Weekend excursion: Stations of the B&M Western Route/MBTA Haverhill Line

It’s been nearly two weeks since I took this trip on a windy Saturday in March, and since that time I’ve seen nearly all of the remaining stations in the MBTA system, so if I’m a little hazy on the details, please forgive me. Meanwhile, enjoy the companion photos by opening the link in another browser tab.

As I was describing in my survey of the parallel Eastern Route last week, the Boston & Maine Railroad’s original route from Boston to Maine went via the industrial cities of the Merrimack Valley — specifically, Lawrence and Haverhill — before heading north into Exeter, Durham, and ultimately Dover, New Hampshire, before crossing the Piscataqua River into Maine. When the B&M acquired the Eastern, the original main line became known as the Western Route, but there was enough local traffic to keep both lines in service. Over time, traffic dwindled, and the B&M had a substantial retrenchment. In the 1950s, most passenger service to the Merrimack Valley and points north was rerouted via the B&M’s New Hampshire Main Line and the “Wildcat” branch through Wilmington. Transportation officials in Boston were looking at the likely end of commuter rail service, as more freeways were built to siphon traffic away from the railroads, and the Western Route was one of their prime targets, since it had a three-track right-of-way through the inner suburbs, making it an attractive alignment for a surface relocation of the old Charlestown Elevated. Plans were drawn up in the 1960s to extend the newly renamed Orange Line through a new tunnel under the Charles all the way up to Reading, with an express track to speed service through Malden, Medford, and Charlestown for riders from more distant suburbs.

When service on the “Haymarket–North” extension opened in the mid-1970s, there was insufficient support to extend the route all the way to Reading, and so the commuter-rail service has remained, largely unchanged, ever since. Even before the Orange Line came, decades of disinvestment had seen the second track lifted along much of the route, resulting in severe limitations on frequency and quality of service to this day. Two tracks remain from Melrose to Wakefield and from just beyond Lawrence to Haverhill, but this only suffices to operate service every 45 minutes — and the northern end must still be shared with slow freight and the Amtrak Downeaster. The Downeaster, like the old B&M intercity service it replicates, runs via the Wildcat Branch, as do a couple of Haverhill commuter trains a day. In the new Spring, 2021, schedule, 23 inbound trains per day serve Reading every 45 minutes, with 11 of those originating in Haverhill, so passengers on the outer end of the line get 90-minute headways. Two inbound trips and one outbound trip run express via the Wildcat Branch, saving about 11 minutes. This does mean that North Wilmington only gets one inbound peak-period trip, but that’s actually not much of a loss — in the pre-COVID schedule, North Wilmington didn’t get any peak-period service.

The new schedules raise an interesting question for many of the municipalities along the line: the parking regulations for many town-owned station lots currently only require payment in the morning. With the T now operating trains every 45 minutes all day long, on the theory that this will attract “non-traditional” passengers, will there be pressure for the towns to extend enforcement later in the day — or, in the alternative, will the lots go back to filling up at 8 AM, restricting use of the off-peak trains to only walk-up riders?

As on previous trips, I did not photograph any of the commuter-rail stations that are also rapid transit stations, so as to avoid other people to the extent possible, so let’s get started with Wyoming Hill, the first station north of the Orange Line terminus at Oak Grove. Like many of the stations on this line, there is municipally-owned parking, in this case a small lot just west of the station. It’s located in a reasonably dense neighborhood, with a mix of retail, dining, apartments, and small-lot single-family residences, and only two short blocks from Melrose’s Main St. It’s also only half a mile from the next station north, Melrose/Cedar Park — much closer than would normally be considered appropriate, but not uncommon for an old commuter line. That said, Wyoming Hill gets about 20% more ridership (or did, in 2018), owing to its somewhat denser surrounding development. The line is still double-tracked here, but both tracks have only inaccessible low-level platforms. (The single-track merge point is just north of Oak Grove station, a mile south; you can just barely see the signal controlling the interlocking from the south end of the platform.) It would be a relatively easy station to make accessible, after removing both the standard MBTA platform canopies and the town-owned enclosed shelter at the north end of the inbound platform, but from the ridership it’s not hard to see why this hasn’t been prioritized.

Melrose/Cedar Park has a bit more parking, but in a less dense neighborhood, and the daily ridership roughly tracks with the parking. Like Wyoming Hill, it’s a two-track station with only inaccessible low-level platforms, and an even lower priority for platform improvements. Melrose Highlands is by far the most popular station in Melrose, with significantly more multifamily and commercial real estate nearby. Melrose Highlands does have mini-high platforms, and would seem to be a good candidate for full high-level platforms (and construction would be relatively simple given the lack of pedestrian grade crossings).

Moving north into Wakefield is the first odd duck on a line full of odd ducks. Greenwood station would appear to serve a bank branch and a small retail district on one side, and a small single-family subdivision on the other, but its 80 passengers a day are mostly using on-street parking which the town has reserved for this purpose north of the business district. Unsurprisingly for a station with such minimal ridership, Greenwood has offset low-level platforms, a pedestrian grade crossing, and no concessions to accessibility. (There is, at least, a bus transfer, although given the cost of commuter rail tickets, many bus riders will take the more affordable transfer to the Orange Line at Malden Center.)

The other station serving Wakefield is a real contrast, although it too is inaccessible. Located west of Wakefield’s main business district, Wakefield station has restaurants on the platform, a classic B&M station building, and is surrounded by low-rise mixed-use development and a church. A nearby industrial zone, once served by the rail line, is being transformed into a higher-density residential neighborhood. In 2018, Wakefield was the second-busiest station on the line, after only Reading, so it’s a real disappointment that it isn’t accessible — it clearly should be, and the outbound platform would be easy to fix. Unfortunately, the buildings abutting the inbound platform are too close, and would have to be relocated or demolished to meet current standards, which is presumably why the MBTA has chosen not to do anything about the problem.

Next stop north from Wakefield is the first “WTF?” moment of this tour: Reading, the busiest station on the entire line. Reading is a two-platform, single-track station! And not in the obvious way, with platforms on both sides of the single track — no, at Reading, the second platform serves the nonexistent second track that was lifted some time before 1969. Yet the MBTA continues to maintain it! It’s obvious that restoring the second track would be key to making the station fully accessible; the current platform (serving what should be the inbound track) is split in half by the old station building (now leased out to a cafe and a mortgage broker), which sits too close to the track to allow for sufficient clearance. There is presently a mini-high on the existing platform, so despite the high passenger volume, improving this station is not a high priority for the T. (With the new schedule turning half of all trains at Reading, dwell times are less of an issue, since the train has to reverse anyway, but restoring the double-track and constructing a full-length high-level platform on the restored eastern rail would still be an operational improvement.) Like Wakefield, Reading station is on the west side of the town’s CBD.

The “WTF?” moments just keep on coming as we try to find the next station, North Wilmington. A limited-service station, North Wilmington sees one peak-period trip each way, but early morning, midday, and late evening trains all stop here, if only we can find where “here” is. After several tries, I eventually found the small, unmarked, town-owned parking lot, separated from the “station” by a vacant lot. What passes for a station here is single-track, of course, and inaccessible, of course — there’s barely even a platform, and the only amenity is a bus shelter. (OK, so that’s still slightly more than Plimptonville ever had.) The prudent thing to do with this station would be to close it, and route all trains on the outer parts of the line via the Wildcat Branch, allowing for more frequent service on all three resulting branches.

Heading north, the double-track resumes with the junction of the Wildcat Branch, only to end across the street from Ballardvale, the next station. In keeping with the B&M’s plan of running all Lawrence service via the New Hampshire Main Line, the Wildcat Branch is the through route at Ballardvale, and it’s the Western Route that ends ignominiously in a bumper block just south of the grade crossing. Ballardvale is the third “WTF?” station on this line, and the oddest of the bunch: the original platform was clearly built to serve the now-disconnected northbound Western Route track, and when that track was lifted, they simply dumped several yards of hot-mix in the trackbed to extend the platform. (Why oh why did they not keep the track that already had a platform?) But it gets worse: 300 feet beyond the end of the new platform, there is a mini-high — yes, this is an “accessible” station — and the mini-high was obviously built to serve the missing Western Route track. That means that it was built that way by the MBTA some time after 1990! Since the track that actually exists is 10½ feet away from the mini-high, the T added a wooden high-level platform extension to the mini-high. But it’s still 300 feet north of the rest of the platform! So either the train serves the regular platform, inches forward 300 feet in a cloud of diesel smoke, and serves the mini-high, or else it just serves the mini-high and half the cars in the train don’t platform at all. Who signed off on this design? Ballardvale is located in a fairly low-density neighborhood, with largely single-family housing and conservation land, although it was once important enough to have its own post office; about 200 people a day used the station in 2018, many of them using the 120 paid parking spaces at the station.

The double-track resumes yet again just north of Ballardvale, but the second track is inaccessible from the south for another mile. It hardly matters for passenger service, though: the second track is freight-only, and cannot platform at either Andover, the next station north, or Lawrence.

Meanwhile, what about Andover? It’s a busy station, with nearly 400 passengers a day in 2018, far more than its 150-space parking lot alone could support. There’s a good amount of development in the vicinity, both multifamily and commercial, and Andover’s downtown business district is a short walk away to the southeast. The station is also served by multiple MVRTA bus routes. As noted above, the second track does not platform at Andover, and the platform for the first track is low-level, with a mini-high at the north end. Upgrading this platform would be a challenge due to commercial abutters.

Our next stop is Lawrence. I did not go to see the old Lawrence station, which was a low-level center-platform station just east of Parker St., and which has apparently been abandoned in place. The new, fully accessible Lawrence station is a single side platform connected to MVRTA’s McGovern Transportation Center, a 400-stall parking garage on Merrimack St. (The station is located across Merrimack St. from the Wood Worsted Mill, once the world’s largest, which has been redeveloped into a variety of residential and commercial uses under the name “Riverwalk”.) An empty trackway separates the passenger track from the freight tracks, providing room for either another through track or an island platform, should future passenger schedules warrant it. (A short, temporary, low-level platform remains on the opposite side of the railbed, attached to an old industrial building; it’s accessed via a pedestrian grade crossing at the east end of the high-level platform but not accessible and not currently served by any passenger trains unless there’s a switch malfunction.) A short distance east of the platform, the passenger siding merges with the main line once again, and has a crossover to access the outbound track, so the final two stations operate as normal two-track stations.

Bradford station doesn’t have any obvious reason to exist — it’s not even half a mile from downtown Haverhill and the end of the line, and there’s not much nearby in the way of either origins or destinations. But there was a station here already (a historic B&M station building, a clone of the one at Swampscott, still abuts the line, although it’s now a cafe), and there was plenty of land available, so it made more sense as an end-of-line layover facility to minimize deadheading — and of course there’s a huge parking lot. MVRTA’s Bradford bus garage is located across the street from the layover facility. The station itself is a pair of disappointing low-level platforms with mini-highs (why could they not build a high-level center platform here, there was plenty of room?) and pedestrians cross both the main line and the yard leads at grade. A walkway north of the outbound mini-high connects to a nearby residential neighborhood off Laurel Ave. on the east side of the tracks (the west side is the Merrimack River). The ocean of parking here is only about half-used: there are more than 300 spaces for a station that saw 170 passengers per day in 2018. Just beyond the station to the north, the remnants of a branch line diverge to the east, running through Groveland and Newbury to connect with the Eastern Route at Newburyport; this line, abandoned decades ago, has largely been rail-trailed and is also an electrical transmission path for much of its length.

The final station on our tour is also the terminus for MBTA service on the Western Route, although Amtrak Downeaster service continues through New Hampshire to Maine, and Pan Am freight service continues through Maine to interchange with various Canadian railways. The city of Haverhill extends all the way to the New Hampshire state line, but there’s no obviously useful place for a third Haverhill station, and New Hampshire refuses to subsidize rail service, so there’s nothing north of downtown Haverhill that the MBTA might serve. (Amtrak’s next stop is Exeter.) MVRTA recently built a 315-stall garage and pedestrian overpass to supplement the MBTA’s 150-space surface parking lot, but the station as a whole is a bit of a disappointment, and you’d think with all the residential development nearby in downtown Haverhill this station could manage more than a paltry 290 boardings. Of course, it has low-level platforms with mini-highs, and multiple pedestrian grade crossings make it more challenging to upgrade, especially since the overpass to the garage connects to the middle of the outbound platform. (MVRTA charges $4 a day, whereas the MBTA’s surface lot is only $2 a day, so you’d have to imagine the RTA is losing a lot of money on its brand-new garage right now, with pandemic-suppressed ridership.) On the current schedule, the whole trip from Haverhill to Boston is scheduled to take 55 minutes for the once-daily Wildcat Branch express, or 66 minutes on the local train via North Wilmington, which is likely still faster than driving during rush hour — but a fully modernized electric service could make the Wildcat route in just 38 minutes, a substantial savings.

Three more lines to go: Plymouth/Kingston, Middleborough, and Lowell!

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Weekend excursion: Stations of the Eastern Route/MBTA Newburyport Line

Attention conservation notice: another 3,000 words about an MBTA commuter rail line and its stations, which could easily have been 5,000 words if I hadn’t gotten tired of writing and skimped on the exposition towards the end. Already more photos to edit and text to write from subsequent travels.

Once upon a time, there was a railroad called the Eastern Railroad. Its main line ran from Boston to Salem, where it intersected numerous other railroads, and was not long thereafter extended across the Danvers River to Beverly, Newburyport, and ultimately Portsmouth, N.H. Another branch connected the main line to the fishing ports of Gloucester and Rockport on Cape Ann.

Then the Eastern came under control of the Boston & Maine. The B&M already had a route to New Hampshire and ultimately Portland, Maine, by way of Durham and Dover, N.H., and Sanford, Maine. For many years, there was enough traffic to support two parallel mainline railroads, and the B&M’s original route via Dover became known, quite logically, as the Western Route, while the Eastern Railroad’s old mainline remained the Eastern Route. The Eastern served important industrial and port cities like Chelsea, Lynn, Salem, Beverly, and Newburyport, while the Western served two of the mill cities of the Merrimack Valley, Lawrence and Haverhill, before heading up into New Hampshire a few miles inland of the Eastern. The Western proved to have more staying power as a freight route; when passenger service on the Eastern was discontinued north of Newburyport, there were not enough freight customers to keep the Eastern Route in service, and the line north of the Merrimack River was abandoned. Parts of it are now a rail-trail, and elsewhere the land was simply sold for development.

Two Sundays ago, I went to have a look at the stations of the Eastern Route. I didn’t make it all the way to Newburyport — the daylight ran out when I was in Ipswich — but I did go to the end of the Rockport Branch. The photographs I took can be viewed on my SmugMug gallery, and you might want to middle-click that link to open another tab so it’s easier to switch back and forth between my narrative and the photos.

A few overall comments on the line. This line is one of three identified by the MBTA board in its December, 2019, resolution on rail transformation for priority to receive frequent, all-day, electrified service. (TransitMatters recently released a report on this, which I have deliberately avoided reading before writing this piece in order to form my own impressions.) The board resolution identified an “Environmental Justice Corridor” from Boston to Lynn, but because of the physical constraints of the line, it would almost certainly extend at least to Beverly Depot, where there is room to turn trains without fouling the main line (and in fact some trains already turn there). This section of the whole line is relatively up-to-standard, with only two partially-accessible stations — Swampscott and Beverly Depot, both of which have historic structures on the platform that make full accessibility an engineering challenge — not counting Chelsea which is already being replaced. Beyond Salem, all of the stations I visited have only partial accessibility, if any. (I expect Rowley and Newburyport, which I did not see, to have been built recently enough to be fully accessible, but wasn’t able to verify this in person — when I manage to get out there, I will update the photo gallery with pictures of those stations.)

Overall, the condition of the stations reinforces my impression that the MBTA is pursuing a policy of deliberate neglect of commuter-rail stations, allowing them to deteriorate until they are closed for emergency repairs, in preference to actual ongoing maintenance which might trigger an obligation to make the stations fully accessible under ADA and state regulations. Nearly every station I visited had spalling concrete, rusting steel, splintered timbers, and buckled asphalt. Some of them were actually in quite disturbing condition, even if the structural engineers aver that they are still sound.

Three of the stations have huge downtown parking garages, and it’s no surprise that two of them (Salem and Beverly Depot) are the two busiest on the entire line according to the 2018 manual ridership counts. The third huge parking garage, at Lynn Central Square, is reported to be significantly underutilized, and the ridership counts would seem to bear that out, with less than a quarter of Beverly’s and a fifth of Salem’s — this is largely due to the fact that Lynn has frequent, affordable bus service, whereas the train is infrequent, extremely expensive ($7.00 vs. $2.40 for the bus with a transfer to the subway) and in pre-COVID times arrived in Lynn packed to the gills, with no room for additional passengers to board. The MBTA has experimented with discounted fares for Lynn and Chelsea in the past, but nothing short of full fare equalization with comparable bus-subway journeys is likely to fix this.

Now on to the tour. We start in Chelsea, at Mystic Mall (known better to many as “the Chelsea Market Basket”). There isn’t a train station here, but there will be soon: the MBTA is relocating the existing Chelsea station at 6th & Arlington, which was already partially demolished to make way for the SL3, a quarter-mile to the west, where the current terminus of the SL3 is already located. The new station will of course be fully accessible, but riders who were previously within walking distance of Bellingham Square will now have to transfer to the bus. On the other hand, it makes the retail, service, and hospitality businesses clustered around Everett Ave. significantly more accessible by train. Overall, the station move is probably a wash; either location favors some people and disfavors others. The station relocation project was bundled with a bunch of other grade-crossing and signal improvements that are supposed to reduce the impact of the train on traffic in Chelsea.

Our next stop is that existing Chelsea station, which is right next to the SL3’s “Bellingham Square” stop, although it’s still about a quarter-mile walk from the station to the actual Bellingham Square. There’s not a lot of employment in this area, but there is a good amount of housing, including public housing; the area is cut off by the viaduct of the Northeast Expressway (US 1) from the auto-oriented business district along Everett Ave. Chelsea station originally had a platform for both tracks, but when the SL3 came through, on the former right-of-way of the Grand Junction Railroad which ran parallel to the Eastern here, the outbound platform was demolished and a lot of hot-mix was dumped between the tracks as a replacement. (This was legal because the old station was inaccessible already and the new station was in the capital program.) In the 2018 counts, an average of just over 200 passengers a day used Chelsea station (as contrasted with 11,000 passengers a day on the 111 bus).

There’s a long gap between Chelsea and River Works, the next station; the state legislature included funding in the Transportation Bond Bill to construct a new station in Revere, at the former Wonderland dog track (after which the terminus of the Blue Line is also named). River Works is a private station for employees of GE Aircraft Engines in Lynn; there is no public access so I didn’t go see it. A developer has made a deal with GE to redevelop part of the site which includes an easement for public access to the station; I don’t expect to see the station before the new development is built (and probably built a new station as well).

That brings us to the aforementioned Lynn Central Square. Lynn, as they say, used to be an important place, but it has fallen on hard times, and many of its residents cannot afford $7 each way to take the train into Boston — $9.40 if they need to take the subway to their actual destination, because these are people who also cannot afford the $232 monthly pass that would include subway rides. What the powers that be thought they were accomplishing by erecting a thousand-stall parking garage in the middle of a working-class city like Lynn is beyond me. But they did, and then of course they failed to maintain it properly, and it shows.

Lynn station itself is interesting: it’s built on an old viaduct, remnant of an abandoned plan by the Eastern to widen its mainline to four tracks and eliminate grade crossings for faster service, which was largely obviated by the purchase of the Eastern by the B&M. Only the section in Lynn was ever built, and the line’s capacity through Salem remains limited to this day by the single-track tunnel, so it matters little that the line has been reduced to just two tracks through Lynn now. The extra-wide viaduct did make it possible for the station to be upgraded to a full-high center-platform configuration, although the inbound and outbound sides are oddly offset for reasons which are unclear to me. At least that means there are no significant freight clearance problems that would prevent building full platforms everywhere else on the line: freight trains must access the line from the south, since the route to Portsmouth has been abandoned.

The two-track viaduct continues north from Lynn into Swampscott, where there’s a cute little station building in a classic B&M style. I only saw the inbound side, where there is a large parking lot; the station building is on the outbound side, along with another lot. The two lots together hold only 127 stalls, which is far fewer than the reported 825 passengers a day this station served in 2018, so the majority of those passengers must be walk-ups or walking transfers from the buses on nearby Essex St. I was at the station while an outbound train to Newburyport made a stop, and even with limited service on a Sunday afternoon there were some passengers both boarding and alighting.

It’s another long interstation between Swampscott and Salem. An infill station at South Salem has been proposed, which would serve more people and destinations, such as Salem State University, but would also help to buffer traffic through the single-track Salem downtown tunnel, one of the oldest cut-and-cover railroad tunnels in the country. Before the the old Danvers River drawbridge burned down, the previous Salem station was located in the open cut south of the tunnel; after the fire, a temporary station was constructed north of the tunnel portal, and the previous station was abandoned as being too difficult to make accessible. (Remnants of the old single-platform station can be seen in aerial photos, including an abandoned stairway down from Mill St., but I did not make any attempt to go there.)

The Salem tunnel is unusual for another reason, which is that part of a wye was located inside it. The Danvers Branch diverged from the main line inside the tunnel, and it was on this wye lead that the temporary station (now the city-owned “Crescent” surface parking lot) was located. These tracks were lifted after construction of the new station and replacement drawbridge, so the Danvers Branch today is accessible only from Beverly, if it has any remaining traffic at all. Both portals remain today, and the abandoned branch is used to store sand and salt for treating icy surfaces.

The modern Salem station has a 728-stall parking garage, and is by far the busiest station on the line, nearly twice as busy as Beverly Depot, the next-busiest. There is a full-length high-level platform immediately north of the tunnel portal, an indoor waiting room, and a secure bike storage cage. The garage and full-high platform were built in the 2010s, opening in 2014, but the platform was relocated to the current location as soon as the drawbridge was replaced and service north to Ipswich and Rockport resumed. Because the station is so new, everything about it is in excellent condition, which is just about the only station I saw on the entire line about which one could say that.

On the other side of the Danvers River is the city of Beverly. Other than Boston, no city or town in Massachusetts has more commuter-tail stations than Beverly, even after one of them has had its service suspended, leaving four active stations: Beverly Depot, North Beverly, Montserrat, and Beverly Farms. (Needham also has four; Newton and Brockton have three each, as I believe does Melrose.) The latter two stations are located on the Rockport Branch, and are currently bustituted while the Annisquam River drawbridge in Gloucester is replaced; rail service is planned to return by the end of July. In the 2018 counts, Beverly Depot served more passengers than all other Beverly stations combined, by a factor of two, despite its 500-space off-site parking garage.

Downtown Beverly is pretty impressive for an old industrial city (the old local industry was shoe manufacturing, as well as shoe-factory equipment); Beverly Depot is located on the western edge of the downtown, but it’s easily walkable from a substantial old mixed commercial-residential neighborhood, and CATA, the local RTA, operates a low-fare circulator bus that serves the station (although not every train). The station itself has been converted into a restaurant but it maintains its historic features including a large wooden-roofed canopy on the inbound platform. A private lot on the inbound side augments the MBTA-owned garage and the city’s short-term meter parking. North of the station, there’s a universal crossover and a layover siding, allowing trains to short-turn, although the new two-trains-per-hour schedule only calls for two short-turn trains a day. I saw a southbound train serve the station while I was on the platform.

I followed the Rockport Branch from downtown Beverly all the way out to the end. During the Gloucester drawbridge replacement project, the MBTA had originally planned to maintain single-track service to Cape Ann, but after construction began, it was determined that the existing bridge was unsafe. As it was the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and passenger volumes were very light, the T decided to accelerate the demolition of the drawbridge rather than making temporary repairs to a structure that was in the process of being replaced. The change in schedule also meant that the Positive Train Control installation east of the bridge did not need to be completed before the federally imposed December, 2020, deadline (since the bridge was out of service and the rest of the line was thus disconnected from the rail network). In addition, numerous other maintenance-of-way activities, including tie and ballast replacement, were rescheduled to take advantage of the full shutdown of rail service. During weekdays, service remains active as far east as West Gloucester — the easternmost stop west of the drawbridge — but on weekends, the entire branch is bustituted, so all of the stations I visited were deserted of both passengers and trains (although there were walkers and bikers).

Of particular note along the Rockport Branch is Prides Crossing station, to which service is now suspended. While the 140-year-old station building now houses a confectioner’s shop, there are only three commuter parking spaces, and only a handful of local residents used the station, which was a flag stop on a small number of weekday peak trains. The station never got enough use to even have a proper inbound platform; instead, it’s got the MBTA-standard “dump some asphalt between the tracks” walkway for the inbound passengers to board, assuming the engineer stops the train in exactly the right place. Beverly Farms station is less than a mile away, and has nearly an order of magnitude more daily passengers, so hopefully this service suspension really is permanent.

I don’t have a lot to say about the other stations along the branch; they are all quite similar, with low-level platforms and mini-highs. West Gloucester is weird because the inbound platform is much shorter than the outbound, for no obvious reason; it’s currently being used as a laydown area for the drawbridge construction as well as the first stop for weekday inbound trains for the duration of the bustitution. (Manchester is the last stop for weekday outbound trains; I’m not sure why outbound trains are unable to serve West Gloucester.) The line is single-tracked from the Annisquam River all the way to Rockport; although the drawbridge was double-tracked and will be replaced with two separate single-track bascules, the tracks merge just on the east side of the draw in any case, so I’m not sure what is gained.

Returning to the main line, there are five remaining stations: North Beverly, Hamilton/Wenham, Ipswich, Rowley, and Newburyport. The Merrimack River bridge north of Newburyport is no longer in service, and the line beyond it has been rail-trailed, so Newburyport is the end of the line for the foreseeable future.

North Beverly is our first stop, and it’s an odd location, wedged in behind a Route 1A strip mall. It has the usual low-level platforms with pedestrian grade crossings, and the mini-highs are in poor condition. There seems to be no topographical barrier to building full-length high platforms here, other than the need for crossing the tracks, which could easily be accommodated by adding a grade crossing and ramps just north of the platforms, which could connect to the back of the Stop & Shop supermarket north of the strip mall — there is already a vehicular grade crossing, Dodge St., at the south limits of the station. North Beverly is about 2½ miles north of Beverly Depot, which is an entirely reasonable interstation for the population density.

Hamilton/Wenham continues the theme of low-level platforms with mini-highs, although there is only one platform since the line is single-tracked north of North Beverly. The towns of Hamilton and Wenham share quite a few things, including a library and a school district; the station is also split between the two towns, being built right on the town line.

Ipswich was for much of the MBTA’s existence the northern terminus of passenger service on the line, and there are likely still outdated system maps showing it as the “Ipswich/Rockport Line” floating around. Newburyport and Rowley did have service under the B&M, and at times under the MBTA, but disputes over subsidies and service levels made the operation an on-again-off-again proposition. Because Ipswich was the terminus for so many years, there is a small layover yard just south of Ipswich station, where trains were formerly idled overnight waiting for the next morning’s service to resume. As at Hamilton/Wenham, the station itself is a single low-level platform and a large surface parking lot on the west side of the single track, with a mini-high platform at the north end.

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Weekend excursion: Stations of the Franklin Line

It’s getting on nine days since I actually did most of this travel, and in the mean time I’ve also seen stations on three other lines (although one of them has historic connections to this one), so I’ll at least try to be a bit brief. (So, um, only 3,000 words.) As always, you can follow along with my photo gallery on SmugMug.

The Franklin Line is a disappointingly underutilized transportation facility. Originally constructed as a mainline railroad, one of several competing for business between Boston and New York, like the others it came under the control of the New York, New Haven and Hartford system. For the New Haven, the line became the Midland Route, providing an alternative to the heavily-used Shore Line (today’s Northeast Corridor) into Connecticut. Nearly all of today’s Franklin Line was originally double- or even triple-tracked, but in the years of railroad decline, culminating in the New Haven’s insolvency and inclusion in the government rescue program that created Conrail, the second track was lifted and overpasses were removed to reduce maintenance costs, resulting in a largely single-tracked line with some passing sidings. In its current configuration, the Franklin Line is unable to support frequent service. In the past few years, the MBTA and its rail operations contractor Keolis began a program to restore the double track to large segments of the line, a few miles at a time, with the stated goal of improving headways to as short as 35 minutes, but this project was put on hold during 2020.

It’s a huge disappointment because over the past decade and a half, more than a thousand housing units have been added within walking distance of the Franklin Line, and likewise tens of thousands of square feet of retail and office space. A more frequent service, with improved, more accessible stations and faster trip times, would be a real boon to the people who chose to move to new apartment buildings in Franklin, Walpole, Norwood, and Dedham. (Even Norfolk is getting into the act, albeit with a small detached-single-family condo development rather than a 200-unit apartment complex.) The MBTA and Keolis should be commended for the new April, 2021, schedule on the line, which will provide 15 hourly trains from South Station to at least Walpole, with most continuing on to Franklin, as well as additional peak-period service. The T really should resume the double-track program and take whatever additional measures are necessary to crank the headways down to 30 minutes rather than 35 — some of which probably involves improving stations to eliminate bottlenecks at inadequate and inaccessible platforms. Closing Plimptonville station, as has been done on a temporary basis, is a step in that direction, but needs to be made permanent, however much I’d hate to strand all 12 people who used the one round-trip a day that stopped there, and is probably a requirement for finishing the restoration of the double track there. In a Regional Rail future where the whole trip from Boston to Forge Park takes only 42 minutes rather than 67 minutes as currently timetabled, it’s conceivable that the long-talked-about restoration of passenger service to Milford might finally make sense.

I started my trip in Franklin at Forge Park/495 station, the current outer end of the line. Unlike most recent MBTA extensions, there’s no overnight layover facility here; constrained layover capacity has apparently been an issue for the MBTA’s Railroad Operations department for many years, going back at least as far as the original extension of the line (which was paid for by National Development, the developer of the nearby industrial park, which also built Dedham Corporate Center/128 station). Like all newer commuter-rail stations, it’s an ocean of parking surrounding a small station building with full-length platforms, although it’s old enough to have those be low-level platforms on both sides of the track, with a single mini-high on the same side as the station house. (The two huge parking lots are on opposite sides of the track, and several pedestrian grade crossings permit crossing the track in case a passenger should forget in which ocean of parking their SUV happens to be sitting.) Just west of the station, the former West Central St. vehicular overpass has been rebuilt as a pedestrian bridge; automatic signal territory ends immediately west of the overpass.

Franklin station, sometimes called “Franklin/Dean” after the local four-year college, is a real frustration. It’s nestled into Franklin’s cute little downtown, within walking distance of Dean College, shops and services, and a new 200-unit apartment complex — but it’s wholly inaccessible. The 2018 manual passenger counts, which were conducted before the apartment complex opened, showed a daily traffic of 630 passengers each way (including a handful who went the short distance between Forge Park and downtown Franklin). Yet, this station was single-tracked in recent memory, as the platform makes painfully obvious: it was clearly extended by removing the outbound track and dumping several yards of hot-mix onto the trackway where that second track used to be. This does mean that it would be ludicrously easy to make the station fully accessible, because the current platform is well away from the station building, and so all the more frustrating that the MBTA has chosen not to do so, given the fact that it serves a significant ridership and an educational institution. Immediately south of the station, the line divides: the old freight mainline was not acquired by the state when purchasing the line from CSX due to environmental cleanup liabilities the state was unwilling to assume after performing due diligence, which held up the sale for a decade, and a single-track branch line to Milford serves the current commuter-rail service. (The remaining freight customers on the branch are served by the Grafton & Upton out of Westborough; the mainline is abandoned about two miles south of the station and has become the Southern New England Trunkline Trail.)

Just north of Franklin station is “FRANK” interlocking and the MBTA’s very limited two-track layover facility, built on a formerly three-track section of the right of way; phase 2 of the double-track project involves extending the double-track from the north end of the layover facility to Norfolk, about 3½ miles. (The theory behind this is that, once the trains have left the layover for the day, the layover tracks can be used for through-running trains.) This is the phase of the project that began in early 2020 and was paused for the pandemic; it’s unknown when work will resume. (The third phase of the project, which was in design when work was halted, will restore the second track between Norwood Central and Walpole, likely with a few gaps, as I’ll note below.)

At Norfolk, we can actually see lots of evidence of the double-track project having gotten started with grubbing and grading on the right-of-way, although no track placement. It’s not clear whether the plans included construction of a proper second platform at the station, although the trackbed is certainly wide enough to support it. The parking situation at Norfolk is a little odd, with most of the parking a very long walk south of the station and up a long set of stairs — I didn’t see the main lot during my trip and was only able to figure out what the long walkway was for by examining the aerial photographs closely. (And at least for now don’t expect to learn much about the double-track project from the aerials, nor likewise about the various recently built apartment buildings — the public aerials are a couple of years out of date.) At the north end of the station is a grade crossing over Rockwood Road, and the completed double-track from phase 1 of the project runs from just north of there to the “WALPOLE WEST” interlocking, at the south end of the former passing siding south of Walpole station.

Walpole itself is a bit of a mess — a historic mess, but a mess nonetheless. The station was built at the diamond crossing of what are now the Franklin Line and the CSX Framingham Secondary, and CSX has a small marshalling yard on the Framingham side of the station to switch trains for industrial customers on the Framingham Secondary and on the Northeast Corridor, some of which are served via the northern Franklin Line from Readville due to access restrictions on the NEC. While the crossing was built as a full diamond, at least one of the wye legs has been lifted, and in a 2010 report, it was reported that the MBTA was operating game-days-only Foxboro special-event service using a backup move because the switch from the southbound Franklin line to Foxboro and Mansfield was not reliable. (This must have been fixed in preparation for the pilot all-day service to Foxboro, because when that service was introduced it was called out specifically as not serving Walpole station.) The station was built on the diamond crossing proper, to serve passengers on both lines, which came under the same Old Colony umbrella in the late 19th century, but passenger service on what is now the Framingham Secondary ended before World War II and is no longer a particular concern. For operational simplicity, Alon Levy suggests moving the station northeast, past Elm Street and closer to downtown Walpole, which would allow for construction of full-length platforms and would not be a significantly more difficult walk for most passengers; this short section of the line is already double-tracked.

Next stop, Plimptonville! Or actually not, since the single daily round-trip that called at the ten-foot asphalt “platform” has been discontinued — hopefully for good. As I mentioned above, in 2018, this sorry excuse for a station, with gravel parking lot the size of two SUVs, served a dozen passengers, which most have been mostly people who lived within walking distance. With the station out of the way, there’s nothing preventing busting up the platform to restore the second track, and once that’s done it can never be reopened because this station can never be made accessible in its present location. Wikipedia says the current platform is ten feet long, which means it doesn’t take much of a braking error on the part of the engineer to entirely miss the mark.

Windsor Gardens, like Plimptonville, is problematic for future service on a double-tracked line. Also like Plimptonville, it serves only local residents — it’s practically a private station, with no formal public access except by train. It was the last stations built before the MBTA took ownership of the line, and serves only the residents of the apartment complex formerly known as Windsor Gardens. (Now called “The Commons at Windsor Gardens” because landlords can’t help but change the names of their properties when they change hands.) Despite the somewhat limited service, more than 250 people used this station in the 2018 counts, and it’s definitely one that is worth keeping, both for the MBTA and as a valuable and exclusive amenity for the landlord. The challenge is how — if it is even possible — to extend the double-track through this section, as the platform (again, like Plimptonville) sits on top of the old southbound trackway, in a fairly narrow section of the right of way. Even making the station accessible is likely to be challenging, although it’s a challenge that absolutely should be taken up — but who is going to pay for it? It seems likely that, in the short term at least, this will remain a single-track station, with a neckdown between two otherwise double-track segments.

Norwood Central brings us back to the “ocean of parking” that’s such a theme of the MBTA Commuter Rail network — although at least there is more high-density residential construction immediately adjacent to the line. The closest large employer, Norwood Hospital, has been closed since a flood in June, 2020, and is not expected to reopen before the end of 2021. At least there’s a solar canopy over part of the parking lot. South of Norwood Central, a couple of apparently active (but very poor condition) freight sidings persist, one of which appears to still be getting freight deliveries, which may help to explain why such a busy station (more than a thousand passengers a day in 2018) has only mini-high platforms; constructing full-length high platforms should be a priority, but the station has the usual problem of requiring expensive vertical circulation structures to allow for full closure of the pedestrian grade crossings (which are incompatible with high-level platforms).

There’s no sign of a depot at Norwood Depot, nor even a junction, but there is more recently-built housing and another very large parking lot. A light-industrial building at the far north end of the platform does show signs of having had boxcar doors at one time, although no other evidence of a historic freight siding remains. The footfall at Norwood Depot is surprisingly low compared to its sibling to the south, under 300 a day in 2018, which is presumably a consequence of its smaller (but still substantial) sea of surrounding parking. Perhaps if the MBTA sold some of that parking to another new residential development, there might be more traffic here. There are very long low-level platforms with mini-highs at the south end, although the mini-highs seem somewhat longer than at many other stations, and surprisingly, have a wood deck rather than concrete. The inbound platform is width-constrained, which will make construction of any vertical circulation difficult; in the mean time, the station limps along with limited pedestrian grade crossings.

Islington is one of two stations in Westwood — the other being the far larger and more accessible Route 128/University Ave. station. Although it’s wedged between Routes 1 and 1A, the station is in a single-family-residential neighborhood, has relatively limited parking, and is likely convenient only to its immediate neighbors. (The parking lot is also in poor condition.) Nonetheless, it did manage to attract more than a hundred daily riders in the 2018 counts despite being skipped by a number of the AM peak trains. (I tried to count the number of different service patterns operated on this line in the 2018 passenger data, and gave up when I got to ten.) Islington is also very close to Dedham Corporate Center, on the other side of Route 128 (the freeway, not the station), which has much more parking, denser neighboring residential development, and easier access, so it’s not surprising that it gets relatively low ridership compared to its nearest “competitors”.

Speaking of which, a sudden snow squall interrupted my tour of the line. When I got out of the car at Dedham Corporate, I found the weather to be unconducive for photography, and went home (after taking a few pictures of the swirling snow in the parking lot). I went back the following Saturday afternoon to finish off the Franklin Line with the two remaining stations. Dedham Corporate of course has the usual ocean of parking, accessed from the East St. exit off Route 128, but on the other side of the tracks, two large chain apartment complexes (an “Avalon” and a “Jefferson”) front the station from across Rustcraft Road. Dedham Corporate Center, the industrial park, is located on the former site of the Rust Craft Greeting Card Company’s factory, once the world’s largest, and had its own station to serve employees; the station was closed due to low traffic in the early MBTA era, and the new station was built in the late 1980s by the developers of the industrial park. The apartment complexes came much later, and the Legacy Place lifestyle center, which is on the other side of the apartment buildings, even later still. When the station was originally built, there was no access from the Rustcraft Road side, and in fact a chain-link fence still blocks access to the platforms, but there is now a “kiss and ride” (signed as such!) and a small opening in the fence about 400 feet south of the drop-off area. (So you can drop someone off at the drop-off but they still have to walk most of the way down the platform before they can actually get into the station.) As at other stations of this age, there are full-length low-level platforms with no tactile warning, with a pair of mini-high platforms at the south end of the station, and pedestrian grade crossings make full-length high platforms difficult to implement, although there is at least plenty of room in the right-of-way to add ramps or elevators at either end of the platforms.

The final stop on our tour of the Franklin Line is Endicott. It’s a very small station, inaccessible, in a low-density residential neighborhood with parking restricted to Dedham residents. Between the parking (which is small but not trivial) and the local residents, this station seems to attract a decent amount of patronage — 250 passengers a day in 2018. It’s also used as a cut-through by the local neighborhood: I saw a family on bicycles use the ramp and grade crossing while I was there taking pictures. Yes, even though the station is not accessible as a station, it still has a ramp to get from street level up to the platform, and even some HP/V restricted parking. What the town of Dedham expects one to do once a wheelchair user gets up onto the platform is unclear, but at least they made the effort. Like with other stations on this line, vertical circulation is the biggest challenge for making the station fully accessible, especially in the middle of a residential neighborhood as it is — neighbors would undoubtedly show up and filibuster any public meeting that proposed making the station properly accessible.

That’s the end of this tour. The next stop on the line is Readville, which is … a thing. I haven’t revisited Readville since my 2019 tour of the low-platform Providence Line stations, and nearly all Franklin Line trips join the Southwest Corridor at Readville, while the historic Midland Route follows the Dorchester Branch, today’s Fairmount Line, into South Station. I did stop by Fairmount station itself, but haven’t seen any of the newly constructed Fairmount Line stations and will delay that until after the pandemic when I can more comfortably do so by transit.

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Weekend mini-excursion: Stations of various south-side lines

I had hoped to publish my thoughts about the Franklin Line by now, but photo editing took a bit longer than usual, and I wanted to wait anyway for a sunny day when I could go out and get pictures of the remaining stations on the line from my snow-squall-interrupted trip last weekend. Anyway, as the journalists say, “tk” on that one.

In order to dovetail with the Franklin Line discussion, I did get around to publishing some cell-phone photos from the Providence Line which I took in August, 2019 — before the closure of rusted-out deathtrap South Attleboro and before the completion of the new platforms at Mansfield. Notably, this contains the pictures of Readville station which complete my treatment of the Franklin Line. That earlier trip was made primarily to investigate the barriers to high-platform construction (although the primary barrier was always Stephanie Pollack) and some of the photos were subsequently deleted, so it is far from a thorough treatment of current station conditions.

While I was in the neighborhood, although I skipped a revisit of Readville and Hyde Park on the Providence Line, I did go to Fairmount station on the eponymous line; since all of the other Fairmount stations are in denser parts of the city with more people around and less parking, and there’s still a pandemic going on, I am putting them off until later when I am able to get there by transit. (They’re also all new-construction high-platform stations and so much less interesting.)

Since I was posting the Providence Line photos, I figured I might as well take a look at the two-station Stoughton Branch, which has one historic station, a lot of questions about its future, and lots and lots of parking. I’m not going to be writing a separate profile of the Stoughton Branch for some time, certainly not until some movement is made on electrification, South Coast Rail phase 2, or other significant investments.

Next stop, Franklin, followed by the Eastern Route.

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Weekend excursion: Stations of the Greenbush line

Well, after two very opinionated posts about the two next-nearest MBTA rail lines to me, what could I say about the Greenbush Line? Turns out, there isn’t very much to say. The Greenbush Line is, strictly speaking, the newest MBTA Commuter Rail line to open, as a part of the state’s Central Artery/Tunnel Project mitigation commitments. It was delayed by NIMBYs in the tony South Shore communities it passes through, especially Hingham, which insisted on construction of an unnecessary tunnel where the line had passed through the historic downtown at grade. Cohasset demanded a rail-trail conversion for a former branch line to the Hingham Naval Ammunition Depot Annex. I’m not sure what if anything Braintree or Weymouth got, other than some enormous parking lots and brand-new rail stations.

Because the Greenbush Line is so new, and none of the original Old Colony Railroad stations still existed or were in the right place for an auto-oriented, 9-to-5-commuter park-and-ride service, all of the stations are entirely new construction and fully accessible, with a single full-length high-level platform. Other than East Braintree/Weymouth Landing, the stations are far from any significant residential or commercial development, just an ocean of parking in the middle of the woods by the side of the tracks. (Greenbush, the terminus, is instead in a commercial/industrial area; the station and overnight layover facility are co-located.) East Braintree, by contrast, has a significant amount of transit-oriented development, although it too has an ocean of parking. A couple of the larger parking lots at least have solar canopies — why doesn’t the MBTA develop these at every parking lot with a southerly exposure?

You can see the pictures at my SmugMug gallery.

Usually at this point I would have a few thousand words about “what is to be done”. But because the Greenbush (and the other Old Colony lines) is so new, there isn’t a whole lot on the agenda in terms of maintenance, and the stations are already fully accessible. The three branches are unquestionably last on the list for any sort of major capital investments, especially after South Coast Rail Phase 1 extends the Middleborough Line to New Bedford and Fall River. So that’s the end of it, right?

Hold on.

The Greenbush Line and its Old Colony sisters (Kingston and Middleborough/South Coast) do not need any capital investment, but the MBTA’s rolling stock does. Right now, the Old Colony lines require a significant amount of the MBTA’s most modern rolling stock, because the line is operated with remote door release — the only lines where that’s practical because they are the only lines where every single station has a full-length high-level platform. That means that their productivity is higher (conductors are not required to open doors or operate traps for low-platform stops), but it also means that they are already prepared for modern rolling stock, once the T finally manages to buy some.

I go back and forth on diesel multiple units (DMUs). Yes, they still burn diesel, and they don’t have the power or acceleration of an electric multiple unit (EMU), even from the same manufacturer and product family. (Compare the Fort Worth diesel FLIRT, at 1050 kW, with the nearly-identical Helsinki class Sm5 electric FLIRT at 2200 kW.) But if your alternative is buying more locomotive-hauled coaches, and locomotives, because you can’t install electrification before your current rolling stock reaches the end of its service life, then DMUs look more attractive — especially if you can buy DMUs and EMUs from the same family, with an option to convert diesel to electric during the normal midlife overhaul.

Since the Greenbush and Kingston lines are probably the last to be electrified in any plausible scenario, that suggests a plan of action: order DMUs and EMUs together, with the DMUs to be delivered first, and put them into service on the Old Colony. Take the coaches that were ordered for South Coast Rail along with all the coaches and locomotives heretofore being used on Old Colony service and shift them to the rest of the system, retiring the poorest-condition locomotives and coaches. This gets you productivity improvements on the rest of the system as you install high platforms, and further reduces the number of conductors required. By the time the DMUs are fifteen years old, electrification work should have progressed far enough to retire the last of the locomotive-hauled coach fleet and consider converting the DMUs to EMUs or finding another agency to buy and overhaul them.

(Longer term, the electrification probably needs to be paired with resolving the Dorchester bottleneck — a single-track section of the line parallel to I-93 and the Red Line which limits the possibility for future frequency improvements. Rail Vision assumed that the Greenbush and Kingston lines would terminate in Quincy or Braintree for most scenarios due to the cost involved, if 15-minute headways were to be provided.)

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Weekend excursion: Stations of the Needham Line

This is the first of three posts about MBTA commuter-rail stations I went to see on the weekend of March 13–14: on Saturday I saw all of the Needham and Greenbush lines, and then on Sunday I saw nearly all of the Franklin Line. (My travels Sunday were interrupted by an unexpected snow squall that made photography of the last two stations untenable; I’ll get back to them at some point.) As with previous Weekend Excursions, I am deliberately avoiding the inner “zone 1A” stations, which are generally associated with busy subway stations, until the pandemic is over, so on the Needham Line I did not go all the way to Forest Hills, but I did see all of the other stations, and my photos are once again on my SmugMug site, which you might want to open in another tab to flip back and forth with this essay.

The Needham Line is actually a combination of fragments of two older lines, the nineteenth-century Charles River Branch Railroad, which ran from Newton Highlands to Medway and points west, and the early-1900s Needham Cut-off, which connected Forest Hills with the modern-day Needham Junction. The Cut-off reduced the travel time on the Charles River Railroad, which had used trackage rights over the Boston & Albany’s Highland Branch to reach Boston, by substituting a straighter and flatter route connecting to Boston over the New Haven Railroad’s Shore Line. A full wye junction at Needham Junction allowed commuter service in Needham to be provided via Cut-off, and passenger service was eliminated north of Needham Heights. The connection to the Highland Branch was severed when the MTA (as was) took over the Highland Branch from the B&A and made it the Riverside Line, and the section of line in Newton was eventually abandoned after losing its last freight customers; more recently, the Newton section has been rail-trailed as the Upper Falls Greenway. The remaining section in Needham is still intact, but the original Charles River Branch Railroad was always a single-track line there and in Newton. (I can remember when I moved to Boston in the 1990s the Newton section still had freight sidings connected, although the grade crossings were exempt and I never saw any evidence of traffic on the rails. The bridge over Route 128 connecting the Newton and Needham sections was demolished in the 2010s as a part of widening the highway.)

East of Needham Junction, the line was historically double-tracked, except for the bridge over the Charles River and associated wetlands, and a few narrow gaps in West Roxbury. (See Vansnhookenraggen’s track map.) The second track was lifted at some point, long enough ago that all of the stations and most of the overpasses are single-track-only; I haven’t been able to find out exactly when this happened. It’s clear that some of the stations were extended out onto the trackbed of the old second track, either to provide additional platform length (as I wrote about the Fitchburg Line, the T has been relatively inflexible about requiring 800-foot platforms so they can run infrequent 8-coach trains) or clearance for a mini-high platform. Unlike the Worcester and Fitchburg lines, all of the stations on the Needham Line have a mini-high for accessibility, although because of station layouts it is frequently very far up the platform from the actual station location.

Southwest of Needham Junction, the MBTA owned but never operated the remaining branch line to Millis and beyond, and this has now been rail-trailed through Dover and Needham to a point just south of the switch controlling that branch; although the wye proper is still in place it’s clearly not long for this world. There is a private business (a tree service) in the infield of the wye, but it does not receive rail freight, nor do any other businesses along the line; and freight sidings have been taken up in places where they once existed, except just south of Needham Heights, which the MBTA uses as a layover facility for the line. North of Needham Heights, track remains but grade crossings have been removed as far as Gould St., where the line used to pass north of the WCVB-TV (channel 5) studios before crossing Route 128.

The question then arises: what should be done with this line? The platforms are in terrible shape (except for the mini-highs), and will require some capital investment soon. The platforms are also much longer than would be necessary for operating frequent service with self-propelled vehicles of some kind. The single-tracking limits the frequencies that the line can support, and the grade crossings and station sites in Needham limit the choice of mode. There’s a substantial desire for better service, and regular subway fares, in West Roxbury and Roslindale, and people have batted around various options for as long as I can remember. A significant challenge is that all of the possible options require very similar, but incompatible, capital investments; doing any one of them would preclude any other type of service for thirty years or more. Most of these options would also involve closing the line for several years in order to construct new stations, signals, and power, as well as rebuild the trackbed. The most popular option would require full grade-crossing elimination in Needham, as well as significant construction of vertical circulation, which I believe to be a non-starter for both political and cost reasons. Any option that involves significant construction in the Charles River wetlands or adjacent parkland is likely to run into significant environmental objections, although it’s my hope that electrification alone, if done sensitively, would not.

So what are the options? I assume that doing nothing is not a real option, because the platforms are deteriorating and we can’t keep on burning diesel fuel, but people in Needham are rich and politically powerful, as well as attached to “their” train service. The Regional Rail model is appealing: frequent service every 15 minutes is feasible with electric propulsion, and the full implementation would put at least all of the West Roxbury stops into the subway fare zone, because they are no farther away from downtown Boston than Riverside or Braintree. Many activists in Boston have been asking for an Orange Line extension, which would provide a single-fare ride to most of the MBTA network as well as a single-seat ride to downtown Boston, but has a bunch of baggage that would mean this option likely ends service in Needham entirely. Other people have advocated for extending the Green Line along the now-abandoned segment through Newton to serve Needham; I myself have advocated all three of these options at various times. Sticking with mainline-rail technologies, but modernizing the equipment to allow faster and more frequent trips is an option, too, but has some of the same issues. And this is a line that serves 3,300 people a day — even being optimistic and assuming that a more frequent service could serve 10,000 people a day, mostly in West Roxbury, how much spending is that really worth? The interstation distance on this line is relatively short (most of the stations are within ¾ mile of at least one of their neighbors), as is the line itself, so even modern fast-accelerating trains can’t shave much time off the schedule. (In my simulations, the long interstation between Hersey and West Roxbury is the only place where a train even gets to 50 mi/h, and you would really like to have another station or two in that stretch. Having all level boarding helps much more by reducing dwell times, although this is complicated by the need to wait for signal clearance on the largely single-track parts of the line.)

A summary of the benefits and impediments for each of these alternatives:

Status quo
Station conditions will have to be addressed, do not want to throw good money after bad. Current service is much worse than it could be. Diesel locomotives and locomotive-hauled coaches are obsolete. Maintains existing direct service to Back Bay and South Station, at a very large cost in capacity on the Providence Line due to crossing movements for inbound trains at Forest Hills. High fares keep people from driving and parking in Needham just to use the commuter rail.
Regional Rail
Requires high-level platforms and substantial structures for vertical circulation. Some station locations will require substantial property takings if double-tracking is to be restored in West Roxbury. Frequent all-day service with integrated fares reduces need for parallel bus services. Environmental processing for 25-kV electrification infrastructure in Needham and crossing the Charles River likely to be difficult. Same issues with Providence Line capacity unless trains terminate at Forest Hills, as has been proposed by Rail Vision and others.
Orange Line extension
Requires complete grade separation (due to third-rail electrification) and fare control, which may necessitate relocating stations and is definitely the most expensive option. Extremely unpopular in Needham and would require substantial property takings north of Needham Junction to double-track and grade-separate the line, likely resulting in ending service to the town, or else an expensive bored tunnel with stations in different locations. Line would be closed for several years for construction.
Green Line extension
Requires a politically unpopular retaking of the Upper Falls Greenway and likely property on either side, and an expensive new viaduct over Route 128. While this preserves a one-seat ride to Longwood and the Back Bay, it is a much slower trip (why the Needham Cut-off was built in the first place). Capacity of the Green Line’s Central Tunnel is limited, and addition of a fifth branch would worsen schedule adherence significantly, unless frequencies were dropped on the outer Riverside to compensate. On the plus side, no new vehicles or maintenance facilities would be required (other than the Type 10 LRVs that have not been ordered yet), and additional stops could be added in Newton serving the Needham St. area, which is rapidly transforming. Probably only makes sense in conjunction with an Orange Line extension to West Roxbury, making that option even more expensive, but preserves some service to Needham. Only modest platform raising, no grade separations and only limited additional vertical circulation (12-foot ramps vs. 45-foot ramps for Orange Line or 48-foot ramps for high-platform mainline rail).
Regional Rail model with low-floor DMU/EMU
This would be my preferred option — requiring only modest platform raising, much less obtrusive vertical circulation, and largely compatible with the existing infrastructure (signals, grade crossings, PTC/ATC, maintenance facilities) — but there’s one huge drawback, though: the MBTA doesn’t operate any of this sort of equipment and never has. (The Budd RDCs are closest but not low-floor and they’ve been gone from the fleet for decades now, so there are no parts and no maintenance expertise.) Otherwise, I would be telling the T to call up Trinity Metro and ask if they can lease one or two of the TEXRail DMUs (a diesel version of my favorite Regional Rail train, the Stadler FLIRT) for a pilot. This still has the issues with building 25-kV electrification infrastructure through Needham Center, once you ultimately get EMUs rather than DMUs, but the issue of maintaining a tiny fleet of low-floor EMUs in addition to the larger fleet of high-floor EMUs remains. A new low-platform stop would have to be constructed at Forest Hills. (Note that low-floor mainline trains are still higher-platform than LRVs, 600 mm above the rail rather than 300 mm, so the ramps required would be roughly twice as long.)

So now that I’ve dismissed all of the alternatives as inadequate, too expensive for the possible audience, politically impractical, or too different an equipment type in too small a fleet for the T to effectively maintain, have I left any other options on the table?

Yes. Yes I have.

After looking at all of the stations in context, staring at aerial photos and track maps, and thinking about land use, I am convinced that the right option is in fact light rail. But not a Green Line extension, which is impractical for the reasons I described above; rather, a direct substitution of light rail for the existing mainline rail service between Forest Hills and Needham Heights, with added stops at Baker St./VFW Parkway, Millennium Park, and Gould St. This offers all of the advantages of the Regional Rail solution, with the same service pattern, but uses equipment the T already is planning to buy and maintain, is incrementally constructable, and is much cheaper to build — commensurate to the expected ridership. It would require building slightly raised platforms, but these platforms would be compatible with the existing legacy service, allowing for incremental construction before the new vehicles are delivered, and the low platforms require only short ramps for accessibility. Existing pedestrian and vehicular grade crossings could largely be maintained, and platforms shortened to only 250 feet, greatly reducing the distance patrons (especially wheelchair users) are required to walk to board and alight. (Why extend all the way to Gould St.? First, to preserve future options for extending into Newton. Second, and more importantly, because there is a big assisted-living facility/nursing home on Gould St. next to the right-of-way and it would be well served by a station.)

This does still require installation of overhead power, but the structures for light-rail catenary, designed for low voltages and a maximum speed of 50 mi/h, are much less obtrusive and require less clearance than what you have to build for mainline electrification at 25 kilovolts AC. Even crossing Cutler Park and the Charles River is not likely to be a problem for 750-volt DC catenary, and it would be actually practical through Needham Center, without requiring significant land takings. It does require construction of a new platform at Forest Hills with internal vertical circulation to access the Orange Line, and it also requires a separate maintenance facility, like the Mattapan Line has, because the line won’t have a track connection to the Green Line — I would put this either in the Rivermoor Industrial Park, south of Millennium Park and near the existing terminus of the 36 bus, or beyond the proposed Gould Street station, next to the WCVB-TV studios and Muzi Motors. (The latter’s oceans of asphalt and low-rise buildings should be a high-priority target for redevelopment anyway.)

You might ask whether this is an actual improvement. The MBTA hasn’t chosen a proposal yet for the new Type 10 Green Line vehicle, so we don’t know what their performance characteristics are, but I picked a random LRV that’s already used in North America (the Siemens S200 used in Calgary) and plugged its parameters into my simulator. With the two infill stops, at Millennium Park and VFW/Baker, Needham LRT still beats the existing diesel train between Forest Hills and Needham Heights by a whole eight minutes (20 minutes vs. 31), meaning that even with the forced transfer to the Orange Line, someone going to Longwood or Back Bay would not end up any worse off (and they’d pay a lot less). Without any investment in double-tracking, this schedule works for 5 trains per hour (12-minute headways), with a cycle time of exactly an hour, so it would require 6 trains:
A stringline diagram showing an hour's service at 5tph

If the second track is restored through West Roxbury to Millennium Park, you could double frequency on the Boston segment, which would be nearly equal to Orange Line service, cost far less, and be constructible incrementally, without cutting off the Needham end of the line.

This is yet another example of how deciding what service model you want to operate then determines what your capital program should look like. Here’s my vision for the incremental capital improvements to make this a reality:

  1. Acquire purchase options on Prime Auto Body and Muzi Motors properties.
  2. Start environmental review process, including alternatives analysis for maintenance facility location and infill stations.
  3. Add eight cars to Type 10 order.
  4. Start design and permitting on overhead electrification, infill stations, and maintenance facilities.
  5. Start platform reconstruction, raising platforms to 360 mm and making sure that pedestrian grade crossings are at least 275 feet apart (250-foot platform plus 12-foot ramp on either side); add ramps as required.
  6. (All of the above are no-/low-regrets investments; the platform work needs to be done anyway and you might as well only do it once.)
  7. Design new Green Line-compatible signal system, or else figure out how to fit mainline cab signals and ACSES to a Type 10 LRV.
  8. Assuming positive environmental review, start construction of maintenance facilities, infill stations, signals, and catenary.
  9. Close the line for the summer to test vehicles and signals (the only step that requires a full line closure, because the new platforms and catenary are geometrically compatible with existing rolling stock).
  10. Open the converted line to passengers.

That’s what you do with the Needham Line to get from 3,300 to 10,000 passengers a day.

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Weekend excursion: Stations of the Fitchburg Line

Attention conservation notice: 3,900 words about passenger stations on a railroad you probably don’t ride in a city where you don’t live, with embedded rants about the conservatism of railroaders and the necessity of integrating service planning with capital construction and vehicle procurement.

I continued my series of visits to MBTA commuter rail stations the weekend of March 6–7 with the Fitchburg Line. I chose this line for a couple of reasons: first, it’s the second-closest to me, after the Worcester Line which runs only a mile from my home; second, the MBTA decided to close the inner part of the line completely for two months, “while passenger volume is light due to the pandemic”, in order to accelerate installation of Automatic Train Control equipment, which is required by federal regulations. (The T was able to meet the December 31, 2020, federal deadline for installing Positive Train Control by getting a waiver from the FRA allowing it to operate PTC without ATC on the North Side commuter lines for two years.) Additionally, two of the line’s nineteen stations had service suspended due to low ridership and lack of disabled access as a part of pandemic-related service cuts, and I wanted to see what those stations actually looked like while they were still reasonably intact. (We’ll see what “intact” turned out to mean in a little bit.)

As with last weekend’s tour of the Worcester Line, I did not go into The City to photograph the Zone 1A stations, and as with last weekend, I am publishing the photographs separately in a gallery on my SmugMug site. Feel free to middle-click that link to see what I’m talking about in the rest of the commentary.

The Fitchburg Line is a very strange bird and I Have Thoughts. It serves some of the wealthiest suburbs of Boston, including the tony suburbs of Belmont, Weston, and Lincoln, along with working-class cities like Fitchburg and Leominster at the very far end of the line. Before the pandemic, a number of distinct service patterns were operated, including short-turn local trains between Boston and Littleton, express trains that ran non-stop between South Acton and Porter Square, and local trains that skipped neither, one, or both of the now-closed low-patronage stops in Weston. The regular local train making all stops was scheduled to take 104 minutes between North Station and Wachusett. The line includes both the absolute newest MBTA station of any kind (the aforementioned Wachusett), as well as one of the oldest (Silver Hill, in existence since 1844). Of the nineteen stops, nine are completely inaccessible (100% low platforms or indeed no platforms at all), six more have low-level platforms with short “mini-high” platforms to make them nominally accessible (although not acceptable by current standards), and the four recently-built (or reconstructed) stations have actual full-length high-level platforms.

The two stations in Belmont, “Belmont” and “Waverley”, have surprisingly low passenger counts (based on the 2018 CTPS manual counts). Both of these stations have extensive local bus service, but the stations are assigned to the extremely expensive “zone 1”, which costs $6.50 a trip, as compared with the $2.40 “zone 1A” fare (same as the subway). In a rational fare structure, these fares would be equal, and some subset of passengers would shift from the bus to the train to get into Boston. This is one example among several illustrating the need for an integrated planning approach: these stations are currently entirely inaccessible, and the investments required to bring them up to compliance are substantial, but when they only serve 200 round-trips a day, it’s very difficult to justify the expense. But as a part of a Regional Rail approach, with frequent service and fare integration, these could be among the busiest stations on the Fitchburg Line, and would easily justify the capital investments required to make them fully part of the rail network. Waverley station itself is in deteriorating condition and will require investment soon to stabilize the concrete stairs, which should be viewed as an opportunity to make the station accessible and move it to zone 1A.

Waltham is the next community outbound from Belmont. It used to have four stations, of which two survive (and only one of which is located in the same place, sort of). Waltham has the last significant stretch of (non-station) single-track on the line, and from looking at the aerials and the two ends on the ground, I have no clear idea why — it seems to be a two-track railbed that is just running single-track to make frequent service impossible. Perhaps they found that there were dynamic envelope constraints such that running a single track in the middle of the railbed would allow trains to maintain somewhat higher speeds? The eastern end of the single-track section is in a relatively dense mixed-use neighborhood which includes many residences, the Waltham District Court, and some big-box stores, as well as a lumberyard; it’s located under the US 20 overpass, which carries the busy and slow #70 bus. Waltham Lumber sits on both sides of the interlocking, and stores some of its inventory on the platform of the former Beaver Brook station, which was closed in 1978. Again, under a Regional Rail model with fare integration and frequent service, this station would make all the sense in the world to restore (with full-length high platforms and elevators to new bus stops on the overpass) if for no other reason than to improve conditions for riders of the #70 in Waltham and Watertown. It’s also a sensible place to put a station to queue traffic for the single-track section: if you’re going to have frequent service, you’re going to end up with trains waiting at the interlocking, and you might as well have a station there. (A similar logic applies to the proposed South Salem station on the Eastern Route: having stations on either side of a single-track bottleneck helps regulate the traffic flow and maintain the published schedule.)

The west end of the single-track is actually within the limits of Waltham station, and I totally don’t understand why it was built the way it was. Waltham is the third-busiest suburban station on the line, after only South Acton and Littleton. The inbound side of the station is located on the single-track section, between Moody and and Elm Streets, which it crosses at grade; the outbound side of the station is located west of Moody Street, along and on the same side of the single track, and the interlocking where the line resumes double-track is within the outbound station limits. West of the outbound station, the right-of-way is four tracks wide, of which three tracks partially remain. The section of track where the inbound station is located used to be double-tracked, and there is still an old interlocking tower that used to control the old Watertown Branch (abandoned in 2007 and since demolished), so it’s not at all clear to me why the neckdown is located west of Moody and not east of Elm Street, where there is clearly enough R-o-W.

Of course neither station has a full-length high platform, or indeed a full-length platform of any kind; both sides have mini-high platforms, and both are considerably shorter than the MBTA’s standard of 800 feet. (More words about that below.) The sensible thing to do, from my perspective, would be to shift the interlocking east of Elm St., double-track through the current inbound station, and build a new center platform west of Moody with a direct ramp down to street level for access. This might require shifting the outbound track north a few feet to avoid taking 121 Moody, but would provide full accessibility and would eliminate the current situation where trains stopping at the station foul the grade crossing. (The line has published clearances of AAR Plate E all the way from Boston to Littleton, so even if there were any freight customers left — and there appear not to be — they wouldn’t be any worse off.)

Brandeis/Roberts station, the second active station in Waltham, serves its namesake university, as well as a suburban office park and an apartment complex. It has a significant parking lot, and served 370 daily boardings back in 2018 — most inbound but a significant minority outbound. It is perhaps the most “normal” station on the line: two parallel, full-length, low-level, side platforms with mini-highs for accessibility. It is built on a curve, like many of the Fitchburg Line stations, but there is no obvious constraint here other than cost why this couldn’t be a full high-platform station with safe crossings.

Next come the three stations in Weston, and I use the word “stations” advisedly. As I mentioned at the beginning, two of these stations — Hastings, with 18 daily boardings, and Silver Hill, with 11 — have been closed since January as a part of the MBTA’s COVID-19 service cutbacks. Hastings isn’t even a station at all: it’s just a grade crossing where some trains can be flagged down, and passengers board and alight in the middle of the street between the crossing gates. Silver Hill is a cute old station built into an open cut, with an under-length low-level platform accessed by a single wooden stair. Both of the closed stations are served by only a fraction of local trains, are entirely inaccessible, cannot practically be made accessible, would not be worth making accessible, and any honest equity analysis that considered solely the increased trip times resulting from having even a flag stop at these stations for passengers from farther out, as balanced against making two dozen rich people drive an extra mile to Kendal Green, would favor permanent closure of these stations — and so I said in written testimony to the MBTA board, to encourage them to resist calls for “complete restoration” of the old service in response to the next federal bailout. Once closed, they can never be opened again, since the multi-million-dollar capital investment required to make them accessible will never be justified.

Kendal Green itself is an interesting story. It has a single, short, low-level platform with a tiny asphalt pad for inbound passengers to cross the active outbound track and board. In fact, a number of the stations from here out to Shirley require inbound riders to stand between tracks on asphalt pads to board, which is both dangerous and slow, although at least Lincoln has multiple boarding pads for riders. Kendal Green had the highest pre-pandemic ridership of the three Weston stations, which makes sense considering that it also has the most parking: 110 passengers, nearly all of them inbound. (There is a surprising number of inbound alightings in the 2018 data; this station is the closest of the three to the office park in Weston but not that close.) The parking for the station is town-owned and permitted; it’s located east of and across the street from the historic station building, along a road that ultimately leads to the a landscaping supply company and the town dump transfer station.

Kendal Green, despite its low current ridership and location in a rich suburb with anti-housing zoning laws, has potential that I believe justifies additional capital investment, as I explained in additional comments to the MBTA board. Specifically, the station should be relocated east of the Church St. grade crossing onto the property of the landscape supply company, with full-length high platforms and a ramp connecting to the Mass Central Rail Trail. The MCRT connects to a senior living facility just a quarter mile away, two office parks within half a mile, and the Bear Hill section of Waltham with its numerous residential and commercial developments is within a mile, a reasonable distance for station-centered bikeshare. The existing bridge over the line is in unsafe condition and closed to foot traffic; since it needs to be replaced anyway, the same project could also provide vertical circulation for the relocated station to avoid unsafe at-grade track crossings.

This issue of substandard platforms keeps on coming up on this line, and I used the occasion of my board comments to suggest that railroad management (both the MBTA’s and everywhere else in the US) is extremely conservative, and will make up nonsense excuses in order to avoid changing anything ever. In particular, they will often cite “operational flexibility” as a reason for certain design standards that have the effect of making station improvements impossibly expensive, when they can’t fall back on NFPA 130 to justify overbuilding. The MBTA’s standard for new station construction requires 800-foot platforms, which only make sense in the context of infrequent locomotive-hauled trains that have to be nine coaches long because when trains are infrequent you get 1,200 people squeezing on to a single train. But if the MBTA is serious about Regional Rail, then their standards should be adapted to that service model, which means you’re running 250- or 300-foot EMUs or DMUs for your base level of service, and in peak periods you just add more trains — and when you can’t add more trains, then you’re coupling two 250-foot vehicles together. There are a lot more places you can fit a 500-foot platform than an 800-foot platform! (Like between Moody and Elm Streets in Waltham Center.) Just making that one decision about the type of vehicle you’re going to run suddenly makes all of your station construction cheaper, because you don’t need to acquire more land or modify bridge abutments to serve all your passengers. That in turn drives up productivity, because once you commit to shorter trains and a single platform height for an entire line, you no longer need conductors and can redeploy those people as train operators or fare inspectors.

Another “flexibility” excuse is related to the MBTA’s continued foot-dragging on retiring its functionally obsolete locomotive-hauled coach fleet. Again, the “flexibility” is a false excuse; the real flexibility, as well as substantial savings in operating costs, would be to standardize on articulated multiple-unit vehicles, as I have emphasized repeatedly in these pages and in comments to the FMCB over the past three years. In particular, since there is real doubt as to the T’s ability to execute an electrification program in the time required, the agency should move now to procure a combination of EMUs and DMUs from the same manufacturer and family, with DMUs to be delivered first and an option to convert the DMUs to EMUs at their mid-life overhaul. All of the major carbuilders have such families — if you’ve been reading this for any time at all, you’ll know that I’m partial to the Stadler FLIRT series — and can build them in the US for “Buy America” compliance. Making this move now has numerous benefits:

  • It makes an early commitment to a particular vehicle type and capacity, which allows stations and maintenance facilities to be upgraded to meet a specific requirement for a specific service model, and not some abstract future need.
  • It ensures commonality of maintenance procedures, operator training, and spare parts supplies.
  • It allows the T to procure a single engineering services contract to oversee the production, delivery, and testing of both diesel and electric trains.
  • It allows the T to immediately (upon delivery of the first DMUs) redeploy the trainsets currently in use on the Old Colony lines and the coaches ordered for South Coast Rail onto other parts of the network, providing for timely retirement of obsolete equipment even before the system is fully electrified.
  • With the conversion option, it ensures that the T is not investing in diesel equipment that will have to be retired before its economic end-of-life to meet the Commonwealth’s and the nation’s climate commitments.

Now with that not-really-a-digression out of the way, let’s continue onward to Lincoln. The Lincoln station, like Waltham, has staggered platforms separated by a grade crossing — in the case, Lincoln Road. It’s located in the town’s commercial district, and is connected to a sizeable town-owned parking lot. Unlike Waltham, Lincoln station is totally inaccessible, without even mini-highs, and even worse, both platforms serve only the outbound track, with inbound riders (some 270 of them, mostly in the AM peak) required to stand in the middle of the outbound track on asphalt pads to board. I do not believe there is any real barrier to fixing this station: the outbound platform should be relocated to the west side of the grade crossing, with a ramp down to street level, and the length of the outbound platform extended to whatever is ultimately determined appropriate for the service model.

Concord and West Concord are both challenges. West Concord at least has mini-highs, but eliminating the mid-platform grade crossings at either station would greatly interfere with pedestrian circulation or require obtrusive vertical circulation structures in the middle of a popular, historic business district. In both cases there is also a concern that the station buildings are too close to the tracks and would require a narrow high platform that would not meet safety or accessibility requirements. My best alternative would be to add mini-highs at Concord, settle on a new multiple-unit train design, and then pin precast steps atop the existing platforms to match the door openings on the cars.

South Acton and Littleton, as I mentioned above, are the two busiest stations on the line, and both are modern stations with full-length high-level platforms surrounded by oceans of parking and without any walkable local destinations. (The Assabet River Rail Trail does not redeem the otherwise intensely car-oriented nature of South Acton.) In a frequent Regional Rail service model, with four or more trains per hour, I would advocate restoring service to West Acton, which is a pedestrian-compatible business district about halfway between South Acton and Littleton/495. (Less frequent trains from the outer end of the line could skip the stop.) There is already a universal crossover just east of Littleton/495 specifically to allow for short-turn operations, and given the distribution of potential rail destinations along the line, and the absence of freight service, it makes sense for the “frequent service” territory to extend to Littleton but not farther out where conflicts would arise with Pan Am operations. Littleton/495 was where I ended my travels on Saturday, as the sun was setting and I needed to get back home.

On Sunday afternoon, I started out at the historic B&M station in Littleton, a familiar site to the many bicyclists who ride the “Harvard to Harvard” and similar intermediate-distance road-bike routes. The old station is now occupied by an antique stove restorer, and it is just beyond the easternmost freight siding remaining on the entire line (although by all accounts that customer no longer receives any regular rail freight). My first current station stop was at Ayer, which is smack in the middle of the wye junction between the east-west Pan Am Southern freight main line and Pan Am’s north-south Worcester Main Line. The Fitchburg Line branches from the PAS freight main at Willows, two miles to the east, and everywhere from Willows west, passenger trains must share the tracks with freight even on the MBTA-owned sections of the railroad from Ayer to downtown Fitchburg.

As you might imagine, Ayer station is pretty dreadful. The local economic development commission and the regional transit authority are working to make the general surroundings of the station a bit more pleasant for passengers (and for connections to the nearby Nashua River Rail Trail). It has only low-level platforms and requires passengers to cross the active freight main line at grade. It’s not unfixable: there’s enough room between Depot Square (the actual depot is long gone) and the tracks to shift passenger service north, closer to the station, and add a high-level platform, although not nearly a full-length one, with some changes to a freight branch interlocking just west of the current platforms. There was some funding for this (albeit expressed more vaguely) in the Transportation Bond Bill that passed back in January. Only 275 passengers a day used the station in 2018.

After Ayer comes Shirley, which barely has a platform, although there’s plenty of room to add two; the line runs on a low berm between two parallel roads, with a parking lot on the south side east of the cute little shelter. It looks as if the platform used to be longer, but then a ramp was added to get to the shelter blocking part of it (although if you need the ramp there’s no way you would be able to board the train anyway). Because this part of the line is advertised as AAR “Plate F+” clearance, there are issues with the freight railroads (Pan Am and Norfolk Southern) in terms of providing high platforms without causing clearance problems. I think the only way out here is some sort of extendable gap fillers at the platform that would be triggered by passenger trains, which is a pretty tough investment to justify for 150 passengers a day. (The other alternative would be a gauntlet track, which would make the line effectively single-track for freight.)

The last three stations on the line, North Leominster, Fitchburg, and Wachusett, were all substantially expanded or constructed new since 2010 and largely funded under the 2009 Recovery Act. North Leominster is on a tall berm, surrounded by development on both sides, and immediately east of an overpass; construction here included a large parking garage adjacent to the inbound platform. Because the station was substantially modified, mini-high platforms were added, but because it sits on the two-track freight main line, even the mini-highs are apparently regularly hit and damaged by passing trains — making full-length high platforms a serious challenge. As with Shirley, the only options here appear to be movable gap fillers or a capacity-sapping gauntlet track. North Leominster has the additional issue of requiring more vertical circulation to provide access to a high outbound platform, as the current design requires passengers to cross the active tracks at grade. (This could most easily be provided via the top floor of the parking garage, which already has elevators and stairs, so it’s much less of an expense than if an entirely new crossover had to be constructed.)

Fitchburg station, which was the western terminus of the line until 2016, has its own separate, bidirectional passenger track, but despite this, has only a mini-high for accessibility. The remainder of the full-length platform is low. Fitchburg has a very large parking garage, which it shares with a MART bus hub and Fitchburg State University, all part of a complex of buildings fronting Main Street on the eastern end of downtown Fitchburg. Despite this apparently favorable location, Fitchburg only served 290 passengers a day in the 2018 study — some of whom were parking at Wachusett and taking the train one stop. It seems likely that a faster and more frequent train with more competitive pricing would attract more ridership. (Current pricing is $4.00 for parking and $12.25 for the zone 8 fare to Porter or North Station, as compared to $3.00 to park at Alewife and $2.40 for subway fare, and outside of rush hours, driving is almost certainly faster as well.)

Finally, we come to Wachusett. As befits the very newest station on the entire MBTA system, it is enormous, is completely accessible, and has a single full-length high platform. It’s also surrounded by an ocean of parking and far from any meaningful local destinations; it’s in the far southwest corner of the city of Fitchburg on the border with Westminster, just off the Route 2 freeway. The 2018 manual counts — conducted just two years after the station opened — found only 132 daily riders. Like at Fitchburg, trains platform at Wachusett by way of a single-track bidirectional siding, so passenger trains do not foul the freight main (which west of Fitchburg station is owned and dispatched by Pan Am Southern). There is a separate layover facility in Westminster, about ¾ mile west of the station siding, with six tracks to store all of a typical AM peak’s inbound consists.

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Weekend excursion: Stations of the B&A/MBTA Worcester Line

In the past few months, the MBTA has announced emergency closures of two commuter-rail stations, and emergency construction (without closure) on a third. The most recent station to be closed due to unsafe conditions was the Providence Line station at South Attleborough—which I visited a year and a half ago and noted then was in extremely rough shape, despite being only 30ish years old. (All of the structures at South Attleboro were built new for the Amtrak Northeast Corridor Improvement Project to extend electrification north from New Haven to Boston.) I remembered that all of the stations on the outer Worcester Line, except for Worcester Union Station, were built new when the line was re-extended from Framingham to Worcester as a part of Big Dig mitigation—which means that those stations are only a decade newer than South Attleborough. And considering that Winchester Center, on the Lowell Line, was closed for safety reasons before I ever managed to see it, I thought I would get out of the house for a change and take some pictures of commuter rail stations before they are closed for safety reasons, starting with the line that serves my home town.

Obviously, with two-hour headways on the weekend train schedule, there was no way I could do this while actually taking the train, so I instead drove. This allowed me to visit a couple of station sites that are no longer served; when service to Worcester was resumed, the MBTA built huge new park-and-ride stations and abandoned the historic downtown stations in Ashland and Westborough, despite these being much denser and more activity-rich areas. In Westborough it’s easy enough to understand why: the railroad runs through downtown Westborough on an embankment; the historic station is far from a cross street and the MBTA would have had to build a great deal of vertical circulation to get passengers between the station and the westbound platform. The historic stations on this line are part of a group of stations designed for the Boston & Albany Railroad by the firm of famed Boston architect Henry Hobson Richardson, although some were completed by Richardson’s former partners after his death, and some were designed in-house by the railroad in the same style. The surviving Richardson(ian) stations include Wellesley Farms (gutted), Wellesley Hills (converted to a restaurant), Framingham (converted to a restaurant), Ashland (converted to a medical practice), and Westborough (converted to a civil engineering firm); other such stations survive on the B&A’s Highland Branch (today’s MBTA Green Line “D” branch).

I chose not to go to Worcester Union Station, since that would involve going into a city and finding parking, and even on a Sunday I was loath to do that during the pandemic. I started in Grafton and went as far east as Newtonville, the easternmost station outside of Boston on the line; I expect to do the two new-build stations in Boston at a later date. Along the way, I was passed by two trains: first, the Lake Shore Limited in Westborough, and then a regular eastbound MBTA train in Auburndale. (There were several other trains over the course of the four hours I was driving around, including a CSX freight, but I was not actually in a station for any of them.)

Rather than duplicate the photos on WordPress, you can see the full gallery in my SmugMug portfolio. (Ignore the meaningless “BA” tag on all the photos; it’s an interoperability bug between Adobe and SmugMug.)

Overall thoughts: the vertical circulation ranges from terrible (Westborough, Ashland, all three Newton stations) to nonexistent (all three Wellesley stations, West Natick). The only station with good vert. circ. is Framingham, with its two elevators, and even the stairs there are corroded in places (although in better condition than most of the others); pity they couldn’t have built full high platforms when they put the elevators in. Honorable mentions to Grafton, the only new-build station where the station site has favorable topography for the ramp system, and West Natick, which at least has nice new departure displays even if you have to walk a quarter mile down the platform to get to the mini-highs. (Coincidentally, West Natick is the most recently renovated station on the line.) Hopefully the replacement for the Boden Lane bridge will allow for better vertical circulation at the station end of the platforms there. The three stations in Newton are irretrievably awful, and it’s difficult to fathom why anyone would voluntarily use these stations; luckily, they are all planned to be reconstructed with at least one full-length high platform (hopefully two) and better vertical circulation within the next six years, and the Transportation Bond Bill includes enough state money to do the job.

It’s tough to know what to do about Wellesley. Wellesley Square serves a walkable downtown, with promises of some multifamily residential development in the future. Wellesley Hills less so, but it’s still better than any of the stations on the Fitchburg Line in Weston. Wellesley Farms is not easy to get to, although it does have a great deal of parking, and it’s not really clear to me that its 270 boardings a day in 2018 really justify much investment (even if there is money in the bond bill for it). On the other hand, the parking lot is at the west end of the platforms, so adding a ramp system there would seem like a no-brainer for both safety and passenger convenience, and if you’re going to do that, you have to build full-high platforms, mini-highs are no longer considered adequate. (None of the Wellesley stations are accessible at all at the moment, and the MBTA’s unwillingness to spend money on vertical circulation at less-busy stations likely has a great deal to do with that.)

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Parsing the bond bill sausage

As the 191st General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was in its final hours before the end of the legislative term last week, the transportation bond bill that I wrote about last July was finally reported from conference committee, and was passed with almost no scrutiny by both houses. As I write this, it is sitting on Governor Baker’s desk, and under the state constitution, he has until January 17 to sign it, or else the bill fails. Because it is a bill making appropriations, the Massachusetts item veto amendment applies, meaning that Baker can sign the bill as a whole while striking out specific “items or parts of items” that he disagrees with — and because the 191st General Court has ended, there is no possibility of overriding his vetoes if he should choose to make any. (The bond bill passed unanimously in the House and with a single nay in the Senate, which would ordinarily be a veto-proof margin, if only the conference committee had reported eleven days sooner.) Since the compromise text and the old House and Senate bills differed by some billions of dollars, and since this was apparently a fairly unprecedented act of late-in-the-term sausage-making, I wanted to go over my post from six months ago and the text of the bill that was eventually enacted, and get some idea of what the legislature actually did.

By the time the MBTA board meets on January 25 to hear reports on the major “transformation” programs including Rail Transformation, we will know how much funding the MBTA actually gets from this bond bill and which programs are being given the green light by the legislature. (Conceivably even if the governor vetoes some of the earmarks the authority can still spend money on those programs if they advance the high-level purpose of one or more of the non-vetoed appropriations in the bill.)

First off, here’s a high-level comparison of the appropriations made in each of the three texts (amounts in millions of dollars):

Subject House Senate Conference
§2 federal-aid highways 5900 5600 4400
§2A federal-aid highways 2200 2500 1250
§2A Cape Cod Canal bridges 350 350 350
§2A non-federal-aid highways 100 100 100
§2B small bridge program 70 90 70
§2B bottlenecks program N/A 50 25
§2B municipal pavement 100 100 100
§2B complete streets 50 45 50
§2B transit-supportive infra N/A 50 25
§2C state bridges 1250 1250 1250
§2D rail improvmements 400 400 400
§2D RTA general capital 330 330 330
§2D intercity bus/intermodal 60 60 60
§2E MBTA general capital 2600 3260 3000
§2E MBTA state of good repair 500 300 300
§2E MBTA South Coast Rail 825 825 825
§2E MBTA Green Line Extension 695 695 595
§2E MBTA §Station goofiness 400 400 200
§2E rail enhancement 175 225 175
§2F aeronautics 89 89 89
§2G MassDOT planning 475 475 450
§2G Allston Multimodal 250 250 250
§2H MassDOT IT 50 50 50
§2I COVID-19 public realm N/A N/A 20
§2I TMA grants 25 N/A 25
§2I bus priority 100 50-x 25
§2I muni grants/sta. access 50 N/A 25
§2I transit station access 50 N/A 25
§2I earmarks kitchen sink 1860 675 2016
§2I ferry terminals 30 30 30
Totals 18984 18249 16510

(x) funded as an earmark in a different section of the bill

The most obvious positive here is that the compromise bill reduces spending in the two principal highway sections by a total of nearly $2.5 billion from the House text. Since these are primarily federal-aid highways, some of this reduction in spending can be made up with a more generous allocation of federal funds by the new (Democratic) Congress and the Biden administration, although like many activists my sincere hope is that the federal government changes the allocation formula to favor public transportation over private.

On the negative side, there is a lot more money in the earmarks item than before, and Baker could just veto that whole item (which runs over several pages), or zero out any of the individual earmarks, and the legislature would be unable to pass a new earmark until it finishes work on the fiscal year 2022 budget. The way the item veto works in Massachusetts, the governor can veto any “separable fiscal unit” in an appropriations bill (including a bond bill), which includes any outside sections and any language requiring money to be expended for a specific purpose; he can’t veto a provision restricting how money may be spent, unless he vetoes the entire appropriation. What that means in practice is that budget provisions that are worded as “may expend not more than $X”, or that do not appropriate a specific amount of money, cannot be item-vetoed, but “shall expend not less than $X” provisions can be.

The House bill included new revenues, including tax and fee increases, to support the bonding authorized. The Senate bill did not include any new revenues. The compromise bill includes an increase in TNC fees (paid for by customers of Uber, Lyft, and any similar companies as may exist), which the Senate had previously rejected in its consideration of the bond bill, but had approved in its version of the FY 2021 state budget (and subsequently dropped in conference). I don’t know where the governor stands on this provision. The compromise bill directs the MBTA to use its share of the increased TNC revenue to support a low-income fare program, as had been required in the Senate budget bill. Both the tax-increment financing provisions from the House bond bill and the regional transit ballot initiatives language from the Senate bond bill were dropped, replaced with another study onn the question. This effectively puts off any new revenue from either structure until fiscal year 2023 at the earliest, more likely 2024.

Two municipal grant programs that the Senate bill had included and the House had not made it into the final text, at a reduced level: a traffic bottleneck program and a transit-supportive infrastructure program, both of which include the language from the Senate bill giving preference to municipalities that support transit-oriented development. The transit-supportive infra program includes the positive language for trolleybus wiring which I called out in July.

The meat of the bill is in sections 2E (the main MBTA capital authorization) and 2I (the big pile o’ earmarks, which includes a large number of MBTA and some RTA projects mixed in with innumerable random municipal road and highway projects). The main MBTA appropriation calls out specific projects without earmarking funds (thus not subject to the item veto, since the amount of spending is at the governor’s discretion anyway); these include:

  • “a feasibility study to establish transit improvement districts” (which is useless, we already know it’s feasible and two different versions of it passed the legislature in July)
  • Blue Line signal system improvements
  • Commuter rail station at Wonderland (with “an enclosed pedestrian connection to the Wonderland station intermodal transit facility on the blue line”)
  • Red–Blue Connector
  • the same goofy language as I discussed in July about Red Line and Orange Line vehicles being assembled within the state (which has already been procured so this language is a nullity)
  • the same goofy language requiring more frequent service on the 714 bus
  • “to purchase rolling stock for use on the commuter rail system that reduces the overall environmental and emissions impact of the rail network to the greatest extent possible” (is this new?)
  • the same goofy language about “dual-mode service” and requiring a useless “pilot program” on the Worcester Line

There are some actual dollars-committed earmarks in this item as well:

  • $100 million for general improvements to the Western Route (Haverhill Line)
  • $15 million for level boarding at Lawrence station on the Haverhill Line
  • $5 million each for level boarding at Andover and Ballardvale stations on the Haverhill Line
  • $5 million for “additional train service” on the Haverhill Line
  • $60 million for double-tracking the Haverhill Line in the vicinity of Ballardvale
  • $25 million for level boarding on the Haverhill Line
  • $200 million for electrification of the Fairmount Line and the Stoughton branch of the Providence Line (should be feasible to complete on this budget even without additional federal funding given the small number of stations required to be upgraded and the relatively small number of EMUs required to operate these lines — potentially allowing the T to avoid Buy America and purchase more cost-effective European-built EMUs)
  • $200 million for electrification and station renovations on the Eastern Route between Boston and Beverly (more challenging due to length and the number of stations requiring upgrades, but see below for additional funding)
  • not more than $3.165 million for improvements to Worcester Union Station
  • $600,000 for accessibility improvements at the Worcester Line stations in Wellesley
  • $6 million for an ADA-compliant commuter rail station in Ayer on the Fitchburg Line
  • $300,000 for expansion of parking lots at South Acton, Shirley, and Southboro
  • $2 million for elevator and escalator replacement at Route 128 station
  • $2.5 million for improvements to Beachmont station
  • $1.5 million for “study and design of major improvements at JFK, Andrew and Broadway stations”

To which I can only say, whoever represents Lawrence and Andover must be quite powerful in the Senate hierarchy. Pretty much all of these earmarks were in the Senate bill, and they are mostly good even if excessively concentrated on the Western Route (which gets $215 million out of the $3 billion appropriated, if the governor does not veto any of the earmarks). I am confident that a competent project management team can accomplish the electrification projects within the $400 million budgeted, although the MBTA’s recent history leaves me a bit less sanguine about the agency’s ability to hire or supervise such a team.

The compromise bill retains language from the original bills “authorizing” $100 million for “GLX Phase II” (the completion of the Medford branch of the Green Line to Mystic Valley Parkway, the originally planned terminus), but requires environmental review to be completed by December 31, 2020 — which, astute observers will note but the conference committee apparently did not, had already passed before the conference report was even published. Since the funds are “authorized” but not actually required to be expended, I’m not sure Baker can veto this, but presumably the legislature will take another crack at getting the EIR completed (given the MBTA staff’s lack of access to time-travel).

The weird “South Station improvements” item is still there. This was the item that I advocated in my July post to be turned into a general Rail Transformation line item at a significantly increased budget. Instead, the conference committee cut it in half, down to $200 million. It still includes a $25 million earmark for the South Boston Waterfront Sustainable Transportation Plan, but the general language here and in several other sections allows the rest of the funds to be used to support Rail Transformation by piecing together multiple appropriations.

One non-MBTA item in section 2E provides funding for various statewide passenger rail projects, including a $25 million earmark for “Berkshire Flyer” service between Pittsfield and New York City via Albany.

Section 2G includes a couple of MassDOT items, including the Allston Multimodal project, which has been widely reported elsewhere; the bond bill authorizes $450 million for it, and imposes even more conditions than the House and Senate bills did. These aren’t earmarks and can’t be vetoed by the governor unless he vetoes funding for the whole project, which seems unlikely. That said, West Station still can’t be built in a year, and the Worcester Line still won’t be able to support 20-minute headways that early in the construction process, since 20-minute headways will require a change in rolling stock as well as track and signal improvements and reconstruction of most stations. MassDOT is given until July 1 of this year to submit a comprehensive mobility plan for the project. All that is to be done for $50 million of the $250 million allocated, which even a competent agency would struggle to accomplish. (If I were the governor, I would veto this item and immediately ask the new legislature to come back with more practical language. At worst, they would re-enact the same language in a standalone bill and have to whip votes for an override.)

Section 2I includes a few new programs, including grant programs to municipalities for bus “prioritization and enhancement” (which includes trolleybus wiring! and bus shelters!), to transportation management associations, and for a municipal “last mile” program, each $25 million. A state “last mile” program also gets $25 million (presumably for the MBTA at its stations, although the language does not call out a specific agency.) The “Shared Strets and Spaces” municipal grant program authorized as a part of the state’s pandemic response gets another $20 million under the rubric of “public realm improvement”. There’s a $25 million grant program for vehicle electrification investments that is shared by municipalities and RTAs. Finally, there is an enormous laundry list of earmarks, of which I’ll only hit the highlights. This is where the legislative sausage really gets dicey:

Mainline rail, including station access and commuter parking

  • $150 million for electrification of the Eastern Route from Boston to Lynn (note that this is in addition to the $200 million appropriated in a different section above — see what happens when you try to make legislative sausage at the very last minute? — but with five separate earmarks for station construction and other infrastructure, that ought to be enough to see the whole project through to completion)
  • $67 million for commuter rail accessibility in Newton (a good project but both tracks need accessible platforms at all three stations, and $67 million is only enough to pay for the estimated cost of single platforms)
  • $60 million to construct high-level platforms on the Franklin Line (this is in addition to the appropriation below which funds studying constructing high-level platforms on the Franklin Line
  • $50 million for unspecified projects on the Framingham/Worcester Line (obviously this should go to high platforms)
  • $35 million “to the City of Peabody for the design, reactivation, and implementation of a transit system on the existing rail from Peabody Square to the Salem Commuter Rail Station” (I think this is a good project albeit too expensive)
  • $25 million for an intermodal station in New Bedford at the site of the to-be-constructed South Coast Rail station
  • $25 million to build a South Salem station on the Eastern Route
  • $20 million for mainline freight rail track improvements to increase weight limits
  • $10 million “for all-day service on the MBTA commuter rail system” (there should not actually be any capital investment required for this; to the contrary, it would obviate some planned but counterproductive capital projects for midday train storage)
  • $10 million “to upgrade rail infrastructure from North Falmouth to Buzzards Bay to accommodate commuter service” (a very low value project that should be vetoed)
  • $8 million for “a downtown parking structure in the city of Framingham”
  • $5 million for parking improvements near Framingham station on the Worcester Line
  • $7.5 million to the town of Natick to build a parking garage in Natick Center (sigh, this is a bad bad project)
  • $7.5 million to the town of Natick to expand parking at West Natick by building a garage (this is a less bad project because the neighborhood is already auto-dominated, but it would be much better if the town found a private developer to build housing instead)
  • $7 million for superstructure replacement of the bridge carrying St. Mary’s St. over the Mass Pike in Brookline and Boston (this also crosses the Worcester Line)
  • $4 million for “improvements to the roadways and parking” at Sharon station on the Providence Line (pity they were so specific; the money would be better spent on building high-level platforms there — although this can probably be fudged because the handicapped parking setup will need to be changed to accommodate ramps)
  • $5 million for redesign and construction of Canton Junction station on the Providence/Stoughton Line (this is what the Sharon earmark should have said)
  • $4 million to design and construct high-level platforms at Fitchburg Line stations in Waltham and Concord
  • $4 million for unspecified improvements to West Medford station on the Lowell Line
  • $3 million to reconstruct the Boden Lane bridge over the Worcester Line at West Natick
  • $3 million for a commuter shuttle while Winchester Center station is being renovated
  • $2.5 million for “parking improvements” at Ashland station
  • $2.5 million in improvements to traffic and parking at Walpole station on the Franklin Line
  • $2 million for ADA-compliant platforms at Roslindale station on the Needham Line
  • $1.8 million for quiet zones on South Coast Rail
  • $1.5 million for “the Beverly depot mobility hub”
  • $1.5 million for unspecified capital improvements at Franklin and Forge Park stations on the Franklin Line
  • $1 million for a ped/bike connection from Anderson RTC to the former Woburn Mall
  • $500,000 to study accessibility improvements at Lincoln station on the Fitchburg Line
  • $500,000 for infrared heaters on the platforms of the Stoughton branch stations
  • $500,000 to study and design satellite parking and local shuttle bus service for the Fitchburg Line east of I-495
  • $300,000 to expand parking at Westborough station on the Worcester Line
  • $300,000 to expand parking at Littleton/495 station on the Fitchburg Line, with a pasted Unicode replacement character just to liven things up a bit
  • $100,000 to study constructing high-level platforms on the Franklin Line

Rapid transit and Green Line

  • $100 million for Alewife garage repair, reconstruction, and multimodal access
  • $30 million to make Hynes station on the Green Line accessible
  • $10 million to connect Assembly station on the Orange Line to Draw Seven Park and the Encore Casino
  • $4 million to improve bus access to Alewife station (in addition to the big Alewife garage appropriation above
  • $3 million for feasibility and design studies to restore rail service to Nubian Square, possibly running through to Mattapan, with a big long list of study deliverables
  • $2 million to increase parking at Orient Heights station on the Blue Line
  • $1 million “on a study of red line train station conditions”
  • $1 million for increased access to Braintree station
  • $500,000 to study extending the E Line from Heath Street to Hyde Square
  • $420,000 to study extending the E line from Heath Street to Hyde Square (same paragraph, but a few pages later)
  • $225,000 for safety improvements at Heath Street station

Bus, bike, trails, and streetscapes

  • $10 million for zero-emissions buses (well, maybe, a zero-emissions bus?) and a BRT corridor along Blue Hill Ave in Boston
  • $7.5 million to construct the Belmont Community Path
  • $5 million in improvements for the SL4/SL5 bus routes
  • $3 million for the “Dot Greenway”, over the Red Line tunnel in Dorchester
  • $3 million for “improvements to the Clinton Railroad Tunnel and expansion of the rail trail route in the town of Clinton” (this is part of the Central Mass. Rail Trail)
  • $2.5 million for “evening and weekend shuttle bus service in … Worcester”, “provided further, that the shuttle loop shall travel through at least1 [sic] or underserved or underrepresented business corridor in low-income to moderate-income areas in the city of Worcester”
  • $2 million to reconfigure Egleston Square
  • $1.5 million for streetscape improvements in Mattapan Square
  • $1.1 million for fencing on the elevated section of the Somerville Community Path being constructed as a part of the Green Line Extension
  • $1 million for “study and implementation” of an oddly specific bus route between South Station and City Point
  • $750,000 for “costs associated with a multimodal transportation trail” connecting downtown Peabody and Salem”
  • $600,000 for a study of a pilot of BRT between Acton and Cambridge (because apparently a heavily used commuter-rail line is not enough?)
  • $300,000 for a BRT pilot along Broadway in Arlington and Somerville
  • $250,000 for a BRT study in Dedham
  • $200,000 for solar bus shelters in Winthrop

Other

  • $300 million for the reconstruction of the I-93/I-95 interchange in Canton (sigh; I advocated eliminating this earmark and I’d still suggest that the governor do so for the reasons I gave in July)
  • $15 million for parking garages in Needham
  • $10 million for unspecified transportation improveents in Winthrop (which maybe now that Bob DeLeo has resigned they could have just left out)
  • $5 million for “renovations and redesign of the pier and docks at Squantum Point Park in Quincy” (this is in addition to the earmark below for ferry service)
  • $5 million “for a competitive three year transit grant matching program for suburban communities that partner with Regional Transit Authorities or Transportation Management Associations and engage in Public Private Partnerships in support of commuter services linking to the MBTA”
  • $3 million to purchase a commuter ferry for the city of Lynn
  • $2.5 million for ferry service, including dock construction, “for transportation and tourism in the city of Quincy”
  • $2.5 million for WRTA paratransit vans
  • $2 million for “climate resiliency preparations” in Sullivan Square, Charlestown
  • “not less than $1,000,000 shall be expended to design and reconstruct East Street following bridge repairs” — any East Street, anywhere?
  • $1 million for new paratransit vehicles for the MBTA

The laundry list ends with a requirement for the MBTA to conduct a feasibility study for manual in-person parking payment, to report by December 1 of last year.

There’s enough money here, between the direct MBTA appropriation and the earmarks, to fully implement Regional Rail on the two lines the MBTA board approved 14 months ago, without additional federal support, if the T develops osme competence at cost control, and to make a major dent at the station and track improvements required (but not the electrification infrastructure itself) for the Worcester, Franklin, Fitchburg, and Haverhill Lines. Obviously it would be better if this was legislated as a coherent program of rail transformation and not dozens of individual ships-in-the-night earmarks, and some of the funding levels are clearly an accident of the way the bill was pulled together at the last minute. That said, I would strongly advocate that the governor not veto the seemingly redundant appropriations, because it will probably take the full amount in order to actually achieve any of the benefits.

The outside sections in the bill include:

  • the language about “job order contracts” that was in both bills in the summer
  • the TNC fee language noted above, with a segregated fund designated the “Transit Authority Fund” to receive part of the revenue, and a further appropriation of that segregated fund to be split equally between the MBTA and the RTAs
  • a requirement for vehicles involved in a crash to move off the travel lane, and a liability exemption for law-enforcement agencies and towing contractors if they have an immobilized vehicle moved out of the path of travel for safety reasons
  • MassDOT is not required to conduct an engineering study when establishing work-zone speed limits
  • MBTA fare evasion decriminalized; fines reduced; non-police fare enforcement
  • Privacy of data collected for MBTA fare collection; warrent required for law-enforcement acccess
  • No right of adverse posession in land held by the MBTA
  • Revenue received from the Transportation and Climate Initiative shall be deposited in the Commonwealth Transportation Fund and subject to future appropriation by the legislature
  • Fast-charging electric vehicle tariffs to be filed by investor-owned electric utilities
  • Low-income fare program to be implemented by the MBTA in cooperation with EOHHS; report on implementation costs to be filed with the legislature by October 15; EOHHS to assist RTAs in implementation of low-income fares or fare-free programs if that would be cheaper than means testing
  • “Special commission on roadway and congestion pricing” established, to report by the end of the calendar year

That’s a lot of legislating! Now we just have to wait another week to see how much His Excellency the Governor decides to veto. (Since the MassDOT board meets on Monday, the 11th, I expect to find out sooner, perhaps as early as tomorrow morning.)

Posted in Law & Society, Transportation | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Parsing the bond bill sausage

The Democracy Crayon

In the transportation community, especially rail and transit enthusiasts, it is common for people to publish maps of imagined future routes and services that one believes would be interesting or worthwhile to build, if money were no object. These are (somewhat derisively) called “crayons”, on the theory that a serious planner or engineer who was actually charged with designing or building something would use “proper” tools and have a whole suite of institutional support behind them to create something that looks “professional” and has a 300-page regulatory filing full of statistics and model data to accompany it. (The derision may in some cases be justified, as hobbyists are prone to drawing lines on a map where they would like there to be service, and not so much where a route is either justified or physically feasible. Sometimes, “what if?” really is just for fun.) But there are many other arenas of public policy where a member of the public who is not already a government official (or an academic) can legitimately have opinions and perhaps even contribute to the public debate by raising ideas and options that are not receiving their due consideration. We might well have laws, or constitutional arrangements, that we’d like to see, that arguably would be an improvement over the status quo. There’s been a lot of talk over the past few months about the state of democracy in the United States, and some of the barriers (insularity and “American Exceptionalism”) that cause us to be bad at building trains also cause us to be bad a building a functioning twenty-first-century democracy. So here is my “What if the United States actually cared about democracy?” crayon. (It’s also a bit of wordplay on “the democracy canon”, the legal theory advanced by some scholars that when the law is unclear, courts ought to choose the interpretation that advances democratic participation — e.g., allowing more people to vote rather than restricting the franchise.)

1. Everyone votes

The law should make clear that everyone has the right, and indeed duty, to vote. There must be no barriers, such as registration requirements or felon disenfranchisement, that that restrict the voting rights of any adult citizen. (And there are arguments to be made for striking both “adult” and “citizen” from the requirements as well.) In Australia, “attendance at the polls” is mandatory, enforced by a civil fine: no one is required to vote, but every citizen is required to cast a ballot (even if it’s blank). Compulsory attendance would also provide some direct accountability for local election officials who fail to provide sufficient polling places or other resources that are necessary to ensure that voting is not burdensome.

2. Abolish the Senate

The United States Senate is a uniquely anti-majoritarian institution, born of an 18th-century compromise that has long since passed its expiration date. As a mechanism to convince small states that their interests would be respected by a national government in which they were outnumbered five-to-one, after two centuries it gives a tiny number of voters in mostly empty states inordinate veto power over the majority. While the Senate could be reformed, by “one man, one vote” as in the 49 state senates, or by limiting the upper chamber’s powers as in the German Bundesrat, any reform likely requires unanimous consent of the states, and if we’re going to presuppose that, we might as well just abolish it entirely. The Senate serves no useful purpose and it’s not worth reforming. (And before you say “but it represents the states!”, no, it does not. It represents rural white people, and rich rural white people at that.)

If we’re going to get rid of the Senate, we need to find a replacement for some of the things the Senate currently has exclusive power to do. To a first approximation, that is ratifying treaties and confirming presidential appointments. We’ll need a multi-pronged approach.

First off, repeal the Appointments Clause. How executive-branch offices get filled should not be set in the difficult-to-amend Constitution; it should be by whatever means the President and Congress (i.e., the House) can agree on. But there are overall far too many political appointments in the federal government: a new president has to appoint about 4,000 people, and all but a few hundred of these jobs should instead be filled by career civil servants. One sticking point may be judicial appointments; most countries have a non-political judicial appointments commission or similar body to do this job; simply requiring an appointments commission to propose a candidate acceptable to both Congress and the President would serve the purpose better than the system we have today (where interest groups and senators associated with the sitting president’s party do much of the work). I would use the same body to handle judicial promotions, ending the practice of appointing law professors and politicians directly to the courts of appeals.

One other thing that the Senate does is hear impeachment trials. I would replace this function in two different ways: first, I would require heads of executive departments to maintain constructive confidence of the House. (“Constructive” here refers to the specific sense that it’s not permitted to just throw someone out of office, a “vote of no confidence”, you actually have to get a majority vote for a replacement. This is how the German chancellor (equivalent to a prime minister) is chosen, and disciplined.) For other officials that are currently subject to impeachment, the trial should be held in a regular court in front of a panel of regular judges, chosen by lot for the assignment.

Obviously, treaties can be ratified by the House. In practice, this is often what happens already, because most treaties are not self-executing, and require ordinary legislation passed by Congress to implement their terms.

3. Campaign reform

The Constitution should be amended to explicitly allow Congress and the states to regulate spending in, and the conduct of, their respective elections, in a politically neutral way, and to place reasonable limits on the duration of election campaigns. Campaigns for federal office should be exclusively publicly financed.

4. National popular vote for president

Some would argue that we should just get rid of the office of president altogether, or limit it to a ceremonial role like Ireland’s. But the US federal government is a very large and disjointed institution, and I don’t believe it can be effectively administered in a parliamentary style. This implies having a head-of-government with independent political legitimacy, and that implies having a popular vote. By preference, such a vote should be held by instant-runoff voting, rather than by a two-phase system (whether primary/general or general/runoff); this reduces the participation tax on voters’ time and also limits the length of the campaign. (Yes, I know about Arrow’s theorem, and I don’t accept that all of his desired properties are in fact desirable, so it doesn’t bother me that there might be strategic voting in such a system.)

Note that one of the side benefits of a national popular vote is that it reduces incentives for restriction of the franchise. In the current electoral college system, states are represented in rough proportion to their entire population, regardless of how many people are either actively or passively disenfranchised. With a national popular vote, every state’s incentive is for the greatest number of its citizens to vote, because this maximizes the state’s say in the outcome of the election. A state where a million people are unable to vote is a state that casts a million fewer votes in the ultimate total that determines the presidency. And of course this makes IRV for the presidency conceivable.

In order to make nationwide IRV actually feasible, there must be national ballot access standards for the presidential election, one rule for all 50 states, with no special exceptions for favored political parties or candidates. Every voter would have the same set of presidential candidates to rank, and states would report the number of votes for each observed ranking. (As little as two decades ago this would have been infeasible in storage and communications resources, but it’s trivial by the standards of modern computing systems.) Special protocols will need to be developed to audit and authenticate the totals, since recounts will not be feasible at the national level.

5. Enlarge the House

Ever since the Permanent Apportionment Act, the size of the House of Representatives has been stuck at 435 — with a very short period of a slightly larger House after Alaska and Hawaii were admitted as states, which immediately snapped back two years later. Before the Permanent Apportionment Act, Congress would pass an explicit Apportionment Act after every decennial census, generally increasing the size of the House to ensure that no state would lose any seats even as other states grew much faster. That practice was unsustainable: a House in which Vermont had three seats would be unmanageably large, much larger even than the British parliament (650 seats) although still not approaching the size of the rubber-stamp National People’s Congress of China (nearly 3,000 seats). But the so-called “Wyoming Rule”, requiring that the House be large enough for each member to represent the same number of people as the member for the least-populous state, would result in a still manageable 580-seat House and reduce the malapportionment that is due specifically to the minimum-one-seat-per-state rule. That rule itself could in theory be thrown out, but that would require creating some national body with the authority to draw House districts across state lines, and it seems reasonable to have states be the minimum granularity if we’re going to keep states as political entities at all.

6. Eliminate districts

The system of “first past the post” plurality elections in single-member districts inherently underrepresents minorities and minority views. Even when a minority is geographically compact, there are more minorities than districts and few minorities are both compact and numerous enough to be guaranteed a “majority-minority district”. Even when specific protected minority groups do manage to get a district drawn in which they can “reasonably expect to elect the representative of their choice”, that group may comprise distinct populations with diverging political interests and thus be unable to have their views and their identities represented simultaneously.

There is a straightforward solution to this, which is practiced in most advanced democracies (the US, Canada, and the United Kingdom are notable exceptions): get rid of the districts and elect representatives by proportional representation. Under PR, minorities of a sufficient size are ensured the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice regardless of their geographic compactness or dispersal. There are a few different schemes for this, and I propose two different ones, depending on the number of seats each state has in the House.

For very small states with only a single at-large seat (after expansion, that’s Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming), use instant-runoff voting as in the presidential election. This isn’t proportional, because you can’t elect fractional representatives. (Other countries solve this by not having small states or by allowing multi-state constituencies.)

For all other states, the default electoral scheme should be Open List. For those who are not familiar with Open List, it is the system used in much of northern Europe at all levels of government. All parties and independent groups nominate a list of candidates (usually but not necessarily one for each seat). Voters vote for the candidate of their choice. The available seats are apportioned among the lists in proportion to the total number of votes received by all candidates on each list. (There are a few different ways to do this, and I’m glossing over the technical details, but it’s similar in principle to the way House seats are apportioned among the states by population, using a rule known as the d’Hondt count.) If a list receives fewer seats than it has candidates, then the seats are assigned to candidates in order of the total number of votes each receives. (Note that this works well with the “fusion” party system seen in New York and a few other states, because the same candidate can appear on multiple lists, and the votes for the candidate are counted separately for the purposes of list apportionment but can be totaled for the purposes of assigning seats within a list.)

For very large states, I would allow legislatures to create compact districts of ten or more seats, allowing some differentiation of representation between disparate regions of the state (e.g., north/south/west Texas, or upstate/downstate New York, or northern/central/southern California) while still maintaining enough seats to provide for proportionality and minority representation. A medium-size state like Massachusetts (12 seats under the Wyoming Rule) would not have this option, being too small to create multiple ten-seat districts.

Small states that are large enough to have between two and five seats (Arkansas, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, and South Dakota, again under the Wyoming Rule) would have the option of filling those seats via the Single Transferable Vote — the multi-member analogue to instant-runoff voting, and the system used to elect members of the Irish parliament, the Dáil Éireann. The option is offered for small states because preference-based systems like STV are better at reflecting public opinion than list systems when there are only a small number of seats to be elected and individual candidates are much better known to the electorate.

There’s nothing to require states to adopt these reforms, but the 49 states that aren’t Nebraska should in fact abolish their upper houses, and should adopt proportional representation in multi-member constituencies as well. Some states might well be able to do this by citizens’ initiative today, although some states’ initiative process for constitutional amendments allows a veto by the sitting legislature.

Those are my proposals; what about yours?

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