Next steps for Regional Rail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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4 Responses to Next steps for Regional Rail

  1. Jacob Paikoff says:

    Great post! Found your blog a couple of weeks ago via Twitter and I really like the way you present your ideas and everything proposed seems doable. For your questions: I would say yes to electrifying the Wildcat Branch. It’s short and provides operations flexibility to separate Reading bound and Haverhill bound trains. I would say do the Stoughton Branch with the Providence line since it would make scheduling easier if all the trains were the same. Needham is probably Green Line like was mentioned on Twitter, as part of that study I think they should also study way to improve the Central Subway or maybe a second way into the city from that direction. Looking forward to reading your next post.

    • The issue with including the Stoughton Line early is that apparently the town has been fighting SCR phase 2, and there’s every reason to think they would fight Regional Rail as well, because the line has multiple grade crossings and more frequent service would inconvenience drivers. Thus, I wouldn’t want to set the project up in a way that Stoughton could hold things up — and the level of investment in the Stoughton Branch stations is likely to be higher if SCR phase 2 follows that route (as opposed to Ari’s Mansfield route or some other option that’s not currently under consideration).

      • Jacob Paikoff says:

        Makes sense. Stoughton has an interesting setup with a street intersecting the platform. My thought process was trying to keep the current slower diesel trains separate from the faster, more frequent regional rail service so they don’t block trains or cause delays. In early regional rail the Stoughton Line could become a shuttle to Canton Junction where it would meet up with main line trains. I actually like Ari’s Mansfield route. Makes almost too much sense to actually happen.

      • The trouble with the Mansfield proposal (which is a lot like one that was considered previously and rejected) is that Mansfield doesn’t like it. So you’re really playing off Stoughton and Mansfield. For what it’s worth, I agree that Mansfield is a better route. The problem with running Stoughton as a shuttle like that is you end up with a huge bolus of passengers transferring at Canton Junction, probably more than the facilities there are prepared to handle, never mind the trains (which would be smaller on a Regional Rail service because more frequent). That suggests that simply running express Canton Jct to Back Bay with the current diesels would provide better service (and still gives a transfer opportunity to local service) until the issue of electrification is settled. I think for RR service to prosper on the Stoughton Branch there’s probably a substantial investment required in double-tracking as well as electrification, which it looks like the RoW could support pretty easily. This may be a situation where you have to suspend the service entirely, reconstruct the line, and maybe build some grade separations at the same time to keep the towns happy.

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