Weekend excursion: Stations of the Greenbush line

Well, after two very opinionated posts about the two next-nearest MBTA rail lines to me, what could I say about the Greenbush Line? Turns out, there isn’t very much to say. The Greenbush Line is, strictly speaking, the newest MBTA Commuter Rail line to open, as a part of the state’s Central Artery/Tunnel Project mitigation commitments. It was delayed by NIMBYs in the tony South Shore communities it passes through, especially Hingham, which insisted on construction of an unnecessary tunnel where the line had passed through the historic downtown at grade. Cohasset demanded a rail-trail conversion for a former branch line to the Hingham Naval Ammunition Depot Annex. I’m not sure what if anything Braintree or Weymouth got, other than some enormous parking lots and brand-new rail stations.

Because the Greenbush Line is so new, and none of the original Old Colony Railroad stations still existed or were in the right place for an auto-oriented, 9-to-5-commuter park-and-ride service, all of the stations are entirely new construction and fully accessible, with a single full-length high-level platform. Other than East Braintree/Weymouth Landing, the stations are far from any significant residential or commercial development, just an ocean of parking in the middle of the woods by the side of the tracks. (Greenbush, the terminus, is instead in a commercial/industrial area; the station and overnight layover facility are co-located.) East Braintree, by contrast, has a significant amount of transit-oriented development, although it too has an ocean of parking. A couple of the larger parking lots at least have solar canopies — why doesn’t the MBTA develop these at every parking lot with a southerly exposure?

You can see the pictures at my SmugMug gallery.

Usually at this point I would have a few thousand words about “what is to be done”. But because the Greenbush (and the other Old Colony lines) is so new, there isn’t a whole lot on the agenda in terms of maintenance, and the stations are already fully accessible. The three branches are unquestionably last on the list for any sort of major capital investments, especially after South Coast Rail Phase 1 extends the Middleborough Line to New Bedford and Fall River. So that’s the end of it, right?

Hold on.

The Greenbush Line and its Old Colony sisters (Kingston and Middleborough/South Coast) do not need any capital investment, but the MBTA’s rolling stock does. Right now, the Old Colony lines require a significant amount of the MBTA’s most modern rolling stock, because the line is operated with remote door release — the only lines where that’s practical because they are the only lines where every single station has a full-length high-level platform. That means that their productivity is higher (conductors are not required to open doors or operate traps for low-platform stops), but it also means that they are already prepared for modern rolling stock, once the T finally manages to buy some.

I go back and forth on diesel multiple units (DMUs). Yes, they still burn diesel, and they don’t have the power or acceleration of an electric multiple unit (EMU), even from the same manufacturer and product family. (Compare the Fort Worth diesel FLIRT, at 1050 kW, with the nearly-identical Helsinki class Sm5 electric FLIRT at 2200 kW.) But if your alternative is buying more locomotive-hauled coaches, and locomotives, because you can’t install electrification before your current rolling stock reaches the end of its service life, then DMUs look more attractive — especially if you can buy DMUs and EMUs from the same family, with an option to convert diesel to electric during the normal midlife overhaul.

Since the Greenbush and Kingston lines are probably the last to be electrified in any plausible scenario, that suggests a plan of action: order DMUs and EMUs together, with the DMUs to be delivered first, and put them into service on the Old Colony. Take the coaches that were ordered for South Coast Rail along with all the coaches and locomotives heretofore being used on Old Colony service and shift them to the rest of the system, retiring the poorest-condition locomotives and coaches. This gets you productivity improvements on the rest of the system as you install high platforms, and further reduces the number of conductors required. By the time the DMUs are fifteen years old, electrification work should have progressed far enough to retire the last of the locomotive-hauled coach fleet and consider converting the DMUs to EMUs or finding another agency to buy and overhaul them.

(Longer term, the electrification probably needs to be paired with resolving the Dorchester bottleneck — a single-track section of the line parallel to I-93 and the Red Line which limits the possibility for future frequency improvements. Rail Vision assumed that the Greenbush and Kingston lines would terminate in Quincy or Braintree for most scenarios due to the cost involved, if 15-minute headways were to be provided.)

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