Restoring passenger service to the Agricultural Branch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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