Weekend excursion: Stations of the Fitchburg Line

Attention conservation notice: 3,900 words about passenger stations on a railroad you probably don’t ride in a city where you don’t live, with embedded rants about the conservatism of railroaders and the necessity of integrating service planning with capital construction and vehicle procurement.

I continued my series of visits to MBTA commuter rail stations the weekend of March 6–7 with the Fitchburg Line. I chose this line for a couple of reasons: first, it’s the second-closest to me, after the Worcester Line which runs only a mile from my home; second, the MBTA decided to close the inner part of the line completely for two months, “while passenger volume is light due to the pandemic”, in order to accelerate installation of Automatic Train Control equipment, which is required by federal regulations. (The T was able to meet the December 31, 2020, federal deadline for installing Positive Train Control by getting a waiver from the FRA allowing it to operate PTC without ATC on the North Side commuter lines for two years.) Additionally, two of the line’s nineteen stations had service suspended due to low ridership and lack of disabled access as a part of pandemic-related service cuts, and I wanted to see what those stations actually looked like while they were still reasonably intact. (We’ll see what “intact” turned out to mean in a little bit.)

As with last weekend’s tour of the Worcester Line, I did not go into The City to photograph the Zone 1A stations, and as with last weekend, I am publishing the photographs separately in a gallery on my SmugMug site. Feel free to middle-click that link to see what I’m talking about in the rest of the commentary.

The Fitchburg Line is a very strange bird and I Have Thoughts. It serves some of the wealthiest suburbs of Boston, including the tony suburbs of Belmont, Weston, and Lincoln, along with working-class cities like Fitchburg and Leominster at the very far end of the line. Before the pandemic, a number of distinct service patterns were operated, including short-turn local trains between Boston and Littleton, express trains that ran non-stop between South Acton and Porter Square, and local trains that skipped neither, one, or both of the now-closed low-patronage stops in Weston. The regular local train making all stops was scheduled to take 104 minutes between North Station and Wachusett. The line includes both the absolute newest MBTA station of any kind (the aforementioned Wachusett), as well as one of the oldest (Silver Hill, in existence since 1844). Of the nineteen stops, nine are completely inaccessible (100% low platforms or indeed no platforms at all), six more have low-level platforms with short “mini-high” platforms to make them nominally accessible (although not acceptable by current standards), and the four recently-built (or reconstructed) stations have actual full-length high-level platforms.

The two stations in Belmont, “Belmont” and “Waverley”, have surprisingly low passenger counts (based on the 2018 CTPS manual counts). Both of these stations have extensive local bus service, but the stations are assigned to the extremely expensive “zone 1”, which costs $6.50 a trip, as compared with the $2.40 “zone 1A” fare (same as the subway). In a rational fare structure, these fares would be equal, and some subset of passengers would shift from the bus to the train to get into Boston. This is one example among several illustrating the need for an integrated planning approach: these stations are currently entirely inaccessible, and the investments required to bring them up to compliance are substantial, but when they only serve 200 round-trips a day, it’s very difficult to justify the expense. But as a part of a Regional Rail approach, with frequent service and fare integration, these could be among the busiest stations on the Fitchburg Line, and would easily justify the capital investments required to make them fully part of the rail network. Waverley station itself is in deteriorating condition and will require investment soon to stabilize the concrete stairs, which should be viewed as an opportunity to make the station accessible and move it to zone 1A.

Waltham is the next community outbound from Belmont. It used to have four stations, of which two survive (and only one of which is located in the same place, sort of). Waltham has the last significant stretch of (non-station) single-track on the line, and from looking at the aerials and the two ends on the ground, I have no clear idea why — it seems to be a two-track railbed that is just running single-track to make frequent service impossible. Perhaps they found that there were dynamic envelope constraints such that running a single track in the middle of the railbed would allow trains to maintain somewhat higher speeds? The eastern end of the single-track section is in a relatively dense mixed-use neighborhood which includes many residences, the Waltham District Court, and some big-box stores, as well as a lumberyard; it’s located under the US 20 overpass, which carries the busy and slow #70 bus. Waltham Lumber sits on both sides of the interlocking, and stores some of its inventory on the platform of the former Beaver Brook station, which was closed in 1978. Again, under a Regional Rail model with fare integration and frequent service, this station would make all the sense in the world to restore (with full-length high platforms and elevators to new bus stops on the overpass) if for no other reason than to improve conditions for riders of the #70 in Waltham and Watertown. It’s also a sensible place to put a station to queue traffic for the single-track section: if you’re going to have frequent service, you’re going to end up with trains waiting at the interlocking, and you might as well have a station there. (A similar logic applies to the proposed South Salem station on the Eastern Route: having stations on either side of a single-track bottleneck helps regulate the traffic flow and maintain the published schedule.)

The west end of the single-track is actually within the limits of Waltham station, and I totally don’t understand why it was built the way it was. Waltham is the third-busiest suburban station on the line, after only South Acton and Littleton. The inbound side of the station is located on the single-track section, between Moody and and Elm Streets, which it crosses at grade; the outbound side of the station is located west of Moody Street, along and on the same side of the single track, and the interlocking where the line resumes double-track is within the outbound station limits. West of the outbound station, the right-of-way is four tracks wide, of which three tracks partially remain. The section of track where the inbound station is located used to be double-tracked, and there is still an old interlocking tower that used to control the old Watertown Branch (abandoned in 2007 and since demolished), so it’s not at all clear to me why the neckdown is located west of Moody and not east of Elm Street, where there is clearly enough R-o-W.

Of course neither station has a full-length high platform, or indeed a full-length platform of any kind; both sides have mini-high platforms, and both are considerably shorter than the MBTA’s standard of 800 feet. (More words about that below.) The sensible thing to do, from my perspective, would be to shift the interlocking east of Elm St., double-track through the current inbound station, and build a new center platform west of Moody with a direct ramp down to street level for access. This might require shifting the outbound track north a few feet to avoid taking 121 Moody, but would provide full accessibility and would eliminate the current situation where trains stopping at the station foul the grade crossing. (The line has published clearances of AAR Plate E all the way from Boston to Littleton, so even if there were any freight customers left — and there appear not to be — they wouldn’t be any worse off.)

Brandeis/Roberts station, the second active station in Waltham, serves its namesake university, as well as a suburban office park and an apartment complex. It has a significant parking lot, and served 370 daily boardings back in 2018 — most inbound but a significant minority outbound. It is perhaps the most “normal” station on the line: two parallel, full-length, low-level, side platforms with mini-highs for accessibility. It is built on a curve, like many of the Fitchburg Line stations, but there is no obvious constraint here other than cost why this couldn’t be a full high-platform station with safe crossings.

Next come the three stations in Weston, and I use the word “stations” advisedly. As I mentioned at the beginning, two of these stations — Hastings, with 18 daily boardings, and Silver Hill, with 11 — have been closed since January as a part of the MBTA’s COVID-19 service cutbacks. Hastings isn’t even a station at all: it’s just a grade crossing where some trains can be flagged down, and passengers board and alight in the middle of the street between the crossing gates. Silver Hill is a cute old station built into an open cut, with an under-length low-level platform accessed by a single wooden stair. Both of the closed stations are served by only a fraction of local trains, are entirely inaccessible, cannot practically be made accessible, would not be worth making accessible, and any honest equity analysis that considered solely the increased trip times resulting from having even a flag stop at these stations for passengers from farther out, as balanced against making two dozen rich people drive an extra mile to Kendal Green, would favor permanent closure of these stations — and so I said in written testimony to the MBTA board, to encourage them to resist calls for “complete restoration” of the old service in response to the next federal bailout. Once closed, they can never be opened again, since the multi-million-dollar capital investment required to make them accessible will never be justified.

Kendal Green itself is an interesting story. It has a single, short, low-level platform with a tiny asphalt pad for inbound passengers to cross the active outbound track and board. In fact, a number of the stations from here out to Shirley require inbound riders to stand between tracks on asphalt pads to board, which is both dangerous and slow, although at least Lincoln has multiple boarding pads for riders. Kendal Green had the highest pre-pandemic ridership of the three Weston stations, which makes sense considering that it also has the most parking: 110 passengers, nearly all of them inbound. (There is a surprising number of inbound alightings in the 2018 data; this station is the closest of the three to the office park in Weston but not that close.) The parking for the station is town-owned and permitted; it’s located east of and across the street from the historic station building, along a road that ultimately leads to the a landscaping supply company and the town dump transfer station.

Kendal Green, despite its low current ridership and location in a rich suburb with anti-housing zoning laws, has potential that I believe justifies additional capital investment, as I explained in additional comments to the MBTA board. Specifically, the station should be relocated east of the Church St. grade crossing onto the property of the landscape supply company, with full-length high platforms and a ramp connecting to the Mass Central Rail Trail. The MCRT connects to a senior living facility just a quarter mile away, two office parks within half a mile, and the Bear Hill section of Waltham with its numerous residential and commercial developments is within a mile, a reasonable distance for station-centered bikeshare. The existing bridge over the line is in unsafe condition and closed to foot traffic; since it needs to be replaced anyway, the same project could also provide vertical circulation for the relocated station to avoid unsafe at-grade track crossings.

This issue of substandard platforms keeps on coming up on this line, and I used the occasion of my board comments to suggest that railroad management (both the MBTA’s and everywhere else in the US) is extremely conservative, and will make up nonsense excuses in order to avoid changing anything ever. In particular, they will often cite “operational flexibility” as a reason for certain design standards that have the effect of making station improvements impossibly expensive, when they can’t fall back on NFPA 130 to justify overbuilding. The MBTA’s standard for new station construction requires 800-foot platforms, which only make sense in the context of infrequent locomotive-hauled trains that have to be nine coaches long because when trains are infrequent you get 1,200 people squeezing on to a single train. But if the MBTA is serious about Regional Rail, then their standards should be adapted to that service model, which means you’re running 250- or 300-foot EMUs or DMUs for your base level of service, and in peak periods you just add more trains — and when you can’t add more trains, then you’re coupling two 250-foot vehicles together. There are a lot more places you can fit a 500-foot platform than an 800-foot platform! (Like between Moody and Elm Streets in Waltham Center.) Just making that one decision about the type of vehicle you’re going to run suddenly makes all of your station construction cheaper, because you don’t need to acquire more land or modify bridge abutments to serve all your passengers. That in turn drives up productivity, because once you commit to shorter trains and a single platform height for an entire line, you no longer need conductors and can redeploy those people as train operators or fare inspectors.

Another “flexibility” excuse is related to the MBTA’s continued foot-dragging on retiring its functionally obsolete locomotive-hauled coach fleet. Again, the “flexibility” is a false excuse; the real flexibility, as well as substantial savings in operating costs, would be to standardize on articulated multiple-unit vehicles, as I have emphasized repeatedly in these pages and in comments to the FMCB over the past three years. In particular, since there is real doubt as to the T’s ability to execute an electrification program in the time required, the agency should move now to procure a combination of EMUs and DMUs from the same manufacturer and family, with DMUs to be delivered first and an option to convert the DMUs to EMUs at their mid-life overhaul. All of the major carbuilders have such families — if you’ve been reading this for any time at all, you’ll know that I’m partial to the Stadler FLIRT series — and can build them in the US for “Buy America” compliance. Making this move now has numerous benefits:

  • It makes an early commitment to a particular vehicle type and capacity, which allows stations and maintenance facilities to be upgraded to meet a specific requirement for a specific service model, and not some abstract future need.
  • It ensures commonality of maintenance procedures, operator training, and spare parts supplies.
  • It allows the T to procure a single engineering services contract to oversee the production, delivery, and testing of both diesel and electric trains.
  • It allows the T to immediately (upon delivery of the first DMUs) redeploy the trainsets currently in use on the Old Colony lines and the coaches ordered for South Coast Rail onto other parts of the network, providing for timely retirement of obsolete equipment even before the system is fully electrified.
  • With the conversion option, it ensures that the T is not investing in diesel equipment that will have to be retired before its economic end-of-life to meet the Commonwealth’s and the nation’s climate commitments.

Now with that not-really-a-digression out of the way, let’s continue onward to Lincoln. The Lincoln station, like Waltham, has staggered platforms separated by a grade crossing — in the case, Lincoln Road. It’s located in the town’s commercial district, and is connected to a sizeable town-owned parking lot. Unlike Waltham, Lincoln station is totally inaccessible, without even mini-highs, and even worse, both platforms serve only the outbound track, with inbound riders (some 270 of them, mostly in the AM peak) required to stand in the middle of the outbound track on asphalt pads to board. I do not believe there is any real barrier to fixing this station: the outbound platform should be relocated to the west side of the grade crossing, with a ramp down to street level, and the length of the outbound platform extended to whatever is ultimately determined appropriate for the service model.

Concord and West Concord are both challenges. West Concord at least has mini-highs, but eliminating the mid-platform grade crossings at either station would greatly interfere with pedestrian circulation or require obtrusive vertical circulation structures in the middle of a popular, historic business district. In both cases there is also a concern that the station buildings are too close to the tracks and would require a narrow high platform that would not meet safety or accessibility requirements. My best alternative would be to add mini-highs at Concord, settle on a new multiple-unit train design, and then pin precast steps atop the existing platforms to match the door openings on the cars.

South Acton and Littleton, as I mentioned above, are the two busiest stations on the line, and both are modern stations with full-length high-level platforms surrounded by oceans of parking and without any walkable local destinations. (The Assabet River Rail Trail does not redeem the otherwise intensely car-oriented nature of South Acton.) In a frequent Regional Rail service model, with four or more trains per hour, I would advocate restoring service to West Acton, which is a pedestrian-compatible business district about halfway between South Acton and Littleton/495. (Less frequent trains from the outer end of the line could skip the stop.) There is already a universal crossover just east of Littleton/495 specifically to allow for short-turn operations, and given the distribution of potential rail destinations along the line, and the absence of freight service, it makes sense for the “frequent service” territory to extend to Littleton but not farther out where conflicts would arise with Pan Am operations. Littleton/495 was where I ended my travels on Saturday, as the sun was setting and I needed to get back home.

On Sunday afternoon, I started out at the historic B&M station in Littleton, a familiar site to the many bicyclists who ride the “Harvard to Harvard” and similar intermediate-distance road-bike routes. The old station is now occupied by an antique stove restorer, and it is just beyond the easternmost freight siding remaining on the entire line (although by all accounts that customer no longer receives any regular rail freight). My first current station stop was at Ayer, which is smack in the middle of the wye junction between the east-west Pan Am Southern freight main line and Pan Am’s north-south Worcester Main Line. The Fitchburg Line branches from the PAS freight main at Willows, two miles to the east, and everywhere from Willows west, passenger trains must share the tracks with freight even on the MBTA-owned sections of the railroad from Ayer to downtown Fitchburg.

As you might imagine, Ayer station is pretty dreadful. The local economic development commission and the regional transit authority are working to make the general surroundings of the station a bit more pleasant for passengers (and for connections to the nearby Nashua River Rail Trail). It has only low-level platforms and requires passengers to cross the active freight main line at grade. It’s not unfixable: there’s enough room between Depot Square (the actual depot is long gone) and the tracks to shift passenger service north, closer to the station, and add a high-level platform, although not nearly a full-length one, with some changes to a freight branch interlocking just west of the current platforms. There was some funding for this (albeit expressed more vaguely) in the Transportation Bond Bill that passed back in January. Only 275 passengers a day used the station in 2018.

After Ayer comes Shirley, which barely has a platform, although there’s plenty of room to add two; the line runs on a low berm between two parallel roads, with a parking lot on the south side east of the cute little shelter. It looks as if the platform used to be longer, but then a ramp was added to get to the shelter blocking part of it (although if you need the ramp there’s no way you would be able to board the train anyway). Because this part of the line is advertised as AAR “Plate F+” clearance, there are issues with the freight railroads (Pan Am and Norfolk Southern) in terms of providing high platforms without causing clearance problems. I think the only way out here is some sort of extendable gap fillers at the platform that would be triggered by passenger trains, which is a pretty tough investment to justify for 150 passengers a day. (The other alternative would be a gauntlet track, which would make the line effectively single-track for freight.)

The last three stations on the line, North Leominster, Fitchburg, and Wachusett, were all substantially expanded or constructed new since 2010 and largely funded under the 2009 Recovery Act. North Leominster is on a tall berm, surrounded by development on both sides, and immediately east of an overpass; construction here included a large parking garage adjacent to the inbound platform. Because the station was substantially modified, mini-high platforms were added, but because it sits on the two-track freight main line, even the mini-highs are apparently regularly hit and damaged by passing trains — making full-length high platforms a serious challenge. As with Shirley, the only options here appear to be movable gap fillers or a capacity-sapping gauntlet track. North Leominster has the additional issue of requiring more vertical circulation to provide access to a high outbound platform, as the current design requires passengers to cross the active tracks at grade. (This could most easily be provided via the top floor of the parking garage, which already has elevators and stairs, so it’s much less of an expense than if an entirely new crossover had to be constructed.)

Fitchburg station, which was the western terminus of the line until 2016, has its own separate, bidirectional passenger track, but despite this, has only a mini-high for accessibility. The remainder of the full-length platform is low. Fitchburg has a very large parking garage, which it shares with a MART bus hub and Fitchburg State University, all part of a complex of buildings fronting Main Street on the eastern end of downtown Fitchburg. Despite this apparently favorable location, Fitchburg only served 290 passengers a day in the 2018 study — some of whom were parking at Wachusett and taking the train one stop. It seems likely that a faster and more frequent train with more competitive pricing would attract more ridership. (Current pricing is $4.00 for parking and $12.25 for the zone 8 fare to Porter or North Station, as compared to $3.00 to park at Alewife and $2.40 for subway fare, and outside of rush hours, driving is almost certainly faster as well.)

Finally, we come to Wachusett. As befits the very newest station on the entire MBTA system, it is enormous, is completely accessible, and has a single full-length high platform. It’s also surrounded by an ocean of parking and far from any meaningful local destinations; it’s in the far southwest corner of the city of Fitchburg on the border with Westminster, just off the Route 2 freeway. The 2018 manual counts — conducted just two years after the station opened — found only 132 daily riders. Like at Fitchburg, trains platform at Wachusett by way of a single-track bidirectional siding, so passenger trains do not foul the freight main (which west of Fitchburg station is owned and dispatched by Pan Am Southern). There is a separate layover facility in Westminster, about ¾ mile west of the station siding, with six tracks to store all of a typical AM peak’s inbound consists.

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