Comments on today’s Rail Vision decision by the MBTA board

I don’t usually write blog posts with my comments before the MBTA board, but after today’s momentous decision, with which I mostly agree, I wanted to memorialize my own comments in a more public place than the video replay of the meeting. I could not stay for the whole meeting due to a medical appointment, so I have not done a recap of the excellent comments made by other speakers nor the deliberations of the board, about which you have already read. After the meeting, I sent additional comments to the board by email, along with a copy for the record of my spoken remarks as originally written, as is my usual practice. (I still have no idea where the actual public record of written comments to the board actually ends up — I should ask Owen Kane in person because there are occasionally other people presenting written testimony and I want to know what they’re up to.)

My spoken comments, as prepared

Spoken comments are limited to two minutes, unless you’re a politician, so I had to pick and choose my points carefully — otherwise I would still be talking.

Today you will vote on a preliminary direction for the Rail Vision program. I want to emphasize that there are significant things the board can do, in the time it has left, to move towards the transformative change that commuters are demanding.

First, you need to define priorities for the lines to be upgraded. A full transformation will take a substantial length of time, but different lines present different engineering and operational challenges; you need to FILL THE PIPELINE WITH PROJECTS that will deliver meaningful improvements to commuters in the short term while longer-term projects are in design and construction phases. I believe most advocates are agreed that the Providence and Fairmount lines should proceed first, because they are the easiest, followed by Worcester, but more difficult lines like the Eastern Route need to enter design and permitting right away so that they can be ready to go soon after in sequence.

Second, you need to open a study directly comparing an Orange Line Extension to Regional Rail on the Needham Line. This was out of scope for Rail Vision, but the investments required are both very similar and in substantial conflict — this is a question that needs to be resolved now. Both alternatives need to be considered in their effects on the bus network in Roslindale and West Roxbury.

Third, start building full high platforms now, on a line-by-line basis, rather than the piecemeal approach taken heretofore. Use the line priority list to ensure that construction happens at the right time.

Fourth and finally, start procurement for lightweight 80-meter articulated EMUs for the Providence Line NOW — all plausible alternatives include this upgrade, and at $380 million for the full complement of 32, this represents the ONLY large investment needed for a full transformation of the Providence Line.

My additional comments, written after the meeting

I am gratified by the action the board has taken today to move forward with a true transformation of the MBTA’s commuter rail service. While it is not precisely the action I would have taken, I recognize the board’s desire not to overspecify the actions being required of the staff at a time when both financial arrangements and the Authority’s future governance structures are still being debated in the legislature. I further appreciate the substantial effort that the North Shore delegation has put into making the case for the needs of their communities, which have put up with substandard service for far too long. I am copying my state representative on this message and I hope and expect that he will support the bonding authority and new revenue sources required to execute this transformation, as well as the additional procurement flexibility that I have advocated and that the board’s resolution 4 requests. I do believe and expect that, when the staff completes the analysis you have directed, it will support substantial investment in the Worcester Line sooner rather than later.

I am writing at this time, however, to correct a factual claim made by the Secretary at today’s meeting. The Secretary asserted that the only reason to install high-level platforms was for ADA accessibility, and that only the previously established PATI priorities should be considered. This is entirely erroneous.

Building high-level platforms at all stations is entirely justified by the long-term operational improvements that result from such construction. It is the construction of new platforms that then triggers the authority’s obligations to bring stations up to current accessibility standards. These operational benefits accrue only if all of the stations served by a particular line or service have level boarding. Those benefits are:

  1. Elimination of door traps, an unreliable mechanical component which cannot be operated remotely by the train operator.
  2. Eventual (once we have full proof-of-payment fare collection) elimination of conductors and the adoption of rapid-transit staffing practices on the commuter rail system.
  3. The ability to buy standard(*) articulated EMUs rather than yet another custom, MBTA-only vehicle design. This is absolutely essential for a service investment with a 100-year lifetime; we cannot continue lock ourselves into buying inefficient equipment with a minimal global market, little competition, and no economies of scale.
  4. The ability to have more numerous, wider, passenger-operated boarding doors with automatic gap fillers for mobility-impaired users. I would note, in line with Marilyn McNabb’s comments at today’s meeting, that modern, single-level, articulated EMUs have much better provision for wheelchair access than anything the MBTA operates today, with large multipurpose areas for mobility devices, wide central corridors, and numerous fold-up seating positions.
  5. As noted by many commenters, much faster dwell times at stations, particularly when combined with the elimination of bi-level coaches. Faster trip times and faster turn-around times not only benefit current and future riders, but significantly reduce the vehicle requirements necessary to maintain clockface scheduling with current and projected passenger demands.

Because of the network effects — in particular, the ability to use doors without traps as required by any modern EMU — it is absolutely essential that all the stations required by any service be upgraded before the service begins. Given the time required to procure new rolling stock, this is entirely practical, and would provide direct benefits to all riders even before the new service begins.

I share the Chairman’s skepticism about the estimated cost of $100m per station to upgrade the five current low-platform stations on the Providence line, and I strongly suspect that these estimates are being larded up with unrelated costs beyond platform raising and the actually required accessibility improvements. All of these stations have mini-high platforms already and are thus considered “accessible” in the MBTA’s official maps.

I am also concerned by director Shortsleeve’s emphasis on new ridership. Yes, expanding ridership is an important factor to be considered — but improvements for the reliability, comfort, and convenience of the existing ridership must not be overlooked. The MBTA cannot afford to take its current riders for granted, or, as we have seen on bus and rapid transit, they may well decide that the MBTA is not adequately serving their needs and take their jobs and economic activity elsewhere.

My estimate of 32 cars and $380 million for the Providence Line, as given in my original testimony, is based on schedule simulations indicating that 30 80-meter vehicles are required to give every current passenger a seat, with a padded trip time of 48 minutes each way, 8 three-EMU trains per hour during the peak, and a 7% spare ratio (as appropriate for the much more reliable EMU vs. the 20% that Rail Vision assumed). Service within Rhode Island would require an additional four vehicles, but that would be sufficient to operate a full-time Westerly-to-Pawtucket shuttle with timed transfers for continuing service to Boston. The cost per EMU of $11.8m is based on the 2016 Helsinki order of 75-meter Stadler FLIRT EMUs, adjusted for currency conversion, inflation, and a slightly longer vehicle to optimally match the MBTA’s standard 800-foot platform length.

(*) Currently, no EMUs are being made with both ACSES for positive train control and 1220mm NEC high platforms, except the heavy and inefficient Metro-North type M8, but all major EMU manufacturers are offering designs that would easily accommodate both of these requirements without requiring substantial redesigns or more than the usual vehicle engineering work that accompanies any procurement, and if we bought such vehicles, there would be an immediate market from other agencies with NEC platform height. While the difference in platform height may seem to be a disadvantage or mitigate against buying a Euro-standard EMU design, it is actually helpful in this case — it’s much easier to alter a 600mm low-floor EMU design to support 1220mm high platforms than the other way around.

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A quick look at congestion tolling for Boston

I’ve written in these pages before about creating a cordon-type congestion charging zone (à la London) for Boston, and argued for it to be geographically quite large to reduce shunpiking. And I’ve also supported doubling the motor fuels tax — did you know that if we did that today, the price of gas at the pump would not the same as it was at this time last year? But in preparation for a meeting with my state rep this week, I wanted to think a bit more about other possible revenue sources, and in particular about using congestion tolling on our existing toll facilities to generate revenue that could be earmarked for the specific benefit of transit projects that parallel those roadways.

My specific proposal is to double Turnpike tolls in both directions between Millbury and the Back Bay for eight peak hours every day, with the revenues earmarked to support capital and operational expenses of modernizing the Worcester Line. Unfortunately, the public traffic data does not seem to have an hourly breakdown so estimating the revenue collected is a pure shot in the dark. I didn’t let that stop me, though; I just made an assumption that the equilibrium traffic — that is, the daily cars passing each toll gantry after drivers adjust their behavior for the higher tolls — during the peak hours is 50% of the overall average daily traffic at that location. I assumed that the peak-hours surcharge would be a fixed amount exactly equal to the current in-state E-ZPass toll in each location, and came up with the following table using the online toll calculator and the state’s interactive traffic count map (which includes counts for vehicles passing each toll gantry). I also looked at the harbor tunnels and the Tobin Bridge, with the thought being to finance first the Red-Blue Connector and then in the future (part of) North-South Rail Link and the electrification of the Eastern Route.

Here are the numbers (traffic counts and revenue estimates rounded to thousands):

Location Toll ADT Est. revenue
11–11A $0.45 98,000 $22,000
11A–12 $0.25 93,000 $12,000
12–13 $0.25 113,000 $14,000
13–14 $0.25 132,000 $17,000
16–17 $0.35 130,000 $23,000
17–18 $1.00 133,000 $66,000
20–21 $0.35 146,000 $25,000
Total for Turnpike mainline $179,000
Williams Tunnel $1.50 73,000 $54,000
Sumner/Callahan Tunnels $1.50 40,000 $30,000
Tobin Bridge $1.25 84,000 $53,000
Total for Tobin and tunnels $137,000

That’s the daily revenue, so to convert that to an annual amount, multiply by the number of non-holiday weekdays in a year — that varies a bit because of the fixed holidays, but 250 is a good approximation. That gives you $34.2 million in annual revenue on the tunnels-and-Tobin revenue center, and $44.7 million a year on the Turnpike. Multiply that by 30 to get a very rough estimate of how much bonding that revenue could support — all told, about $2.4 billion before interest, which is more than sufficient at current rates to fully electrify the Worcester Line, build Red-Blue, and get construction started on NSRL.

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About those stations on the Providence Line…

Two Sundays ago, instead of going for a bike ride in the nice weather like I should have, I went on a road trip of sorts to look at the condition of the six stations on the MBTA’s Providence Line that don’t have full-height platforms. Those six stations are Hyde Park, Readville (where no trains currently stop), Canton Junction, Sharon, Mansfield, Attleboro, and South Attleboro. I took notes on the site conditions at all six stations so I could make an attempt at guessing the cost of the actual station upgrades required. All six stations are already equipped with “mini-high” platforms and an accessible path of travel to street level and accessible parking via ramps (none have elevators), but the overall condition of the facilities varies greatly. At all stations on the line, signs direct passengers to board trains via the mini-high platforms (which are always at the south end of the platforms) except during inbound peak periods — presumably this is to reduce dwell times by avoiding dropping door traps to open doors at the low platforms. There is also an automated audio announcement system, tied in with the signals, warning passengers of approaching trains. All stations have fencing preventing pedestrians from crossing the tracks at grade. Beyond that, the stations vary greatly; here are my observations.

Hyde Park

The northernmost pre-ADA station on the line is located on Folsom St., south of River St. and a block west of Hyde Park Ave. in the center of Hyde Park. Pedestrian access is served by straight ramps down from the River St. overpass and by side streets connecting Hyde Park Ave. to the station parking lot, which is at rail grade. There is an embankment on the west (southbound) side of the station, which prevents any platform or access expansion on that side. There is a single express track for Amtrak between the northbound and southbound tracks. MBTA buses 32, 33, 40, and 50 serve the nearby business district.

Overall, with the exception of the concrete ramps and the relatively newer mini-high platforms, this station is in poor condition. The low-level platforms lack tactile edging and are cracked and uneven in places. The station signage is worn out, and other finishes and amenities such as lamp standards need replacement. I do not know whether the current ramp system meets MAAB requirements for accessibility, or if it would have to be either replaced or augmented by a second means of egress — especially for the southbound platform, which lacks access to the parking lot. Possibly the station wound need a pedestrian bridge at the south end of the platforms, which would be expensive to construct over the live catenary.

Readville

There are four platforms at Readville, inexplicably numbered 2 through 5. The Providence Line runs past platforms 2 and 3 — platform 4 is for the Fairmount Line and Franklin trains that run via the Dorchester Branch rather than the Southwest Corridor, and platform 5 serves the remaining Franklin Line trains. I say “runs past” because neither Stoughton nor Providence trains currently stop at Readville; any plausible scenario for frequent service on the Providence Line will require shifting most or all Franklin trains to run through onto the Fairmount Line, via the single-track platform 4, because capacity on the three-track Southwest Corridor is limited. In this scenario, especially during the transition period, Franklin Line passengers will want to transfer to the Providence Line trains to access Longwood Medical Area and Back Bay, so improvements should be made to this station to give passengers some weather protection. This is somewhat challenging because the accessible parking at Readville is located between the top of the platform 2/3/5 ramp system and platform 4. Platform 4 is also much too short, just 300 feet, although there is room to extend it further north. The northbound Providence Line platform is at grade with one of the four parking lots serving the station, additional ramps and stairs would be required to connect it to the lot after raising. Finally, in order to maintain the desired all-day schedule on the Fairmount Line without fouling the Franklin Line during peak, an additional platform will be needed for turning Fairmount trains, and it is not at all clear how to make it accessible.

Canton Junction

Like Readville, Canton Junction has a complex system of ramps to provide access to all of the platforms from street level. The station has four platforms, which for some reason are identified with letters A through D rather than numbers; the Stoughton Branch diverges from the main line at the station, and platforms B (Providence northbound) and C (Stoughton southbound) are located in the infield of the junction and accessible only by the ramp system (or the parallel stairs, which are integrated with the structure). The station building is located on platform D (Stoughton northbound), and there are large parking lots both east and west of the tracks. The east lot has a ramp directly to the platform D mini-high, which is just south of the station building, and that ramp would also serve for access to a full-high platform, although stairs would need to be provided north of the building. The only canopy at the station is on platform D, which may account for the surprisingly high passenger loading on the Stoughton Line at this station. The west lot is at grade with platform A, so it would require the construction of additional ramps and stairs, for which there is plenty of room. The mini-highs on all four platforms are farther south and have their own ramps.

Sharon

This was my mother’s station when my folks lived in Sharon and later Foxborough. There are parking lots on both sides of the tracks: one is restricted to Sharon residents and one is available to non-residents. There is a station building adjacent to the northbound track, but set back far enough that it wouldn’t impede platform construction — it would need additional ramps, however, as it is nearly at the north end of the platform and the existing mini-highs are at the south end. The station was renovated relatively recently, but the only wheelchair access between the two platforms involves a very long journey on the Rt. 27 overpass via two ramps; I’m not sure this really meets MAAB standards, but if it does, that would make this station relatively simple to upgrade. (Moving wheelchair users to the north end of the platform would significantly improve their travel experience when parked in the lot opposite their desired platform, but it really feels like disabled passengers were treated as an imposition in the design of this station.) Both platforms are at grade with the parking lots and would need additional ramps and stairs.

Mansfield

Oy. What can I say about Mansfield? The MBTA is nearly finished spending $7.1 million to renovate this station and didn’t build proper high platforms. This has been an ADA and MAAB requirement since the 1990s, yet somehow they managed to weasel out of it in 2015. The station does have mini-highs on both tracks, and it has a new system of ramps and stairs to connect the MBTA parking lot (south and west of both platforms) to the station; there is also a large private parking lot adjacent to the southbound platform. This site is highly constrained, with a viaduct over Chauncy St. at the south end of the platforms and a single-track junction with the Framingham Secondary immediately north of the southbound platform. This station has been widely reported as being a problem for clearances for military freight trains (heading from Framingham to Cape Cod), but if the hinged platform edges on the brand new mini-highs are sufficient for STRACNET purposes, there seems no reason the same treatment wouldn’t be sufficient on full-length platforms as well — especially since the Framingham Secondary can only access the southbound track. Longer term, it would be preferable to build a third track where the current southbound platform is: the right of way broadens to four tracks just north of the station, and giving intercity trains a bypass would not be a bad thing, but this is likely too expensive a project for the short term, so conflicts with Amtrak will have to be managed through careful scheduling.

On the positive side, there seems to be a good amount of transit-oriented development taking place on the parcels adjoining the station, and it sees a substantial number of daily boardings, so building full high platforms would be entirely justified on the basis of the current service pattern, never mind a modern service. If only the state hadn’t just blown millions building the wrong thing! (The people to blame for that error of judgment, by the way, are Brian Shortsleeve and Stephanie Pollack.)

Attleboro

The line runs through Attleboro on a four-track embankment; the original station structures on both the northbound and southbound tracks still stand, but the southbound platform has been relocated farther south and the original station (now leased out to office tenants) is no longer accessible from the platform. The two station buildings are bracketed on either side by underpasses for city streets, Mill St. on the north and South Main St. on the south, and the northbound platform continues across Mill St. for some distance. There is a substantial parking lot on the southbound side, and GATRA operates a substantial bus station adjacent to the lot, which they also own. A smaller lot serves the northbound platform and station building, but there is no direct access between the two platforms; passengers must descend to South Main and cross the tracks via the underpass.

South Attleboro

The sixth and final station is in many ways the worst. South Attleboro is located hard up against an embankment to the south (constricting the northbound platform) and in the shadow of Newport Ave. (Rt. 1A) overhead just to the east. There is an interchange on divided Rt. 1A just to the north, and the road past the station (at grade with the southbound platform) is busy with traffic from I-95 south to a power center on the northbound side of 1A. The parking lot for South Attleboro station is across this street, and there is a single crosswalk connecting it to the southbound platform; the beg button was not functioning when I visited, but perhaps the signal only operates on weekdays.

The only way to access the northbound platform is via a single structurally deficient pedestrian overpass and ramp system that connects to the parking lot but not to the southbound platform — the stairs to the southbound platform have rusted out and are blocked off at both ends. The stairs on the northbound platform have also rusted out, but at least the ramp down from the overpass connects directly to the mini-high at the west (railroad south) end of the platform. I cannot believe that this station meets code, and it will require a substantial investment whenever any change is made, to add a second means of egress from the northbound platform and likely a second overpass. I’m somewhat surprised that it’s even still open at all — and yet, it serves more than a thousand daily boardings, so clearly there is substantial demand. (A license-plate survey would be interesting: are these passengers mostly from Rhode Island, in which case perhaps they would prefer to go to the new Pawtucket station when it opens?)

Upgrade costs

I’m no construction estimator, nor am I an architect or civil engineer. But I can make a semi-educated guess about how much high platforms ought to cost. My most basic assumption is that a train platform can be effectively constructed like a reinforced concrete box girder, but with integrated overhangs for the foundation slab and the platform surface itself. This allows for a variety of construction techniques, both cast-in-place and pre-cast, and the hollow cross-section reduces the materials cost and provides a convenient chase in which to run cabling for platform lighting and signage. Segmental construction makes it possible to keep stations open during construction, if necessary. I estimated that the materials cost of two such platforms would be about $350,000 (at $200 per cubic yard of concrete), and figured that labor would be roughly twice that (depending on construction sequencing and whether it’s cast on site or precast). When you add in new platform signage, canopies, precast stairs and ramps, safety railings, and so on, a figure of $2 million would seem to be reasonable. Why, then, do MBTA station projects seem to cost so, so much more? I don’t know, and I would like to see a more detailed analysis of what is actually going into these projects.

That said, I can at least make a stab at the total upgrade costs for the whole line.

Hyde Park gets the fewest daily passengers of any of the stations under discussion, so it would seem like an obvious candidate to close for a few weeks in the summer and just build everything in place. However, it will be somewhat more challenging to construct due to the lack of easy access to the southbound platform for construction equipment, and the need to maintain clearance for through trains. Doubling my base estimate to give an upgrade cost of $4 million here.

Readville should be the easiest, because it doesn’t have scheduled service at the moment, but it would be silly to upgrade the Providence/Stoughton platforms and not upgrade the Franklin/Fairmount platforms as well. There are similar site constraints to Hyde Park and additional problems with the Franklin/Fairmount lines layout, so I’ll go for $8 million — add another $20 million if you want to augment the ramp system with elevators here. I’d probably also add at least $10 million to twin the Franklin Line overpass, which is probably necessary in the long term to support frequent service on the Fairmount (which needs to have a second platform added when the remaining Franklin trains get through-routed).

Route 128 obviously needs no work; it’s already a high-platform station. Canton Junction should be relatively easy, even though there are four platforms, because all of the platforms are accessible without crossing the Corridor and its overhead electrification. So I’m going with a flat $4 million, on the assumption that the existing ramp system is adequate and can be easily altered to support the new platform height. Sharon and Mansfield should be similarly easy, although Sharon may require an additional investment in vertical connectivity. Assume there’s an extra $1m in costs at Mansfield related to the hinged platform edge system, and you’re at $5m for the two.

Attleboro should be relatively easy, and there’s already adequate egress, but both platforms have sections that may be difficult to access from the street. This may be an ideal opportunity to do cast-on-site and then close the line and shut off power to crane a new platform in in large pieces. Attleboro is the third-busiest station on the line so obviously closures need to be kept to a minimum. Call it $4m.

Then there’s South Attleboro. It has all of the same problems as Hyde Park plus the decrepit overpass needs substantial refurbishment. The street that passes between the southbound platform and the parking lot will need to be narrowed to widen the platform and provide a safe ramp down to street level. If it cost less than $8m I would be very surprised.

That brings the total to $43 million. Rail Vision is probably estimating it at an order of magnitude higher, which is MassDOT’s way of ensuring that either nothing gets done, or all their friends in the contractor and consultant industry make a hefty profit. Add to that the cost of upgrading Sharon substation (maybe $20m?), building a new maintenance facility for EMUs (might as well do it in Pawtucket, since Readville will be otherwise occupied for a while), perhaps $30m, and actually acquiring the new EMUs (24 120-meter EMUs, including the Rhode Island shuttle and two spares), $288m. All told, $360 million for a complete modernization of the Providence Line. These investments will also support electrification of the Fairmount Line as the second step in the full electrification of the network.

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My trip to the Dublin Worldcon

Folks who have followed this blog for a long time will recall that in 2017, I made two trips to Finland. For the first trip, I attended the World Figure Skating Championships. When I realized that the 75th World Science Fiction Convention was happening in the same city — and in nearly the same place — I couldn’t resist the opportunity to go back again. (Both of these events were financially supported by the Finnish state as a part of the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of independence from Russia.) At every Worldcon, a ballot is held to determine the site of the Worldcon two years subsequently, and so when I was in Helsinki two years ago, it was announced that not only would 2019’s Worldcon be located in Dublin, but among the guests of honor would be one of my favorite writers, Diane Duane. I immediately bought an attending membership and started to make plans for Dublin 2019. (I skipped the 2018 Worldcon, which was in the car-centric hellscape that is San Jose, California, which isn’t even nice in the spring, never mind high summer.)

Come this past January and the hotels and airline bookings finally open up. My original plan was to fly out a day before the convention starts, which would give me some slack time to both adjust to the time change and play tourist around Dublin — perhaps taking the DART commuter-rail train down to County Wicklow, where some of Duane’s “Young Wizards” books and stories are set — and then leaving the following Monday afternoon. I would fly Aer Lingus, the only carrier offering direct BOS–DUB service, which I hoped would remove some elements of uncertainty from my itinerary as well as unnecessary flying time. Things did not turn out as I had hoped.

The Tuesday before the con I got on the nearly empty Logan Express bus to the airport and we breezed down the Turnpike to the airport, bypassing terminals A and B because nobody on the bus needed to go there. I got to terminal C, where Aer Lingus sublets gate space from JetBlue, more than an hour before my flight, and was shocked to be told that the flight had already closed for checked baggage. But I was in luck, they told me: the plane had a mechanical problem and my 9:30 flight was being delayed until at least 10 pm. Whew! I made it through security and to gate C21 in plenty of time. Lots of people were standing around; most of the seats were taken. And there was a line of people at the gate agent’s desk receiving some sort of document. Uh-oh. I got to the head of the line, asked what was going on, and was handed a meal voucher and told they would have more information at 10:00. Given the late hour, I hadn’t been planning on eating anything, but I did anyway (this was a big mistake) and found a seat in the gate area to wait for the next announcement.

Come 10:00 they told us that there would be more information at 10:30, but no information came. I went to the men’s room, and I overheard (I don’t think he was talking to me) a ground crew member saying that there was no chance the plane would fly — it needed a new engine. The equipment was an A330-200, one of only five in the Aer Lingus fleet, and based on what FlightAware was telling me, pretty much dedicated to the BOS–DUB
route. But the gate personnel still said nothing. Finally, at 11:30, they announced that the flight had been cancelled and that they would hand out a document with the information on rebooking; those needing hotel accommodations or transportation were directed to the check-in desk, while the rest of us went to the baggage carousel to pick up our bags and make our way home. I made it on the midnight Logan Express and finally got back home around 1 am — all the while I was calling the Aer Lingus travel disruption call center and getting a busy signal. I unpacked as little as possible and went online to make an emergency backup booking, in case all the flights filled up before I could get through to the call center — it cost me $2,200 but I knew that I could cancel within 24 hours if I got my proper itinerary rebooked onto the same or better flights.

I finally got through to the call center at about 3 am Eastern Time, and they confirmed that the only Wednesday departures they could get me on were out of Hartford’s Bradley International Airport, 90 miles away, which would not be a useful place to have my car stuck if I was flying back to Boston the following Monday. So I reluctantly accepted that I would miss the first day of Worldcon in addition to my slack day and accepted rebooking on an earlier flight that would get me in to Dublin at about midnight Eastern (5 am IST) on Friday — which was the exact same flight that my emergency backup reservation had put me on. So I canceled the backup reservation and went to bed, it now being about 4 am and my wake-sleep cycle completely fucked.

I did basically nothing the whole day Wednesday — I had already booked it as vacation and wasn’t going to work after that — but I did head into the office to borrow a power adapter (which turned out to have an obnoxious blue LED on it but that’s a story for another time), so I wouldn’t have to buy one in Dublin. Thursday, I tried to get up early and tried to tell myself that I should go for a ride, but did neither. (That’s been the story of my summer, sadly, and my scale gives evidence of the cost.) The idea behind getting up early on the day of my flight was to catch up a bit on the time change. but since I had gotten so screwed up the previous day, it was a hopeless task. When I got to Logan Express on Thursday afternoon, unlike on Tuesday evening, the parking garage was full and I had to go to overflow parking, which you pay for in advance (although they don’t appear to have any way of checking that you paid for the actual time you’d spend in the lot). I got on the bus, got to the airport in time, checked my bag, made it through security, and finally got on the plane. Of course, I was unable to sleep — the cabin lights were still on, they did a full meal service that I passed on, and in any event it was well before my bedtime.

We arrived about half an hour early, made it quickly through passport control, and I once again got to marvel at how much better and easier the arrival experience in Europe is compared to the US. I carried my bags past the one bored-looking customs inspector and out the door into the public part of the airport. I immediately stopped by the SPAR convenience store which had just opened for the day to buy a Leap card, Transport for Ireland’s contactless fare payment card, which gets a substantial discount over the cash fare on buses, trains, and the light rail. I had a bit of a job first to convince the cashier that I wanted to buy something, and then again that I wanted the pay-as-you-go Leap card rather than a Leap Visitor card, which would have cost me more and wasn’t available in the number of days that I would be needing it. Then I went to the airport bus stop, only to find that the Airlink buses wouldn’t start running for another hour. I ended up taking a taxi to my hotel, which cost about 20 euros (vs. 7 for the bus if I would have paid the cash fare).

I should mention here that I had been in email contact with the hotel’s reservations desk to make sure they knew about my canceled flight and that I would be coming in very early on Friday morning so would they please keep my room ready for me so I can nap and shower. Unfortunately, they did not keep my room ready, and I had to not-quite-nap in the hotel lobby instead until enough guests had checked out that I could get a freshly cleaned room. (They did give me a hundred-euro discount for the indignity, but I would rather have had the sleep.) I spent about an hour trying to nap a bit more on the hotel bed (not in because duvets suck) before washing up and heading over to the Convention Centre Dublin to pick up my badge and convention materials.

The CCD is a nice venue, and quite new, but it was not really prepared for 6,000 Worldcon attendees. I observed on Twitter that Worldcon is really not structured anything like the sort of events conference hotels and convention centers are used to hosting — sessions are shorter, there are a dozen sessions running in parallel, and there are no breaks between sessions. The result in Dublin was the same as the result in Helsinki two years previously (despite cutting off membership sales at a thousand fewer): long lines to get into meeting rooms, many people excluded from the sessions they wanted to attend, and severe crowding in hallways, elevators, and escalators. The Dublin staff seemed a bit more organized than the Helsinki folks did, although I heard from other con-goers that Thursday had been a total madhouse. Some of the events were at another venue, Point Square, about a kilometer away, so I decided to head over there (taking the Luas tram one stop), but when I got there I found lines snaking hundreds of feet around the inside of the building just to get onto the escalator up to where the meeting rooms were, so I gave up on that venue entirely and stayed at the CCD for the rest of the con.

I had hoped to run into at least a few people I know — Chris Davis, perhaps, or Tony Finch, both of whom I knew were there, but I did not manage to see anyone, nor did I manage to sit down and have a meal with any Famous Authors the way I had had breakfast with Jo Walton in Helsinki after we both arrived on the same tram to the convention center there. I did run into an elderly music teacher from Springfield, Mass., who was in a signing line behind me, so if there wasn’t anyone I knew, at least there was someone who had come from approximately the same place. (Springfield is about 70 miles from where I live, which is, well, closer than New York.) She was fun to talk to and was very closely tied in to the Boston SF con community, having attended many Boskones. I did get a book signed by Diane Duane; since most of her books lately have been e-books, I had to think for a while before deciding on her latest “Young Wizards” p-book, Games Wizards Play. (I was half inclined to bring my first edition of The Door into Fire but it does seem weird to ask an author to sign their first book rather than the most recent one, and I’d never forgive myself if I somehow lost it, whereas GWP is still readily available.) I also brought two books that I have bookmarks in, one by “T. Kingfisher” (pseudonym for Ursula Vernon) and This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone; Vernon didn’t do any signings and decided not to try to get Time War signed when I still hadn’t managed to read more than a few pages into it. (Shades of 2017 when I brought Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit to the con but did not manage to read a single additional page. In fact I still haven’t finished it; it’s on the bottom of the pile on my nightstand that I had taken the other two books from!)

Because the con schedule was so busy, I did not managed to get much sightseeing done. I took one short trip on the Luas to O’Connell St. to see (the outside of) the famous GPO, the main Dublin post office which had played an important part in the Irish independence struggle. (It’s still a post office, but there’s also a museum there; I didn’t go in.) I didn’t see Temple Bar or Trinity College, and I didn’t get on any trains other than the Luas Red Line.

The CCD prevailed on the Worldcon organizers to use a ticketing system for the major evening events of the con: the opening ceremony, the Masquerade, an orchestra concert, and the Hugo Awards. I decided to pass on the Masquerade and the concert, but I definitely wanted to see the Hugos in person, as I had in Helsinki. I went to the “box office” only to be told that there was actually a queue outside. I went outside, and there were a good thousand people standing in line, but I went to the end of the line and waited while small groups were admitted to request tickets. The wind was stiff, and it soon began to rain. I feel like this could have been handled much better, perhaps by having an online signup before the con rather than making people stand in line in the rain for an hour — and of course missing one or two sessions while doing so. I did manage to get my ticket (actually a wristband), and got a decent seat for the Hugo ceremony despite being relatively late in the line. That was Sunday night, and I went back to my hotel in good spirits, unaware of what was going to befall on Monday.

I knew that I would have to leave the con before 2 pm on Monday to make my 4:20 flight back home. I tried to check in on my phone while I was eating lunch, but for some reason it wouldn’t let me, even though I had a confirmed reservation and I had paid for priority seating. After a bit of confusion with the bus stops, I hopped on the Airlink 747 bus just after 2:00 and got to the airport in what I thought was plenty of time to check in. After making my way to the Aer Lingus automated check-in and bag drop kiosks in Dublin’s Terminal 2, I tried once again to check in and got a mysterious error. The kiosk told me to go see a customer service agent. So I got in an unbelievably long and slow-moving queue at the check-in counters. I asked the representative at the end of the line if I would make my flight, and she said not to worry, before check-in closes they call everyone on that flight out of the line to be sure they make it. So I shuffled forward for another 45 minutes, as flight after flight ahead of me got called out of the queue. Finally, my flight to Boston was called as about to close, and I fought my way through the Tensabarrier chicane to move over to the “closing flights” desk. I was the third person in line, and there were two agents handling both Boston and a flight to JFK that was called at the same time.

Something seemed amiss when the agents at the counter were yakking away with each other for minutes while about a dozen of us were standing in line waiting to check in. Finally they told us that our flight was overbooked and we were being involuntarily bumped. After another half-hour of waiting, they handed me a cheque for 600 euros (with advice to cash it at the currency exchange today), a boarding pass for the morning flight to Boston that I had avoided booking in the first place because it was too early, and instructions to take the shuttle bus to the Carlton Hotel where a car would pick me up and take me to a different hotel at which Aer Lingus would put me up for the night and buy me dinner and breakfast. I misheard the instructions and got on the bus for the Clayton Hotel — much more impressive, a large motor coach — and ended up going all the way to that property, inside to the reception desk to find out that I was at the wrong hotel, and back to the airport to get a van to the Carlton. (Meanwhile, events were still going on at the CCD for the convention, which I would have stayed at had I known that I was being bumped.) The hotel that they put us up in was the “Red Cow” Moran Hotel, named after a famous interchange on the M50 motorway, which was actually right on the Luas Red (albeit too late by the time I got there to head back in to the city center and partake of the last remaining Worldcon events). I sent a note to my work colleagues letting them know that I would be a day late getting back to work.

Finally, far too early on Tuesday morning, I got into a cab at 8 AM, got back up to the airport, again had trouble checking my bag — Aer Lingus had assigned me a different seat overnight so my boarding pass was no longer valid — and finally made my way through security, through CBP pre-clearance (Global Entry made this substantially easier), through TSA security, and down to gate 404 with plenty of time to spare. I bought some Butler’s chocolates at one of the few stores on the post-TSA side of the terminal, and then waited for my flight. I boarded, found they had put me in a bulkhead row (no favor as far as I’m concerned, with the narrow seats and no place to stow your personal items), and then we all had to wait an extra 45 minutes after scheduled departure for late-arriving passengers to get through pre-clearance (the plane can’t take off without them if they had checked bags).

Eventually, a day late and completely zonked, I arrived back in Boston, collected my bags (there was some difficulty operating the carousel at Logan), got on the next Logan Express back to Framingham, collected my car, got home, ran a load of laundry so I’d have something to wear Wednesday, and crashed hard.

Posted in Uncategorized

Scheduling Regional Rail for the Providence Line

Followers of this blog will recall that nearly a year ago I started doing simulations for various MBTA commuter rail lines under plausible operating schedules for TransitMatters’ Regional Rail proposal. Since I live in Framingham, I concentrated mainly on the Framingham/Worcester Line, which is one of the easiest to schedule: there are only two intercity trains per day, and the entire line is double-tracked the full distance from Worcester to Boston. (Substantial parts of it used to be triple-tracked, and there’s a study in the works to determine whether the third track should be restored to simplify scheduling express service.)

The Providence Line is significantly more complicated. Not only are there three MBTA branch lines that feed into it — the short Stoughton Line, the much longer and heavily used Franklin Line, and the Needham Line — but there are also a dozen Amtrak trips a day which get priority access to the tracks. The Needham and Franklin Lines are somewhat easier to deal with: as I’ve written before, the Needham Line should be turned into an extension of the Orange Line, and in the mean time even Rail Vision is assuming it can be short-turned at Forest Hills peak hours; the Franklin Line was historically interlined with the Fairmount Line through Dorchester and could easily be operated that way again. (In fact, a number of Franklin Line trips each day already operate this way; all that is needed is better platforms at Readville to allow transfers between the Fairmount/Franklin and Providence Lines.) The Stoughton Line and the Amtrak trains, however, have to be integrated with the Providence Line schedule, and that creates complications for implementing Regional Rail on what pretty much everyone agrees is the line that should be done first. I’ve created a “string diagram” that shows Amtrak and Stoughton Line service during the morning commuting hours:

Stringline showing northbound Amtrak and Stoughton trains

Stringline showing northbound Amtrak and Stoughton trains

Note that the scheduled performance of Northeast Regional train 66, the only Amtrak train that operates along the line during morning rush, is pretty dismal compared even to the other northbound Regional, train 190. This will be an issue when we start trying to schedule fast EMUs around the lumbering locomotive-hauled Regional. The Providence Line, although it is built on a mainly three-track right-of-way, is presently limited to only two through tracks between Pawtucket and Readville, and even after substantial investment has geographic bottlenecks (around Route 128 in Westwood and through Mansfield) that make a dedicated express track uneconomical.

The next challenge is the southbound (return) track capacity. I did not model this in as much detail, but it presents more of a problem because the basic tenet of Regional Rail is that you don’t keep peak-service trains close to the city, you send them back to their out-of-town terminal immediately, in revenue service — and during peak hours there are substantially more southbound Amtrak trips that have to be worked around. The following diagram shows those trains:

Stringline showing AM southbound Amtrak and Stoughton trains

Stringline showing AM southbound Amtrak and Stoughton trains

The final challenge is seating capacity. I used the same simulator as I previously implemented for the Worcester Line, and the 2018 CTPS passenger counts, to estimate the 90th percentile passenger loads on various service schedules that seemed to be practical with only minor shifts in existing Stoughton Line operations. I am assuming for the purposes of this simulation that the Stoughton Line continues to operate as a diesel service with the current (2019) schedules, because actually building electrification and new stations on the Stoughton Line will be expensive and time-consuming, and might well be deferred until South Coast Rail phase 2 advances. I used the trip-time modeling provided by Alon Levy, as with the Worcester Line simulations. Alon’s trip-time model assumes that service within Rhode Island is de-linked from the MBTA service; the 49-minute trip time from Providence to South Station (making all local stops!) is close to ideal, with an 11-minute turnaround time at both terminals allowing for a single consist to complete a full round trip in exactly two hours. I assume the proposed new Pawtucket station will get built, and I also assume a new infill station at Cummins Highway in Roslindale. After doing all that, I simulated a basic all-local service with 15-minute headways, and got … a service that is either extremely crowded or physically impossible.

The problem that I ran into is that not only is the Providence Line heavily used during peak periods, but that crowding is concentrated into a small time window, and it happens mostly at the southern end of the route — rush-hour trains 806 and 808 each leave Sharon with more than 1,100 passengers, and Attleboro train 842 leaves Sharon with nearly 800 on board. The sort of single-level articulated EMUs that I favor for Regional Rail have a seating capacity of 250 to 280 seats — the Finnish class Sm5 that I simulated for Worcester is at the low end, but a train that’s 5 meters longer (267 instead of 249 feet) would hold about 280 seated and, at crush loads, about another 250 standees. The MBTA does not currently have a comfort standard for commuter rail, but in my simulations I’ve decided that the 90th percentile passenger load should always get seated (and the more emphatically so the longer riders would be required to stand if seats are all taken). The MBTA’s platforms are 800 feet long, so if you have an 80-meter articulated EMU, you can platform a train of three of them, with a total of 840 seats — we really don’t want to have a situation where we’re 20 minutes away from South Station and there are already a hundred standees on the train.

I tossed a few ideas back and forth, but they tended to run into problems when faced with the physical realities on the line. Running more frequent service — ten-minute headways or better — is a nice idea in theory, but my simulator was still coming up with numbers that don’t work. At higher headways, the coordination problem with Amtrak and Stoughton Line trains is much worse, especially with the slow Stoughton diesels, and you also run into serious capacity problems at South Station. (My 8 trains per hour Worcester service only requires two platforms, but for Providence, Stoughton, and Amtrak together you need at least five. Of course, North-South Rail Link will eventually fix this, if we can just manage to build it before the MBTA studies it to death.) So I started to experiment with different service variations that would take some running time off the route — but not too much running time, because you don’t want to catch up to the previous departure when there’s no possibility of passing. Such a variation would also need to pick up enough of the passenger load to knock down the peaks that the regular local service experiences, but not too much.

I eventually hit on the idea of a limited-stop service that picks up passengers at three of the busiest stations along the line — Providence, Mansfield, and Sharon — but leaves the other stops to be serviced by a local train. This variant takes 38 minutes to run, saving 11 minutes over the regular service making all stops. That works out nicely, because it means that a limited-stop train can leave 13 minutes after a local train and still arrive at South Station two minutes later, so it fits nicely between locals running on 15-minute headways, and at the midpoint of the run, in Mansfield and Sharon, the limited is evenly spaced between the two surrounding locals. The limited would also stop at Route 128 and Ruggles stations. This service pattern gives a string diagram that looks like the following:

Stringline showing Providence Line nortbound AM service as proposed

The diagram shows four local trains per hour, four peak-period limited trains per hour, plus existing Stoughton Line and Amtrak trains as currently timetabled.

In the simulation, the heaviest load is on the 7:39 limited (arriving 8:17 at South Station), shown as V497L in my timetable, with 774 passengers — still well below seated capacity, so there’s plenty of room for growth. The preceding two trains get about 670 each, and the next train is under 500, leaving plenty of options for riders who miss their regular train. Amtrak’s Northeast Regional train 66 remains a problem; the clockface schedule would demand a train V465, arriving at 7:45, but this conflicts with Amtrak. I’ve dropped that run, leaving two consecutive limited trains on either side of the Amtrak (assuming it’s even on time), and as you can see from the diagram, the second of those still conflicts with Amtrak. I’m going to assume that this can be managed by getting Amtrak onto the third track north of Readville, and perhaps some minor schedule adjustments. There are a few other minor conflicts with Stoughton Line trains that can be managed by timed meets at Canton Jct. and some minor schedule adjustments.

One question that arises is what to do about the 14 EMUs on the “limited” pattern once they arrive at South Station. Obviously it is necessary to get them out of the terminal as soon as possible (that will still take about ten minutes due to mandatory safety checks and the time it takes for the operator to switch ends), but there isn’t the southbound demand for eight trains per hour. The fastest reasonable cycle time, with the southbound return trip running non-revenue, would not get the first northbound “limited” consist back to Providence in time to make another trip. Probably what makes the most sense in this case is for these trains to provide additional urban service to Readville and then go out of service until needed for the evening peak. As I’ve built this schedule, frequency drops at midday to only two trains per hour, but it wouldn’t hurt to maintain four trains per hour all day; this would provide better equipment utilization and reduce the need for midday storage space in Rhode Island. The total car requirement is 30 EMUs to operate this service; at $8 million each, that’s $240 million in rolling stock, and would free up a substantial number of old diesel locomotives and coaches to improve comfort and reliability on the yet-to-be-electrified lines. (Additional EMUs would be required to operate the intra-Rhode Island shuttle service, but the cycle time is 90 minutes, which would require just three EMUs.)

The full details are available in the providence branch of my GitHub repo. If you’re not super into methodology, you can just skip to the summary spreadsheet, which gives trip times, schedules, passenger loading, equipment requirements, and the CTPS 2018 passenger boarding statistics. (Unlike with the Worcester Line, I did not complete a full equipment plan; with a two-hour cycle time it was easy enough to just count the turns and figure the maximum loading on each consist.)

Posted in Transportation | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Other people’s recipes: Claire Ptak’s Ginger-molasses cake

I know it’s been an incredibly long time since my last proper recipe write-up, so here’s a lovely little cake from Claire Ptak’s The Violet Bakery Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, 2014 — wow, I’ve been working through this cookbook for a really long time now). It took me an incredibly long time to get up the energy to make this, after a long, dreary and physically inactive winter; I had the cookbook open to this recipe (p. 125) on my kitchen counter for six weeks before I finally managed to get all the ingredients together and actually make it. (It had been so long that my camera wasn’t even set up properly for kitchen photography: I had the wrong lens on and no flash.) There were a few tricky bits to making this cake but it came out very good and was gone in about 45 minutes when I brought it to the office. I won’t deny that I ate a slice or two myself. Here’s how it went.

Mise en place
We start, as always, with the mise en place. The dry team is quite simple, comprising 300 g of all-purpose flour, ¾ tsp of ground cinnamon, and ¼ tsp of ground cloves. (There is no added salt, and the baking soda at front left is actually part of the wet team!) Not shown in the photo is 225 g of boiling water; the other wet ingredients are 150 g fresh ginger rhizome, two large eggs, the aforementioned 2 tsp of baking soda, 200 g vegetable oil, 250 g molasses, and 150 g of granulated sugar.

Peeled ginger
First step is to peel the ginger, which every bit of advice I’ve ever seen is best done with a spoon. Maybe with a grapefruit spoon; I found the ordinary teaspoon I used slipped on the smooth ginger skin, so peeling took quote some time. The peeled ginger is sliced into 2-mm-thick discs and then chopped (Ptak says “pulverize”) in the food processor.

"Pulverized" ginger
I felt like this was a bit drier than I was expected, and maybe not as “pulverized” as it could be — a smaller work bowl would have made shorter work here — but I dutifully set it aside and continued on to the rest of the batter. (I needn’t have worried about the size of the pieces; aside from two unchopped pieces which were easy to pull out before baking, the rest of the ginger vanished into the cake batter and no chunks were detectable in the finished cake.) It was easy enough to combine the flour and spices with a whisk, but the wet ingredients were another matter.

Molasses, sugar, and oil
Whisking together thick molasses, additional sugar, and vegetable oil was quite challenging, with the immiscible oil, layered on top of the much denser molasses, constantly threatening to escape over the sides of the bowl onto my countertop. With much effort, I was finally able to get the oil and molasses to at least partially emulsify and turned the kettle back on to bring my now-cooled water back up to temperature.

Molasses mixture after adding baking soda water
The baking soda is dissolved in the boiling water, causing it to release a substantial amount of carbon dioxide gas (and converting some of the bicarbonate into sodium hydroxide, a/k/a lye). The soda solution is then mixed with the molasses mixture, producing more bubbles (molasses is somewhat acidic) and creating a tan foam which floats to the top of the mixture.

Finished cake batter
At this point I realized that I really did need a bigger bowl, because after adding the chopped ginger to the other wet ingredients I still needed to add the dry ingredients and the eggs (beaten before adding, and yes they’re added last, after the flour mixture).

Batter deposited in 9" cake pan
The recipe calls for baking in either one nine-inch or two eight-inch cake pans, parchment-lined and buttered. If I had to do it again, I’d probably add a parchment collar around the sides of the pan, in addition to the usual disc on the bottom — but I’d probably also make two smaller cakes as described. The cake or cakes bake for an hour in a 300°F (150°C) oven, until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean.

Overflow during baking
As you can see, the cake actually rose so much in the oven that it overflowed the pan. The cake is cooled in the pan for ten minutes to allow the protein matrix to set up, before depanning and returning to the rack until fully cooled.

Fully cooled and inverted cake on stand
After cooling, I compared the two surfaces and decided that the “bottom” of the cake, which had been touching the parchment while baking, was the better surface to display, so I inverted it onto my cake stand before applying the icing. Ptak’s icing is a standard confectioners’ sugar and lemon juice icing; she calls for 250 g of the sugar and 2–3 tsp of fresh lemon juice — I found that this amount of juice did not come even close to wetting the confectioners’ sugar, and even after adding the entire lemon’s worth of juice (about two tablespoons) I still needed to add water to thin the icing enough to be spreadable.

Finished cake with lemon-sugar icing
I probably thinned the icing a bit too much; the photo in the cookbook shows a somewhat thicker icing that doesn’t completely cover the sides of the cake. It was good enough, though. The cake had a good, strong ginger flavor, with only a few people noticing the tangy lemon flavor in the icing. Recommended, would make again.

Nutrition

Nutrition Facts
Serving size: 1/12 cake
Servings per recipe: 12
Amount per serving
Calories 451 Calories from fat 152
% Daily Value
Total Fat 17​g 22%
 Saturated Fat 1.5​g 8%
Trans Fat 0​g
Cholesterol 31​mg 10%
Sodium 231​mg 10%
Potassium 374​mg 11%
Total Carbohydrate 70​g 25%
 Dietary fiber 1​g 4%
 Sugars 49​g
Proteins 5​g 10%
Vitamin A 13%
Vitamin C 4%
Calcium 9%
Iron 13%
Posted in Food | Tagged , , , ,

Two months of thinking about buses

You may be wondering why I never followed up on my promise to simulate Regional Rail ridership for the Providence Line. In part that’s because it’s actually really hard — the Providence Line is much more complicated than the Worcester Line in terms of the number of services it must integrate (Amtrak, Stoughton Line, Franklin Line), the weird set of short-turns, service into central Rhode Island, and the sheer number of passengers (it is the MBTA’s heaviest-ridership commuter-rail line). I’ll get back to that soon, I hope. But the primary reason, as the title of this post suggests, is that I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about buses.

I made a Google Map showing the nine MBTA bus routes which serve more than 10,000 passengers per weekday (counting the SL4 and SL5, which overlap for most of their route along Washington Street from Dudley station to downtown, as a single route). The busiest route in the entire system is the 28, a former streetcar route connecting Mattapan to Grove Hall and Dudley, with many trips extending to Ruggles station, serving 12,880 passengers on 233 bus trips per weekday. Based on the (2017) system-wide average operating cost information the MBTA has reported to the Federal Transit Administration and the route-specific information reported in the Better Bus Project‘s route profiles, I guesstimated that this route costs approximately $7.5 million a year to operate. Other routes connecting southern Dorchester to northern Roxbury serve similar numbers of riders and have significant route overlap, including the 22 (Ashmont–Ruggles via Columbus Ave., 8,020 riders), 23 (Ashmont–Ruggles via Dudley, 11,810 riders), 29 (Mattapan–Ruggles via Columbus Ave., 2,250 riders), 21 (Ashmont–Forest Hills via Morton St., 4,290 riders), and 31 (Mattapan–Forest Hills via Morton St., 6,100 riders) — all told, 1,168 bus trips per weekday serving 45,350 people a day. (That’s more than the entire system-wide ridership of any of the state’s 11 Regional Transit Authorities — PVTA comes closest, at 39,368 average weekday riders.)

In any other city, a ridership of more than 10,000 passengers per weekday — 2.6 million riders a year — would more than justify a shift to a higher quality transit mode. But of course this is Boston, and all of those routes serve minority communities, so they have been stuck with diesel buses since the trolleybuses (which replaced the original streetcars) were moved to Cambridge in the 1950s. (They replaced streetcars in Cambridge, too — the trolleybus routes that currently operate from North Cambridge carhouse were originally bustituted to free up streetcars to operate the then-new Riverside Line through Brookline and Newton.) Taken together, this particular set of bus routes serves on the order of 11.8 million riders per year. (This number can only be approximate because what we are actually counting is not really rides or riders but so-called “unlinked trips”, which is a single ride on a single bus, and therefore double-counts transfers.) Surely this would justify a substantial capital investment to get those people to where they need to go faster, in greater comfort, and at lower operating expense?

It was time to start seriously looking at the map. It was pretty clear how a modern tramway would fit along the route of the 29: Blue Hill Ave., Seaver St., Columbus Ave., and Tremont St. are all at least 80 feet wide and could easily support a center reservation. But the 29, again, only serves a couple thousand riders and doesn’t run frequently enough to justify the conversion on its own. The MBTA even admits that the 29 only exists to save riders the trouble of transferring from the 28 to the more frequent 22. The 31 runs very frequently, and would share part of the 29’s reservation, but again, it only serves 6,100 riders a day, which (while it would be excellent for a “new streetcar” project in most of the US) doesn’t really justify the investment here. The Ashmont routes are even worse — the streets of Dorchester are for the most part only forty feet wide, which is barely wide enough for a reservation and two-way car traffic with no parking; when these routes were streetcars before, they ran in mixed traffic (which was of course much lighter 80 years ago than it is today), and a big part of the benefit of tram conversion would be getting out of mixed traffic if not complete grade separation. So I put this speculation aside.

There is one route, however, which has no such issues — but it’s not one of the Dorchester routes, it’s the SL5, part of the “Silver Line”, which was marketed as “bus rapid transit” at a time when the Federal Transit Administration was strongly favoring such projects. The main segment of the “Silver Line”, the South Boston Piers Transitway, was built as a part of the Central Artery/Tunnel Project, and includes a dedicated bus tunnel under Fort Point Channel from South Station to South Boston; because this tunnel lacks ventilation it is restricted to electric buses only, and in practice is operated with 60-foot dual-mode trolleybuses. The SL5, however, is different. It (and its companion route the SL4) were created to respond to the demand of the Roxbury community for a service along Washington Street that was “better than a bus” after the Orange Line was relocated from the Washington Street Elevated to the Southwest Corridor to the west in 1987. The SL4/5 operate frequent service with 60-foot diesel buses, and the route along Washington St. is theoretically a reserved bus lane although the markings are poorly maintained and rarely enforced. The rest of the route is in mixed traffic, which affects the SL4 (to South Station) more than the SL5 (to Park Street and Boylston stations).

There is a subway tunnel underneath Tremont Street — part of the original Tremont Street Tunnel, in fact — which was last used by streetcars in the 1940s. It even has a flying junction at the south end to speed cars diverging to South Boston (the #9 City Point route used to run this way) and Roxbury. For a while, the state was studying converting this perfectly good rail tunnel into a bus tunnel, but ultimately decided it would be too expensive. (This was tied up with constructing a new bus tunnel all the way to South Station, parallel to the Red Line, because buses are just so awesome.) The old tunnel portal (currently blocked by a park) is barely a block from Washington Street, and pretty much every advocate for “Washington Street replacement service” since the 1980s has been demanding that the T create a new F branch of the Green Line to serve Dudley along this old streetcar corridor.

Sandy Johnston (@sandypsj) pointed out on Twitter how the Portland Streetcar, which opened 20 years ago, was able to use a modern construction technique that significantly reduced the cost of construction by reducing the amount of concrete required for the trackbed (and thus the depth of the excavation and the amount of utility relocation required). That doesn’t solve the issue with street width, but perhaps it could make the construction of a new reservation cheap enough to justify the project just on that basis. And certainly for replacing the SL4/5 it might be worth the expense.

The MBTA is currently engaged in a “Bus Network Redesign” project. The T also just approved a very unambitious 20-year capital program, and is working on replacing or renovating all of its ancient and inadequate bus garages. And it’s also working on modernizing the Ashmont–Mattapan High Speed Line, which is currently operating using five-times-overhauled PCC streetcars from the 1940s. At the MBTA board meetings I’ve attended or watched recordings of, there is considerable frustration at the fact that the T is essentially unable to increase bus service at peak periods because it has no space in its bus garages to park or maintain additional buses. I started thinking again about replacing high-ridership bus routes with tram routes, wondering if the project could be justified solely on the basis of reduced operating costs (trams have larger capacity and so could operate less frequently, alleviating bunching and congestion at major stations like Ashmont and Dudley) and freeing up buses and garage space for other routes that are less practical to restore trams on.

I spent several more hours staring at maps and trying to think of which of these bus routes, when considered together as a complete system, would make sense as part of modern tramway system, assuming the T could somehow manage to build something for a reasonable cost and in a reasonable time, with the goal of eliminating the need for an entire bus garage worth of buses and representing an overall operating cost savings to the T. The F-Dudley extension is a somewhat different case, because for schedule adherence (which matters a great deal for capacity in the parts of the Tremont St. Subway that are shared with the existing Green Line branches) you don’t really want to interline it with the other routes, except maybe off-peak on weekends and holidays when it could interline with the 28, so the assumption would be that it would take over one of the two GLX branches and its rolling stock could be stored at Lechmere where a new carhouse is being built to support GLX anyway. In any event, I came up with five distinct sets of projects:

  • Roxbury–Dorchester system: routes 22, 23, 28, and 29, including three of the highest-demand routes in the entire system (22, 23 and 28), representing 35,000 daily riders, and approximately 460 revenue bus-hours of service on today’s schedule. The 22 operates 188 trips per day, the 23 runs 250 trips, the 28 runs 233 trips, and the 29 a mere 77 trips. Nearly all of the 28 route is on streets that are wide enough for a full reservation, so with better stop spacing and signal priority, a large fraction of the 28’s nearly 13,000 daily riders should experience reduced trip times. The 22 and 23 would see less benefit, because more of their route is in mixed traffic. The overlap between the 22 and the 29 is substantial, however, and more than half of the 22’s length would be in a reservation along Blue Hill Ave, Seaver St., and Columbus Ave.
  • Roxbury supplemental routes: the 44 and 45 have substantial overlap with the the first set of routes, enough that I thought it was worth including them in my plan even though the ridership (3,450 on the 44; 3,140 on the 45) and vehicle requirements (98 bus revenue hours) hardly justify tramification. On the other hand, these routes serve mainly transit-dependent passengers and could have a real positive impact in those neighborhoods. However, they would be operating in mixed traffic on narrow streets.
  • Forest Hills system: routes 21, 31, 32, and 42 all converge on Forest Hills station in Jamaica Plain. When routes in this area were streetcars, they were served by Arborway carhouse on Washington St., which is a bus garage today. The 32 is one of the most frequent bus routes in the system, running from Wolcott Square in Readville, next to Readville commuter rail station, to Forest Hills, nearly entirely on Hyde Park Ave. Only the northern part of HPA is amenable to a reservation; the southern part (roughly, south of American Legion Hwy.) would be in mixed traffic. Roughly half of all 32 runs are short-turns from/to Cleary Square, next to Hyde Park commuter rail station, but in my estimation of operating hours and costs I have not accounted for this, so the numbers I have for operating costs on the route are not to be trusted. The 42 is another lower-volume (2,560 riders) route, but it runs straight along Washington St. between Forest Hills and Dudley, so it provides a connection between the two systems; it would however cost significantly more to operate than the current bus unless the schedule was cut back to the point of uselessness. Finally, the 21 and 31 connect Ashmont and Mattapan to Forest Hills via Morton St. and the Arborway; the 31 would operate mostly in a reservation, but east of Blue Hill Ave., Morton St., Gallivan Blvd., and Dorchester Ave. are too narrow to build a reservation so that half of the 21 route would be in mixed traffic.
  • E-Arborway restoration: route 39 was instituted to provide service along the E Line between Heath St. and Forest Hills when the E branch was truncated in 1985. Restoring the E Line was a Central Artery Project mitigation commitment which the state reneged on when business owners in Jamaica Plain objected to the loss of “their” on-street private vehicle storage that would be required to make the E fully accessible. A decade ago, the City of Boston tore up the tracks and repaved South Huntington Ave., Centre St., and South St., making any service restoration much more difficult. (The overhead electrification was trolley wire and would have had to be replaced in order to support modern trams.) In recent years, Boston has partially repented and asked for the restoration of the line as far as Hyde Square, and an anonymous guest post on Ari Ofsevit’s blog talks about the practicalities in doing that in much greater detail. For the purposes of this analysis, however, I considered complete restoration of the service, which would allow allow the E Line to again be based at Arborway.
  • F-Dudley branch: finally, as previewed above, I am most strongly advocating for a replacement of SL4 and SL5 service with a new F-Dudley Green Line branch. Moving the E Line back to Arborway would free up enough storage space at Lechmere carhouse to allow all of these trams to be stored there, and as the F would be by far the shortest route south of downtown, it would make sense to pair it with the longer of the two GLX branches, to Tufts and eventually Mystic Valley Parkway. In order to make enough capacity in the subway between Park and Government Center, one of the existing branches would need to loop at Park during peak hours; since the B Line is the longest south/west branch in running time, it makes sense for it to be the one.

In order to get any meaningful travel-time savings, it’s necessary to do something about the bottleneck along Warren St. between Grove Hall and Boston Latin Academy. Like Washington St. and Talbot Ave. in Dorchester, Warren St. is only 40 feet wide until you get north of Quincy St. — but it’s a very important and heavily traveled street, and most of the congestion-related delays experienced by the 28 happen in this section. I strongly suspect it would be highly unpopular to completely eliminate on-street parking in this stretch of road, never mind eliminating car traffic entirely, which is probably the environmentally superior option; there are no parallel surface streets, the east-west streets in the area are primarily residential, and residents of Quincy St. in particular would not welcome the additional traffic. Having ruled out any plausible surface route, I decided to propose a shallow, cut-and-cover tunnel. The state would not under ordinary circumstances make that sort of investment in an area that is predominantly inhabited by lower-income people of color with little political influence, but perhaps now with representation in Congress (Roxbury and most of Dorchester are in Rep. Ayanna Pressley’s district) the winds could shift.

In this exercise, I’ve started from the counterfactual “What if the MBTA was competent at capital construction?” As a result, I’ve assumed the use of modern, Euro-spec trams and reasonable costs for tramway construction. However, tunneling is a different story altogether. If the costs of bored tunnel construction were at all reasonable, I might propose a whole new subway line, taking over the route of the 23 — but they’re not, especially not in the US. Even cut-and-cover tunnels are still quite expensive, as it happens, and for a short bypass tunnel of ¾ mile of Warren St., that’s the low-cost construction technique. That’s also the one tunnel segment that would benefit the most people on the entire surface network.

So I collected a lot of data, traced out routes and stops using the distance-measuring tool, and tried to guess what the operating costs of these routes are today as buses and would be as tram routes, based mostly on public data. I collated all of this data in a Google spreadsheet so you can check my work, laugh at my unrealistic assumptions, etc. Unsurprisingly, since these heavily traveled routes account for a lot of bus trips per day, they also cost a lot to operate — although the 21, somewhat surprisingly, seems to be profitable. For operating costs, I first estimated the number of revenue hours and revenue miles from the Better Bus route profile (which gives a breakdown of trips by daypart and also has a section that shows the actual operating time of each route compared with the scheduled running time). Using the 2017 summary data page from the National Transit Database, I estimated the operating costs for each route as the average of the per-mile and per-hour costs — since those costs are given as system-wide averages the actual per-route numbers might well be much higher or lower than what I’ve calculated. I computed the replacement tram running time based on a formula that accounts for lower average speed of mixed-traffic operations (approximately equal to that of a bus) and a 30-second stop penalty for each stop taken (for some routes, applying a stop factor to account for not all stops being taken on every trip). I chose service levels on the tram routes to generally ensure a comparable level of comfort for current bus passengers while reducing the number of trips to account for the higher capacity of 90-foot trams over 40-foot buses.

On the basis of these calculations, I concluded that the current service on these routes costs nearly $54 million annually to operate (that’s not counting capital costs for new buses or bus garages, because transit agencies do not take depreciation charge-offs). On the basis of my tram operating schedule and the current hourly cost of Green Line operations (again taken from the 2017 NTD summary page), I calculated that a full build would save $13.2 million annually in operating expenses, nearly a quarter. If the less used 42, 44, and 45 routes were left as buses rather than converted to trams, the savings increases to $15.2 million. Of the remaining routes, the E-Arborway restoration alone accounts for $3.8 million of savings annually, and replacing the SL4 and SL5 with a new F-Dudley is worth another $1.7m. (Of course the full-system numbers need to be discounted for the issue with route 32 short turns that I discussed above.)

So what about those capital costs? That’s where it starts to get sad. Even with very optimistic assumptions about construction costs, and assuming only $350 million per mile of tunnel, the full-build scenario costs nearly $1.8 billion — and let’s be brutally honest, the MBTA is never going to spend that much money on poor brown people in the city. (It doesn’t even want to spend that much money on barely-acceptable-by-European-standards commuter rail service that mainly serves rich white people like me.) That would be $19,240 per passenger. Even dropping the tunnel doesn’t help much; assuming you could magick away the on-street car storage and build a reservation down one side of Warren St., that only drops the price by 16%, to just over $1.5 billion. I still think it’s worth doing, but it seems like a really hard slog. (And if you could actually get nearly $2 billion for Roxbury and Dorchester, again you’d probably be better off building a new bored-tunnel subway that wouldn’t need to line up with the street layout.)

But the two easiest cases I have to make would be for restoring the E Line to Arborway (eliminating the 39 bus entirely) and building the F Line. I put a bit more effort into breaking these out, because the numbers look quite favorable (although I’m not convinced they’d pass an equity analysis). Both of these projects have significant unknowns: for the E Line, it’s the cost of making the existing E Line stops fully accessible, and for the F Line, it’s the cost of rehabilitating the Tremont St. Tunnel, making Boylston Station accessible, and reopening the old portal. I don’t have a good idea what these would cost, although the accessibility improvements are already in various long-term plans. Beyond these unknowns, I also assumed the use of new Type 9 LRVs — if the MBTA actually committed to doing either project in a reasonable time (which is much sooner than they are capable of deciding to tie their shoelaces at present) then they could just tack on a few more cars to the existing Type 9 order being built by Spain’s CAF (and assembled in New York State), which is a cost that we do actually know. On that basis, I estimated the surface parts of the F-Dudley at $122.4 million, or $7,600 per passenger per weekday, and the E-Arborway at a slightly higher $115.2 million ($9,930 per passenger). These numbers seem a lot more reasonable, but still difficult to get FTA funding for.

You can see all of these numbers and the formulas used to calculate them on the “Summary” tab of my spreadsheet. That’s all I have time for now, so I’m going to put this project aside and go back to thinking about Regional Rail.

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Updating my MBTA Commuter Rail modeling for the Worcester Line

On Friday, the MBTA quietly released the results of its 2018 in-person passenger counts. I’ve been waiting for this numbers since I started modeling service on the Framingham/Worcester Line last fall, and apparently everyone else has been waiting for them since late spring. I first learned about the release on Saturday, when I saw a retweet by an advocacy organization of a Friday tweet by Laurel Paget-Seekins of the MBTA’s Office of Performance Management and Innovation, and of course I had to take a look at the numbers and rerun my ridership model. The new figures represent a 40+% increase in F/W ridership over 2012, and include the effects of the “Heart to Hub” morning superexpress and the opening of the very popular Boston Landing station in Brighton.

My model is a kind of static demand model: it simply maps the existing ridership onto a new schedule, without any consideration for whether the attractiveness of the schedule would induce more ridership, or indeed for constraints like connecting bus schedules and parking availability at stations that might limit the willingness of riders to alter their schedules. The Rail Vision program is running a dynamic model that hopes to address some of these issues, and indicate where investments in first-mile facilities are necessary to maximize ridership. But with the new figures, I wanted to rerun the analysis I did last year and figure out what the passenger loading looks like when mapped onto an all-electric system with single-level articulated EMUs.

My preferred schedule from last time around involved running two different service patterns: an all-local short-turn pattern in shoulder, reverse peak, and midday, and a zone-express pattern in peak, with four trains per hour (two Worcester local, two Framingham local) middays and eight trains per hour (four Worcester express and four Framingham local) in morning peak. (I don’t model the PM peak, but it’s more spread out so the morning rush is the stronger scheduling constraint.) I demonstrated that this schedule can be operated with 24 75-meter, 260-passenger articulated EMUs using no more than two EMUs in a consist. With 2018 ridership, even at 8 trains per hour, there are two express trips that absolutely require three EMUs, because we don’t want to have more than 120 standees on the non-stop segment from West Natick to Boston. The problem with running “triples” is that Yawkey station, which discharges about a hundred passengers from every train in AM peak, is substandard and lacks the real estate to platform a 750-foot train. But suppose you resolved that, either by erecting signs at all stations directing Yawkey passengers to the front two cars, or (at considerable expense) lengthening the platform: does that open up any additional scheduling possibilities?

More specifically, does allowing three-EMU consists yield a lower overall equipment requirement if you slightly reduce the service frequency? I constructed a service model that runs only six trains per hour in the morning rather than eight: such a service might conceivably reduce the vehicle requirement. (I did not redo the original equipment schedule for the new ridership numbers, but I’m assuming based on the increased traffic that it will require around 30 EMUs.) The unfortunate result of the simulation is that this doesn’t help: as soon as you reduce frequency in the peak, you start requiring four-EMU consists, which are just plain impossible (they would require 1,000-foot platforms). It’s worth noting that the Rail Vision team are not planning for anything better than four trains per hour, which locks them into either extending platforms for using exclusively bilevel equipment — the former is expensive and the latter is a bad choice for passenger comfort, convenience, and speed of boarding, especially with our 48-inch high-level platforms.

What if, instead of 260 seats per train, you could get 290 seats per train? It seems plausible that an 80-m EMU (about 267 feet) — which is the longest practical single-unit length for the MBTA’s 800-foot platforms — could hold that many (figure 5 m of additional length gives you six rows of 3+2 seating for 30 more seats). So what if you take the same ridership estimates and distribute them over larger EMUs? In that case, the “6/6/4” schedule works out quite well, requiring only 26 EMUs and providing at least 50 open seats on every train to allow for ridership increases — and you still have the option of increasing frequency back to 8 trains per hour, which works given the constraints of the line. (I checked: there aren’t enough additional seats to get you back down to two-EMU consists; there really are that many more passengers.)

Just to review the major constraints: I assume full electrification and two full high platforms at every station; Alon Levy’s operating schedule for fast, light EMUs like the Stadler FLIRT; turnaround times of at least 12 minutes at each terminal; and no more than the currently available overnight layover space. Alon’s schedule requires some additional superelevation, but this is a relatively small expense compared to construction of catenary and high platforms. I assume that some midday layover space is available, although the schedule is flexible with respect to which end of the route that layover space is at. (Having some midday layover space in Boston makes it easier to ramp up for PM peak; obviously, you could also run the same service level all day, although this would result in unfavorable headlines in the Herald.) I assume that trains can follow each other with three minutes’ separation, although the proposed schedule provides somewhat more. Finally, I assume that the traffic doesn’t demand a counter-peak express service: this is important because the schedule assumes that westbound Framingham trains can lead westbound Worcester trains, which only works if both branches run local service in the reverse commute.

In developing the equipment schedule, I planned for the line to be operated with two distinct fleets of identical EMUs — one set of “Worcester” cars and separate set of “Framingham” cars — although the equipment can be swapped around at will when not in service. An actual operating service would have the same cars operating Providence and Fairmount service, so spares could be pooled and vehicles could easily be rotated through the network for preventive maintenance and washing.

All of the updated model run results, as well as the new ridership data and my spreadsheet showing the schedule, is available in my GitHub repository. This specific version of the printed spreadsheet contains the results described in this post (except for the 8/8/4 equipment schedule).

The Rail Vision Advisory Committee and the MBTA board have both expressed interest in service plans that allow for phased implementation. With that in mind, I’m going to put at least an evening’s worth of effort into scheduling a service that runs electric local service from Framingham and diesel expresses from Worcester. That’s in preparation for the real challenge, which is to figure out what the Providence Line looks like, with its challenging mix of Amtrak and MBTA service plus the single-track Stoughton branch. But first, I have to tweetstorm my notes from today’s board meeting — after some exercise.

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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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