Weekend excursion: Stations of the Franklin Line

It’s getting on nine days since I actually did most of this travel, and in the mean time I’ve also seen stations on three other lines (although one of them has historic connections to this one), so I’ll at least try to be a bit brief. (So, um, only 3,000 words.) As always, you can follow along with my photo gallery on SmugMug.

The Franklin Line is a disappointingly underutilized transportation facility. Originally constructed as a mainline railroad, one of several competing for business between Boston and New York, like the others it came under the control of the New York, New Haven and Hartford system. For the New Haven, the line became the Midland Route, providing an alternative to the heavily-used Shore Line (today’s Northeast Corridor) into Connecticut. Nearly all of today’s Franklin Line was originally double- or even triple-tracked, but in the years of railroad decline, culminating in the New Haven’s insolvency and inclusion in the government rescue program that created Conrail, the second track was lifted and overpasses were removed to reduce maintenance costs, resulting in a largely single-tracked line with some passing sidings. In its current configuration, the Franklin Line is unable to support frequent service. In the past few years, the MBTA and its rail operations contractor Keolis began a program to restore the double track to large segments of the line, a few miles at a time, with the stated goal of improving headways to as short as 35 minutes, but this project was put on hold during 2020.

It’s a huge disappointment because over the past decade and a half, more than a thousand housing units have been added within walking distance of the Franklin Line, and likewise tens of thousands of square feet of retail and office space. A more frequent service, with improved, more accessible stations and faster trip times, would be a real boon to the people who chose to move to new apartment buildings in Franklin, Walpole, Norwood, and Dedham. (Even Norfolk is getting into the act, albeit with a small detached-single-family condo development rather than a 200-unit apartment complex.) The MBTA and Keolis should be commended for the new April, 2021, schedule on the line, which will provide 15 hourly trains from South Station to at least Walpole, with most continuing on to Franklin, as well as additional peak-period service. The T really should resume the double-track program and take whatever additional measures are necessary to crank the headways down to 30 minutes rather than 35 — some of which probably involves improving stations to eliminate bottlenecks at inadequate and inaccessible platforms. Closing Plimptonville station, as has been done on a temporary basis, is a step in that direction, but needs to be made permanent, however much I’d hate to strand all 12 people who used the one round-trip a day that stopped there, and is probably a requirement for finishing the restoration of the double track there. In a Regional Rail future where the whole trip from Boston to Forge Park takes only 42 minutes rather than 67 minutes as currently timetabled, it’s conceivable that the long-talked-about restoration of passenger service to Milford might finally make sense.

I started my trip in Franklin at Forge Park/495 station, the current outer end of the line. Unlike most recent MBTA extensions, there’s no overnight layover facility here; constrained layover capacity has apparently been an issue for the MBTA’s Railroad Operations department for many years, going back at least as far as the original extension of the line (which was paid for by National Development, the developer of the nearby industrial park, which also built Dedham Corporate Center/128 station). Like all newer commuter-rail stations, it’s an ocean of parking surrounding a small station building with full-length platforms, although it’s old enough to have those be low-level platforms on both sides of the track, with a single mini-high on the same side as the station house. (The two huge parking lots are on opposite sides of the track, and several pedestrian grade crossings permit crossing the track in case a passenger should forget in which ocean of parking their SUV happens to be sitting.) Just west of the station, the former West Central St. vehicular overpass has been rebuilt as a pedestrian bridge; automatic signal territory ends immediately west of the overpass.

Franklin station, sometimes called “Franklin/Dean” after the local four-year college, is a real frustration. It’s nestled into Franklin’s cute little downtown, within walking distance of Dean College, shops and services, and a new 200-unit apartment complex — but it’s wholly inaccessible. The 2018 manual passenger counts, which were conducted before the apartment complex opened, showed a daily traffic of 630 passengers each way (including a handful who went the short distance between Forge Park and downtown Franklin). Yet, this station was single-tracked in recent memory, as the platform makes painfully obvious: it was clearly extended by removing the outbound track and dumping several yards of hot-mix onto the trackway where that second track used to be. This does mean that it would be ludicrously easy to make the station fully accessible, because the current platform is well away from the station building, and so all the more frustrating that the MBTA has chosen not to do so, given the fact that it serves a significant ridership and an educational institution. Immediately south of the station, the line divides: the old freight mainline was not acquired by the state when purchasing the line from CSX due to environmental cleanup liabilities the state was unwilling to assume after performing due diligence, which held up the sale for a decade, and a single-track branch line to Milford serves the current commuter-rail service. (The remaining freight customers on the branch are served by the Grafton & Upton out of Westborough; the mainline is abandoned about two miles south of the station and has become the Southern New England Trunkline Trail.)

Just north of Franklin station is “FRANK” interlocking and the MBTA’s very limited two-track layover facility, built on a formerly three-track section of the right of way; phase 2 of the double-track project involves extending the double-track from the north end of the layover facility to Norfolk, about 3½ miles. (The theory behind this is that, once the trains have left the layover for the day, the layover tracks can be used for through-running trains.) This is the phase of the project that began in early 2020 and was paused for the pandemic; it’s unknown when work will resume. (The third phase of the project, which was in design when work was halted, will restore the second track between Norwood Central and Walpole, likely with a few gaps, as I’ll note below.)

At Norfolk, we can actually see lots of evidence of the double-track project having gotten started with grubbing and grading on the right-of-way, although no track placement. It’s not clear whether the plans included construction of a proper second platform at the station, although the trackbed is certainly wide enough to support it. The parking situation at Norfolk is a little odd, with most of the parking a very long walk south of the station and up a long set of stairs — I didn’t see the main lot during my trip and was only able to figure out what the long walkway was for by examining the aerial photographs closely. (And at least for now don’t expect to learn much about the double-track project from the aerials, nor likewise about the various recently built apartment buildings — the public aerials are a couple of years out of date.) At the north end of the station is a grade crossing over Rockwood Road, and the completed double-track from phase 1 of the project runs from just north of there to the “WALPOLE WEST” interlocking, at the south end of the former passing siding south of Walpole station.

Walpole itself is a bit of a mess — a historic mess, but a mess nonetheless. The station was built at the diamond crossing of what are now the Franklin Line and the CSX Framingham Secondary, and CSX has a small marshalling yard on the Framingham side of the station to switch trains for industrial customers on the Framingham Secondary and on the Northeast Corridor, some of which are served via the northern Franklin Line from Readville due to access restrictions on the NEC. While the crossing was built as a full diamond, at least one of the wye legs has been lifted, and in a 2010 report, it was reported that the MBTA was operating game-days-only Foxboro special-event service using a backup move because the switch from the southbound Franklin line to Foxboro and Mansfield was not reliable. (This must have been fixed in preparation for the pilot all-day service to Foxboro, because when that service was introduced it was called out specifically as not serving Walpole station.) The station was built on the diamond crossing proper, to serve passengers on both lines, which came under the same Old Colony umbrella in the late 19th century, but passenger service on what is now the Framingham Secondary ended before World War II and is no longer a particular concern. For operational simplicity, Alon Levy suggests moving the station northeast, past Elm Street and closer to downtown Walpole, which would allow for construction of full-length platforms and would not be a significantly more difficult walk for most passengers; this short section of the line is already double-tracked.

Next stop, Plimptonville! Or actually not, since the single daily round-trip that called at the ten-foot asphalt “platform” has been discontinued — hopefully for good. As I mentioned above, in 2018, this sorry excuse for a station, with gravel parking lot the size of two SUVs, served a dozen passengers, which most have been mostly people who lived within walking distance. With the station out of the way, there’s nothing preventing busting up the platform to restore the second track, and once that’s done it can never be reopened because this station can never be made accessible in its present location. Wikipedia says the current platform is ten feet long, which means it doesn’t take much of a braking error on the part of the engineer to entirely miss the mark.

Windsor Gardens, like Plimptonville, is problematic for future service on a double-tracked line. Also like Plimptonville, it serves only local residents — it’s practically a private station, with no formal public access except by train. It was the last stations built before the MBTA took ownership of the line, and serves only the residents of the apartment complex formerly known as Windsor Gardens. (Now called “The Commons at Windsor Gardens” because landlords can’t help but change the names of their properties when they change hands.) Despite the somewhat limited service, more than 250 people used this station in the 2018 counts, and it’s definitely one that is worth keeping, both for the MBTA and as a valuable and exclusive amenity for the landlord. The challenge is how — if it is even possible — to extend the double-track through this section, as the platform (again, like Plimptonville) sits on top of the old southbound trackway, in a fairly narrow section of the right of way. Even making the station accessible is likely to be challenging, although it’s a challenge that absolutely should be taken up — but who is going to pay for it? It seems likely that, in the short term at least, this will remain a single-track station, with a neckdown between two otherwise double-track segments.

Norwood Central brings us back to the “ocean of parking” that’s such a theme of the MBTA Commuter Rail network — although at least there is more high-density residential construction immediately adjacent to the line. The closest large employer, Norwood Hospital, has been closed since a flood in June, 2020, and is not expected to reopen before the end of 2021. At least there’s a solar canopy over part of the parking lot. South of Norwood Central, a couple of apparently active (but very poor condition) freight sidings persist, one of which appears to still be getting freight deliveries, which may help to explain why such a busy station (more than a thousand passengers a day in 2018) has only mini-high platforms; constructing full-length high platforms should be a priority, but the station has the usual problem of requiring expensive vertical circulation structures to allow for full closure of the pedestrian grade crossings (which are incompatible with high-level platforms).

There’s no sign of a depot at Norwood Depot, nor even a junction, but there is more recently-built housing and another very large parking lot. A light-industrial building at the far north end of the platform does show signs of having had boxcar doors at one time, although no other evidence of a historic freight siding remains. The footfall at Norwood Depot is surprisingly low compared to its sibling to the south, under 300 a day in 2018, which is presumably a consequence of its smaller (but still substantial) sea of surrounding parking. Perhaps if the MBTA sold some of that parking to another new residential development, there might be more traffic here. There are very long low-level platforms with mini-highs at the south end, although the mini-highs seem somewhat longer than at many other stations, and surprisingly, have a wood deck rather than concrete. The inbound platform is width-constrained, which will make construction of any vertical circulation difficult; in the mean time, the station limps along with limited pedestrian grade crossings.

Islington is one of two stations in Westwood — the other being the far larger and more accessible Route 128/University Ave. station. Although it’s wedged between Routes 1 and 1A, the station is in a single-family-residential neighborhood, has relatively limited parking, and is likely convenient only to its immediate neighbors. (The parking lot is also in poor condition.) Nonetheless, it did manage to attract more than a hundred daily riders in the 2018 counts despite being skipped by a number of the AM peak trains. (I tried to count the number of different service patterns operated on this line in the 2018 passenger data, and gave up when I got to ten.) Islington is also very close to Dedham Corporate Center, on the other side of Route 128 (the freeway, not the station), which has much more parking, denser neighboring residential development, and easier access, so it’s not surprising that it gets relatively low ridership compared to its nearest “competitors”.

Speaking of which, a sudden snow squall interrupted my tour of the line. When I got out of the car at Dedham Corporate, I found the weather to be unconducive for photography, and went home (after taking a few pictures of the swirling snow in the parking lot). I went back the following Saturday afternoon to finish off the Franklin Line with the two remaining stations. Dedham Corporate of course has the usual ocean of parking, accessed from the East St. exit off Route 128, but on the other side of the tracks, two large chain apartment complexes (an “Avalon” and a “Jefferson”) front the station from across Rustcraft Road. Dedham Corporate Center, the industrial park, is located on the former site of the Rust Craft Greeting Card Company’s factory, once the world’s largest, and had its own station to serve employees; the station was closed due to low traffic in the early MBTA era, and the new station was built in the late 1980s by the developers of the industrial park. The apartment complexes came much later, and the Legacy Place lifestyle center, which is on the other side of the apartment buildings, even later still. When the station was originally built, there was no access from the Rustcraft Road side, and in fact a chain-link fence still blocks access to the platforms, but there is now a “kiss and ride” (signed as such!) and a small opening in the fence about 400 feet south of the drop-off area. (So you can drop someone off at the drop-off but they still have to walk most of the way down the platform before they can actually get into the station.) As at other stations of this age, there are full-length low-level platforms with no tactile warning, with a pair of mini-high platforms at the south end of the station, and pedestrian grade crossings make full-length high platforms difficult to implement, although there is at least plenty of room in the right-of-way to add ramps or elevators at either end of the platforms.

The final stop on our tour of the Franklin Line is Endicott. It’s a very small station, inaccessible, in a low-density residential neighborhood with parking restricted to Dedham residents. Between the parking (which is small but not trivial) and the local residents, this station seems to attract a decent amount of patronage — 250 passengers a day in 2018. It’s also used as a cut-through by the local neighborhood: I saw a family on bicycles use the ramp and grade crossing while I was there taking pictures. Yes, even though the station is not accessible as a station, it still has a ramp to get from street level up to the platform, and even some HP/V restricted parking. What the town of Dedham expects one to do once a wheelchair user gets up onto the platform is unclear, but at least they made the effort. Like with other stations on this line, vertical circulation is the biggest challenge for making the station fully accessible, especially in the middle of a residential neighborhood as it is — neighbors would undoubtedly show up and filibuster any public meeting that proposed making the station properly accessible.

That’s the end of this tour. The next stop on the line is Readville, which is … a thing. I haven’t revisited Readville since my 2019 tour of the low-platform Providence Line stations, and nearly all Franklin Line trips join the Southwest Corridor at Readville, while the historic Midland Route follows the Dorchester Branch, today’s Fairmount Line, into South Station. I did stop by Fairmount station itself, but haven’t seen any of the newly constructed Fairmount Line stations and will delay that until after the pandemic when I can more comfortably do so by transit.

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