Three Reasons the Commonwealth Needs to Commit to Regional Rail Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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