My comments on Rail Vision

I attended the meeting of the Rail Vision Advisory Committee on Wednesday, and summarized what I saw in an interminable Twitter thread, which I’m not going to repeat here. After writing all that, I spent another few hours composing an email to MassDOT’s Manager of Transit Planning, the only person whose name is given on the official Rail Vision web site summarizing my further comments (beyond what I said during the public-comment period at the meeting proper). Since I have no idea how or if any of my comments will make it into the public record, I’m posting most of what I wrote here (edited for formatting):


First, a few process concerns.

I signed up a month or two ago for “Rail Vision”-related email. I did not receive any notice of this meeting, or indeed about any other Rail Vision activities. There was no agenda mailed out that I saw; I only found out what was going to be discussed by continually refreshing mbta.com until the event listing started showing more information.

The project web site does not identify who the members of the Advisory Committee are nor their affiliations. This made it particularly difficult when I was writing up my notes this evening as many of the speakers did not identify themselves. It seems pretty fundamental for any public body, even if a mere Advisory Committee, to have a public membership list so that members of the public who attend the meeting know who is being represented.

From the agenda, it appears that you were discussing something today you called the “Tier 1 Evaluation”, which again does not seem to be public — the committee members were complaining about not having had enough time to read the documents and there’s again nothing on the official project web site. This makes it very difficult for members of the public to determine whether there is any value in attending the meeting or what particular issues they should raise with the people who represent their interests on the committee.

My overall response, despite these process concerns, is that I’m cautiously optimistic, based on the comments I heard from all the committee members today, but I am somewhat concerned that you may be, in the words of the great architect Daniel Burnham, “making small plans”. Given that the rail system is going to require a substantial public investment, it is absolutely vital that this “vision” be a truly forward-looking one, a world-class rail system for our world-class city — we the taxpayers are going to have to be convinced to pay for it, and minor tinkering around the edges while traffic and service get worse for a decade or more is not going to do that. Ask for the best system you can justify, independent of resource constraints, and if we have to make some compromises to pay for it, make sure taxpayers, legislators, and the governor know that we’re settling for less than what we deserve.

As I said at the meeting, the one way forward that actually addresses all of the committee members’ goals — which should be everyone’s goals — of fast, frequent, reliable, all-day, bidirectional rail service, is system-wide electrification with fast, lightweight Electric Multiple Units. The very least we should aspire to is “at least as good as Helsinki”, and given that the Boston-Providence CMSA has five times the population of metropolitan Helsinki (and very similar population densities in the suburbs) this really shouldn’t be that great an ask.

A few of my own notes, a little bit disorganized because I’m extracting them from the longer tweetstorm about what the committee members said:

  • [The speaker] draws the natural conclusion that what we really want is high-frequency service on *all* lines across the board. (Compare regionalrail.net or my own proposal for a revised service standard. People talking like barely-adequate 2 trains/hr would be a huge win!)
  • What’s a “vision”? Whether you call it “aspirational”, “ambitious”, or “barely adequate by the standards of small European cities”…
  • There was a lot of talk specifically about growth in and service to the 495/MetroWest corridor, perhaps because many of the committee members are from that area. I actually spent all of Veterans Day weekend researching and writing a specific proposal for this region, where I personally have lived for 17 years. The project should include in its universe of possible service expansions initiating service at least as far as Marlborough on the Agricultural Branch. See the publication list below for more information and motivation.
  • Even if Wellesley doesn’t “deserve” better service [because it’s not creating enough new housing], it may be better for both operations and for riders if the service is more uniform and the same high frequencies are provided everywhere. [My own proposal, see below, runs 8 tph peak on the line, mostly following the current zone-express pattern with 4-tph Worcester trains running express and 4-tph Framingham short-turn/Northborough/Clinton trains running local. Obviously EMUs, double-tracking, and full high-level platforms required.]
  • In response to Josh at T4MA: (Sorry, Josh, we don’t need a bar car, we need to shave half an hour off your commute from Worcester.) In all seriousness, bar cars — any distinct type of coach, especially a non-powered coach — is Bad with a capital “B”. Save those for the east-west intercity service. With only minimal upgrades, the proper EMUs should be able to cut the Worcester express’s running time to 50 minutes, while still serving all stations within Boston city limits. This then eliminates the need for the terrible “Heart to Hub” service and regularizes rush-hour schedules for the entire line.
  • Josh also calls for “flexible trainsets”: this is really an argument for modern, long (75 to 80 meter, 250 to 267 foot) articulated EMUs — not something 1850s-rail-car-sized like the Metro-North EMUs. Then you’re adding/subtracting passenger capacity in units of 250-400 passengers (depending on design and fraction of standees) rather than 160-passenger coaches. This also means you can easily, quickly, and safely make and break consists on the platform to ramp capacity up and down as needed.
  • Mike from Beverly brings up a great point about reliability targets: if, like many commuter rail commuters, you have to make a connection to another MBTA service, then suddenly you don’t have 90% reliability any more, you have 81% reliability, or even worse. (God forbid you have to get from Lowell to Logan Airport — a two-connection commute would be only 73% reliable and you’ll probably be fired for tardiness after the first month.)

While my comments were mostly in agreement with former Secretary Aloisi’s statement, I wanted to disagree with him on one point (which I didn’t raise at the meeting for time reasons): as a Framingham resident, I don’t support the concept of A/B testing service patterns with EMUs on the Providence Line and diesels on the Worcester Line. To get the track capacity required for the level of service we want and deserve, you need the power and acceleration that only EMUs give you. However, Sec. Aloisi is absolutely right on the need for Allston Viaduct mitigation, and I have argued and will continue to argue that this is an ideal demonstration environment for hybrid battery EMUs.

The gap between Yawkey and Boston Landing, during the Allston construction, is too long for a train to coast through, especially considering that the low clearances at Beacon St. will prevent energizing catenary there until all the bi-levels are gone from the South Side. A battery system with sufficient capacity to power the EMU at reduced speed for the 2½ miles from Yawkey to Boston Landing would not add too much to the weight of the vehicle — and such a vehicle would also have operational benefits elsewhere, during service disruptions and construction projects where catenary must be de-energized.

(By contrast, diesel multiple units, like the diesel FLIRT Fort Worth is buying, and which I was previously fairly high on, have a poor power-to-weight ratio and physically cannot accelerate fast enough for the close stop spacing on this line. However, DMUs purchased as part of the same family of rolling stock with EMUs have potential for short-term expansions of service in applications like East-West Rail, Worcester-centered service on the Pan Am and the Providence & Worcester, early implementation on the Old Colony lines, capeFLYER, and service to Nashua.)


I followed this up with an index to my long-form writing and analysis on this subject, which you all have presumably read because it’s all been posted here on the blog. (Any newcomers: welcome! Please be aware that my thinking has evolved as I’ve done more research into these issues and talked with some experts, so the most recent posts are more reflective of my current views than older posts.)

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