Weekend excursion: Stations of the Old Colony Railroad (MBTA Kingston and Middleboro Lines)

Of all the passenger routes bringing commuters from Boston’s suburbs into the city, none were hit quite so hard by the automobile age as those of the former Old Colony Railroad. The construction of the Route 3 and Route 24 freeways in the 1950s saw the bottom drop out of travel demand on the parallel railroads, and the Old Colony’s owner, the New Haven Railroad, ended passenger service in the late 50s; shortly thereafter, the Old Colony bridge over the Neponset River in Dorchester burned down. The New Haven and its successors, Penn Central and Conrail, were able to continue to service their remaining freight customers south of Quincy, running local trains north from a freight yard in Middleboro [I will be using the simplified spelling throughout this post], and back south along the lines to Plymouth and Greenbush. So the situation remained for nearly four decades. In the mean time, the Commonwealth acquired nearly all of the rail lines and abandoned rights of way in Eastern Massachusetts from the railroads, converting some to trails and preserving others as working railroads through rights agreements with various operators (including Conrail’s successor-in-interest, CSX, which retained operating rights on the line from Middleboro to Braintree).

In the 1990s, as a part of mitigation for the Central Artery/Tunnel Project, the state agreed to start up a new commuter-rail service along the three former Old Colony branches that had operated to South Station four decades previously. I’ve already discussed the Greenbush Line, which due to a controversial and unnecessary tunnel through Hingham opened some years later. The other two lines, the former Old Colony main line through Brockton and Middleboro and the former line to Plymouth, were completely reconstructed with all-new stations. The old tail end of the Plymouth line to downtown Plymouth was entirely abandoned, with a new terminal at Cordage Park in North Plymouth, and the state built over a mile of brand-new track, including a tunnel under the interchange of routes 3 and 3A, to serve an enormous park-and-ride in Kingston next to the former town dump. Both lines reopened in 1997, and with Greenbush remain to this day the only fully ADA-compliant, 100% accessible lines in the MBTA mainline rail network. Because both lines shared common design and construction and opened at the same time, and I toured both on the same weekend, I am going to treat them as a single unit. The photo galleries, however, are separate: Middleboro and Kingston/Plymouth.

One issue I should bring up first: the Red Line extension to Braintree was built in the 1970s largely on top of the Old Colony’s trunk line through Dorchester, where it paralleled the existing Red Line tracks and the Southeast Expressway. As a result, a two-mile stretch of the new Old Colony trunk, from roughly Freeport St. to Southampton St. Yard, is limited to a single track. As this single-track section is located right outside the terminal limits of South Station, it represents a serious limit on the capacity of all three Old Colony branches, so much so that various proposals to increase frequency on the Middleboro line invariably involve a forced transfer at either Quincy Center or Braintree for passengers on the other lines. (The Greenbush Line branches off between Quincy Center and Braintree, just to complicate matters, although it is a full wye junction so Greenbush trains could turn south to Braintree and run through to the Kingston line.) This is a more restrictive bottleneck than any of the other single-track sections on the revived Old Colony, since it is shared by all three branches.

One other issue I might as well address here: the T calls the terminal station on the Middleboro Line “Middleborough/Lakeville”, and sometimes calls the whole line that as well. The current terminal is actually in Lakeville, but this station is to be replaced by a new station along the main line as a part of the South Coast Rail project, as all Middleboro trains will be extended to either New Bedford or Fall River in 2024.

Let’s start with some other features common to all of the stations on the Kingston/Plymouth and Middleboro lines:

  • Stations are generally located outside the central business districts of the towns they serve; with one exception, the few Old Colony depots that still stand did not get passenger service restored.
  • As a consequence of the previous, the interstation (distance between stations) is much longer than on legacy commuter lines, which were built to serve pedestrian traffic in town centers.
  • All stations have enormous parking lots, ranging from a few hundred spaces up to the thousand-space mega-lot at Kingston.
  • Since these were completely new-build stations, they were required to fully comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and thus have full-length high-level platforms, and all the assigned rolling stock is equipped with remote door release. Some still require bridge plates for safe wheelchair boarding.
  • The ends of the platforms are located far enough from grade crossings that trains serving the stations do not foul the crossing.
  • While the right-of-way for both lines is at least two tracks wide throughout, both lines are predominantly single-track with modest passing sidings for timed meets. Even where a double-track section exists adjacent to station limits, the MBTA largely chose to economize on station construction by single-tracking through stations. (There are three exceptions: Halifax and Montello, which have two side platforms, and Brockton, which has a center platform.)
  • Most stations have some landscaping elements, typically raised planter beds with granite curbs for edging. Since I visited in April, there were few plantings visible other than leafless trees.

A particular concern that I noted on the Kingston/Plymouth line, and not the Middleboro line, was poor condition of the platforms, especially tactile edge treatments but also spalling concrete in other areas of the platform. The Middleboro line platforms seemed much better maintained, which is hard to account for given that they are the same age.

When I did this excursion, I started on Saturday in South Weymouth and made my way down to Plymouth, then (having an hour or so of daylight remaining) hopped over to Lakeville and headed up the Middleboro line to Bridgewater. At that point the sun was starting to get quite low in the sky, so I headed home and resumed on Sunday afternoon at Campello, the next station north of Bridgewater and one of three stations serving Brockton. (I finished off that day on the north side, to be published next week.)

Now a few notes on individual stations. We’ll start with South Weymouth, which is the station on the Kingston/Plymouth Line that’s probably the best placed to grow its residential walkshed, thanks to the redevelopment of the former Naval Air Station South Weymouth, and there are several large multifamily projects either open or under construction within a short walk of the station. This station embodies nearly all of the common design features I noted above. The new Abington station is about two miles south of the historic town center; the old North Abington depot (on Railroad Ave.) still stands and is now a restaurant — Regional Rail would allow locations like this, that are accessible to walk-up passengers, to be restored as infill stations. (I didn’t know that the old station still existed when I was doing the trip or I would have stopped there on my way.) The line is double-tracked through most of Abington, but narrows to a single-track north of Abington station. A former branch line from North Abington to Hanover has been abandoned and converted to a trail.

Whitman station has an interesting archaeological exhibit, where the Old Colony’s former roundhouse turntable was excavated, but is otherwise unremarkable. Hanson station was built next to the old South Hanson depot, which still stands (closed and unused, so far as I can tell, not even a tenant); the town of Hanson doesn’t really have much of a center and there’s nothing of significance near the rail line at any point, so I guess it’s as good a station location as any other. A passing siding begins near the Halifax town line and continues through Halifax station, the only double-track station on the entire line.

South of Halifax, the historic line continues to North Plymouth, while a newly built branch runs another mile to the thousand-space parking lot at the former Kingston town dump. Unfortunately, because some idiot signed off on not making the junction a full wye, it is impossible for a train to serve both Plymouth station and Kingston parking lot without two time-consuming train reversals, adding as much as 30 minutes to the schedule — to which the MBTA’s response was to send all peak and half of the off-peak trains only to Kingston, practically stranding the residents of the large new-build apartment complex at Cordage Park next to the station, and in response to disappointing ridership caused by the poor service, Plymouth station has now been closed, possibly for good. This makes me unbelievably angry, because clearly Plymouth is an actual origin and destination, and the Kingston transfer station/solar array/wind farm/layover yard/golf course/car dealership is not. While GATRA operates some buses that serve both Kingston station and downtown Plymouth, it’s hard to overestimate how inconvenient the station location actually is — all because they valued car storage over serving an actual place.

Moving over to the Middleboro line, I stopped first at the soon-to-be-closed Middleboro/Lakeville station (which is entirely in Lakeville): another huge parking lot — not quite as huge as Kingston’s — next to a single platform. The station sits on the Cape Main Line, the only rail route to and from Cape Cod, and I imagine must cause some operational issues for traffic to and from the Cape. (This may be why the Cape Flyer runs such a limited schedule, when there is surely enough weekday traffic in the summer to operate seven days.) The Old Colony Main Line, Cape Main, and Middleboro Secondary have a full wye junction at Pilgrim Junction in Middleboro; the original Middleboro station was located north of the wye on the Main Line (it no longer stands) and that is where the new station will be as well. The infield of the wye is also where the overnight layover yard for this line is located, although that too will become redundant when South Coast Rail opens, as both New Bedford and Fall River will have their own layover facilities.

North of Middleboro is Bridgewater station, and I’m not really sure what to say about it. The station is located on the campus of Bridgewater State University, and isn’t especially convenient to get to if you aren’t already at the school. I’m sure it’s a great boon for students and staff alike, although the 2018 passenger counts show the reverse-commuting ridership to be negligible, and most passengers are riding into the city during peak periods. (It’s possible that there is less park-and-ride mode share on weekends, when residential students would be more free to travel; the data don’t exist to show one way or the other.) Brockton Area Transit Authority (BAT) operates public shuttles in Bridgewater for the university.

I returned the following day to start out at the southernmost of three stations in Brockton, Campello — named after a former “village” and postal district in the city, which itself was formerly known as North Bridgewater. There’s not really anything interesting to say about it, except perhaps that it is located next to one of three recycling companies in Brockton that CSX still serves with freight trains over the line.

A mile or so north of Campello is the beginning of the four-track Brockton Viaduct, although it has long been limited to just two tracks. The old downtown Brockton depot was located on the viaduct, but was demolished in a fit of “urban renewal” after passenger service ended in the 1950s and was replaced by a rather unattractive central police station. BAT’s central bus hub, the “BAT Centre”, is located across commercial street from the old depot, and was designed to mimic the materials and style of historic Massachusetts railroad depots (some others by the same designer as the former Brockton station still stand to be used as references). Somewhat later, BAT built a parking garage next to the bus station, and this accounts for most of the parking for the train station as well. (There are accessible spaces next to the police station.) Because the viaduct was built for a four-track main line, there was plenty of room for a 20-foot-wide high-level center platform, although the police station still looms over riders. Access to the platform is only from the Commercial St. (east) side of the tracks; a single ungated pedestrian grade crossing over the northbound track is the only egress from the platform.

The viaduct ends north of the Ashland St. overpass, and the two-track line continues north at grade (with overpasses for the cross streets) to Montello, another former village and postal district. Montello station is a two-track side-platform station with parking lots on both sides and a single pedestrian grade crossing at the north end of the platform. It’s also the only station in Brockton served by MBTA buses in addition to BAT; the #230 Quincy Center–Montello bus, which primarily serves Randolph and Holbrook, lays over here. Two BAT routes serve Montello station, but stop outside the Spark St. entrance on the east side of the station rather than entering.

The final station (at least until we get back to Braintree) is Randolph/Holbrook, which was literally built on the border of those towns. The rail line at this point is entirely in Holbrook, as is the platform and the larger of the two parking lots, but Randolph has its “own” parking lot. There is a pedestrian grade crossing at the south end of the single platform, and I had the opportunity to watch a southbound train pass while I was there. The double-track from Braintree Junction ends literally at the north limits of the station; there is clearly enough land for a second platform and a second track, so the T must have decided to economize by not building a two-platform station.

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