MBTA Rail Vision’s “Peer Systems Review”: Adding Helsinki to the mix

The day before Thanksgiving, while I was already away and visiting with family, the MBTA Rail Vision team published their Peer Systems Review paper, describing a number of domestic and international commuter rail systems with detailed statistics about their service area, costs, and demographics. I was of course put out that they didn’t include Helsinki, so to remedy that, I’m presenting the same data in the same format. I unfortunately don’t have the GIS setup or databases to answer some of the questions at the same level of detail, and all the caveats in the original paper for international agency statistics apply equally to Helsinki.

Helsingin Seudun Liikenne -kuntayhtymä (HSL, Helsinki Regional Transport Authority in English) is responsible for coordinating transit service, fares, and schedules in the nine municipalities of Helsinki Region (which includes, in addition to Helsinki itself, Espoo, Vantaa, Kauniainen, Kerava, Kirkkonummi, Sipoo, Siuntio, and Tuusula). Most have historic CBDs, of which Helsinki’s is the largest in terms of both resident population and employment.

HSL operates no service of its own, but contracts with private and public operators to provide bus, metro, tram, commuter rail, and ferry services; operating subsidies come from the member municipalities and the Finnish state. VR Group currently has a monopoly on regional and intercity passenger rail service and operates the commuter rail service for HSL, some parts of which are substantially integrated with intercity service; commuter rail service is being put to public tender for the first time, with the new operator contract to start in 2021. A €1 billion project to construct a new, primarily underground rail connector to Helsinki-Vantaa International Airport opened in July, 2015.

Unless otherwise stated, information sourced to HSL/HRT comes from the 2017 Annual Report

Demographics and land use

Information HSL/HRT source MBTA commuter rail HSL/HRT commuter rail
Major City Served N/A Boston Helsinki
Population within 1 Mile of Stations N/A 1,716,012 N/A
Name of UZA N/A Boston, MA-NH-RI Helsinki
Size of UZA (sq. miles) OECD 1,873 291 (2,452)1
Population of UZA OECD 4,181,019 1,041,177 (1,498,050)1
Jobs in area OECD 2,677,320 780,252
Average Wage in Area OECD $64,080 $42,7652
Time spent in congestion TomTom 29 min 27 min
Major Geographic Features Maps Boston Harbor, Charles River Baltic Sea; numerous bays, inlets, rivers, and lakes
Mode Split (Drove Alone) Deloitte 67% 39%3
Mode Split (Transit) Delotte 13% 30%3

1OECD “city area” shown; metropolitan area data in parentheses.

2OECD average wage for entire country, conversion on PPP basis in 2015 US dollars as supplied by OECD. Regional average is believed higher.

3Deloitte Mobility Index includes the four core municipalities of the Helsinki Region: Helsinki, Espoo, Vantaa, and Kauniainen.

System Characteristics

Information HSL/HRT source MBTA commuter rail HSL/HRT commuter rail
Number of Lines HSL/HRT system map 14 4 (14 service patterns)4
Length of Longest Line (miles) Wikipedia 63 approx. 30
Number of Route Miles junakalusto.fi 388 625
Number of Track Miles N/A 697 N/A
Number of Stations system map 138 506
Percent Stations That are Accessible N/A 75% N/A7
Annual Unlinked Trips HSL/HRT 33,830,904 64,800,000
Percent of Agency Unlinked Trips HSL/HRT 8% 17.3%
Number of Central Terminals System Map 2 1
Central Terminals in Relation to CBD System Map Both in CBD In CBD
On-Time Performance (System-Wide) N/A 89% (2017) N/A8
Peak Line Frequency (Most Frequent/Other) Schedules 20 minutes / 25–50 minutes 5 minutes / 30 minutes9
Off-Peak Line Frequency (Most Frequent/Other) Schedules 40 minutes / 1–2 hours 10 minutes / 60 minutes9

4The four rail lines are the Coast line, the Airport Ring Line, the main line, and the Lahti line. These lines are served by a variety of local, express, short-turn, and skip-stop services; two services provide counter-rotating local service on the 30-mile-long Airport Ring Line. Three services on the main line and one service on the Lahti line are operated substantial distances outside the HSL region by VR on its own account, and one service on the Lahti line is included in HSL system maps and timetables but is entirely outside the HSL region.

5This figure appears to include only services operated using class Sm5 low-floor EMU rolling stock, leased by HSL from Junakalusto Oy.

6Excludes 20 more regional and intercity stations outside the HSL district served by R, T, D, G, and Z trains operated by VR.

7No information about station accessibility is available; however, all stations within the HSL district are served by at least one route using class Sm4 or class Sm5 low-floor EMUs.

8No information about on-time performance is published. However, published service reliability (percent of trips operated out of scheduled trips) exceeded 99.3% in 2017, short of HSL’s service reliability goal of 99.59%.

9Comparison is difficult because of the numerous service patterns operated on the four lines; at some major stations, local, express, and short-turn trains all arrive at the same time. All commuter trains stop at Pasila station, about 32 trains per hour peak and 12 trains per hour late night. Some distant stations have peak-only service.

Operating Characteristics

Information HSL/HRT source MBTA commuter rail HSL/HRT commuter rail
Annual Operating Expenses HSL/HRT $403,654,786 $797,160,00010,11
Farebox Revenues HSL/HRT $198,331,440 $439,971,00010,11
Farebox Recovery HSL/HRT 49.1% 55.2%
Fare Range (Single One-Way Trip) HSL/HRT
fare schedule
$2.25 – $12.50 $3.57 – $8.8610,12
Operating Expenses per Vehicle Revenue Mile N/A $17.15 N/A13
Operating Expenses per Unlinked Passenger Trip HSL/HRT (derived) $11.93 $2.1610,11

10Converted at a rate of €1.00 = $1.23.

11Figures for entire HSL system, including bus, metro, tram, commuter rail, and ferry. As HSL owns no vehicles itself, operating costs include contracted service operators’ costs of capital and depreciation, as well as the cost of leasing commuter-rail trains from Junakalusto Oy.

12HSL has three geographic fare zones and fares are independent of mode (except for Helsinki trams). Fares shown are for single-use one-way tickets purchased at a ticket vending machine; lower prices apply for tickets purchased through a mobile app or from an on-board automated fare validator using a stored-value Travel Card.

13HSL reports operating expense per passenger kilometer as approximately €0.12 for the commuter rail, on par with the Helsinki Metro and significantly cheaper than bus, tram, and ferry services. In comparable US units, this would be $0.24 per passenger mile. As described in note 11 above, this includes a substantial amount of what in the US would be classified as capital costs.

Fleet Characteristics

Information HSL/HRT source MBTA commuter rail HSL/HRT commuter rail
Fleet Operator (Name, Internal/External) HSL/HRT External (Keolis) External (VR Group)
Number of Vehicles in Fleet HSL/HRT 480 11714
Percent Spare Vehicles N/A 12.3% N/A
Average Vehicle Age (Years) Wikipedia 23.0 515
Power Source(s) Stadler Rail Diesel 25 kV 50 Hz overhead catenary
Seated Capacity of Trains (Approximate) Stadler Rail 800 52016

14Includes both Junakalusto Oy-owned class Sm5 EMUs leased to HSL and VR Group-owned equipment (primarily class Sm4 EMUs) used on HSL services under contract.

15Class Sm5 EMUs only, built 2008–2017.

16On a typical peak-period train consisting of two class Sm5 EMUs with 260 seats each. Of the total, 232 seats are fixed and an additional 26 folding seats are shared with wheelchair bays and standing room. The class Sm5 is capable of operating in three-unit consists but passenger demand does not currently justify it.

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My comments on Rail Vision

I attended the meeting of the Rail Vision Advisory Committee on Wednesday, and summarized what I saw in an interminable Twitter thread, which I’m not going to repeat here. After writing all that, I spent another few hours composing an email to MassDOT’s Manager of Transit Planning, the only person whose name is given on the official Rail Vision web site summarizing my further comments (beyond what I said during the public-comment period at the meeting proper). Since I have no idea how or if any of my comments will make it into the public record, I’m posting most of what I wrote here (edited for formatting):

First, a few process concerns.

I signed up a month or two ago for “Rail Vision”-related email. I did not receive any notice of this meeting, or indeed about any other Rail Vision activities. There was no agenda mailed out that I saw; I only found out what was going to be discussed by continually refreshing mbta.com until the event listing started showing more information.

The project web site does not identify who the members of the Advisory Committee are nor their affiliations. This made it particularly difficult when I was writing up my notes this evening as many of the speakers did not identify themselves. It seems pretty fundamental for any public body, even if a mere Advisory Committee, to have a public membership list so that members of the public who attend the meeting know who is being represented.

From the agenda, it appears that you were discussing something today you called the “Tier 1 Evaluation”, which again does not seem to be public — the committee members were complaining about not having had enough time to read the documents and there’s again nothing on the official project web site. This makes it very difficult for members of the public to determine whether there is any value in attending the meeting or what particular issues they should raise with the people who represent their interests on the committee.

My overall response, despite these process concerns, is that I’m cautiously optimistic, based on the comments I heard from all the committee members today, but I am somewhat concerned that you may be, in the words of the great architect Daniel Burnham, “making small plans”. Given that the rail system is going to require a substantial public investment, it is absolutely vital that this “vision” be a truly forward-looking one, a world-class rail system for our world-class city — we the taxpayers are going to have to be convinced to pay for it, and minor tinkering around the edges while traffic and service get worse for a decade or more is not going to do that. Ask for the best system you can justify, independent of resource constraints, and if we have to make some compromises to pay for it, make sure taxpayers, legislators, and the governor know that we’re settling for less than what we deserve.

As I said at the meeting, the one way forward that actually addresses all of the committee members’ goals — which should be everyone’s goals — of fast, frequent, reliable, all-day, bidirectional rail service, is system-wide electrification with fast, lightweight Electric Multiple Units. The very least we should aspire to is “at least as good as Helsinki”, and given that the Boston-Providence CMSA has five times the population of metropolitan Helsinki (and very similar population densities in the suburbs) this really shouldn’t be that great an ask.

A few of my own notes, a little bit disorganized because I’m extracting them from the longer tweetstorm about what the committee members said:

  • [The speaker] draws the natural conclusion that what we really want is high-frequency service on *all* lines across the board. (Compare regionalrail.net or my own proposal for a revised service standard. People talking like barely-adequate 2 trains/hr would be a huge win!)
  • What’s a “vision”? Whether you call it “aspirational”, “ambitious”, or “barely adequate by the standards of small European cities”…
  • There was a lot of talk specifically about growth in and service to the 495/MetroWest corridor, perhaps because many of the committee members are from that area. I actually spent all of Veterans Day weekend researching and writing a specific proposal for this region, where I personally have lived for 17 years. The project should include in its universe of possible service expansions initiating service at least as far as Marlborough on the Agricultural Branch. See the publication list below for more information and motivation.
  • Even if Wellesley doesn’t “deserve” better service [because it’s not creating enough new housing], it may be better for both operations and for riders if the service is more uniform and the same high frequencies are provided everywhere. [My own proposal, see below, runs 8 tph peak on the line, mostly following the current zone-express pattern with 4-tph Worcester trains running express and 4-tph Framingham short-turn/Northborough/Clinton trains running local. Obviously EMUs, double-tracking, and full high-level platforms required.]
  • In response to Josh at T4MA: (Sorry, Josh, we don’t need a bar car, we need to shave half an hour off your commute from Worcester.) In all seriousness, bar cars — any distinct type of coach, especially a non-powered coach — is Bad with a capital “B”. Save those for the east-west intercity service. With only minimal upgrades, the proper EMUs should be able to cut the Worcester express’s running time to 50 minutes, while still serving all stations within Boston city limits. This then eliminates the need for the terrible “Heart to Hub” service and regularizes rush-hour schedules for the entire line.
  • Josh also calls for “flexible trainsets”: this is really an argument for modern, long (75 to 80 meter, 250 to 267 foot) articulated EMUs — not something 1850s-rail-car-sized like the Metro-North EMUs. Then you’re adding/subtracting passenger capacity in units of 250-400 passengers (depending on design and fraction of standees) rather than 160-passenger coaches. This also means you can easily, quickly, and safely make and break consists on the platform to ramp capacity up and down as needed.
  • Mike from Beverly brings up a great point about reliability targets: if, like many commuter rail commuters, you have to make a connection to another MBTA service, then suddenly you don’t have 90% reliability any more, you have 81% reliability, or even worse. (God forbid you have to get from Lowell to Logan Airport — a two-connection commute would be only 73% reliable and you’ll probably be fired for tardiness after the first month.)

While my comments were mostly in agreement with former Secretary Aloisi’s statement, I wanted to disagree with him on one point (which I didn’t raise at the meeting for time reasons): as a Framingham resident, I don’t support the concept of A/B testing service patterns with EMUs on the Providence Line and diesels on the Worcester Line. To get the track capacity required for the level of service we want and deserve, you need the power and acceleration that only EMUs give you. However, Sec. Aloisi is absolutely right on the need for Allston Viaduct mitigation, and I have argued and will continue to argue that this is an ideal demonstration environment for hybrid battery EMUs.

The gap between Yawkey and Boston Landing, during the Allston construction, is too long for a train to coast through, especially considering that the low clearances at Beacon St. will prevent energizing catenary there until all the bi-levels are gone from the South Side. A battery system with sufficient capacity to power the EMU at reduced speed for the 2½ miles from Yawkey to Boston Landing would not add too much to the weight of the vehicle — and such a vehicle would also have operational benefits elsewhere, during service disruptions and construction projects where catenary must be de-energized.

(By contrast, diesel multiple units, like the diesel FLIRT Fort Worth is buying, and which I was previously fairly high on, have a poor power-to-weight ratio and physically cannot accelerate fast enough for the close stop spacing on this line. However, DMUs purchased as part of the same family of rolling stock with EMUs have potential for short-term expansions of service in applications like East-West Rail, Worcester-centered service on the Pan Am and the Providence & Worcester, early implementation on the Old Colony lines, capeFLYER, and service to Nashua.)

I followed this up with an index to my long-form writing and analysis on this subject, which you all have presumably read because it’s all been posted here on the blog. (Any newcomers: welcome! Please be aware that my thinking has evolved as I’ve done more research into these issues and talked with some experts, so the most recent posts are more reflective of my current views than older posts.)

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A further examination of the Agricultural Branch for Regional Rail

About a month ago, I posted the most recent of several posts about using the former Agricultural Branch Railroad, the CSX-owned freight line which runs from Framingham to Clinton, for passenger service under Regional Rail. I made a Google Maps overlay with the route and most of the station locations shown; see the previous link for it. One frustration I had was that, since there is no existing passenger service, there are obviously no passenger counts, and I certainly have no budget to commission survey research to find out who would take such a service, nor which employers would be likely to offer employee shuttles to rail stations. I didn’t even have a good idea what the employment picture was like in the area, other than in Framingham where I live. I had seen some anecdotal evidence that the I-495 corridor is a whopper, employment-wise, but Dell EMC is a major employer and they’re in Hopkinton, south of the Worcester Main Line. And I’m no GIS nerd so I didn’t have a set of geospatially indexed databases ready to hand.

Doing a few quick Google searches, however, I was able to find two timely and extraordinarily usable data sources. The Missouri Census Data Center‘s Circular Area Profiles tool takes geographical coordinates and a radius and resamples the American Community Survey (2012–17) data to generate a broad and informative demographic profile of the people living within the circle so described. (The original census data is reported by blocks and block groups, which are designed to line up with political and physical boundaries rather than abstract geometric figures.) And in the same mode, the Census Bureau’s own Center for Economic Studies produced a fabulous interactive web app, OnTheMap, which provides data on employment from the LEHD Origin-Destination Employment Statistics 2015 data set for arbitrary geographies — and even better for my purposes, because the data set includes origin-destination pairs, it can actually answer questions like “how many people live within walking distance of point A and work within walking distance of point B”. (Both of these tools have important caveats relating to sampling error, especially at small radii, and a more GIS-informed analysis would use more sophisticated tools that took into account actual travel times on the existing roads and sidewalks rather than an arbitrary radius. Maybe someone can ask CTPS to do a real study?)

I’ve used this data to put together another slide deck. Since this presentation is heavily illustrated with Google Maps aerial photos, which I don’t actually have the rights to, I can’t release it under a liberal license for other people to give presentations from, but you’re welcome to download it, read it, and show it to other people.

Some of the key takeaways:

  • There are far more jobs in the corridor than there are people to fill them: the MetroWest/495 region is a net importer of labor — and many of the people who live in the region don’t work there.
  • With the “full build” program, comprising four phases (Framingham yard and stations; Southborough, Marlborough/495, Northborough Center, Northborough/290; Clinton; infill stations at Mt. Wayte Ave., Marlborough Jct., and Berlin/Boylston), 7,000 workers and 20,000 jobs are within walking distance of a station.
  • 79,000 jobs and 52,000 workers live within two miles (reasonable park-and-ride or corporate shuttle distance).
  • 4,650 people work within two miles of a station and live within walking distance of the Framingham Line, Orange Line, Red Line, or SL1 bus — it can be expected that nearly all of these people are currently car commuters. That’s an extraordinary reverse-commute potential, and could be significantly expanded with Regional Rail service to the region.
  • In the more traditional direction, 9,300 people live within two miles of a station and work within walking distance of the other services. These numbers would be even higher after accounting for other potential bus transfers, like the CT2 to Kendall.
  • The biggest proposed stations for residences within walking distance are Clinton (3,800), Framingham State (3,700), and Mt. Wayte Ave. (2,400) — all urban stations. For suburban small towns, Northborough and Southborough both come in respectably, at 1,700 and 1,100, respectively.
  • By far the biggest job center by walking distance is Framingham Technology Park, at over 8,000, but if you consider that most will take corporate shuttles from the station and expand the radius to two miles, that number jumps up to 16,000. It’s difficult to directly compare stations at this radius because none of the stations are more than four miles apart, so most of the commutersheds overlap in one or two directions, but the full set at this distance is worth looking at: Clinton, 4,750; Berlin/Boylston, 775; Northborough/290, 8,125; Northborough Center, 5,450; Marlborough/495, 20,800; Marlborough Jct., 12,200; Southborough, 16,500; FSU/Salem End Rd., 17,050; Mt. Wayte Ave., 25,000. (Note that all of Framingham’s CBD is within two miles of the Mt. Wayte Ave. station site, but most of them would find South Framingham a more convenient station; about 1,000 jobs are within walking distance.)
  • I estimated the “not to exceed” cost for full build at about $490 million, mostly by looking at the aerial photos and making some semi-educated guesses about what things cost. Notably, this accounts for neither the cost of acquiring the line from CSX nor potential benefits from PPPs at some station locations with high development potential, nor does it include the cost of rolling stock. This is a bit pessimistic compared to my previous post, primarily driven by an estimate of $10 million per mile for catenary, trackbed improvements, double tracking, switches, and signals. Some additional costs for RoW and station site acquisition are expected.

UPDATE: I went and drove as much of the route as is possible today, paying particular attention to the station sites. Marlborough Jct. has an aggregate mill that probably ships by rail and would need to be taken and replaced with more appropriate development. The Ken’s Foods “Corporate Headquarters” shown by Google Maps is actually a salad-dressing factory and receives tank cars (corn syrup?), but this use is probably compatible with the station if an island platform is used, but the second track here would be quite tight. Northborough Center could host a full-length platform by dead-ending Pierce St. Finally, I concluded that Northborough/290 station should actually be north of I-290, with access from Whitney St. — land use on that side of the freeway is more favorable for the sort of interceptor P&R that I envisioned, and no additional highway construction would be required to handle the traffic.

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Three Reasons the Commonwealth Needs to Commit to Regional Rail Now

After writing that very long slide deck, I thought it was worth boiling down my conclusions for policymakers to three important points:

1. There is a large investment of some sort required in commuter rail infrastructure over the next ten years. Either we can spend billions of dollars to keep the service limping along as it has been, or we can spend only slightly more to replace it with a vastly superior service. The longer the Commonwealth delays action, the more money will be wasted on keeping the obsolete equipment and the obsolete service running.

2. Riders deserve to see visible evidence of capital investment. This sounds shallow and unscientific, but public support for, and continued use of, the MBTA’s service depends to a great degree on riders seeing actual improvements happening before our eyes. We see this with the subway network: Those of us who are following things closely all know that signal system modernization and new rolling stock, if properly implemented, will alleviate many of the pain points on the Red and Orange Lines, but that’s not visible to the average rider stuck in a tunnel for half an hour with today’s broken-down trains and antiquated signals, and discourages use of the service over the long term. High platform and catenary installation are highly visible construction activities that riders can see and follow the progress of on their daily commutes, and that give evidence of ongoing work to improve service long before new rolling stock shows up or new schedules are implemented. Of course, that doesn’t excuse crumbling stairs, broken elevators, and water leaks, but riders need and deserve some visible evidence of progress. (And as soon as high platforms are implemented at a station, service immediately improves for the riders there, before any of the other investments are completed.)

3. Work on the I-90 Allston interchange is scheduled to start in 2021. While it’s unlikely that we could have full Regional Rail on the Worcester Line before then, MetroWest and Worcester commuters need mitigation — practical commuting alternatives during the anticipated eight-year construction period — which the current commuter rail service is far from being able to provide, and the sooner we get Regional Rail implemented on the Worcester Line, the more effective a mitigation strategy it will be. While it might not be ready for 2021, there is every reason to believe we could have a full implementation by 2023, only two years into construction, if the right decisions are made now.

Schedule thoughts: if we decided to do this, really seriously, with a board vote in January, then the MBTA could start issuing design-build contracts for Providence and Fairmount Line improvements and electrification late in FY19, have an RFP for rolling stock in the spring of 2019, and issue the rolling stock contract (about $2–3bn) in about a year from today (say, October 2019, so early FY20). Pilot cars (if Stadler is the chosen vendor) could be delivered by ship from Europe about a year later, call it January 2021, just in time for the completion of PTC implementation and AFC 2.0. Get a dozen pilot cars and test during winter and spring of 2021, and you can introduce them to revenue service on Providence and Fairmount lines in time for the summer 2021 rating, and take delivery of 30 more cars a year, every year, from the US assembly plant once the pilot cars are accepted.

Meanwhile, you let a single design contract for the remaining catenary and substation construction, and a separate contract for all platforms, with biddable design packages for the Worcester Line due by summer 2020 at the latest. Separate station improvements contracts for Back Bay, Newton, Wellesley-Natick-Framingham, and west-of-Framingham, so that you can start service to Framingham by late 2022 and to Worcester in early 2023. At that point, the newest commuter coaches and locomotives get redistributed to the other lines, and the oldest equipment can be sold for scrap rather than being replaced.

Oh, and you should build my Framingham-to-Northborough proposal.

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A comprehensive Regional Rail slide deck

Hard to believe it’s my 400th post on this here blog, but given recent trends it’s not hard to believe that it’s about transportation rather than computer networking, figure skating, sliding sports, travel, or (most of all) cooking. I’ve spent most of my free time over the last week putting together a slide deck on Regional Rail, although I have no plans as yet to give an actual presentation. (I would be happy to do so for any group or political body that was interested, provided the schedules can be made to work out.)

The purpose of building the slide deck was two-fold: first, I wanted to make something that would serve a broad audience with a somewhat different emphasis from the regionalrail.net report; second, I wanted to synthesize a lot of what I’ve learned over the past few months in modeling and analysis (and in reading modeling and analysis by smart people who actually know something about operating rail networks), with the intent that the slides (or an audience-specific subset of them) could be used by many people to present the Regional Rail concept to organizations and political leaders who have an influence on the MBTA’s budgets and capital priorities. (The presentation weighs in at 66 slides, because I’ve put all the information in writing, whereas a deck designed for a more specific audience would leave more of the content for the presenter to give aurally — sorry, Steve Poftak! On the other hand, this makes it more accessible to the Deaf.)

I am releasing the presentation to the public under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 4.0 International license, but with a special exception that excludes presentations based on these slides from the “no derivative works” clause, even if recorded or transcribed. This is basically to protect me, in case someone decided to release a maliciously altered version of the slide deck without my permission, but it’s also why there is only one photo in the presentation (because I would have had to go out after work, in the dark, and take the pictures myself). So please do feel free to use these slides, in whole or in part, to give a presentation on the subject to people you have a connection with, or if you’d be interested in having me actually give the presentation (mind: my only qualifications are as someone who wishes he could take the commuter rail), please see the contact information on slide 62.

I need to thank a bunch of people whose blog posts, blog comments, tweets, and private communications provided important information, and in some cases corrected misconceptions of mine, including Zachary Agush (@zagush), Sandy Johnston (@sandypsj), Alon Levy (@alon_levy), Ari Ofsevit (@ofsevit), David Perry (@FramWorMBTA), Ted Pyne (@Ted4P), and a number of anonymous railfans. However, all of the opinions expressed and any factual errors in the presentation are mine alone.

UPDATE 2019-10-26: Updated to respond to Alon Levy’s comments on Twitter, and correct the power and maximum acceleration for the 75m FLIRT based on the Stadler data sheet. See the GitHub repo for more details and comments regarding the limits of this simulator.

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Interlude: Physics of train acceleration

This past week I’ve been working on a slide deck that people can use to present the Regional Rail concept to non-transportation-nerd audiences, and one of the things that I wanted to include, just as an aside, was a couple of slides explaining the “stop penalty” and why it’s so bad for traditional diesel-hauled commuter rail like we have in Boston. This led me down a horrible rabbit-hole for the better part of two days, trying to figure out a closed-form expression that would allow plotting comparisons showing speed over time, or distance over time, or speed over distance. I am quite certain that there actually is such a solution, but I couldn’t come up with one that looked believable when I plotted it out, so I went back to square one and wrote a simple numerical simulator that would just generate the data points I needed to make my plots rather than trying to come up with the general formula.

In doing this simulation, there are three different regimes we have to consider, which derive from different limits (mechanical, physical, or legal) on the train system. At high speeds, there is a regulatory speed limit: the train is not allowed to go faster than a certain speed, because of track conditions, grade crossings, or the sort of signal system it has. At low speeds, the limits are mechanical: the motors can only apply so much force without the wheels spinning (or the axle shearing, or the gears stripping, or the motor windings burning up). In between these two regimes, however, physical law — Conservation of Energy — directly limits the acceleration that can be achieved. Any train will have the ability to generate (or draw from batteries or overhead wires) a certain maximum amount of power, and even without accounting for all the losses in the system (electrical resistance, inefficiency in the motor controllers and the motors themselves, friction, drag, and so on) this limits the acceleration attainable. In fact, at constant power, the conservation law tells us that

\displaystyle a_{max}(v) = \frac{P}{m\cdot{}v}.

If we assume that you always want your train to accelerate as fast as it can until it reaches the speed limit (or until it has to slow down for the next station), then a \leq a_{MAX} when we are in this power-limited regime, and a \leq F_{max}/m (where F_{max} is the maximum force the motor can exert in the forward direction, called “tractive effort”) when it hasn’t reached maximum power yet. In both equations, m is the mass of the entire train, including locomotives, coaches, fuel, and all the passengers. Note that in the energy-limited regime, acceleration is a function of velocity — in fact, it’s inversely proportional to velocity. Acceleration is the first derivative of velocity, which means this is a differential equation; luckily it’s one that has a solution, although as I said I had trouble figuring this out (because I never took Diff. Eq. in college, most likely) and couldn’t figure out how to do the integration piecewise — because what we really want to figure is speed as a function of time, and then integrate that to get distance traveled as a function of time. But just to make things clearer, here’s a plot showing the three different regimes for three different train configurations that I set up in my numerical model.

The image shows acceleration as the dependent variable and time as the independent variable, with different regimes identified depending on what the cause of the limit on acceleration is (mechanical, power/energy, or legal)

The three train configurations modeled are two trains with 500 passengers, all seated — one with my favorite articulated EMU (Electric Multiple Unit), the Stadler FLIRT, and one with a diesel locomotive of the type the MBTA uses and three bi-level coaches — and a third diesel train with the same locomotive but a nine-coach consist and a crush load of 1600 passengers (the highest load and the longest train currently operated on the MBTA). I assume that all coaches are bi-levels because I don’t have a source for the mass of a single-level coach: in actual operation, at least one single-level coach is required in every train for accessibility.

One thing is abundantly clear: that 1600-passenger “monster” load is extremely slow to accelerate. In the formula above, you’ll note that the mass of the whole consist is in the denominator of the acceleration equation, which is a consequence of Newton’s Second Law (F=ma). Naturally, the heavier the train, the slower it can accelerate, unless you have a way to add power somehow. With Multiple Units, you do have a way to add power: a single FLIRT trainset has two 1,000-kW electric motors, for a total power of 2 megawatts, and if you couple two FLIRTS together, all four motors work together at a system power of 4 megawatts. (You can couple up to three, but in most cases where you might want that many seats, you should be running more frequent trains instead.) The poor commuter-rail train has only one diesel engine with a power output of just over 2.2 megawatts no matter how many cars you couple to the end. (Yes, that does mean that a diesel locomotive on its own could accelerate faster than the electric train, because it weighs less and has more power — but that doesn’t help move any passengers!) One thing is clear: the heavy train takes inordinately long to reach the speed limit of 79 mi/h that I’ve set on this simulation. (On the Providence Line, the speed limit is 125 mi/h, but Regional Rail trains making more frequent station stops would not reach that speed, and it wouldn’t make sense to buy trains that were designed to go that fast — 99 mi/h is easily as fast as is useful on commuter trains.) This is even more clear if you look at the acceleration as a function of distance:

A line graph compares acceleration of three different train configurations; this is the same as the last graph except that the independent variable has been changed to distance traveled.

Look at that heavy train: it takes about 4.5 kilometers (more than 2¾ miles) to reach the speed limit that’s typical on the current MBTA commuter lines! Remember, that’s just acceleration; you still have to decelerate for the next station stop, and if the stations are less than 9 km (5½ miles) apart, that train is never going to reach the maximum speed allowed on the line. That’s why the current service pattern favors expresses: if you can go twelve miles without having to stop or slow down significantly, you don’t have to pay this “acceleration penalty”. (That’s only part of the full “stop penalty” — the other part is the actual time the train has to spend stopped at a station while passengers board and alight, the “dwell time”. Regional Rail aims to solve both of these issues at once with better design, EMUs, and level boarding.)

Another way to visualize this is to look at how long it take to travel a given distance. The graph below shows the same three train configurations, but the x-axis is distance and the y-axis is time, the exact opposite of how you’d normally look at this sort of physics problem, but very useful when you’re thinking about train schedules:
A line graph comparing three different train configurations accelerating from a stop, with distance as the independent variable and time as the dependent variable

The two-trainset FLIRT consist reaches the speed limit first, for obvious reasons (it has nearly double the power), at about 4500 feet of travel, and the three-coach diesel train hits the speed limit at about 6500 feet; after this point, they are traveling at the same speed and those two lines are parallel, separated by about 13 seconds that is the residual advantage of the electric train’s quicker start. The nine-coach diesel barely reaches the speed limit by the right-hand side of the plot, which is at a distance of three miles. If you assume that a train can decelerate exactly as fast as it can accelerate (which is not unreasonable for dynamic or regenerative braking, I’m not so sure about friction brakes), then the long heavy diesel shouldn’t be stopping more than once every six miles or more — which is far from what that train currently does, and that’s why even the “express” trains are quite slow (unless you’re getting on or off right before or after, respectively, the express segment). On the inner parts of many of the commuter lines, stations are spaced much more closely together — as little as a mile or two — and on lines that don’t have stops like that now, those are the exact places where Regional Rail envisions adding “infill” stops to provide better service to residential and commercial areas in the urban core. (Ideally, every Providence Line train would stop at both Forest Hills and Ruggles, for example — but this would only be acceptable to Mansfield commuters if the stop penalty were effectively mitigated so their commutes were not lengthened.)

The code for the simulator is in my GitHub repo, in the file physics.rb. The slide deck will be posted here once I finish writing it.

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Restoring passenger service to the Agricultural Branch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE 2018-10-21: I built a physics simulator that allowed me to actually predict a schedule for this service. Assuming you only build it as far as the Northboro/I-290 station and not all the way to Clinton, the timing looks like:

Station Minutes
Northboro/290 0
Northboro Center 3
Marlboro/495 7
Southboro 13
Tech Park 17
Framingham Center/FSU 21
South Framingham 24

At South Framingham it becomes the “local” train for the Framingham/Worcester line, so it would probably require two-trainset consists at peak. I modeled this assuming the track is reconstructed for 59 mi/h service; getting to 79 mi/h saves a whole two minutes so I doubt it’s worth the added capital investment.

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Next steps for Regional Rail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Service delivery standards for Regional Rail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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