My comments on passenger rail infrastructure to MassDOT

The comment period for the State Rail Plan ends on Friday, the advocacy group TransitMatters just released their report on Regional Rail, and MassDOT is currently in the process of two separate planning exercises related to the MBTA and the commuter rail system in particular, in preparation for the next tender for the commuter rail operations contract (currently held by the French firm Keolis). Yesterday evening I sent in my own comments, inspired by the State Rail Plan deadline, but most of what I had to say was outside the State Rail Plan’s scope, so I also sent it to the people responsible for the MBTA planning process. Here’s what I said, edited slightly for formatting.

I was originally going to send this in regard to the State Rail Plan, since the public comment window was recently extended, but on closer review it seems that most of my comments are more usefully directed at the MBTA-specific planning process, since I live in the MBTA district. However, my points 1 and 2 below are intended to reference all passenger rail corridors in the state, not just the MBTA service area, and in particular the Commonwealth should explore opportunities for cooperation with neighboring states and with Amtrak to investigate the application of these principles to the Connecticut River Line and to future Boston-Springfield intercity passenger service.

Unexpectedly, much of what I have to say has been preempted by the release of a report by the advocacy group TransitMatters, which you will have seen already (for the record, “Regional Rail for Metropolitan Boston“, is the report to which I refer). However, I will make some additional comments on subjects that are not addressed in the TransitMatters report.

I have lived in Framingham for 17 years, and for that entire time, I have commuted in a single-occupancy vehicle on the Massachusetts Turnpike to my job in Cambridge. I would prefer to have an alternative that does not involve driving, but the current MBTA commuter rail service is infrequent, slow, unreliable, and more expensive per marginal trip than my commute. During the summer months I will bicycle to work (on approximately 40 good-weather weekdays between May and September); a better commuter rail service with real provision for bicycle users (not limited to off-peak hours) would substantially increase the number of days a bike commute is practical by enabling bike+train round trips.

To put more precise numbers on it, I pay (employer-subsidized) $10 a day to park in Cambridge, and my shoulder-hours SOV commute (10:25 AM and 7:15 PM) takes approximately 35 minutes parking space to parking space. The current MBTA Framingham/Worcester Line service has a long gap in service after 9:30 AM that makes it impractical for my schedule, but even if I shifted my schedule earlier to take train #512 inbound, the actual time cost of the MBTA service (with the necessity of driving to the Framingham station, finding and paying for parking, the train ride to Boston, the transfer penalty, the subway or bus trip to Cambridge, and then walking to my office) would be well more than double my current car commute. (My bicycle commute, 20.8 miles via two different routes, takes approximately 85 minutes, or about as long as the current commuter rail service, at an average speed of 15 mph — but with much greater health benefits.)

I would be willing to consider commuter rail — indeed, I would strongly prefer it — but for the excessive travel time (which is of course compounded by the system’s current widely reported unreliability). A reliable travel time of not more than 70±10 minutes would be easily within consideration, and with properly optimized schedules and full construction of West Station would make it highly attractive for many commuters from the Metro-West area who currently drive to jobs in Cambridge or Boston. I have heard anecdotally that the Commonwealth currently considers demand for access from Metro-West to jobs in Cambridge negligible to the point of not being worth studying, and I would strongly encourage the planning staff to consider this commuting pattern more seriously, as rising housing costs have made living closer to work impractical for many people who would prefer a transit option.

In the spring of 2017, I took a vacation in Helsinki, Finland, where I had occasion to use the rail system there extensively. The rail network around Helsinki, like Boston, is based on a stub-end terminal station (they only have one, unlike Boston’s two, and it’s correspondingly larger in terms of footprint than is possible in congested downtown Boston). However, Helsinki’s regional transport administration, HSL, has implemented an urban and inter-suburban rail network in the “regional rail” style described by the TransitMatters report, with full fare integration and high frequencies, connecting Helsinki Central Station with both historic suburban and exurban downtowns and new neighborhoods of transit-oriented development. HSL also maintains fare integration with intercity passenger rail services that serve nearby metropolitan areas outside the HSL district, so riders within the region can take a suburban train or an unreserved regional train, whichever is more convenient — this should be a model for intercity passenger service in Massachusetts along corridors such as Boston-Worcester-Springfield, which might be operated by a different agency or contractor than the MBTA.

Metropolitan Helsinki has about a third the population of the Boston MSA and is also slightly less dense; it has only one heavy rail subway line, and for surface transit has only street-running tramways, ferries, and private-tender bus services. The population of the whole of Finland is about that of the Boston MSA and is smaller than the Boston-Providence CSA, and Finland has quite high levels of suburban development and car ownership relative to other European countries. Yet Helsinki sustains substantial investment and substantial ridership in its fast, frequent, reliable, and affordable commuter rail system. I wrote a series of blog posts about it when I returned from my trip, which you can refer to here (fares and network structure) and here (suburban rail). Note that the services described in both of those articles have been realigned and in a few cases significantly expanded since I wrote those posts last April.

My specific recommendations, which are generally in accord with those in the TransitMatters report:

  1. The Commonwealth should adopt as a matter of policy a preference for electrification and high-level platforms on all rail routes currently served or contemplated to be served by passenger trains. In some cases this may require additional state investment to maintain compatibility with freight services.
  2. All projects and studies inconsistent with point (1) should be terminated.
  3. In the Boston region, a priority should be placed on electrification of the South Side commuter rail, improving operating costs, schedule reliability, and environmental justice. As funding becomes available, investment should shift to the North Side lines, which will require more infrastructure to be constructed.
  4. Where possible, labor agreements should be sought that limit excess staffing in exchange for acceleration and simultaneous construction of projects along multiple lines, maximizing useful employment of skilled trades.
  5. As TransitMatters notes, the electrification of the Providence Line is nearly complete and should proceed forthwith, as should electrification of the Stoughton and Fairmount Lines, with the existing diesel locomotives and rolling stock shifted to reduce maintenance pressures on other lines.
  6. Although the North-South Rail Link would significantly improve regional connectivity and the overall utility of the rail network, construction of NSRL is by no means a prerequisite to implementing electrification, high-level platforms, and frequent all-day schedules, and these should proceed at the highest priority, given the current capital expenditures which would otherwise be required even to preserve the existing diesel infrastructure, whether or not a funding mechanism for NSRL can be identified.
  7. The Commonwealth should in particular be prepared to self-fund the entire acquisition cost of electric-multiple-unit trainsets in order to buy global best-of-class equipment at competitive market prices, unless the federal government commits to waiving Buy American provisions. Federal capital funding, if available, could still be pursued for track, platform, station accessibility, overhead wire, and substation construction.
  8. Full build of West Station and development of connecting routes to Cambridge (whether bus, light rail, or a shuttle via the Grand Junction branch) and Longwood Medical Area should be accelerated relative to current plans.
  9. With respect to Framingham in particular, in order to support high frequency service between Framingham and Boston it will probably be necessary to have some trains turn or lay over at Framingham. The Commonwealth should study, in conjunction with the City of Framingham and MWRTA, the potential benefits of exending trains along the Agricultural Branch to Framingham State University and possibly to the office-industrial park area at Route 9 and Crossing Blvd. where there is already a park-and-ride lot and numerous employers that could be served by a reverse-commute service.

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1 Response to My comments on passenger rail infrastructure to MassDOT

  1. Gary Wollman says:

    I am often amazed that MA would rather add lanes to existing highways than improve intercity rail. Intercity is energy efficient and less poluting. When run efficiently it competes as a less expensive alternative than driving your own car.

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