maximum speed is actually an option for the customer; European commuter operators typically buy trains that top out at 160 km/h, which is at or above the maximum for most US commuter railroads including most MBTA lines, because the extra horsepower and electrical capacity required are not justified by the increased speed, which is limited more by station spacing than by equipment anyway. However, if you wanted a FLIRT that could pass an Acela Express train on the one 125 mi/h segment of the Northeast Corridor in Massachusetts, they’d be happy to build one and sell it to you. At the other end of the power spectrum, I’ve heard anecdotally that Stadler would likely be interested in making a FLIRT with sufficient battery capacity to perform many low-speed yard moves without the benefit of overhead power, which could reduce implementation costs at least initially — if indeed they aren’t already selling this.
  8. Passenger amenities are plentiful. In addition to an LCD monitor showing route information, train speed, outside temperature, and passenger information at every boarding door, the Sm5 has AC power outlets at nearly every seating position. In the TEXRail diesel variant, both AC outlets and USB power are provided, as well as passenger Wi-Fi. There are small tables at every window seat, perfect for resting a phone or other small electronic device while charging, and the trains themselves have large windows and excellent high-efficiency interior lighting.
  9. The interior layout is bike and stroller-compatible, even at full seating capacity. With the 3+2 seating layout, the corridors are wide, and there is a location at each end, adjacent to the accessible toilet, where bikes and strollers can be hand-held without interfering with passengers walking or wheeling through the train. Ending the off-peak restriction makes active transportation dramatically more viable for many commuters, as they can take the train to work and ride home, or take the train into the city and then use their own bike to get around.
  10. There’s a diesel option. As mentioned above, TEXRail is buying essentially this train, but with a diesel prime mover in the middle. Why is this an advantage, given that the Regional Rail program requires electrification? There are a few reasons. First and foremost, the transition from diesel to electric is going to take some time, and there are lines that may need replacement rolling stock before it’s practical to electrify them — the Needham and Old Colony lines are likely candidates there, with the Needham line eventually being converted to rapid transit and the Old Colony having the single-track bottleneck in Dorchester that will have to be remedied before Regional Rail can be implemented effectively. So it makes sense to have a few diesel-powered trainsets around, particularly with the level of parts and maintenance commonality between the EMU and DMU FLIRT3 systems. Secondly, with some number of diesel vehicles available with a similar capacity to the regular EMUs, it’s much easier to handle situations where the overhead power is unavailable, due to storm, mishap, or ongoing construction. And finally, given a maintenance base that can handle both EMU and DMU systems, it becomes much more practical for MassDOT to operate longer-distance intercity services on lines that will likely never be electrified, like the capeFLYER, East-West Rail to Springfield and Pittsfield, Worcester local commuter service, and commuter service to Nashua and Manchester.

So why not something like a Metro-North M8? Well, point 6 above really gives the show away: there’s no inherent virtue in using a traditional-length rail car if you’re already going to have to significantly upgrade your maintenance facilities to handle EMUs anyway, and eliminating gangways (where passengers are not supposed to sit or loiter) allows greater seating capacity per unit length. It’s not that great a virtue to be able to vary consist length a hundred seats at a time either, and most railroads (like most metros) prefer to leave passenger trains coupled for as long as practical.

Using shorter cars could in theory reduce variable costs, if you were committed to running only 110-seat consists during off-peak hours, but the moment you have a big event (concert, sporting event, convention, political rally) that starts or ends during the off-peak hours, you’ll really appreciate the flexibility offered by running more seats all the time: it means you don’t need to dispatch extra service, with additional operators and their wages, in any but the largest special events. And of course the longer trainsets have only two driver’s positions, at either end of unit, whereas with traditional EMUs you either waste space and lots of money on an operator’s position in every car, or you increase fleet complexity by having to maintain separate “control” and “non-control” cars just as the MBTA does now. (The extra cost is especially problematic with the additional cab equipment required for Positive Train Control: fewer cabs and longer trainsets is better. Compare how the subway cars are managed: there are always two cars “permanently” coupled back-to-back; you can break the pair, but they prefer not to, so that both cars in the pair accumulate wear and need maintenance on the same schedule.)

This is backed up by my simulations of Framingham/Worcester Line loading: in the zone express scenario, the “local” inbound trains that run every 15 minutes from Framingham can make service requirements with only single-trainset consists throughout the day, with peak loading at around 300 passengers (260 seated and 40 standees who got on in Newton and will be getting off in less than 17 minutes) on a couple of inbound rush-hour trains.

So in more general terms, the specification should look something like this:

  • Permanently articulated trainsets between 245 and 267 feet in length. (267 feet is 800 ÷ 3, so the maximum length to fit a three-trainset consist on a standard MBTA high platform.)
  • Seating capacity between 225 and 275 passengers including wheelchair bays, with a 3 + 2 configuration and at least 25 folding single seats, poles and railings for standees.
  • Standard NEC-compatible 25-kilovolt electrification, with PTC/ATC integration in accordance with the MBTA’s existing implementation.
  • At least six wide, automatic release, passenger-operated boarding doors on each side, with 100% barrier free level boarding at all doors and uniform floor height; no traps.
  • Two ADA-compliant toilets.
  • Electronic route and destination signs with the capability to display additional passenger information; automatic stop announcements.
  • Passenger amenities: charging stations in every row of seats, small phone/beverage-cup tables at windows, overhead open racks for bag stowage, at least X contiguous square feet for stroller/bicycle parking (may overlap wheelchair bays); Wi-Fi integration (may be implemented by others depending on how the T is used to procuring this).
  • Vendor should be able to supply a substantially identical configuration with a diesel prime mover (EPA Tier 4 compliant).
  • Minimum acceleration 1 m/s² (for EMUs only); minimum maximum speed 100 mi/h
  • Optional battery pack for off-wire yard moves (trade-off against cost of fully wiring all the yards and layover facilities)

So that’s the “what”, now for the “how”. Obviously, I think this should be put to an RFP as soon as possible, in order to avoid wasteful spending on new obsolete diesel equipment (see the update at the end of Monday’s post on the total bill for Regional Rail). The RFP should specify a delivery date of 2Q2021 for 30 EMUs, with annual options for another 270 cars to be delivered 30 per year starting in 2023, and an option for up to 30 DMUs exercisable between 2021 and 2025. (Why no deliveries in 2022? Because it will take at least a year to fully qualify the new equipment on the Providence Line before the T is ready to accept more trains, and this gives extra time to ramp up platform construction on the Framingham/Worcester line, which would be next after Providence and Fairmount.) The target price per unit for the EMUs should be not more than $10 million. (Helsinki paid under 8 million euros for theirs, adjusting for inflation, and that’s with a nonstandard gauge.)

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Two outlines of a Congestion Charge District for Boston

In today’s exercise in transportation blogging, I’m writing about congestion charging. Boston is an old and congested city, and suffers a great deal from air, water, and noise pollution as a result of automobile traffic. Unlike congestion pricing, which is intended to speed up freeway traffic by using a market mechanism to discourage car travel at peak times, a zone-based congestion charge is a mechanism to directly compensate communities for the environmental and social externalities caused by car and truck traffic. Both structures could have a place in Boston’s transportation picture, and have been implemented elsewhere, but congestion pricing has significant externalities of its own (by encouraging traffic to shunpike, that is, to shift to un-priced alternate routes and thereby spread the congestion around in space as well as in time), so the approaches are complementary.

Here I am presenting an outline of congestion charging for Boston — in two different senses. First of all, I’ve made a Google Map showing one possible congestion zone. I chose these boundaries based on my experience living here and an intuition about which communities might or might not want to be part of a congestion charging scheme. Of course, if a city like Newton, Saugus, or Quincy sees the inner core cities reaping substantial benefits, both financial and in traffic reduction, they might well choose to join in the future. I could easily see, for example, Newton wanting to include the Route 9, Washington St., and Highland Ave. corridors in a congestion zone, or Saugus might want to get some benefit from all those cars coming south on Route 1 (which would hit this proposed congestion zone boundary at the Route 60 rotary in Revere), but there has to be some sort of compactness or contiguity restriction on the zone, because otherwise the outer suburbs join and establish a zone that includes Route 128 but none of their own local streets. The zone that I’ve drawn is about 75 square miles — much larger than the London congestion zone, for example, which was the world’s first (and so far most successful) congestion charge at only eight square miles. Secondly, I am presenting a sketch of an actual legislative proposal which would create a congestion charging district for Boston, give it the authority to collect the charge and direct MassDOT to cooperate in implementing it — immediately on the existing toll roads, and within three years everywhere else.

I don’t have good figures for how many monitoring points would be required to achieve a reasonable coverage ratio given local travel patterns. Obviously just getting the toll roads and tunnels gives you a substantial head start — on the order of 150,000 vehicles per weekday — but non-toll freeways such as I-93, US 1, and Storrow Drive would need sufficient coverage (using the E-ZPass gantry-and-camera method already used for All Electronic Tolling). Other arterial roads and potential shunpike routes would also need coverage: that includes all of the other parkways, Arsenal St., Commonwealth Ave., Beacon St., Blue Hill Ave., Boylston St., Concord Ave., Mystic Ave., Mass. Ave., McGrath and O’Brien Highways, Cambridge St. (Boston and Somerville), Chestnut Hill Ave., and pretty much every street named Broadway. In some areas where long-term or overnight parking is prohibited, additional coverage could be achieved by using license-plate recognition data generated for parking enforcement. Assuming a baseline charge of five dollars a day (about a third less than London’s), with no fee abatements and 200,000 vehicles subject to the charge, that could amount to a total revenue base of $240 million a year before collection costs; in my formula, half of that goes directly to the MBTA and the other half is divided among the cities and towns in the district according to a complicated (but pre-existing) state-aid formula.

Sketch of proposed law

1. Definitions

Adjoining City: any municipality contiguous to the District which votes to join the District in accordance with section 2

Administrator: the Administrator of the Division of Highways in the Department of Transportation

Base Fee: the nominal daily fee charged to all non-exempt vehicles that operate on public roads within the Zone, prior to application of any fee abatement schedules established under sections 10 and 11

Board: the governing body of the District as established in section 3

Charge: the congestion charge assessed on vehicles operated in the Zone as described in this chapter; the Charge is liquidated damages collected on behalf of the residents of the District as compensation for traffic congestion and associated air, noise, and water pollution, and is neither a fine nor a toll

Core City: any of the cities of Boston, Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, Malden, Medford, Revere, Somerville, and Watertown, and the towns of Brookline and Winthrop

Coverage Ratio: the ratio of the number of vehicles accurately identified as operating within the Zone and paying the Charge to the average number of vehicles estimated to be operating within the Zone on an ordinary business day

District: the Boston Area Congestion Mitigation District, a municipal corporation with a distinct legal personality from the Commonwealth and any of its general-purpose municipalities

Exempt Vehicle: a vehicle which exempt from the Charge under sections 12 and 13

General Manager: the chief operating officer of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority

Secretary: the Secretary of Transportation

Target Coverage Ratio: the goal established by the Board for the Coverage Ratio under section 7

Zone: the Boston Area Congestion Charging Zone as established by the Board under section 6

2. The District shall consist of the Core Cities and any Adjoining City that elects to join by an affirmative vote of its governing body, provided that an Adjoining City which is not directly contiguous to a Core City may only join by consent of the Secretary and a majority of the Board.

(Insert usual financial obligations and “sue or be sued” language here.)

[Note: this opens up membership to Newton, Waltham, Belmont, Arlington, Winchester, Melrose, Saugus, Quincy, Milton, Needham, and Dedham, which gives them a say on the board, and the opportunity for resident abatements of fees if such a scheme is established, but under section 15 they are not entitled to any of the revenue unless the congestion charging zone actually encompasses some of their residents.]

3. The District shall be governed by a board consisting of five members appointed by the Mayor of Boston with the approval of the Boston City Council and one member appointed by governing body of each of the remaining Core Cities and each of the Adjoining Cities. The members of the Board shall not be compensated for their service but shall be reimbursed for any expenses incurred while engaged in Board business.

4. The Board shall include as non-voting observers the Secretary, the General Manager, and the Administrator, or such subordinates as each shall designate. The Secretary shall have the casting vote should the voting members of the Board be equally divided on any question.

5. The Board shall elect its own chair, and otherwise operate according to [insert reference to whatever state law usually governs such boards]. [Insert usual terms allowing the board to hire and pay professional and administrative staff and participate in the state pension and benefits plans.] [Insert transitional terms directing MassDOT to provide staff to the board until the district is earning revenues and able to forward-fund its own staff salaries.]

6. The Board shall fix and establish a contiguous Boston Area Congestion Charging Zone within the boundaries of the District, and shall determine a base congestion fee (the “Base Fee”) to be charged on a daily basis to motor vehicles operating on public roads therein, within two calendar years of the District’s establishment, and shall review the boundaries of the Zone and the Base Fee not more than every three years thereafter.

7. The Board shall establish a Target Coverage Ratio and shall consult with the Administrator and independent experts on the most effective means to achieve it. The Target Coverage Ratio shall increase by not less than five percent annually until it reaches ninety-five percent, and at the discretion of the board once a Coverage Ratio of ninety-five percent is actually achieved. The Board shall engage an independent expert to estimate and make a public report on the Coverage Ratio annually.

8. The Administrator shall, in consultation with the Board, implement technological means for observing vehicles entering into and moving about the Zone, identifying their registered owners, and collecting the Charge from those owners, including without limitation vehicles operating on the Massachusetts Turnpike, Tobin Bridge, and all other state highways passing into, over, or through the Zone. Such means may include photographic recording of registration plates, whether by fixed or mobile apparatus.

The Administrator shall develop a signage program to ensure that all vehicles entering the Zone are informed of the Charge and given sufficient opportunity to avoid the Zone if they so choose. The implementation shall be completed on existing toll facilities within 26 calendar months after the establishment of the Board, and within three years thereafter on such other state highways and municipal arterial roads as are necessary to reach the Target Coverage Ratio. The Administrator shall net the Department’s operating expenses against Charges collected from vehicle owners and due to the District. The Board may agree with member municipalities to perform some or all of the implementation and/or collection if it determines this would reduce costs or operating expenses, or is necessary to meet the Target Coverage Ratio.

9. The Department of Conservation and Recreation shall cooperate with the Administrator in locating such means on urban parkways administered by said Department.

10. The Board may, at its discretion, establish a schedule for abatement of the Charge for vehicles registered within the District, not to exceed fifty percent of the Base Fee, provided that all residents of the District shall be treated equally.

11. The Board may, at its discretion, establish a schedule for abatement of the Charge for vechicles owned or operated by low-income individuals and disadvantaged business enterprises, not to exceed twenty-five percent of the Base Fee, and in so doing shall use pre-existing means of identifying such individuals as approved by the Secretary of Administration and Finance.

12. Emergency vehicles, vehicles registered to the Commonwealth or any of its instrumentalities or municipalities, and United States government vehicles shall be exempt from the Charge.

13. Paratransit vehicles, vehicles adapted for use by the disabled, and buses capable of seating more than 15 passengers shall be exempt from the Charge regardless of ownership and whether or not they are in service. Construction vehicles shall be exempt to the extent that they are operating within one-quarter mile of a fixed construction location and using public roads only incidentally to the process of construction, but not when being transported to or between construction sites. Vehicles which are parked on public roads are exempt from the Charge insofar as they are not moved, or are operated for only such distance as is required under municipal regulations relating to snow and ice removal or street cleaning.

14. Except as provided in sections 9 through 13 inclusive, all vehicles shall be charged the same congestion fee for every twenty-four-hour period during which they are operated on public roads within the Zone.

15. The Board shall establish procedures for collecting congestion fees from rental vehicles, taxis, and Transportation Network Companies, and for periodic audits of thereof to ensure compliance.

16. The boundaries of the Zone, the Base Fee, and any fee abatement schedules shall not be subject to review under the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act.

17. The Charges collected by the District, less the District’s expenses, debt service, and reasonable reserves, shall be paid out quarterly in arrears as follows: (a) fifty percent shall be remitted directly to the MBTA, and (b) fifty percent shall be paid to each municipality in the District in accordance with the Chapter 90 formula; provided, that each Adjoining City’s share shall be prorated according to the proportion of that Adjoining City’s population residing within the Zone, and further provided, that the funds remitted to each municipality are considered unrestricted and may be used for any lawful purpose.

18. The Board may, with unanimous consent of the Core Cities, alter the formula in section 17(b).

19. The MBTA shall dedicate the funds remitted under section 17(a) to programs tailored to benefit residents of the District, including without limitation capital improvements, service expansion, and fare mitigation.

20. The District may accept income from other sources, whether private, government, or commercial, to the extent otherwise permitted by law, which shall be distributed in accordance with section 15. Such sources may include development impact fees assessed by municipalities within the District, but the District is not authorized to directly assess such fees.

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The cost of implementing Regional Rail

I just finished watching the video replay of Monday’s MBTA control board meeting, which was mostly about buses and bus drivers, and I found very little notable about it other than the fact that the MBTA’s Chief Engineer hates catenary, and this seems to be driving the (crazy to me) push towards replacing perfectly good trolleybus lines with battery-powered buses that must sit in an environmentally-controlled depot for large parts of every day to be charged (and which in any case are still much less efficient because you’re still lugging around that weight of batteries when you could have permanent infrastructure in place that doesn’t have to be dragged around with the passengers all day. I emailed some comments to the FMCB asking that, in public outreach about the bus program, they do a better job of both quantifying the costs and of documenting the crossover point between when carrying your power source is worthwhile compared to running wires (especially on high-frequency lines that really should be trams anyway). But that’s not really what I wanted to write about. Instead, this post is a followup on Monday’s post about scheduling Regional Rail on the Framingham/Worcester Line.

You’ll recall that I figured out a way to maintain eight trains per hour on the line during peak periods with a total EMU inventory of only 24 units. Totally coincidentally, MIT planning student Ari Ofsevit tweeted a thread about what it would actually cost to get level boarding throughout the commuter rail network, which is the first step of Regional Rail and, as I’ve advocated, should be the state’s number one priority after Positive Train Control is fully implemented (which is a Federal Railroad Administration mandate, and is also scheduled to be done by the end of 2020, which is the earliest any Regional Rail construction could plausibly start anyway, just based on the MBTA and state capital planning cycles). Ari counted 148 high platforms that needed to be built across the system, and 20 stations that need elevators (which cost much more) or other sorts of vertical circulation for accessibility. He conservatively estimates a construction cost (including design) of $3 million per platform, and then another $20 million for each elevator installation (some stations may need more than one). This alone would improve schedule adherence and reduce the staffing requirements that exist currently due to the need for conductors to operate door traps at each low-level station. Ari estimates the total cost of this capital improvement at $900 million.

For Regional Rail, we need two other components: rolling stock and electrification infrastructure (primarily catenary and substations). Pretty much everything else that is absolutely required, from double-tracking on the Franklin line to reworking overpasses to rehabilitating drawbridges to building a second platform at Worcester, is either already programmed or already planned. If the average MBTA commuter line can be served with 24 of those 75-meter Stadler FLIRT EMUs that I’m so fond of — the Providence and Fitchburg lines will require more, the Fairmount line (assuming it isn’t rejoined to the Franklin Line) and the Lowell Lines will require fewer (and the Old Colony is probably the last one to get Regional Rail anyway, because it’s new construction and the single-tracking through Dorchester limits service levels substantially) — then overall the entire system would need 300 of them. They cost about $8 million each, maybe less, call it $3.2 billion total for rolling stock and high platforms. Having a single, uniform fleet of rolling stock would be a tremendous cost savings to the MBTA, and with the cars delivered over the course of a 10-year contract, there would be no future huge hits as overhauls and replacements could be done over a similar time frame, 15 to 25 years after delivery.

Then comes the question of electrification. Other places can do it more cheaply, by quite a large measure, but let’s be pessimistic and assume that electrifying the MBTA system would cost as much per mile as the Amtrak Northeast Corridor extension from New Haven to Boston did 20 years ago, adjusted for inflation. That would work out to about $1.5 billion. Some of the infrastructure doesn’t need to be built out, because the catenary already exists along the Providence Line for most of its length, but yard tracks would need to be wired, and there’s additional complexity at turnouts; the Commuter Rail Maintenance Facility would need some upgrades as well. But all told, we’re talking about a $5 billion capital investment that would dramatically improve service, improve long-term reliability and state-of-good-repair, reduce operating costs, reduce carbon and particulate emissions, and make the whole commuter rail network fully ADA compliant. It would also make it possible to allow bikes on trains at all times, not just when it’s dark out.

How can we pay for this? Well, for starters, cancel South Coast Rail phase 1. That doesn’t quite free up the $1 billion, because some of the phase 1 components are also part of phase 2, like the real estate and rehabilitation of tracks into New Bedford and Fall River. But commit to Regional Rail and you can commit credibly to SCR phase 2 as a part of the Regional Rail program. Secondly, don’t build South Station Expansion. With Regional Rail, station dwell times should be 15 minutes or less on all lines, because nearly all trains turn around and run back out to the other end of the line (where they are less constrained on turnaround time). That saves another $1 billion. Finally, don’t build the unnecessary midday layover facility in Allston: for the Framingham/Worcester Line, you can send the trains to Framingham, as I’ve shown in my schedule, and in general, Regional Rail allows you to lay over trains at Southampton St. again, because they’re no longer emitting diesel smoke into the neighborhood when they are starting their trips. (My best guess is that upgrading the Agricultural Branch and building the two new stations and a layover facility should come in at around $35 million; a layover facility at Fountain St. would be much cheaper, possibly as little as $3 million. I would not build a parking structure at Framingham Tech Park, but encourage nearby businesses to either charge for parking in their surface lots or construct a privately owned parking structure and a pedestrian bridge to the station.)

Again, it’s $5 billion, to make a real, substantive improvement in our commuter rail system. It doesn’t depend on North-South Rail Link. (The other way around, actually: doing NSRL requires electrification, although not necessarily the full Regional Rail treatment, and switching to an all-EMU equipment roster would make some aspects of NSRL cheaper to construct.) It would avoid at least $2 billion in currently planned capital costs. We need to just do this, and we need to make it clear to the MBTA that we’re not taking “no” (read: “I don’ wanna!”) as an answer. Over the course of ten years, it would be less than $500 million a year to implement, possibly quite a bit less depending on how quickly we (1) commit to doing it, (2) get those orders in for rolling stock and electrical equipment, and (3) stop investing in obsolete diesel locomotives and locomotive-hauled coaches.

Time for me to go to bed. (This post is scheduled for delayed publication when people will hopefully be awake to read it.)

UPDATE 2018-09-26: I spent time tonight digging through the MassDOT FY2019-2023 Capital Investment Plan, trying to identify programs that should be cut in favor of early action implementation on Regional Rail. I found $27 million budgeted for locomotive overhauls, which need to be done to maintain state-of-good-repair, and likewise another $112 million to overhaul the Kawasaki bi-level coaches. But there’s also $27 million to buy new locomotives and $245 million to buy new bi-level coaches, and that is just throwing good money after bad. A combined $272 million of already programmed funds would complete electrification on the Providence/Stoughton Line, build the required expansion of Sharon substation, electrify the Fairmount Line, build all the necessary high-level platforms, and fund the acquisition of at least 20 250-passenger EMUs. (By the way, the highest-capacity bilevel coaches have only 180 seats, but of course replacing bi-levels with level-boarding EMUs implies operating more trains, because the improved boarding speed and reduced dwell time of the EMU comes at a cost of taking more space on the platform. But certainly all off-peak service on all three lines could be replaced with EMUs even without increasing frequency, and the diesel equipment moved to other services.) On the other hand, the Allston midday layover facility that I mentioned in the original post doesn’t turn out to be much of a budget hit; the issues there are more to do with the impact of that facility on West Station and eliminating the Turnpike viaduct.

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Tying up the past week’s Twitter threads on (you guessed it) transportation

I guess I’m a transportation blogger now, which was certainly not my intent, but here we are. Last Monday, September 17, I took the day off from work and went to the joint MassDOT and MBTA board meeting at the State Transportation Building in Boston. I wrote up a bunch of notes from that meeting, which I tweeted out Monday night, and I thought that was it, but I spent a lot of my free time this past week reading the documents and notes from prior meetings that I hadn’t attended, and ended up thinking of even more stuff to say. For reference, here’s my crazy long thread about the September 17 meeting:

One of the documents I looked at after the fact was the “commuter rail vision” presentation, and I also went through a slide deck that was presented at a previous commuter-rail meeting. As with the “Focus40” twenty-year investment plan, the “vision” so far is very, well, “visiony”, with lots of generalities and not much in the way of useful information. It does introduce a taxonomy of possible service improvements, which is something to at least think about, and it actually got me to look a bit more at commuter rail schedules for the Framingham/Worcester line, which I’ll get to in a moment. One particularly notable take-away from the board meeting was that the Central Transportation Planning Staff, the group at MassDOT that is actually responsible for modeling transportation demand and transit ridership, has been tasked with collecting updated commuter-rail ridership data. If you’ve followed my previous posts on this subject, you’ll note that I lamented the fact that the available data is from 2012, before a number of important service changes, and anecdotal evidence is that there have been substantial changes in ridership on some routes including Worcester. Another take-away was that the projected cost of South Coast Rail is so awful, even the Federal Transit Administration’s “New Starts” program won’t touch it. (This really suggests that Phase 1 should just be canceled outright, and Phase 2 should be implemented as a part of Regional Rail after the Stoughton Line is converted.) I can think of a very large number of things I’d rather the Commonwealth spent a billion of our dollars on before SCR Phase 1, which hurts more people on the Middleboro/Lakeville Line than will ever ride it from New Bedford and Fall River. Take a little more time and do it right (and work on those ridiculous inflated costs while you’re at it).

And there you have the next thing I started thinking about: once you are doing reasonable frequencies with Regional Rail on the Framingham/Worcester Line, how exactly do you slot in intercity rail without disrupting the nice clockface headways? The Lake Shore Limited is bad enough, but at least that’s only one train daily in each direction; if we really want to connect Boston to Springfield, never mind Pittsfield, that’s something that we’ll have to figure out, because the right of way isn’t wide enough for a passing track in a lot of places. If the line to Springfield is electrified, then maybe you can do like the Finnish network does with Helsinki–Tampere trains, where they are just integrated into the commuter rail schedule as express or super-express trains on the route that they would follow anyway, with full fare integration at stops within the Helsinki commuter zone. (Of course, VR does have plenty of tracks heading into Helsinki to run a variety of express services, so it’s not an exact comparison.)

Then on Wednesday, the Democratic candidate for governor of Massachusetts, Jay Gonzalez, who I have supported, released a very unfortunate proposal to tax university endowments to generate more revenue for transportation. Yay for the admission that our transportation system needs more funding, but taxing what is our largest and most globally competitive industry, higher education? No thanks. This isn’t bad enough to make me reconsider my vote (Gonzalez is still better than Baker, and this plan has zero chance of making it through the General Court) but it’s still a real disappointment. (If the polls are correct, Baker is going to win in a landslide anyway. Maybe it will be OK if he cancels South Coast Rail and we can spend the $1b on something worthwhile, although I think it more likely he’ll cancel SCR and refuse to spend the money on things we actually need.)


In response to Zach’s tweet, I noted that one problem with doing this in Massachusetts is that the Turnpike really only follows the Boston & Albany right-of-way in Newton and Boston; the railroad turns sharply to the southwest after crossing the Charles, where the Turnpike runs more westerly, and from that point they diverge until Westborough — but there’s no exit in Westborough or Grafton near enough to the stations in those towns to make such a thing work, and then the B&A turns north to get around Lake Quinsigamond and enter downtown Worcester from the northeast. But, if you double-tracked the Agricultural Branch to Framingham Technology Park, and ran four trains per hour to a new station and layover facility there, you could capture traffic right off the Turnpike at exit 12 (the Tech Park is practically at the exit, and there’s already adequate highway capacity on Route 9 because of the employment density there). In the same conversation I also noted that there ought to be an infill station at Newton Corner, which is also directly accessible from the Turnpike, but because of traffic bottlenecks there would not be useful for traffic diversion. (On the other hand, it could replace the express buses that currently serve Newton Corner!)

Finally, I ate something I shouldn’t have and couldn’t get to sleep on Thursday night, so I used the time to make some more changes to my R script for modeling boardings on the Framingham/Worcester commuter rail (GitHub repo). As I noted above, CTPS hasn’t published the 2018 ridership data (I suspect they’re still collecting the data, since September represents some significant startup transients due to the school year starting, and it’s a manual count due to the antiquated fare collection system on the commuter rail network). The major change this time around was to simulate a “zone express” structure (to use the “rail vision” terminology) under various scheduling scenarios and see if it makes any difference. (Well, obviously it makes a different to the Worcester riders if they’re arriving eight minutes faster, but I’m interested particularly in cost differences.) I discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that it actually does make a difference: all of the scenarios that I had simulated previously required at least 26 EMU trainsets, and I was able to find a schedule that required only 24 trainsets. (If you build my Ag Branch proposal, you end up needing those two trainsets back, and there are a few other caveats that I’ll mention below. Of course with full Regional Rail, you’re running identical equipment on all 12 lines, so with a small reserve of extra trainsets you can slosh around equipment as demand warrants.) You can download PDF of the revised spreadsheet with full details, including inbound and (for the first time) outbound schedules and an equipment plan.

As before, this simulation assumes a full Regional Rail implementation, but not North-South Rail Link, and train capacity is based on the 75-meter configuration of the Stadler FLIRT delivered to Helsinki’s commuter rail system in 2015 (which cost then about EUR 7m each for 75 trainsets). These articulated EMU trainsets hold 232 passengers in fixed seating, but I’ve assumed that 300-passenger loads are acceptable for short distances when you add standees; as I noted in a previous post, TEXRail is buying a diesel version of this train with 230 seats and they are advertising a passenger capacity (including standees) of 447. In my simulation, there are five “local” trains (making all stops from Framingham to Boston during AM rush) that have more than 232 passengers, but in all cases every one who gets on in Natick and Wellesley gets a seat, so the standees are exclusively Newton passengers who will either get a seat or get off within 12 minutes, and in my view this is a reasonable compromise to keep the equipment utilization down.

(It would be easy enough to make these trains use double-trainset consists, but that would require at least four more trainsets. Alternatively, you could schedule extra inbound trains from Riverside Junction, but this would require construction of a new turnaround facility and additional platform space at South Station, and you would have to add the same four trainsets anyway, and the operating costs would be higher because you’d have to pay operators in addition to conductors. I looked at this idea briefly but concluded it was a bad one, and I oppose the “urban rail” service on the “rail vision” menu — you really want the extra service all the way to Framingham, and you want your layover facility at Framingham, not Riverside.)

The other assumptions I’m making are that you can build a second platform at Worcester (this is in planning, and my schedule absolutely requires a second platform for at least one inbound/outbound conflict), and that you can (re-)build a layover facility at the Fountain St. yard in Framingham. Finally, I assume that a 12-minute turnaround time is sufficient for almost all turns, and furthermore, one turn at South Station can be done in 10 minutes (this is easily fixable if you let the incoming train occupy a third platform, avoiding an inbound/outbound conflict), and one turn at Framingham can be done in 7 minutes (to fix this requires another trainset, although by the time it’s needed, there are already trainsets in midday storage so you don’t need more capital investment, just another hour of train crew, but it’s fairly late morning where a few minutes of lateness doesn’t ripple through the schedule). One final issue is that there is a late-rush (8:45) reverse-commute train to Worcester that goes out of service on arrival: I didn’t want to take it out of service at Boston or Framingham because part of the promise of Regional Rail is better reverse-commute service, but there’s no place to stick it in Worcester, so unless you can find 150 meters (~500 feet) of siding west of Union Station, you have to turn the train and deadhead to Framingham.

The way I’ve structured this, all Framingham-to-Boston trains are single-trainset consists (250 ft), and all Worcester-to-Boston trains are two-trainset consists (500 ft). As a consequence, all Boston-to-Worcester trains also have two trainsets, as do some Boston-to-Framingham trains which are turns of inbound trains from Worcester. However, if you’re willing to split consists on the Worcester-bound platform at South Statuin, you can send a single trainset (and save the variable costs of the second trainset) back to Worcester, and then when the next inbound train arrives with two more trainsets, send them both (coupled) to Southampton St. for inspection and maintenance, or just storage. The caveat, of course, is that you have to reverse the process to put them back into service at midday. Since this is more complicated I didn’t write it into the equipment plan.

This service takes only 24 trainsets, and requires only a small layover yard at Fountain St. in Framingham (capacity 7 trainsets or 1750 feet, 9/2250 if you can’t store that one Worcester train), and sends eight trains per hour at the peak through Framingham, West Natick, and the Boston stations; it’s my current favored plan. Now time to go to bed, because there’s another FMCB (MBTA Fiscal & Management Control Board) meeting on Monday.

UPDATE 2018-09-25: I didn’t end up going to the FMCB meeting, after looking at the agenda and deciding it was unlikely to be very interesting. I did, however, think a bit more about the equipment plan, and came up with a revised schedule that cuts back more of the early-morning service, deleting some inbound runs from Worcester entirely (the trains shown in the simulation as arriving with zero passengers at 5:08, 5:23, 5:38, and 6:08); this still leaves one early-morning train from Worcester. In order to start the service, I return to having some trainsets stored overnight at Southampton St. yard, and these run in revenue service to Worcester. Also, one two-set consist which I had previously sent to Framingham for midday layover I instead keep at Southampton St.; different equipment could be sent each day, and the layover time used for inspections and light maintenance. The overall plan has 13 trainsets in all-day service (three singles for the Framingham service and 5 doubles for the Worcester service (although as noted above the doubles could be decoupled after peak to reduce the mileage on those trains, so long as you have a midday layover facility close to South Station); that makes a base-to-peak ratio of 54%. Overnight storage is then 6 units at Southampton St., 6 units at Fountain St., and the usual 12 units at Worcester; midday layover requirements are 7 units at Fountain St., 2 units somewhere in Worcester, and 2 units at Southampton for inspection and maintenance.

As for the East-West Intercity service, I spent a bit of time thinking about the schedule. Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited takes an hour and a quarter between Springfield and Worcester, and if you look at the circuitous route you can understand why it’s so slow: the famous Worcester Hills mean that there just aren’t any direct routes at grades compatible with 19th century railroad engineering, and since 1900 we’ve seen only abandonments anyway. To get a meaningfully better service between Springfield and Boston you’d need to straighten the route (the Turnpike follows a much more direct path, but runs about 10 miles south of downtown Worcester), but there are probably some upgrades (passing tracks, superelevation, even electrification) that could reduce the time to an hour even with station stops. For now, I’m suggesting an hourly DMU service with timed transfers at Worcester to a regional express train at peak periods, and there’s enough track time off-peak to run straight through to Boston. That would require 7 or 8 DMUs, but they could be ordered from the same vendor and family as the Regional Rail EMUs for economies of scale and commonality of maintenance procedures. Double that order and build the maintenance base at Worcester, rather than Springfield, and you have enough equipment to run a north-south DMU commuter service serving Spencer, Holden, Webster, and Millbury, even down the Blackstone Valley into Providence if there’s actually any demand. Add another six or eight for eventual service to Pittsfield, which is also an hour and a quarter from Springfield. (All told, the rolling stock purchase for the combined East-West Intercity, Worcester North-South commuter line, and Regional Rail looks like 20 FLIRT3 DMUs for $250m and 300 EMUs for $2.4bn, delivered over about a decade as the lines were upgraded. For the East-West line, which serves longer trips, you probably want a slightly different fitment with more comfortable seating and a vending area at one end, which you don’t need in commuter service.)

Another note about Zach Agush’s tweet, seen above: while the Framingham/Worcester Line is not a good candidate for integration with GoTime, there are a couple of stations that would be fantastic candidates: Anderson RTC in Woburn (from both I-93 and I-95, but especially from I-93 where an exit was built to directly serve the station), Route 128 in Westwood (right off I-95 and close to the south end of I-93), and Forge Park/495 in Franklin off I-495. All of these stations are close to freeway exits, and in addition to travel times, the signs could show the number of parking spaces remaining at the station. (I think Littleton/495 and South Acton would meet this criterion as well, for Route 2 travelers.) Other edits to Sunday’s post for clarity.

Posted in Transportation | Tagged , , , ,

Transit funding for Massachusetts (and how to spend it)

Sorry folks, it’s going to be another long rant about public transportation in Massachusetts. I know this isn’t exactly what you signed up for, but it’s what you’re going to get until I manage to write something else.

As I write this, we just had our 2018 primary elections in Massachusetts. While the major national buzz is over progressive Democrat and former Somerville mayor Mike Capuano’s defeat by progressive Democrat and Boston city councilor Ayanna Pressley in the 7th congressional district, I live in the 5th district, which stretches from Southborough to my west all the way to Winthrop on the coast just north of Boston — and my congresswoman, Katherine Clark, was unopposed. (There was apparently a Republican contest, but barring some unforeseen turn of events, the GOP nominee will get soundly crushed by Clark.) But we also had primaries for various state constitutional offices, including governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general (uncontested), auditor (uncontested), and secretary of state (won by the long-time incumbent, Bill Galvin, over challenger Josh Zakim, after whose father, Lenny Zakim, the I-93 bridge over Boston Harbor is named). There were no really compelling races in my precinct, and other than the Middlesex County district attorney, all were uncontested. However, several important state legislators lost their primaries to younger, more progressive challengers — including a number of close lieutenants of centrist house speaker Bob DeLeo. It’s important for outsiders to understand that, however much Massachusetts is seen as a liberal bastion, one-party rule has meant that there are a lot of conservative (or at least anti-progress) Democrats in the state legislature, and a lot of incumbent-protection gerrymanders that keep them in office even as the complection of the state becomes more open and progressive.

When I first started hearing about the governor’s race, back in the spring of this year, I checked out the candidates’ web sites to see what their transportation plans looked like. One of the candidates, Bob Massie, had a detailed plan and supported many of the initiatives I’ve loudly supported in this space over the past few years. The other candidate (of those who made it through to the primary), former Deval Patrick cabinet secretary Jay Gonzalez, seemed like a decent person but he didn’t have a transportation plan to speak of, just a paragraph or two of platitudes. So I supported Massie, contributed to his campaign, and voted for him in the primary. Massie was resoundingly defeated by Gonzalez, who wrapped up endorsements from nearly all of the major media and political leaders. So the general election will pit two former insurance executives, Charlie Baker (whose main accomplishments after nearly four years in office include little more than taking credit for projects that were already in procurement when he took office) and Gonzalez. I will of course be voting for Gonzalez, and in all honesty I haven’t gone back to see if he has bothered to flesh out his transportation policy in any meaningful way. But after the election, I started thinking a bit more about what my priorities would be, and how I would like to see them funded.

Both of the Democrats running for governor had endorsed the so-called “millionaire’s tax”, a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow the state to impose a higher tax on very-high-income individuals and use the proceeds for education and transportation. The proposed tax would have brought in something like a billion dollars a year, and was showing quite well in early opinion polling. Unfortunately, the Supreme Judicial Court decided that a single ballot question could not both impose a tax and restrict how the legislature could spend it, and so the “millionaire’s tax” will not appear on our ballots this November. If Gonzalez can actually beat Baker (who has irrationally high approval ratings among Massachusetts Democrats), perhaps helped by those selfsame demographic changes that did in Capuano and other seemingly popular incumbents, then there’s a decent chance that he will have a more progressive caucus to work with in the General Court, one that’s less dependent on, and less willing to be strong-armed by, Speaker DeLeo. And that, in turn, might well mean that for the first time in a decade we could see serious consideration of increased revenues.

The mantra among public transportation advocates is “organization before electronics before concrete” — that is to say, fix organizational problems (unattractive schedules, bad workplace cultures, inadequate and underfunded maintenance, bad fare collection systems and unjust fare structures, contractor featherbedding and excessive engineering costs) before investing in new equipment, and improve equipment (like adding transit signal priority on bus corridors, or electrifying trains) before constructing major new facilities like tunnels and tramways. This makes a certain amount of sense, because without controlling construction costs you’ll waste 9 dollars out of 10 on anything you build, and in most cases you shouldn’t plan on building something unless you’ve already squeezed as much operational efficiency out of the existing infrastructure as you can. However, sometimes you need to proceed down all three tracks at the same time — as in TransitMatters’ Regional Rail proposal, high-level platforms at all stations (concrete) enable electrification of the entire commuter rail network (electronics) which enables fast, reliable, and frequent service and allows obsolete, unreliable equipment to be replaced with modern equipment rather than buying more obsolete equipment to continue to run an obsolete service. Fare integration makes the Regional Rail service more attractive to off-peak riders, which helps the farebox recovery and helps eliminate split shifts for train crews (because more trains are in service during the middle of the day) and allows reduction in duplicative bus services; fare integration and reform provides equity to marginalized communities and allows staff to be redeployed in more useful job functions.

One thing is for certain: engineering services and construction costs at the MBTA are far out of line with our global peers, even if you exclude fast-growing low-wage countries like Brazil, China, and India. Even compared to other parts of the US or Canada, our costs are out of whack and our time-to-build is far beyond what it should be. (Surely you’ve seen the viral animation of the growth of Shanghai’s, or Beijing’s, or Wuhan’s, or Dubai’s metro system over the past two decades — although those are much larger and faster-growing cities than Boston, it’s hard not to look at one of those and wish we could actually build the services we desperately needed a decade ago.) Charlie Baker touts the cancellation and redesign of the Green Line Extension, but at a cost of $156 million per kilometer ($78 million per track-kilometer) it’s an order of magnitude more expensive than light-rail construction in any old, dense, highly unionized European city — and that’s something that needs to be fixed, even if it means potentially forgoing federal transit funding (which is looking less and less reliable anyway) and getting European firms and equipment manufacturers to bid without having to pay the “buy America” tax. And it means getting serious with the construction unions about featherbedding — we should be able to commit to providing more than full employment for the unions’ memberships without paying for make-work, and without compromising safety. This probably also means letting more systemwide packages for design and engineering work: rather than having a separate architectural firm bid on each new station or platform or substation, a single designer should be tasked with generating a standard design that can be applied everywhere, or nearly everywhere.

One other high-level issue that I need to bring up is regional equity. This is a big bugbear for politicians, especially those from Western Massachusetts, whose constituents perceive (wrongly) that all “their” tax money is being funneled to Boston and none of it benefits them. (The opposite is true: the rich communities of Eastern Mass. subsidize poor and rural communities West of Worcester.) The Census Bureau’s “vintage 2017” population estimates are out now, and that gives us some numbers that we can at least think about. The seven counties that receive at least MBTA commuter rail service (Bristol, Essex, Middlesex, Norfolk, Plymouth, Suffolk, and Worcester) account for 84.4% of the state’s population; the remaining population, 15.6%, is split between the Cape and Islands (Barnstable, Dukes, and Nantucket) and Western Mass. (Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire). So if any new revenue is brought in, it would make it more politically palatable if the non-metropolitan Boston regions received at least a proportionate share of the expenditures.

OK, I’ve said a lot now in the abstract, let’s get a bit more concrete (no pun intended). Right now, the motor fuel tax in Massachusetts is 24.5¢ per gallon, the second-lowest in New England after New Hampshire, which brings in an annual revenue of $766 million. Gas prices now are still quite low compared to their high point before the 2008 financial crisis (about $3/gal versus nearly $4/gal back then). While it’s quite disappointing that we did not take bolder action back when gas was much cheaper (under $2/gallon for much of 2009), there’s still plenty of room to increase the gas tax. This doesn’t work forever — increased taxes will decrease consumption at the margins, and if the plan to improve public transportation is successful, people will drive less because they don’t need to drive as much, not to mention electric vehicles and more fuel-efficient conventional vehicles — so this has to be seen as an effectively temporary measure, at least in terms of the buying power of the revenue it brings in, until we can figure out a longer-term financing mechanism such as a VMT tax. That said, I propose that Massachusetts should double the gas tax, to 49¢/gal, which would make it the second-highest in the country (only below Washington State). As of right now, gas in my neighborhood is selling for $2.89/gallon; in Cambridge where I work it’s about $3.05/gallon — an additional twenty-five cents is noticeable, but livable, about three dollars extra a tank if you don’t drive a truck or full-size SUV. All of the increase would be earmarked for transportation, with no diversion of existing budget authority to other purposes, so it would truly be an increase in funding for transportation. (At least until the out years, after the maintenance backlog has been wound down and new services are operating regularly, assuming there’s even money left over after fuel consumption drops significantly.)

Now, how should this money be allocated? First off, I would take 2.5¢ off the top (that’s about 10% of the new revenue, or $76 million) for statewide transportation initiatives that don’t easily fit in the remit of a transit agency, like freight rail, intercity passenger service, and active transportation (cycling and pedestrian infrastructure improvements). In some cases, as with grade-crossing elimination, sidewalk and bike path construction, there will be side benefits to drivers, and that’s OK. (The principal benefit that drivers should get from the whole program, of course, is less congestion, by making alternative modes a more affordable and attractive option for many.)

What about the remaining nearly 90%? Here is where I would look at those population figures again. Out of the remaining $687 million, reserve 15.6% ($107 million) for non-MBTA counties, and divide it up among the RTAs serving those counties according to population served, as a dedicated funding source not subject to annual appropriation. (If there are still any municipally-operated transit systems in those counties that haven’t been absorbed into an RTA, treat them on an equal basis to the RTAs.) In exchange for this increased funding, the RTAs would have to commit to a plan that provides more frequent, reliable service to important population and job centers in their districts, after first eliminating any maintenance backlogs.

That leaves $580 million for the part of the state that receives at least some MBTA service. I would split this roughly in half, with 45% ($265 million) specifically dedicated to commuter rail improvements with a ten-year timeline to implement the full Regional Rail plan, including full high platforms, full electrification, signal and track upgrades, and grade-crossing elimination (adopted as an explicit objective by the legislature). The remaining 55% ($316 million) would go to the RTAs on the same population-based formula as the rest of the state — of which the MBTA will receive the largest share since it serves the largest population, but the “gateway city” RTAs would get significant amounts of additional funding as well. The RTA funding should come with the additional string attached that they must make corresponding improvements in service at the rail stations that will receive dramatically better service, with a stated goal and performance penalties for transit mode share for passengers connecting to and from Regional Rail.

(Aside: as a part of including Bristol County in this, legislators will probably demand full funding of South Coast Rail. This is a bad idea, but if built to Regional Rail standards with a non-stupid alignment should not significantly impede progress on the overall program, and if better cost control is achieved might not even be so horribly expensive. Ideally any formal support for SCR should be conditioned on cost control to modern European subsidy levels.)

So that’s one part of the revenue picture. I would also have the legislature authorize a congestion charging district, encompassing (at least parts of) Boston, Cambridge, Somverville, Medford, Everett, Chelsea, Revere, and Brookline, potentially including Quincy, Newton, Watertown, and other bordering communities. The revenue (between $1 and $10 per day depending on type and registered address of vehicle) would be split between the cities and the MBTA, and MassDOT would be authorized to collect the charge via its existing toll system and sufficient additional locations throughout the congestion zone to ensure at least 85% compliance. Transportation network companies and cabs would be required to pass on the charge on a per-trip basis and provide a sufficient fraction of trip logs to the state auditor to verify compliance. I don’t actually know how much revenue this would collect, but I would leave the municipalities free to spend their half of the revenue on whatever projects they wish, even if they are not transportation-related, as the congestion charge is really compensation for the disamenity of traffic on city streets and the air pollution that results (particularly particulate matter from tires and brakes, which is worse in stop-and-go traffic than free-flowing highway speeds).

Ok, we’re at word 2,345 now, and you’re probably wondering what I think this money should be spent on (besides the obvious, public transportation). Regional Rail is of course the big one, but it doesn’t even get half the revenue in this proposal. Many of the things that I care most directly about are either necessary for or a valuable adjunct to Regional Rail, whether it’s grade-crossing elimination here in Framingham (the existing grade crossings put a severe limit on the frequency of trains that can be accommodated on the Framingham/Worcester Line), or better RTA bus service to get discretionary passengers to and from the train station. Last weekend I started making a “crayon” in Google My Maps which shows a number of the other ideas that I have (or that I have stolen from other more connected transit fans) [view map]. Unfortunately, Google My Maps doesn’t really allow me to identify which services I would prioritize and which I think are more speculative, so I’ll give a rundown of what I propose beyond Regional Rail (to complete all of which would require substantially more funding than I’ve proposed here).

  1. Obviously, state of good repair comes first.
  2. Complete the Green Line Extension all the way to Mystic Valley Parkway, as was originally planned. This is just a no-brainer. Extending it further to West Medford is quite a bit more challenging but would be a stretch goal on this program (I haven’t drawn it on the map).
  3. Orange Line and Green Line extensions to Needham Junction. Once we’re committed to Regional Rail, the Needham Line becomes something of an anomaly. Bostonians in Roslindale and West Roxbury have been demanding better service (and fewer buses clogging Washington Street) for some time, and the Orange Line is Right There; extending the Orange Line to West Roxbury involves essentially the same work as the Regional Rail upgrade would, except that you’d be using third-rail electrification instead of catenary. (Either way you’d have to build high platforms and double-track the line.) Doing so would orphan the rest of the Needham Branch, so it has been proposed to convert the whole line in Needham to a Green Line branch using the abandoned right-of-way from Newton Highlands, which is currently a rail-trail and might be difficult or controversial to return to rail service. Ending the new Orange Line at West Roxbury avoids double-tracking the environmentally-sensitive Charles River bridge, but my suspicion is that many Needham residents would be better served by faster and more direct Orange Line service than by Green Line service via the Highland Branch. So my map shows a compromise, with probably the most politically difficult of all routings, sending both Orange Line and Green Line to Needham Junction, giving most riders a choice of which line they prefer. I add new Orange Line stations, above and beyond the existing Needham Branch stations, at VFW Parkway (serving Millennium Park, West Roxbury Academy and Catholic Memorial) and Greendale Avenue; new Green Line stations are at High Rock (the south end of the Needham Junction wye, beyond which tracks have been lifted), Gould Street (at the current WCVB studios, car wash, and Muzi Ford, all of which might be candidates for redevelopment), Oak Street in Newton Upper Falls, and Columbia Avenue in Newton Highlands (at the new “Avalon” apartment complex).
  4. Blue Line extension to Inman Square. This is inspired by Ari Ofsevit’s proposal to extend the Blue Line past Charles/MGH — the which has been promised for decades — to MIT’s redevelopment of the current Volpe Transportation Building on Broadway in Cambridge. At Volpe you’d have a connection to the Red Line at Kendall, but where should the line go from there? Inman Square in Cambridge is pretty much equidistant from Union Square Somerville (one branch of the GLX) and Central Square on the Red Line, a bit farther away from Harvard and Kendall, and in a very densely populated area that is only served by buses at the moment. Once you take the turn onto Hampshire Street, Inman is a straight shot for a cut-and-cover tunnel, and in fact you can continue straight nearly all the way to Porter if you want (I’m uncertain about the value of that option, but I’ve drawn it as a future extension). This becomes important for connecting to the Yellow Line.
  5. Washington Street and Mass. Ave. tramways. When the Washington Street Elevated was demolished in 1987, the residents were promised something “better than a bus” as a replacement service. So far, all they have is buses — fancy buses, in some places, but still buses. I propose to give them a tramway, reusing the old Tremont Street Subway branch to the Pleasant Street portal, and then running south along Washington St. and/or Shawmut Ave. (there are some issues with one-ways here that would have to be straightened out) to Dudley, with future tramways serving Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, and parts of Hyde Park and Roslindale. IN the other direction, Mass. Ave. is the majority of the route of the MBTA’s single busiest bus line, the #1 bus, which serves 13,000 passengers per day, plus numerous private shuttles operated by transportation management associations, the Longwood Medical Area shared services corporation, and multiple universities. The 1 bus also used to be a tram line, albeit one without a dedicated reservation. I propose to construct a Mass. Ave. tramway that runs from Central Square in a dedicated reservation (eliminating street parking as necessary in narrower segments) all the way to Southampton Street, then continuing through South Boston via Andrew Square and ending at City Point. The tramway should be constructed with paved tracks, to allow for buses as well as trams; passengers who currently take the #1 to or from Dudley would be able to transfer to the Washington St. tram, cutting off the current loop past Boston Medical Center, and both would run at sufficient frequency to make the transfer penalty relatively small. (Passengers for Longwood could transfer at Symphony.)
  6. Huntington Avenue subway extension. I propose a short extension of the Huntington Ave. subway from Northeastern to Brigham Circle, which is mostly free to construct with the Yellow Line running parallel there.
  7. Yellow Line: a circumferential route connecting Saugus to South Boston. There isn’t a huge demand for a train from Saugus to South Boston, admittedly, but my Yellow Line is a single route that combines many people’s overlapping wishlists for better connectivity in the Boston area. Like Roxbury, Everett used to have a section of the Main Line Elevated (today’s Orange Line); when the Haymarket-North extension was built in the 1970s, the El in Everett was torn down, and that city was left with buses and much worse access to downtown Boston. It’s been proposed that a branch off the Orange Line be built from Sullivan Square through Everett that would allow many of those bus routes to be restructured or cut and give Everett residents a one-seat ride again. My first segment of the Yellow Line would fit that bill, with two stops on Broadway, then running under Lynn St. to Eastern Avenue (another stop) before following the old railroad right-of-way to downtown Saugus (stops at Salem St., School St., and Central St. But rather than a branch of the Orange Line, I think the Yellow Line is more useful if it becomes a true circumferential line, enabling travelers who currently want to go from Somerville to Longwood, or from Charlestown to Cambridge, or from Allston to Everett, to do so without going through the bottleneck in central Boston. Much of the line is intended to replace the #66 bus, which also has 13,000 passengers per day, as well as some of the travel demand on the 1, 47, 64, 70, 86, 91, CT2, CT3, and other buses currently radiating out of Cambridge Red Line stops. South and west of Sullivan Square, my Yellow Line stops at Union Square Somerville (interchange with the Green Line), Inman Square (interchange with the Blue Line), Central Square (interchange with the Red Line), Putnam Ave./Memorial Drive (dense residential neighborhood), Harvard Science Center, West Station (interchange with Regional Rail), eiher Union Square Allston or Commonwealth Ave. and Babcock St., Coolidge Corner (interchange with Green Line “C” branch), Brookline Ave. (near interchange with Green Line “D” branch), Huntington Ave. (interchange with Green Line “E” branch), Ruggles (interchange with Orange Line again), Washington St. (interchange with Washington St. tramway or short walk to Dudley), Boston Medical Center/Mass. Ave., Broadway (interchange with Red Line again), and then eventually via track 61 (or possibly under D St.) to the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. Although the alignment is somewhat different, this is essentially what was being proposed as the “rainbow line” when I first moved to Boston in the 1990s, before being sandbagged by the state and partially “implemented” as the CT1/2/3 bus routes.
  8. The final and most speculative proposal is a series of tunnels and a long bypass track that would give a straight, high-speed route to Worcester, mainly following the Massachusetts Turnpike from Newton to Westborough, and cutting off the big curve around the south end of Lake Quinsigamond. I propose two new stations on this line, one at Framingham Technology Park on the Framingham/Southborough line, and one at Cochituate in Wayland where the line crosses Route 27 just west of Lake Cochituate State Park. The routing I’ve drawn for these is approximate at best. My assumption is that construction of a tunnel under the Turnpike (which was built on top of the original four-track main line) would involve completely replacing the existing two-track main line and all stations, and it’s probably 20 or 30 years out at best — unless the state decides to get serious about a high-speed intercity route from Boston to Springfield, which would not be compatible with Regional Rail on a two-track line. This would also make Worcester express service both useful (in terms of reduced travel time) and feasible on the high-frequency Regional Rail model.

Nearly 4000 words, and I’m up way too late, so I’m afraid that’s all the blather I have time to write this time.

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Luck meets urban planning in Finland’s capital

This gallery contains 53 photos.

As I promised last week, I’m starting to write a bit more about my trip to Finland a year ago for Worldcon 75. As I write this, Worldcon 76 is taking place in San Jose, California, which I had little … Continue reading

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Coda: commuter-rail modeling and what’s next

Just about a year ago, I went to Worldcon 75 in Helsinki. Because Worldcon 76 in San Jose (which I’m not attending) is about to start, I was reminded that I still have a whole bunch more photos from Helsinki that I’ve never finished editing, and the research that I’ve done in the last few weeks has definitely given me a bit more to say about them (and Helsinki’s brownfields redevelopment and transit construction costs), so I’m going to try to push a final set of Helsinki posts out over the next few days, if I can get a few hours clear for photo editing. (I say “final” because I have no plans to go back, but if someone’s willing to subsidize my travel I would happily return next summer.)

Beyond that, I wanted to wind up my discussion of Regional Rail and the future of the commuter rail service between Worcester and Boston. In addition to the analysis in the previous two posts, I did a lot of modeling of service patterns that I haven’t shared, because they were not sufficiently interesting, or at least sufficiently different from what I’ve already presented. In some cases these models had insurmountable technical problems, mostly due to the lack of storage space in the right places, and in other cases in order to make the model work I had to assume an impractically short turnaround time. (Impractical under current FRA regulations and railroad operating practices, at any rate — railroads elsewhere in the world don’t seem to have a problem turning trains at rapid-transit-like frequencies.) In a few cases it’s not storage space but platform length that is the biggest issue, like the four-trains-per-hour service pattern that requires trains longer than the current MBTA construction standard. Here are a few of my major take-aways:

  • The F/W Line is incredibly busy for a small number of AM peak runs and fairly easy to service at whatever headway you choose the rest of the time. I based my simulations on the 2012 CTPS riderahip audit, and there’s every reason to think that actual ridership (despite the well-publicized problems of 2015–2017) has increased since then.
  • The lack of sufficient storage capacity in Worcester is a serious limitation on any service. In the Regional Rail model, additional storage capacity would be needed elsewhere at least for middays and probably at night.
  • I believe that additional storage should be at Framingham, not Allston or Southampton. The reason it should be there is a simple one: equipment positioning from those other places has no transportation value, even if for some reason you made it “revenue”; scheduled early-morning and late-evening runs from/to Framingham would have substantial transportation value, and there are multiple existing yards at Framingham that either have room or could be expanded (or the freight railroad could be incented to consolidate operations).
  • Extending passenger service via the Agricultural Branch to Framingham State University and Framingham Technology Park would have actual transportation value, but the costs and RoW limitations are such that it is unlikely to happen without capital support from MWRTA, the City of Framingham, FSU and/or the Tech Park tenants (especially Bose and Sanofi, the largest employers). Such a service might be operated as the tail end of Framingham-terminating Regional Rail trains, in which case there’s room in the Tech Park to construct a layover yard, or it might simply be a diesel shuttle from South Framingham that met each train at the existing station. (Either option would require substantial station construction, as there are no historic stations along this four-mile segment of the line.)
  • None of the schedules I came up with can work with fewer than twenty-four 75 m (250-foot), 232-seat articulated EMUs; most of the usable ones require 26 or 27 (plus one more for a Tech Park shuttle, if you want to build that). That’s an equipment cost of about $216 million, in addition to the capital construction (which I’ll detail below).
  • These schedules and car requirements would get substantially easier with a longer trainset. The MBTA’s standard platform length of 800 feet puts a substantial limitation on the number of passengers you can accommodate with a fully accessible, level-boarding, single-level design. Plus there are issues with platform length at Yawkey that I know about and possibly other stations. (And I have assumed that the storage facilities, which the T reports in “consists”, reflect this maximum length and not the actual lengths of trains being stored for the schedule current when the “State of Commuter Rail” report was written.) For 800-foot platforms, with three-trainset consists you’re limited to 80 m trainsets, which depending on the layout could get you another 20 seats, but if you’re willing to accept a maximum of two-trainset consists, you could go as long as 120 m — and then you have a different problem, because then you either have to manage two different EMU equipment types, or waste a lot of energy hauling around a 350-passenger train on the majority of runs that have fewer than 150 passengers. I’d probably spring for the 80 m length if there are no other constraints, just to have the capacity.
  • Another option is to forget about running articulated EMUs and just do New York-style EMUs, which are the same length as regular passenger coaches. Depending on clearances, you might be able to run bilevel cars under wire, although this is probably a bad idea because of steps and fewer doors leading to slow boarding and alighting and taking away the dwell-time advantage of modern articulated EMU designs.
  • My demand model is surprisingly sensitive to the exact timing of the new schedule being simulated, relative to the arrival times of the high-demand trains. There are three things going on here: first, the demand model considers only the arrival time to be important, not the departure time. Many commuters may have a deadline to arrive, hence the high demand trains, but also have nothing in particular to do with the time they would gain from a faster schedule, and so would choose a departure time closer to their current one rather than the latest train that gets in before their deadline. Second, there is no feedback in this model: in the real world, passengers’ expectations of comfort and reliability have an impact on what services they choose, and I don’t know, for example, what fraction of passengers would shift to an earlier or later train in order to be sure of getting a seat on, say, the half-hour trip from West Natick to South Station. Third, the demand model simplistically assumes that the passengers’ desired arrival times are uniformly distributed over the interval between trains (actually slightly offset by a few minutes to attempt to account for satisficing). To get a better demand model would require Actual Survey Research, which I’d be very interested in but am not prepared to fund out of my own pocket — I assume that CTPS has such a model already, and groups like TransitMatters should be regularly surveying commuters in order to justify their policy proposals to Beacon Hill.
  • In particular, one of the scenarios I simulated for multiple schedules was short-turning trains at Framingham. This always makes the loading much worse, but exactly how much depends to a surprisingly great degree on the order of Framingham and Worcester trains, because so much of the model depends so specifically on the exact timing of the few arrivals provided by the 2012 schedule. Even in 2012 the MBTA was operating a local/express pattern during peak periods; this service pattern isn’t compatible with clockface headways because the time gained by the express over a local causes an express to catch up to the previous local. If you’re limited for other reasons to 15-minute headways (four trains per hour), then the local/express pattern could potentially work, but I haven’t simulated any expresses because I think 4 tph is a pretty weak-sauce service on this line, and there’s no practical place to turn a supplementary short-turn train short of Framingham without fouling the line. However, during middays there does not appear to be enough demand to run all trains to Worcester — even at Framingham the current schedule actually has a huge gap that makes it impractical for me personally — so you’d probably want to short-turn at least half of your trains at Framingham (another reason to put the layover facility there and not in Allston).

What is to be done?

So supposing we (the people of Massachusetts) decided that we really wanted to have a modern, reliable, frequent rail service between Boston and Worcester. What would we need to pay for to make this happen?

  • Expansion of Amtrak’s Sharon substation, which powers both the Northeast Corridor and the “Boston terminal district”. The substation was built with the expectation that it might eventually be expanded for commuter service, and because the terminal district is chained off the NEC that additional power will be needed for electrifying the F/W Line. (For other reasons, of course, the capacity at Sharon should be maxed out — you also want to serve Stoughton/Providence and Fairmount trains, and probably at least part of Franklin.) I don’t know how much this costs, but you can search the web for informed estimates and the original Amtrak NEC electrification plans.) This also gives you sufficient capacity for electrification through Newton and Brighton.
  • Construct a new substation in MetroWest. Exactly where depends on the location of sufficient high-voltage distribution capacity.
  • Correct superelevation on the line to allow for increased speed limits. There’s a machine that does this without excavation or rail replacement.
  • Replace obsolete signaling and switch machines. A lot of this is already programmed as a part of the existing state-of-good-repair program and will serve equally well for Regional Rail.
  • Construct full high platforms for both tracks at all stations outside Boston. An upgrade for Natick Center (which is the busiest station on the whole system to not have any accessibility) to a high-level island platform is in process.
  • Obviously, construct the actual electrification infrastructure. In order to maintain freight clearances under the wires, it may be necessary to depress the tracks or alter some overpasses in some locations. (Beacon Street, Boston, is a noted clearance issue: it would be fine for single-level cars but is too low for bi-levels, and so long as there are bi-levels anywhere on the south side system, the MBTA needs to be able to move them under that overpass to get to the Commuter Rail Maintenance Facility on the north side.)
  • Currently, Worcester Union Station is limited to a single platform on the Main Line. (The other platforms at the station serve other railroads that do not currently have any passenger service, although a private operator had proposed to run Worcester-Providence service from one of them.) Currently this is under study with no firm funding or construction date, but in order to support reasonable schedules at Worcester with sufficient recovery and turnaround time for the train crews, this is a firm requirement.
  • Most importantly, the MBTA has to decide to do it. There are several related planning processes doing on right at the moment: the “Focus 40” plan is the T’s long-term plan, and in order for anything worthwhile to be done before we’re all dead or retired it has to get prioritized in that plan. There is also a “commuter rail vision” process, about which there doesn’t seem to be much public information, and the people responsible for that will have to be pushed very hard to make a plan that’s actually forward-looking and not repeating the same defeatist, stuck-in-the-past thinking (which the MBTA is exceedingly good at). And there is a procurement process starting to ramp up now for the new private contractor to actually operate the MBTA Commuter Rail.
  • Finally, we have to have a governor who actually uses transit and is responsive to the needs and aspirations of the communities in the MBTA district — who are responsible for the vast majority of the Commonwealth’s jobs and tax revenue.
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