Weekend excursion: Stations of the B&A/MBTA Worcester Line

In the past few months, the MBTA has announced emergency closures of two commuter-rail stations, and emergency construction (without closure) on a third. The most recent station to be closed due to unsafe conditions was the Providence Line station at South Attleborough—which I visited a year and a half ago and noted then was in extremely rough shape, despite being only 30ish years old. (All of the structures at South Attleboro were built new for the Amtrak Northeast Corridor Improvement Project to extend electrification north from New Haven to Boston.) I remembered that all of the stations on the outer Worcester Line, except for Worcester Union Station, were built new when the line was re-extended from Framingham to Worcester as a part of Big Dig mitigation—which means that those stations are only a decade newer than South Attleborough. And considering that Winchester Center, on the Lowell Line, was closed for safety reasons before I ever managed to see it, I thought I would get out of the house for a change and take some pictures of commuter rail stations before they are closed for safety reasons, starting with the line that serves my home town.

Obviously, with two-hour headways on the weekend train schedule, there was no way I could do this while actually taking the train, so I instead drove. This allowed me to visit a couple of station sites that are no longer served; when service to Worcester was resumed, the MBTA built huge new park-and-ride stations and abandoned the historic downtown stations in Ashland and Westborough, despite these being much denser and more activity-rich areas. In Westborough it’s easy enough to understand why: the railroad runs through downtown Westborough on an embankment; the historic station is far from a cross street and the MBTA would have had to build a great deal of vertical circulation to get passengers between the station and the westbound platform. The historic stations on this line are part of a group of stations designed for the Boston & Albany Railroad by the firm of famed Boston architect Henry Hobson Richardson, although some were completed by Richardson’s former partners after his death, and some were designed in-house by the railroad in the same style. The surviving Richardson(ian) stations include Wellesley Farms (gutted), Wellesley Hills (converted to a restaurant), Framingham (converted to a restaurant), Ashland (converted to a medical practice), and Westborough (converted to a civil engineering firm); other such stations survive on the B&A’s Highland Branch (today’s MBTA Green Line “D” branch).

I chose not to go to Worcester Union Station, since that would involve going into a city and finding parking, and even on a Sunday I was loath to do that during the pandemic. I started in Grafton and went as far east as Newtonville, the easternmost station outside of Boston on the line; I expect to do the two new-build stations in Boston at a later date. Along the way, I was passed by two trains: first, the Lake Shore Limited in Westborough, and then a regular eastbound MBTA train in Auburndale. (There were several other trains over the course of the four hours I was driving around, including a CSX freight, but I was not actually in a station for any of them.)

Rather than duplicate the photos on WordPress, you can see the full gallery in my SmugMug portfolio. (Ignore the meaningless “BA” tag on all the photos; it’s an interoperability bug between Adobe and SmugMug.)

Overall thoughts: the vertical circulation ranges from terrible (Westborough, Ashland, all three Newton stations) to nonexistent (all three Wellesley stations, West Natick). The only station with good vert. circ. is Framingham, with its two elevators, and even the stairs there are corroded in places (although in better condition than most of the others); pity they couldn’t have built full high platforms when they put the elevators in. Honorable mentions to Grafton, the only new-build station where the station site has favorable topography for the ramp system, and West Natick, which at least has nice new departure displays even if you have to walk a quarter mile down the platform to get to the mini-highs. (Coincidentally, West Natick is the most recently renovated station on the line.) Hopefully the replacement for the Boden Lane bridge will allow for better vertical circulation at the station end of the platforms there. The three stations in Newton are irretrievably awful, and it’s difficult to fathom why anyone would voluntarily use these stations; luckily, they are all planned to be reconstructed with at least one full-length high platform (hopefully two) and better vertical circulation within the next six years, and the Transportation Bond Bill includes enough state money to do the job.

It’s tough to know what to do about Wellesley. Wellesley Square serves a walkable downtown, with promises of some multifamily residential development in the future. Wellesley Hills less so, but it’s still better than any of the stations on the Fitchburg Line in Weston. Wellesley Farms is not easy to get to, although it does have a great deal of parking, and it’s not really clear to me that its 270 boardings a day in 2018 really justify much investment (even if there is money in the bond bill for it). On the other hand, the parking lot is at the west end of the platforms, so adding a ramp system there would seem like a no-brainer for both safety and passenger convenience, and if you’re going to do that, you have to build full-high platforms, mini-highs are no longer considered adequate. (None of the Wellesley stations are accessible at all at the moment, and the MBTA’s unwillingness to spend money on vertical circulation at less-busy stations likely has a great deal to do with that.)

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