Weekend excursion: Stations of the Eastern Route/MBTA Newburyport Line

Attention conservation notice: another 3,000 words about an MBTA commuter rail line and its stations, which could easily have been 5,000 words if I hadn’t gotten tired of writing and skimped on the exposition towards the end. Already more photos to edit and text to write from subsequent travels.

Once upon a time, there was a railroad called the Eastern Railroad. Its main line ran from Boston to Salem, where it intersected numerous other railroads, and was not long thereafter extended across the Danvers River to Beverly, Newburyport, and ultimately Portsmouth, N.H. Another branch connected the main line to the fishing ports of Gloucester and Rockport on Cape Ann.

Then the Eastern came under control of the Boston & Maine. The B&M already had a route to New Hampshire and ultimately Portland, Maine, by way of Durham and Dover, N.H., and Sanford, Maine. For many years, there was enough traffic to support two parallel mainline railroads, and the B&M’s original route via Dover became known, quite logically, as the Western Route, while the Eastern Railroad’s old mainline remained the Eastern Route. The Eastern served important industrial and port cities like Chelsea, Lynn, Salem, Beverly, and Newburyport, while the Western served two of the mill cities of the Merrimack Valley, Lawrence and Haverhill, before heading up into New Hampshire a few miles inland of the Eastern. The Western proved to have more staying power as a freight route; when passenger service on the Eastern was discontinued north of Newburyport, there were not enough freight customers to keep the Eastern Route in service, and the line north of the Merrimack River was abandoned. Parts of it are now a rail-trail, and elsewhere the land was simply sold for development.

Two Sundays ago, I went to have a look at the stations of the Eastern Route. I didn’t make it all the way to Newburyport — the daylight ran out when I was in Ipswich — but I did go to the end of the Rockport Branch. The photographs I took can be viewed on my SmugMug gallery, and you might want to middle-click that link to open another tab so it’s easier to switch back and forth between my narrative and the photos.

A few overall comments on the line. This line is one of three identified by the MBTA board in its December, 2019, resolution on rail transformation for priority to receive frequent, all-day, electrified service. (TransitMatters recently released a report on this, which I have deliberately avoided reading before writing this piece in order to form my own impressions.) The board resolution identified an “Environmental Justice Corridor” from Boston to Lynn, but because of the physical constraints of the line, it would almost certainly extend at least to Beverly Depot, where there is room to turn trains without fouling the main line (and in fact some trains already turn there). This section of the whole line is relatively up-to-standard, with only two partially-accessible stations — Swampscott and Beverly Depot, both of which have historic structures on the platform that make full accessibility an engineering challenge — not counting Chelsea which is already being replaced. Beyond Salem, all of the stations I visited have only partial accessibility, if any. (I expect Rowley and Newburyport, which I did not see, to have been built recently enough to be fully accessible, but wasn’t able to verify this in person — when I manage to get out there, I will update the photo gallery with pictures of those stations.)

Overall, the condition of the stations reinforces my impression that the MBTA is pursuing a policy of deliberate neglect of commuter-rail stations, allowing them to deteriorate until they are closed for emergency repairs, in preference to actual ongoing maintenance which might trigger an obligation to make the stations fully accessible under ADA and state regulations. Nearly every station I visited had spalling concrete, rusting steel, splintered timbers, and buckled asphalt. Some of them were actually in quite disturbing condition, even if the structural engineers aver that they are still sound.

Three of the stations have huge downtown parking garages, and it’s no surprise that two of them (Salem and Beverly Depot) are the two busiest on the entire line according to the 2018 manual ridership counts. The third huge parking garage, at Lynn Central Square, is reported to be significantly underutilized, and the ridership counts would seem to bear that out, with less than a quarter of Beverly’s and a fifth of Salem’s — this is largely due to the fact that Lynn has frequent, affordable bus service, whereas the train is infrequent, extremely expensive ($7.00 vs. $2.40 for the bus with a transfer to the subway) and in pre-COVID times arrived in Lynn packed to the gills, with no room for additional passengers to board. The MBTA has experimented with discounted fares for Lynn and Chelsea in the past, but nothing short of full fare equalization with comparable bus-subway journeys is likely to fix this.

Now on to the tour. We start in Chelsea, at Mystic Mall (known better to many as “the Chelsea Market Basket”). There isn’t a train station here, but there will be soon: the MBTA is relocating the existing Chelsea station at 6th & Arlington, which was already partially demolished to make way for the SL3, a quarter-mile to the west, where the current terminus of the SL3 is already located. The new station will of course be fully accessible, but riders who were previously within walking distance of Bellingham Square will now have to transfer to the bus. On the other hand, it makes the retail, service, and hospitality businesses clustered around Everett Ave. significantly more accessible by train. Overall, the station move is probably a wash; either location favors some people and disfavors others. The station relocation project was bundled with a bunch of other grade-crossing and signal improvements that are supposed to reduce the impact of the train on traffic in Chelsea.

Our next stop is that existing Chelsea station, which is right next to the SL3’s “Bellingham Square” stop, although it’s still about a quarter-mile walk from the station to the actual Bellingham Square. There’s not a lot of employment in this area, but there is a good amount of housing, including public housing; the area is cut off by the viaduct of the Northeast Expressway (US 1) from the auto-oriented business district along Everett Ave. Chelsea station originally had a platform for both tracks, but when the SL3 came through, on the former right-of-way of the Grand Junction Railroad which ran parallel to the Eastern here, the outbound platform was demolished and a lot of hot-mix was dumped between the tracks as a replacement. (This was legal because the old station was inaccessible already and the new station was in the capital program.) In the 2018 counts, an average of just over 200 passengers a day used Chelsea station (as contrasted with 11,000 passengers a day on the 111 bus).

There’s a long gap between Chelsea and River Works, the next station; the state legislature included funding in the Transportation Bond Bill to construct a new station in Revere, at the former Wonderland dog track (after which the terminus of the Blue Line is also named). River Works is a private station for employees of GE Aircraft Engines in Lynn; there is no public access so I didn’t go see it. A developer has made a deal with GE to redevelop part of the site which includes an easement for public access to the station; I don’t expect to see the station before the new development is built (and probably built a new station as well).

That brings us to the aforementioned Lynn Central Square. Lynn, as they say, used to be an important place, but it has fallen on hard times, and many of its residents cannot afford $7 each way to take the train into Boston — $9.40 if they need to take the subway to their actual destination, because these are people who also cannot afford the $232 monthly pass that would include subway rides. What the powers that be thought they were accomplishing by erecting a thousand-stall parking garage in the middle of a working-class city like Lynn is beyond me. But they did, and then of course they failed to maintain it properly, and it shows.

Lynn station itself is interesting: it’s built on an old viaduct, remnant of an abandoned plan by the Eastern to widen its mainline to four tracks and eliminate grade crossings for faster service, which was largely obviated by the purchase of the Eastern by the B&M. Only the section in Lynn was ever built, and the line’s capacity through Salem remains limited to this day by the single-track tunnel, so it matters little that the line has been reduced to just two tracks through Lynn now. The extra-wide viaduct did make it possible for the station to be upgraded to a full-high center-platform configuration, although the inbound and outbound sides are oddly offset for reasons which are unclear to me. At least that means there are no significant freight clearance problems that would prevent building full platforms everywhere else on the line: freight trains must access the line from the south, since the route to Portsmouth has been abandoned.

The two-track viaduct continues north from Lynn into Swampscott, where there’s a cute little station building in a classic B&M style. I only saw the inbound side, where there is a large parking lot; the station building is on the outbound side, along with another lot. The two lots together hold only 127 stalls, which is far fewer than the reported 825 passengers a day this station served in 2018, so the majority of those passengers must be walk-ups or walking transfers from the buses on nearby Essex St. I was at the station while an outbound train to Newburyport made a stop, and even with limited service on a Sunday afternoon there were some passengers both boarding and alighting.

It’s another long interstation between Swampscott and Salem. An infill station at South Salem has been proposed, which would serve more people and destinations, such as Salem State University, but would also help to buffer traffic through the single-track Salem downtown tunnel, one of the oldest cut-and-cover railroad tunnels in the country. Before the the old Danvers River drawbridge burned down, the previous Salem station was located in the open cut south of the tunnel; after the fire, a temporary station was constructed north of the tunnel portal, and the previous station was abandoned as being too difficult to make accessible. (Remnants of the old single-platform station can be seen in aerial photos, including an abandoned stairway down from Mill St., but I did not make any attempt to go there.)

The Salem tunnel is unusual for another reason, which is that part of a wye was located inside it. The Danvers Branch diverged from the main line inside the tunnel, and it was on this wye lead that the temporary station (now the city-owned “Crescent” surface parking lot) was located. These tracks were lifted after construction of the new station and replacement drawbridge, so the Danvers Branch today is accessible only from Beverly, if it has any remaining traffic at all. Both portals remain today, and the abandoned branch is used to store sand and salt for treating icy surfaces.

The modern Salem station has a 728-stall parking garage, and is by far the busiest station on the line, nearly twice as busy as Beverly Depot, the next-busiest. There is a full-length high-level platform immediately north of the tunnel portal, an indoor waiting room, and a secure bike storage cage. The garage and full-high platform were built in the 2010s, opening in 2014, but the platform was relocated to the current location as soon as the drawbridge was replaced and service north to Ipswich and Rockport resumed. Because the station is so new, everything about it is in excellent condition, which is just about the only station I saw on the entire line about which one could say that.

On the other side of the Danvers River is the city of Beverly. Other than Boston, no city or town in Massachusetts has more commuter-tail stations than Beverly, even after one of them has had its service suspended, leaving four active stations: Beverly Depot, North Beverly, Montserrat, and Beverly Farms. (Needham also has four; Newton and Brockton have three each, as I believe does Melrose.) The latter two stations are located on the Rockport Branch, and are currently bustituted while the Annisquam River drawbridge in Gloucester is replaced; rail service is planned to return by the end of July. In the 2018 counts, Beverly Depot served more passengers than all other Beverly stations combined, by a factor of two, despite its 500-space off-site parking garage.

Downtown Beverly is pretty impressive for an old industrial city (the old local industry was shoe manufacturing, as well as shoe-factory equipment); Beverly Depot is located on the western edge of the downtown, but it’s easily walkable from a substantial old mixed commercial-residential neighborhood, and CATA, the local RTA, operates a low-fare circulator bus that serves the station (although not every train). The station itself has been converted into a restaurant but it maintains its historic features including a large wooden-roofed canopy on the inbound platform. A private lot on the inbound side augments the MBTA-owned garage and the city’s short-term meter parking. North of the station, there’s a universal crossover and a layover siding, allowing trains to short-turn, although the new two-trains-per-hour schedule only calls for two short-turn trains a day. I saw a southbound train serve the station while I was on the platform.

I followed the Rockport Branch from downtown Beverly all the way out to the end. During the Gloucester drawbridge replacement project, the MBTA had originally planned to maintain single-track service to Cape Ann, but after construction began, it was determined that the existing bridge was unsafe. As it was the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and passenger volumes were very light, the T decided to accelerate the demolition of the drawbridge rather than making temporary repairs to a structure that was in the process of being replaced. The change in schedule also meant that the Positive Train Control installation east of the bridge did not need to be completed before the federally imposed December, 2020, deadline (since the bridge was out of service and the rest of the line was thus disconnected from the rail network). In addition, numerous other maintenance-of-way activities, including tie and ballast replacement, were rescheduled to take advantage of the full shutdown of rail service. During weekdays, service remains active as far east as West Gloucester — the easternmost stop west of the drawbridge — but on weekends, the entire branch is bustituted, so all of the stations I visited were deserted of both passengers and trains (although there were walkers and bikers).

Of particular note along the Rockport Branch is Prides Crossing station, to which service is now suspended. While the 140-year-old station building now houses a confectioner’s shop, there are only three commuter parking spaces, and only a handful of local residents used the station, which was a flag stop on a small number of weekday peak trains. The station never got enough use to even have a proper inbound platform; instead, it’s got the MBTA-standard “dump some asphalt between the tracks” walkway for the inbound passengers to board, assuming the engineer stops the train in exactly the right place. Beverly Farms station is less than a mile away, and has nearly an order of magnitude more daily passengers, so hopefully this service suspension really is permanent.

I don’t have a lot to say about the other stations along the branch; they are all quite similar, with low-level platforms and mini-highs. West Gloucester is weird because the inbound platform is much shorter than the outbound, for no obvious reason; it’s currently being used as a laydown area for the drawbridge construction as well as the first stop for weekday inbound trains for the duration of the bustitution. (Manchester is the last stop for weekday outbound trains; I’m not sure why outbound trains are unable to serve West Gloucester.) The line is single-tracked from the Annisquam River all the way to Rockport; although the drawbridge was double-tracked and will be replaced with two separate single-track bascules, the tracks merge just on the east side of the draw in any case, so I’m not sure what is gained.

Returning to the main line, there are five remaining stations: North Beverly, Hamilton/Wenham, Ipswich, Rowley, and Newburyport. The Merrimack River bridge north of Newburyport is no longer in service, and the line beyond it has been rail-trailed, so Newburyport is the end of the line for the foreseeable future.

North Beverly is our first stop, and it’s an odd location, wedged in behind a Route 1A strip mall. It has the usual low-level platforms with pedestrian grade crossings, and the mini-highs are in poor condition. There seems to be no topographical barrier to building full-length high platforms here, other than the need for crossing the tracks, which could easily be accommodated by adding a grade crossing and ramps just north of the platforms, which could connect to the back of the Stop & Shop supermarket north of the strip mall — there is already a vehicular grade crossing, Dodge St., at the south limits of the station. North Beverly is about 2½ miles north of Beverly Depot, which is an entirely reasonable interstation for the population density.

Hamilton/Wenham continues the theme of low-level platforms with mini-highs, although there is only one platform since the line is single-tracked north of North Beverly. The towns of Hamilton and Wenham share quite a few things, including a library and a school district; the station is also split between the two towns, being built right on the town line.

Ipswich was for much of the MBTA’s existence the northern terminus of passenger service on the line, and there are likely still outdated system maps showing it as the “Ipswich/Rockport Line” floating around. Newburyport and Rowley did have service under the B&M, and at times under the MBTA, but disputes over subsidies and service levels made the operation an on-again-off-again proposition. Because Ipswich was the terminus for so many years, there is a small layover yard just south of Ipswich station, where trains were formerly idled overnight waiting for the next morning’s service to resume. As at Hamilton/Wenham, the station itself is a single low-level platform and a large surface parking lot on the west side of the single track, with a mini-high platform at the north end.

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