Weekend excursion: Stations of the B&M Western Route/MBTA Haverhill Line

It’s been nearly two weeks since I took this trip on a windy Saturday in March, and since that time I’ve seen nearly all of the remaining stations in the MBTA system, so if I’m a little hazy on the details, please forgive me. Meanwhile, enjoy the companion photos by opening the link in another browser tab.

As I was describing in my survey of the parallel Eastern Route last week, the Boston & Maine Railroad’s original route from Boston to Maine went via the industrial cities of the Merrimack Valley — specifically, Lawrence and Haverhill — before heading north into Exeter, Durham, and ultimately Dover, New Hampshire, before crossing the Piscataqua River into Maine. When the B&M acquired the Eastern, the original main line became known as the Western Route, but there was enough local traffic to keep both lines in service. Over time, traffic dwindled, and the B&M had a substantial retrenchment. In the 1950s, most passenger service to the Merrimack Valley and points north was rerouted via the B&M’s New Hampshire Main Line and the “Wildcat” branch through Wilmington. Transportation officials in Boston were looking at the likely end of commuter rail service, as more freeways were built to siphon traffic away from the railroads, and the Western Route was one of their prime targets, since it had a three-track right-of-way through the inner suburbs, making it an attractive alignment for a surface relocation of the old Charlestown Elevated. Plans were drawn up in the 1960s to extend the newly renamed Orange Line through a new tunnel under the Charles all the way up to Reading, with an express track to speed service through Malden, Medford, and Charlestown for riders from more distant suburbs.

When service on the “Haymarket–North” extension opened in the mid-1970s, there was insufficient support to extend the route all the way to Reading, and so the commuter-rail service has remained, largely unchanged, ever since. Even before the Orange Line came, decades of disinvestment had seen the second track lifted along much of the route, resulting in severe limitations on frequency and quality of service to this day. Two tracks remain from Melrose to Wakefield and from just beyond Lawrence to Haverhill, but this only suffices to operate service every 45 minutes — and the northern end must still be shared with slow freight and the Amtrak Downeaster. The Downeaster, like the old B&M intercity service it replicates, runs via the Wildcat Branch, as do a couple of Haverhill commuter trains a day. In the new Spring, 2021, schedule, 23 inbound trains per day serve Reading every 45 minutes, with 11 of those originating in Haverhill, so passengers on the outer end of the line get 90-minute headways. Two inbound trips and one outbound trip run express via the Wildcat Branch, saving about 11 minutes. This does mean that North Wilmington only gets one inbound peak-period trip, but that’s actually not much of a loss — in the pre-COVID schedule, North Wilmington didn’t get any peak-period service.

The new schedules raise an interesting question for many of the municipalities along the line: the parking regulations for many town-owned station lots currently only require payment in the morning. With the T now operating trains every 45 minutes all day long, on the theory that this will attract “non-traditional” passengers, will there be pressure for the towns to extend enforcement later in the day — or, in the alternative, will the lots go back to filling up at 8 AM, restricting use of the off-peak trains to only walk-up riders?

As on previous trips, I did not photograph any of the commuter-rail stations that are also rapid transit stations, so as to avoid other people to the extent possible, so let’s get started with Wyoming Hill, the first station north of the Orange Line terminus at Oak Grove. Like many of the stations on this line, there is municipally-owned parking, in this case a small lot just west of the station. It’s located in a reasonably dense neighborhood, with a mix of retail, dining, apartments, and small-lot single-family residences, and only two short blocks from Melrose’s Main St. It’s also only half a mile from the next station north, Melrose/Cedar Park — much closer than would normally be considered appropriate, but not uncommon for an old commuter line. That said, Wyoming Hill gets about 20% more ridership (or did, in 2018), owing to its somewhat denser surrounding development. The line is still double-tracked here, but both tracks have only inaccessible low-level platforms. (The single-track merge point is just north of Oak Grove station, a mile south; you can just barely see the signal controlling the interlocking from the south end of the platform.) It would be a relatively easy station to make accessible, after removing both the standard MBTA platform canopies and the town-owned enclosed shelter at the north end of the inbound platform, but from the ridership it’s not hard to see why this hasn’t been prioritized.

Melrose/Cedar Park has a bit more parking, but in a less dense neighborhood, and the daily ridership roughly tracks with the parking. Like Wyoming Hill, it’s a two-track station with only inaccessible low-level platforms, and an even lower priority for platform improvements. Melrose Highlands is by far the most popular station in Melrose, with significantly more multifamily and commercial real estate nearby. Melrose Highlands does have mini-high platforms, and would seem to be a good candidate for full high-level platforms (and construction would be relatively simple given the lack of pedestrian grade crossings).

Moving north into Wakefield is the first odd duck on a line full of odd ducks. Greenwood station would appear to serve a bank branch and a small retail district on one side, and a small single-family subdivision on the other, but its 80 passengers a day are mostly using on-street parking which the town has reserved for this purpose north of the business district. Unsurprisingly for a station with such minimal ridership, Greenwood has offset low-level platforms, a pedestrian grade crossing, and no concessions to accessibility. (There is, at least, a bus transfer, although given the cost of commuter rail tickets, many bus riders will take the more affordable transfer to the Orange Line at Malden Center.)

The other station serving Wakefield is a real contrast, although it too is inaccessible. Located west of Wakefield’s main business district, Wakefield station has restaurants on the platform, a classic B&M station building, and is surrounded by low-rise mixed-use development and a church. A nearby industrial zone, once served by the rail line, is being transformed into a higher-density residential neighborhood. In 2018, Wakefield was the second-busiest station on the line, after only Reading, so it’s a real disappointment that it isn’t accessible — it clearly should be, and the outbound platform would be easy to fix. Unfortunately, the buildings abutting the inbound platform are too close, and would have to be relocated or demolished to meet current standards, which is presumably why the MBTA has chosen not to do anything about the problem.

Next stop north from Wakefield is the first “WTF?” moment of this tour: Reading, the busiest station on the entire line. Reading is a two-platform, single-track station! And not in the obvious way, with platforms on both sides of the single track — no, at Reading, the second platform serves the nonexistent second track that was lifted some time before 1969. Yet the MBTA continues to maintain it! It’s obvious that restoring the second track would be key to making the station fully accessible; the current platform (serving what should be the inbound track) is split in half by the old station building (now leased out to a cafe and a mortgage broker), which sits too close to the track to allow for sufficient clearance. There is presently a mini-high on the existing platform, so despite the high passenger volume, improving this station is not a high priority for the T. (With the new schedule turning half of all trains at Reading, dwell times are less of an issue, since the train has to reverse anyway, but restoring the double-track and constructing a full-length high-level platform on the restored eastern rail would still be an operational improvement.) Like Wakefield, Reading station is on the west side of the town’s CBD.

The “WTF?” moments just keep on coming as we try to find the next station, North Wilmington. A limited-service station, North Wilmington sees one peak-period trip each way, but early morning, midday, and late evening trains all stop here, if only we can find where “here” is. After several tries, I eventually found the small, unmarked, town-owned parking lot, separated from the “station” by a vacant lot. What passes for a station here is single-track, of course, and inaccessible, of course — there’s barely even a platform, and the only amenity is a bus shelter. (OK, so that’s still slightly more than Plimptonville ever had.) The prudent thing to do with this station would be to close it, and route all trains on the outer parts of the line via the Wildcat Branch, allowing for more frequent service on all three resulting branches.

Heading north, the double-track resumes with the junction of the Wildcat Branch, only to end across the street from Ballardvale, the next station. In keeping with the B&M’s plan of running all Lawrence service via the New Hampshire Main Line, the Wildcat Branch is the through route at Ballardvale, and it’s the Western Route that ends ignominiously in a bumper block just south of the grade crossing. Ballardvale is the third “WTF?” station on this line, and the oddest of the bunch: the original platform was clearly built to serve the now-disconnected northbound Western Route track, and when that track was lifted, they simply dumped several yards of hot-mix in the trackbed to extend the platform. (Why oh why did they not keep the track that already had a platform?) But it gets worse: 300 feet beyond the end of the new platform, there is a mini-high — yes, this is an “accessible” station — and the mini-high was obviously built to serve the missing Western Route track. That means that it was built that way by the MBTA some time after 1990! Since the track that actually exists is 10½ feet away from the mini-high, the T added a wooden high-level platform extension to the mini-high. But it’s still 300 feet north of the rest of the platform! So either the train serves the regular platform, inches forward 300 feet in a cloud of diesel smoke, and serves the mini-high, or else it just serves the mini-high and half the cars in the train don’t platform at all. Who signed off on this design? Ballardvale is located in a fairly low-density neighborhood, with largely single-family housing and conservation land, although it was once important enough to have its own post office; about 200 people a day used the station in 2018, many of them using the 120 paid parking spaces at the station.

The double-track resumes yet again just north of Ballardvale, but the second track is inaccessible from the south for another mile. It hardly matters for passenger service, though: the second track is freight-only, and cannot platform at either Andover, the next station north, or Lawrence.

Meanwhile, what about Andover? It’s a busy station, with nearly 400 passengers a day in 2018, far more than its 150-space parking lot alone could support. There’s a good amount of development in the vicinity, both multifamily and commercial, and Andover’s downtown business district is a short walk away to the southeast. The station is also served by multiple MVRTA bus routes. As noted above, the second track does not platform at Andover, and the platform for the first track is low-level, with a mini-high at the north end. Upgrading this platform would be a challenge due to commercial abutters.

Our next stop is Lawrence. I did not go to see the old Lawrence station, which was a low-level center-platform station just east of Parker St., and which has apparently been abandoned in place. The new, fully accessible Lawrence station is a single side platform connected to MVRTA’s McGovern Transportation Center, a 400-stall parking garage on Merrimack St. (The station is located across Merrimack St. from the Wood Worsted Mill, once the world’s largest, which has been redeveloped into a variety of residential and commercial uses under the name “Riverwalk”.) An empty trackway separates the passenger track from the freight tracks, providing room for either another through track or an island platform, should future passenger schedules warrant it. (A short, temporary, low-level platform remains on the opposite side of the railbed, attached to an old industrial building; it’s accessed via a pedestrian grade crossing at the east end of the high-level platform but not accessible and not currently served by any passenger trains unless there’s a switch malfunction.) A short distance east of the platform, the passenger siding merges with the main line once again, and has a crossover to access the outbound track, so the final two stations operate as normal two-track stations.

Bradford station doesn’t have any obvious reason to exist — it’s not even half a mile from downtown Haverhill and the end of the line, and there’s not much nearby in the way of either origins or destinations. But there was a station here already (a historic B&M station building, a clone of the one at Swampscott, still abuts the line, although it’s now a cafe), and there was plenty of land available, so it made more sense as an end-of-line layover facility to minimize deadheading — and of course there’s a huge parking lot. MVRTA’s Bradford bus garage is located across the street from the layover facility. The station itself is a pair of disappointing low-level platforms with mini-highs (why could they not build a high-level center platform here, there was plenty of room?) and pedestrians cross both the main line and the yard leads at grade. A walkway north of the outbound mini-high connects to a nearby residential neighborhood off Laurel Ave. on the east side of the tracks (the west side is the Merrimack River). The ocean of parking here is only about half-used: there are more than 300 spaces for a station that saw 170 passengers per day in 2018. Just beyond the station to the north, the remnants of a branch line diverge to the east, running through Groveland and Newbury to connect with the Eastern Route at Newburyport; this line, abandoned decades ago, has largely been rail-trailed and is also an electrical transmission path for much of its length.

The final station on our tour is also the terminus for MBTA service on the Western Route, although Amtrak Downeaster service continues through New Hampshire to Maine, and Pan Am freight service continues through Maine to interchange with various Canadian railways. The city of Haverhill extends all the way to the New Hampshire state line, but there’s no obviously useful place for a third Haverhill station, and New Hampshire refuses to subsidize rail service, so there’s nothing north of downtown Haverhill that the MBTA might serve. (Amtrak’s next stop is Exeter.) MVRTA recently built a 315-stall garage and pedestrian overpass to supplement the MBTA’s 150-space surface parking lot, but the station as a whole is a bit of a disappointment, and you’d think with all the residential development nearby in downtown Haverhill this station could manage more than a paltry 290 boardings. Of course, it has low-level platforms with mini-highs, and multiple pedestrian grade crossings make it more challenging to upgrade, especially since the overpass to the garage connects to the middle of the outbound platform. (MVRTA charges $4 a day, whereas the MBTA’s surface lot is only $2 a day, so you’d have to imagine the RTA is losing a lot of money on its brand-new garage right now, with pandemic-suppressed ridership.) On the current schedule, the whole trip from Haverhill to Boston is scheduled to take 55 minutes for the once-daily Wildcat Branch express, or 66 minutes on the local train via North Wilmington, which is likely still faster than driving during rush hour — but a fully modernized electric service could make the Wildcat route in just 38 minutes, a substantial savings.

Three more lines to go: Plymouth/Kingston, Middleborough, and Lowell!

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