A further examination of the Agricultural Branch for Regional Rail

About a month ago, I posted the most recent of several posts about using the former Agricultural Branch Railroad, the CSX-owned freight line which runs from Framingham to Clinton, for passenger service under Regional Rail. I made a Google Maps overlay with the route and most of the station locations shown; see the previous link for it. One frustration I had was that, since there is no existing passenger service, there are obviously no passenger counts, and I certainly have no budget to commission survey research to find out who would take such a service, nor which employers would be likely to offer employee shuttles to rail stations. I didn’t even have a good idea what the employment picture was like in the area, other than in Framingham where I live. I had seen some anecdotal evidence that the I-495 corridor is a whopper, employment-wise, but Dell EMC is a major employer and they’re in Hopkinton, south of the Worcester Main Line. And I’m no GIS nerd so I didn’t have a set of geospatially indexed databases ready to hand.

Doing a few quick Google searches, however, I was able to find two timely and extraordinarily usable data sources. The Missouri Census Data Center‘s Circular Area Profiles tool takes geographical coordinates and a radius and resamples the American Community Survey (2012–17) data to generate a broad and informative demographic profile of the people living within the circle so described. (The original census data is reported by blocks and block groups, which are designed to line up with political and physical boundaries rather than abstract geometric figures.) And in the same mode, the Census Bureau’s own Center for Economic Studies produced a fabulous interactive web app, OnTheMap, which provides data on employment from the LEHD Origin-Destination Employment Statistics 2015 data set for arbitrary geographies — and even better for my purposes, because the data set includes origin-destination pairs, it can actually answer questions like “how many people live within walking distance of point A and work within walking distance of point B”. (Both of these tools have important caveats relating to sampling error, especially at small radii, and a more GIS-informed analysis would use more sophisticated tools that took into account actual travel times on the existing roads and sidewalks rather than an arbitrary radius. Maybe someone can ask CTPS to do a real study?)

I’ve used this data to put together another slide deck. Since this presentation is heavily illustrated with Google Maps aerial photos, which I don’t actually have the rights to, I can’t release it under a liberal license for other people to give presentations from, but you’re welcome to download it, read it, and show it to other people.

Some of the key takeaways:

  • There are far more jobs in the corridor than there are people to fill them: the MetroWest/495 region is a net importer of labor — and many of the people who live in the region don’t work there.
  • With the “full build” program, comprising four phases (Framingham yard and stations; Southborough, Marlborough/495, Northborough Center, Northborough/290; Clinton; infill stations at Mt. Wayte Ave., Marlborough Jct., and Berlin/Boylston), 7,000 workers and 20,000 jobs are within walking distance of a station.
  • 79,000 jobs and 52,000 workers live within two miles (reasonable park-and-ride or corporate shuttle distance).
  • 4,650 people work within two miles of a station and live within walking distance of the Framingham Line, Orange Line, Red Line, or SL1 bus — it can be expected that nearly all of these people are currently car commuters. That’s an extraordinary reverse-commute potential, and could be significantly expanded with Regional Rail service to the region.
  • In the more traditional direction, 9,300 people live within two miles of a station and work within walking distance of the other services. These numbers would be even higher after accounting for other potential bus transfers, like the CT2 to Kendall.
  • The biggest proposed stations for residences within walking distance are Clinton (3,800), Framingham State (3,700), and Mt. Wayte Ave. (2,400) — all urban stations. For suburban small towns, Northborough and Southborough both come in respectably, at 1,700 and 1,100, respectively.
  • By far the biggest job center by walking distance is Framingham Technology Park, at over 8,000, but if you consider that most will take corporate shuttles from the station and expand the radius to two miles, that number jumps up to 16,000. It’s difficult to directly compare stations at this radius because none of the stations are more than four miles apart, so most of the commutersheds overlap in one or two directions, but the full set at this distance is worth looking at: Clinton, 4,750; Berlin/Boylston, 775; Northborough/290, 8,125; Northborough Center, 5,450; Marlborough/495, 20,800; Marlborough Jct., 12,200; Southborough, 16,500; FSU/Salem End Rd., 17,050; Mt. Wayte Ave., 25,000. (Note that all of Framingham’s CBD is within two miles of the Mt. Wayte Ave. station site, but most of them would find South Framingham a more convenient station; about 1,000 jobs are within walking distance.)
  • I estimated the “not to exceed” cost for full build at about $490 million, mostly by looking at the aerial photos and making some semi-educated guesses about what things cost. Notably, this accounts for neither the cost of acquiring the line from CSX nor potential benefits from PPPs at some station locations with high development potential, nor does it include the cost of rolling stock. This is a bit pessimistic compared to my previous post, primarily driven by an estimate of $10 million per mile for catenary, trackbed improvements, double tracking, switches, and signals. Some additional costs for RoW and station site acquisition are expected.

UPDATE: I went and drove as much of the route as is possible today, paying particular attention to the station sites. Marlborough Jct. has an aggregate mill that probably ships by rail and would need to be taken and replaced with more appropriate development. The Ken’s Foods “Corporate Headquarters” shown by Google Maps is actually a salad-dressing factory and receives tank cars (corn syrup?), but this use is probably compatible with the station if an island platform is used, but the second track here would be quite tight. Northborough Center could host a full-length platform by dead-ending Pierce St. Finally, I concluded that Northborough/290 station should actually be north of I-290, with access from Whitney St. — land use on that side of the freeway is more favorable for the sort of interceptor P&R that I envisioned, and no additional highway construction would be required to handle the traffic.

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5 Responses to A further examination of the Agricultural Branch for Regional Rail

  1. There was a study done on Northborough commuter rail by Boston MPO back in 2002, more recent than the much older study you had access to. It’s not archived online anywhere, so you’ll have to request a copy. See here: http://www.ctps.org/archived_studies. Presumably this document would have actual station locations with ridership projections in it.

    The line is officially called the Fitchburg Secondary, and the daily freight job is CSX B724. Runs M-F midday to Northborough or Sterling, continuing T/Th to Leominster. On Leominster days they usually outlaw the train for the night at Clinton then come back the next morning to get back to Framingham. Active customers on the line are Safety Kleen, Marlboro Jct.; Mass Container, Marlboro; Ken’s Foods, Marlboro; NewCorr, Northborough; Bestway Lumber, Sterling; Teknor Apex, Leominster; misc. yard deliveries, Leominster. There are a number of other sidings for former customers, but CSX isn’t all that interested in attracting new business on a smallish local. Despite that, business is long-term stable out to Bestway in Sterling. Leominster is quickly drying up and the town is hostile to CSX, so decent chance the last 6 miles of track past Bestway end up getting abandoned in the next 10-12 years. But that’s not a consequential stretch for commuter rail considerations, as it’s too close to the Fitchburg Line’s catchment and MRTA buses up/down MA 12 that drop off at North Leominster. The connection to the Fitchburg Line was abandoned in 1988 by Conrail, but is still owned as “railbanked” by CSX so they can collect rent on power lines along the ROW.

    None of the customers on the line take Plate F freight cars (the ones that can’t pass a full-high platform cleanly), so there should be no restrictions imposed by the freight like there currently is at mini-high exempted Ashland, Southborough, Westborough, and Grafton stations on the Worcester Line.

    Note that at Clinton there is a disused junction–still railed–pointing southbound to the Pan Am Railways Worcester Branch. The state is rumored to be buying the Worcester Branch from Pan Am by year’s end or Q1 2019 because CSX also has rights on it and frequently butts heads with Pan Am about very poor maintenance on the line. The feeling is mutual amongst that crowd that MassDOT would be better off being the peacemaker as landlord. It would be possible to turn south at Clinton and run direct to Worcester Union Station with stops near Oakdale (MA 140/I-190), Greendale/Burncoat (MA 12/I-190) by the Worcester/West Boylston city line, and Worcester Union on the disused west-side platforms.

    The Worcester-north wraparound could work as a second phase of the extension, and give it additional utility as a Worcester reverse-commute service. You could even run it as a shuttle that ‘sweeps’ the whole north circuit to Worcester Line transfers if the curviness of the route chews too much time for a Boston direct. Or have it run limited/express instead of local inbound of Framingham to make up for time.

    Just keep in mind that the Worcester Branch in all likelihood cannot be electrified as it will be carrying double-stack freight trains between Worcester and Portland in another several years, and thus if you desire the whole Framingham-Worcester ‘circuit’ you’re probably not electrifying the Fitchburg Secondary either. It takes +2’6″ over an unshielded car roof to hang 25 kV wire, double-stacks are 20’6″, and finding 23′ is just not going to be doable here. There’s always going to be a few diesel outliers that are either further back in the electrification priority because of lower utilization or excess route miles requiring pricey second 25 kV substations, as well as some like this instance where the clearance blockers are brutal solves. As long as they’re the 25-30% exceptions to systemwide schedules that are 70-75% EMU, it’s all good.


    RE: some points in your previous article…

    — It is possible to create a freight passing track immediately behind the Framingham westbound platform for getting wide-load freights around the station such that you can construct a full-high platform on the east wye and raise the existing platforms. That would not affect the parking area at all.

    — MassDOT has discussed with CSX in the past a price for acquiring North Yard for redevelopment, and moving all ops to the inactive CP Yard to the south. CSX’s asking price was pretty high and the state was obligated to put up some “Pimp My Yard” funding for renovating CP Yard. Nothing came of it, but that was nearly 8 years ago. Removal of North Yard would allow all of the reconfiguring space you need for getting a full-length platform (MBTA design spec is 800 ft., not 600).

    — There is a 40+ years disused connecting track between CP Yard and the Framingham Secondary, still with rails on it buried in the weeds. It is not abandoned just carrying an Out-of-Service designation, so this *is* what it’ll be because it’s rebuildable in-place with just FRA notice and no local bellyaching. ROW is traceable on Google, close to your northerly Maps drawing: splitting buildings (between Andersen Cycle Works and Peartree Office Furniture) on Tripp St., crossing Loring Dr. and Irving St., extant bridge over Beaverdam Brook, and junction with the Framingham Sec. northbound next to A-1 Auto Parts. Reactivation of that track and creation of a southbound wye on the other side of A-1 would allow for abandonment of the CP Yard lead track and elimination of the western MA 135, southern MA 126, Waushakum St., and Claffin St. grade crossings. The state and CSX will never allow a cut of the Framingham Sec. because both CSX and the T (who now get to use it for non-revenue moves) need straight-shot access to the branch without meandering through a yard, so that won’t happen. But the yard lead can go away, and take with it more total crossing eliminations than the alternative. The new yard setup would allow all Walpole-bound freights to depart from CP Yard, and yard functions can be rejiggered to minimize the number of moves across the downtown grade crossings to get between westerly Nevins Yard and CP Yard. At the very least, all such moves over the grade crossings could be stacked to the off-peak…and number of total Route 135 crossings would remain considerably lower than 10 years ago when the former autorack facility was still operating out of CP.

    — For the FSU stop, note that it is going to be mandatory to eliminate the MA 9 grade crossing: https://goo.gl/maps/JVTkXWdSgNM2. That is the single-busiest highway in the state with a RR grade crossing on it, and there’s no way that is kosher for passenger traffic. The reason why it was not eliminated eons ago is that the junction with the old Framingham & Lowell Branch (abandoned 2004) was only about 500 ft. north of the crossing, blocking a changing of the railbed grades. You’ll need to build up an embankment for a 16 ft. tall highway bridge ascending at preferably 1% to at most 1.5% grade. That’s almost certainly going to mean a second overpass of Salem End Rd. Could affect your station placement. Or could mean station straddles above Salem End atop the embankment. This is probably the biggest above-and-beyond infrastructure cost of the whole build, but it’s definitely not optional.

    • Thanks for your very detailed comments. Yes, I was thinking about the possibility of looping back from Clinton on the PAR line to Worcester after writing that presentation; although I didn’t talk much about it, Worcester is the biggest single origin and destination for most of the station catchments I studied, and those people are not going to take an inbound to Framingham, wait outside for ten minutes, change platforms, and then spend another 15 minutes heading outbound on the branch.

      Pretty much everyone seems quite clear that electrification is mandatory for the sort of service the region requires, and there was actually consensus at the Rail Vision meeting that further diesel expansion should not be studied. As far as the Worcester underpasses go: just run an isolated, grounded section of catenary and let EMUs coast through at speed.

      • Oh, I just realized that you were talking about the PAR Worcester Branch there, misread your original comment. Given the heavy passenger loads on the Worcester Main I wonder to what extent, during construction or even full-time, a Worcester-North Station via Clinton and Ayer route would actually get decent ridership (particularly with the Red Line connection at Porter for better access to Kendall)

    • As far as North Yard goes, I think with the increased interest in TOD in downtown Framingham, there is pretty good potential that the relocation project could pay for itself over the medium term with the land freed up for development — and in the shorter term, passenger traffic on the Worcester Line is parking-limited now, so adding more commuter parking is likely beneficial.

  2. Framingham-Clinton-Worcester was indeed what I was referring to. The Clinton-Ayer segment is not suitable for regular passenger traffic because Hill Yard in Ayer right by the Fitchburg Line junction is so insanely busy that anything resembling halfway-dense schedules is going to have too difficult a time finding passage. I know Tim Murray went all ga-ga about that route possibility when he was Lt. Gov., but travel times would be impractically long from the Fitchburg Line direction even if the junction + yard weren’t nutty. Any passenger potential on this branch is strictly limited to the 15 miles between Clinton Jct. and Worcester Union, fed from the CSX Fitchburg Sec.

    The one angle that may make the Worcester bend an attractive reach is that the whole line is probably going to get so thoroughly upgraded for freight that the additional cost for running passenger service won’t be that high. Pan Am is widely expected to be broken up, as their sole owner/shareholder is getting on in years and has no family in the business to pass it onto. Pan Am Southern, the 50/50 joint-venture with Norfolk Southern for the Mechanicville, NY to Ayer, MA mainline, is his golden parachute when Norfolk Southern inevitably buys out the other 50% to go head-to-head with CSX for New England intermodal. That’ll make the partitioned remains of the rest of the business a primarily Worcester-Portland mainline more exclusively reliant on that Worcester-Ayer route (though more via longer/taller trains than any significant schedule expansion). Any midsize-or-bigger regional RR worth its salt would’ve demanded speeds of Class 3 (40 MPH freight/60 MPH passenger) on a route like that…not the 10-25 MPH garbage stick PAR has everywhere that Amtrak or the T aren’t paying the way. Providence & Worcester does 40 MPH on its twin Worcester-Providence and Worcester-Groton mainlines, and New England Central does 40 MPH on its New London to Vermont main. Whoever inherits the PAR main is going to–with MassDOT’s support–be running up the speed bigtime as competitive necessity.

    The Fitchburg Secondary is fine-and-dandy forever at Class 1 (10 MPH) for a lowly CSX local and thus is going to require a heaping ton of upgrading to get to commuter rail standard Class 4 (60 MPH freight/80 MPH passenger). But by the time you get the base build as far as Clinton, the Worcester Branch is already going to be capable of 60 MPH passenger traffic. +1 more track class, signal system installation, passing tracks at station stops are all that’s required.

    Obviously you can’t project today what PAR may do tomorrow, but keep in pocket the events that might be in motion here. If the capital costs get lowered that significantly, do stops south of Clinton towards Worcester that might have been a mild reach before start looking more attractive? Or is there a threshold of reverse-commute demand in Greater Worcester that’s going to be breached where it’s time for a Phase II extension?

    RE: electrification. I count about a dozen bridges south of Clinton, plus the hospital tunnel in Worcester. UglyBridges.com probably has stats on them to gauge whether 23′ is feasible, though NBI stats don’t take into account the rail centerline clearances that are the only ones that truly matter…so, guesstimation necessary on where they’re really measuring when the figures are close. At least where the tracks are close to the reservoir, railbeds can’t be undercut…only bridges raised. Coasting also would not work for the hospital overhang because it’s too long.

    I’ve heard coasting bandied about as some sort of cure-all for systemwide electrification, but it’s not going to be anywhere near that easy. The big torture test for no-exceptions systemwide electrification is going to be the outer Haverhill Line…on this same PAR Portland main that runs north of Worcester. The Lawrence street grid and the I-495 Merrimack River bridge complex are big, hard blockers to finding 23′ (with the 495 ramps also being too sprawled for coasting). If it can be done there, it can be done anywhere…but expectations for complete systemwide EMU hegemony happening sooner than later will have to be tempered if there’s a cost & construction disruption blowout in Lawrence-N. Andover pushing it back in the queue for more time and money. T doesn’t have many lines where that’s an issue, but I hope the few places where the fixes do pose some immediate problems of resource intensity that “perfect is the enemy of good”-ism isn’t overly limiting the array of options.

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