Weekend excursion: Stations of the Needham Line

This is the first of three posts about MBTA commuter-rail stations I went to see on the weekend of March 13–14: on Saturday I saw all of the Needham and Greenbush lines, and then on Sunday I saw nearly all of the Franklin Line. (My travels Sunday were interrupted by an unexpected snow squall that made photography of the last two stations untenable; I’ll get back to them at some point.) As with previous Weekend Excursions, I am deliberately avoiding the inner “zone 1A” stations, which are generally associated with busy subway stations, until the pandemic is over, so on the Needham Line I did not go all the way to Forest Hills, but I did see all of the other stations, and my photos are once again on my SmugMug site, which you might want to open in another tab to flip back and forth with this essay.

The Needham Line is actually a combination of fragments of two older lines, the nineteenth-century Charles River Branch Railroad, which ran from Newton Highlands to Medway and points west, and the early-1900s Needham Cut-off, which connected Forest Hills with the modern-day Needham Junction. The Cut-off reduced the travel time on the Charles River Railroad, which had used trackage rights over the Boston & Albany’s Highland Branch to reach Boston, by substituting a straighter and flatter route connecting to Boston over the New Haven Railroad’s Shore Line. A full wye junction at Needham Junction allowed commuter service in Needham to be provided via Cut-off, and passenger service was eliminated north of Needham Heights. The connection to the Highland Branch was severed when the MTA (as was) took over the Highland Branch from the B&A and made it the Riverside Line, and the section of line in Newton was eventually abandoned after losing its last freight customers; more recently, the Newton section has been rail-trailed as the Upper Falls Greenway. The remaining section in Needham is still intact, but the original Charles River Branch Railroad was always a single-track line there and in Newton. (I can remember when I moved to Boston in the 1990s the Newton section still had freight sidings connected, although the grade crossings were exempt and I never saw any evidence of traffic on the rails. The bridge over Route 128 connecting the Newton and Needham sections was demolished in the 2010s as a part of widening the highway.)

East of Needham Junction, the line was historically double-tracked, except for the bridge over the Charles River and associated wetlands, and a few narrow gaps in West Roxbury. (See Vansnhookenraggen’s track map.) The second track was lifted at some point, long enough ago that all of the stations and most of the overpasses are single-track-only; I haven’t been able to find out exactly when this happened. It’s clear that some of the stations were extended out onto the trackbed of the old second track, either to provide additional platform length (as I wrote about the Fitchburg Line, the T has been relatively inflexible about requiring 800-foot platforms so they can run infrequent 8-coach trains) or clearance for a mini-high platform. Unlike the Worcester and Fitchburg lines, all of the stations on the Needham Line have a mini-high for accessibility, although because of station layouts it is frequently very far up the platform from the actual station location.

Southwest of Needham Junction, the MBTA owned but never operated the remaining branch line to Millis and beyond, and this has now been rail-trailed through Dover and Needham to a point just south of the switch controlling that branch; although the wye proper is still in place it’s clearly not long for this world. There is a private business (a tree service) in the infield of the wye, but it does not receive rail freight, nor do any other businesses along the line; and freight sidings have been taken up in places where they once existed, except just south of Needham Heights, which the MBTA uses as a layover facility for the line. North of Needham Heights, track remains but grade crossings have been removed as far as Gould St., where the line used to pass north of the WCVB-TV (channel 5) studios before crossing Route 128.

The question then arises: what should be done with this line? The platforms are in terrible shape (except for the mini-highs), and will require some capital investment soon. The platforms are also much longer than would be necessary for operating frequent service with self-propelled vehicles of some kind. The single-tracking limits the frequencies that the line can support, and the grade crossings and station sites in Needham limit the choice of mode. There’s a substantial desire for better service, and regular subway fares, in West Roxbury and Roslindale, and people have batted around various options for as long as I can remember. A significant challenge is that all of the possible options require very similar, but incompatible, capital investments; doing any one of them would preclude any other type of service for thirty years or more. Most of these options would also involve closing the line for several years in order to construct new stations, signals, and power, as well as rebuild the trackbed. The most popular option would require full grade-crossing elimination in Needham, as well as significant construction of vertical circulation, which I believe to be a non-starter for both political and cost reasons. Any option that involves significant construction in the Charles River wetlands or adjacent parkland is likely to run into significant environmental objections, although it’s my hope that electrification alone, if done sensitively, would not.

So what are the options? I assume that doing nothing is not a real option, because the platforms are deteriorating and we can’t keep on burning diesel fuel, but people in Needham are rich and politically powerful, as well as attached to “their” train service. The Regional Rail model is appealing: frequent service every 15 minutes is feasible with electric propulsion, and the full implementation would put at least all of the West Roxbury stops into the subway fare zone, because they are no farther away from downtown Boston than Riverside or Braintree. Many activists in Boston have been asking for an Orange Line extension, which would provide a single-fare ride to most of the MBTA network as well as a single-seat ride to downtown Boston, but has a bunch of baggage that would mean this option likely ends service in Needham entirely. Other people have advocated for extending the Green Line along the now-abandoned segment through Newton to serve Needham; I myself have advocated all three of these options at various times. Sticking with mainline-rail technologies, but modernizing the equipment to allow faster and more frequent trips is an option, too, but has some of the same issues. And this is a line that serves 3,300 people a day — even being optimistic and assuming that a more frequent service could serve 10,000 people a day, mostly in West Roxbury, how much spending is that really worth? The interstation distance on this line is relatively short (most of the stations are within ¾ mile of at least one of their neighbors), as is the line itself, so even modern fast-accelerating trains can’t shave much time off the schedule. (In my simulations, the long interstation between Hersey and West Roxbury is the only place where a train even gets to 50 mi/h, and you would really like to have another station or two in that stretch. Having all level boarding helps much more by reducing dwell times, although this is complicated by the need to wait for signal clearance on the largely single-track parts of the line.)

A summary of the benefits and impediments for each of these alternatives:

Status quo
Station conditions will have to be addressed, do not want to throw good money after bad. Current service is much worse than it could be. Diesel locomotives and locomotive-hauled coaches are obsolete. Maintains existing direct service to Back Bay and South Station, at a very large cost in capacity on the Providence Line due to crossing movements for inbound trains at Forest Hills. High fares keep people from driving and parking in Needham just to use the commuter rail.
Regional Rail
Requires high-level platforms and substantial structures for vertical circulation. Some station locations will require substantial property takings if double-tracking is to be restored in West Roxbury. Frequent all-day service with integrated fares reduces need for parallel bus services. Environmental processing for 25-kV electrification infrastructure in Needham and crossing the Charles River likely to be difficult. Same issues with Providence Line capacity unless trains terminate at Forest Hills, as has been proposed by Rail Vision and others.
Orange Line extension
Requires complete grade separation (due to third-rail electrification) and fare control, which may necessitate relocating stations and is definitely the most expensive option. Extremely unpopular in Needham and would require substantial property takings north of Needham Junction to double-track and grade-separate the line, likely resulting in ending service to the town, or else an expensive bored tunnel with stations in different locations. Line would be closed for several years for construction.
Green Line extension
Requires a politically unpopular retaking of the Upper Falls Greenway and likely property on either side, and an expensive new viaduct over Route 128. While this preserves a one-seat ride to Longwood and the Back Bay, it is a much slower trip (why the Needham Cut-off was built in the first place). Capacity of the Green Line’s Central Tunnel is limited, and addition of a fifth branch would worsen schedule adherence significantly, unless frequencies were dropped on the outer Riverside to compensate. On the plus side, no new vehicles or maintenance facilities would be required (other than the Type 10 LRVs that have not been ordered yet), and additional stops could be added in Newton serving the Needham St. area, which is rapidly transforming. Probably only makes sense in conjunction with an Orange Line extension to West Roxbury, making that option even more expensive, but preserves some service to Needham. Only modest platform raising, no grade separations and only limited additional vertical circulation (12-foot ramps vs. 45-foot ramps for Orange Line or 48-foot ramps for high-platform mainline rail).
Regional Rail model with low-floor DMU/EMU
This would be my preferred option — requiring only modest platform raising, much less obtrusive vertical circulation, and largely compatible with the existing infrastructure (signals, grade crossings, PTC/ATC, maintenance facilities) — but there’s one huge drawback, though: the MBTA doesn’t operate any of this sort of equipment and never has. (The Budd RDCs are closest but not low-floor and they’ve been gone from the fleet for decades now, so there are no parts and no maintenance expertise.) Otherwise, I would be telling the T to call up Trinity Metro and ask if they can lease one or two of the TEXRail DMUs (a diesel version of my favorite Regional Rail train, the Stadler FLIRT) for a pilot. This still has the issues with building 25-kV electrification infrastructure through Needham Center, once you ultimately get EMUs rather than DMUs, but the issue of maintaining a tiny fleet of low-floor EMUs in addition to the larger fleet of high-floor EMUs remains. A new low-platform stop would have to be constructed at Forest Hills. (Note that low-floor mainline trains are still higher-platform than LRVs, 600 mm above the rail rather than 300 mm, so the ramps required would be roughly twice as long.)

So now that I’ve dismissed all of the alternatives as inadequate, too expensive for the possible audience, politically impractical, or too different an equipment type in too small a fleet for the T to effectively maintain, have I left any other options on the table?

Yes. Yes I have.

After looking at all of the stations in context, staring at aerial photos and track maps, and thinking about land use, I am convinced that the right option is in fact light rail. But not a Green Line extension, which is impractical for the reasons I described above; rather, a direct substitution of light rail for the existing mainline rail service between Forest Hills and Needham Heights, with added stops at Baker St./VFW Parkway, Millennium Park, and Gould St. This offers all of the advantages of the Regional Rail solution, with the same service pattern, but uses equipment the T already is planning to buy and maintain, is incrementally constructable, and is much cheaper to build — commensurate to the expected ridership. It would require building slightly raised platforms, but these platforms would be compatible with the existing legacy service, allowing for incremental construction before the new vehicles are delivered, and the low platforms require only short ramps for accessibility. Existing pedestrian and vehicular grade crossings could largely be maintained, and platforms shortened to only 250 feet, greatly reducing the distance patrons (especially wheelchair users) are required to walk to board and alight. (Why extend all the way to Gould St.? First, to preserve future options for extending into Newton. Second, and more importantly, because there is a big assisted-living facility/nursing home on Gould St. next to the right-of-way and it would be well served by a station.)

This does still require installation of overhead power, but the structures for light-rail catenary, designed for low voltages and a maximum speed of 50 mi/h, are much less obtrusive and require less clearance than what you have to build for mainline electrification at 25 kilovolts AC. Even crossing Cutler Park and the Charles River is not likely to be a problem for 750-volt DC catenary, and it would be actually practical through Needham Center, without requiring significant land takings. It does require construction of a new platform at Forest Hills with internal vertical circulation to access the Orange Line, and it also requires a separate maintenance facility, like the Mattapan Line has, because the line won’t have a track connection to the Green Line — I would put this either in the Rivermoor Industrial Park, south of Millennium Park and near the existing terminus of the 36 bus, or beyond the proposed Gould Street station, next to the WCVB-TV studios and Muzi Motors. (The latter’s oceans of asphalt and low-rise buildings should be a high-priority target for redevelopment anyway.)

You might ask whether this is an actual improvement. The MBTA hasn’t chosen a proposal yet for the new Type 10 Green Line vehicle, so we don’t know what their performance characteristics are, but I picked a random LRV that’s already used in North America (the Siemens S200 used in Calgary) and plugged its parameters into my simulator. With the two infill stops, at Millennium Park and VFW/Baker, Needham LRT still beats the existing diesel train between Forest Hills and Needham Heights by a whole eight minutes (20 minutes vs. 31), meaning that even with the forced transfer to the Orange Line, someone going to Longwood or Back Bay would not end up any worse off (and they’d pay a lot less). Without any investment in double-tracking, this schedule works for 5 trains per hour (12-minute headways), with a cycle time of exactly an hour, so it would require 6 trains:
A stringline diagram showing an hour's service at 5tph

If the second track is restored through West Roxbury to Millennium Park, you could double frequency on the Boston segment, which would be nearly equal to Orange Line service, cost far less, and be constructible incrementally, without cutting off the Needham end of the line.

This is yet another example of how deciding what service model you want to operate then determines what your capital program should look like. Here’s my vision for the incremental capital improvements to make this a reality:

  1. Acquire purchase options on Prime Auto Body and Muzi Motors properties.
  2. Start environmental review process, including alternatives analysis for maintenance facility location and infill stations.
  3. Add eight cars to Type 10 order.
  4. Start design and permitting on overhead electrification, infill stations, and maintenance facilities.
  5. Start platform reconstruction, raising platforms to 360 mm and making sure that pedestrian grade crossings are at least 275 feet apart (250-foot platform plus 12-foot ramp on either side); add ramps as required.
  6. (All of the above are no-/low-regrets investments; the platform work needs to be done anyway and you might as well only do it once.)
  7. Design new Green Line-compatible signal system, or else figure out how to fit mainline cab signals and ACSES to a Type 10 LRV.
  8. Assuming positive environmental review, start construction of maintenance facilities, infill stations, signals, and catenary.
  9. Close the line for the summer to test vehicles and signals (the only step that requires a full line closure, because the new platforms and catenary are geometrically compatible with existing rolling stock).
  10. Open the converted line to passengers.

That’s what you do with the Needham Line to get from 3,300 to 10,000 passengers a day.

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2 Responses to Weekend excursion: Stations of the Needham Line

  1. Patrick says:

    I love it. It’s surprising that light rail would save time between Needham and Forest Hills, but it makes sense once you’ve laid it out.

    Two additional considerations:
    – A large number of Needham lone passengers disembark at South Station. Replacing commuter rail with subway service between Forest Hills and South Station requires a transfer and increases the trip time from a scheduled 13 minutes to 26. What are your thoughts on adding a stop at Forest Hill to either the Providence/Stoughton or Franklin lines, each of which currently pass through without stopping?

    • I believe hat most Regional Rail plans call for all Providence trains to stop at FH for precisely this reason. In fact, the new Spring schedule will add a stop there for some Providence trains because the last Needham train of the day will not serve South Station.

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