Weekend excursion: Stations of the B&M New Hampshire Main Line/MBTA Lowell Line

As I’ve neared the end of this series of posts, I’ve gotten a bit better at procrastinating, so most of the photos this post is based on (see the associated photo gallery) were taken a month ago now, and I’m drawing a lot on unreliable memory and aerial photos (and a bit of Wikipedia) to bring this together. It’s an interesting time to be writing about this line, for a number of reasons I’ll try to articulate.

As the title suggests, today’s Lowell Line was historically the Boston & Maine’s New Hampshire Main Line, with passenger service north through Nashua, Manchester, and Concord into the White Mountains and through Vermont to Montreal. In Chelmsford, north of Lowell, the line connects with the Stony Brook Railroad and becomes part of Pan Am’s freight main line from Western Massachusetts to Maine. There have been discussions on and off about re-extending commuter rail service to Nashua (where the historic B&M station apparently still stands) and even Manchester, but the discussions have always foundered on New Hampshire’s refusal to subsidize anything other than private automobiles. Recently, Amtrak released a map of possible service extensions which included service as far as Concord — Amtrak, unlike the MBTA, has both the legal right to operate on any railroad and a mandate to provide interstate service, and already operates Downeaster service along the line as far as Woburn.

As I described in more detail in my survey of the Western Route, the B&M planned in the 1950s to run all longer-distance services north of Boston via the NHML, with trains to Haverhill and Portland using the “Wildcat” Branch in Wilmington to access the northern part of the Western Route. This made a good amount of sense (and still does, which is why the Downeaster does so) because the NHML is the highest capacity line on the ex-B&M network, and the second-highest-capacity on the entire MBTA system: it’s the only North Side line with no single-track bottlenecks and no drawbridges other than at North Station; even slow diesel trains can maintain decent speeds because the stations are few in number and fairly widely spaced. All of the stations have platforms for both tracks, allowing bidirectional service without scheduling difficulties, although with the exception of the recently constructed Anderson RTC/Woburn station, they are all low-platform (all except West Medford and closed-for-demolition Winchester Center have mini-highs).

Which then brings me to the saga of Winchester Center, one of the two stations that got me started on this series of travels back in March. Winchester was scheduled for accessibility upgrades, with final design nearly complete and construction supposed to be put to bid in the second half of this year, when regular inspections early this year revealed safety issues with the old station’s platforms. Rather than perform emergency repairs, the MBTA chose to simply demolish the old station early, while commuter-rail ridership was low due to the pandemic, and remove the demolition from the scope of the reconstruction contract, reducing the cost and allowing construction to proceed more quickly. While I did not make it to Winchester Center in time to see the old platforms, I did get pictures of the demolition work in progress. (Not literally in progress, though, because I made my visit on Easter Sunday when no work was taking place.)

So with all that out of the way, let’s go station-by-station. With the historic stops in East Cambridge, Somerville, and Medford Hillside all long gone, the first stop on the modern Lowell Line is at West Medford. The station is located next to the West Medford post office (in fact the inbound shelter looks to be attached to the side of the building) and it is inaccessible, with only low-level platforms on both tracks. A few years ago, the MBTA’s system-wide accessibility program rated West Medford one of the highest priority stations to receive full accessibility upgrades, but I haven’t seen anything to indicate that this has been advanced in the capital program since then, not even as far as a 10% design. In the 2018 passenger counts, about 600 people a day used West Medford — which is pretty good for a commuter rail station but only the fourth-busiest suburban station on this line. Much of the station’s popularity can be explained by its assignment to the inner-core fare zone, zone 1A, so travel to North Station costs only as much as a subway fare and is much faster than taking the bus to Sullivan and then transferring to the Orange Line into town. (It will be interesting to see how the popularity of this stop changes when the Green Line Extension opens, since it will operate much more frequently and offer bus connections closer to West Medford.)

The route runs on a viaduct through much of Winchester; Wedgemere station is located near the south end of that viaduct, where the railroad crosses the Aberjona River at the north end of Upper Mystic Lake. In the middle of a wealthy residential neighborhood and without practical bus connections, Wedgemere gets a surprising amount of traffic compared to its 120-stall town-owned parking lot, about 300 riders in 2018. With the closure of Winchester Center station, only four tenths of a mile to the north, Wedgemere is currently the only station in the town of Winchester, but with much more development within walking distance, Winchester Center had about 50% more traffic.

North of Winchester Center, a long-abandoned branch once led to downtown Woburn, with the main line running through a largely industrial area on the east edge of the town, before crossing under Route 128 into a truck-oriented wasteland of industrial parks. At the Route 128 overpass, Mishawum station was formerly the primary station serving Woburn, located between two toxic-waste cleanup sites, “Wells G & H” and “Industri-plex”. It used to be accessible, and was upgraded with a ramp system on the inbound platform and mini-highs on both platforms before being abandoned in favor of a new station half a mile deeper into auto-dominated industrial-park hell. The former parking lot, shared with the Woburn Logan Express, has turned into a bank office building and a Dave and Buster’s. The station still stands, and still seems to be receiving some maintenance, but at some point in the last decade, the mini-high platforms were partially demolished to reuse the folding steel platform edge at another station. As a result, Mishawum is the only MBTA station to have been accessible, and then made inaccessible. As late as 2018, long after the new station was opened, Mishawum was (apparently illegally?) still being served as a flag stop by a handful of trains a day; the 2018 traffic counts (32 passengers a day) are the most recent mention of any kind I can find of it. The town of Woburn apparently wants to see service maintained at Mishawum, because as we shall see, its replacement is even farther from where any humans can be found without a steel exoskeleton, whereas there is a residential neighborhood not too far southwest of Mishawum. But it’s no longer shown on public schedules, and with the MBTA’s slow diesel trains it’s really too close to the new station to even be a flag stop. Even with electrification, a new station at Montvale Ave. or Salem St. would have a much larger catchment of Woburn residents and result in a more appropriate interstation.

The new station in question is of course Anderson Regional Transportation Center, which is an enormous ocean of parking, nearly 2,000 spaces, accessible only via an unwalkable car sewer with a direct exit off I-93, connected to a combination bus stop and train station, and owned and operated by Massport. Of course, it hardly matters that it’s unwalkable, because in the middle of this toxic waste site (the Woburn Industri-plex Superfund site) there’s nothing you’d want to walk to or from. For train facilities, the station has two overhead pedestrian bridges, one connecting the high-level center platform to the second floor of the station building, and the other, at the far northern end of the platform, connecting to the northwest edge of one of the enormous parking lots. In addition to the MBTA commuter trains, the Downeaster stops here, and presumably if the proposed Amtrak service to Concord ever gets off the ground, it would as well (and probably Lowell, too). When I visited, the parking lots were barren, and Logan Express bus service had been suspended due to the pandemic. Despite the horrible location, the station definitely got plenty of use, with more than 1,200 passengers a day in 2018. (One wonders how many of those passengers are actually driving down I-93 from New Hampshire.)

The next station north, Wilmington, is where the Wildcat Branch diverges to the north as the main line heads north-northwest. The turnout is located just north of the outbound platform, resulting in offset platforms. The single-track Wildcat only connects to the outbound track, but a universal crossover south of the station allows access to both tracks; passenger service using the Wildcat does not currently make a stop a Wilmington, so it matters little that the branch only serves one platform. There is a 200-space MBTA-owned parking lot on the east side of the tracks, but this is far too small to account for the average daily ridership of 575; there is also an apartment complex, “Metro at Wilmington Station”, at the south end of the inbound low-level platform.

There’s a long interstation, about 6 miles, between Wilmington and North Billerica, but the line runs through wooded, low-density areas nearly the entire length. Just south of North Billerica is the B&M’s former maintenance yard, now an industrial park called Iron Horse Park, a 553-acre Superfund toxic waste site, including numerous landfills and former waste lagoons, which are contaminated with a variety of solvents, heavy metals, asbestos, and pesticides. Iron Horse Park is in its 37th year of EPA-supervised cleanup, partially funded by the MBTA, which made the mistake of acquiring 150 acres of the property in the 1970s as it began the process of taking over the B&M’s commuter rail operations. The MBTA’s new backup rail operations center is being constructed in a less restricted part of the park.

I actually went to North Billerica station first, before heading down to Iron Horse Park. It’s another two-track station with low-level platforms and mini-highs, made slightly more interesting by its 19th-century station building (although it’s been extensively renovated, to the point that I had figured it was new-old-style rather than Actually Old when I visited). The station has two surface parking lots, operated the Lowell RTA, with 540 spaces between them, and is also served by two LRTA bus routes, helping to explain its over 900 daily riders in the 2018 statistics. As the sun was setting, I did not make it all the way to Lowell on my initial trip, but returned a week later as part of a wrap-up trip that also included stops in Worcester, Lawrence, Rowley, and Newburyport.

At Lowell, I found LRTA’s exceedingly expensive and aggressively human-enforced parking garage, located over the rail line and next to LRTA’s central bus hub. Google Maps initially wanted to take me into the west garage entrance, which I found blocked with Jersey barriers, and when I found the entrance that was nominally open, I found that it was (unlike every other RTA garage) not equipped with automatic ticketing and payment systems, and the human who was supposed to sell me a ticket was not in their booth. I moved on, not wanting to spend $8 to park for 15 minutes, stopping to take a few quick pictures of the bus hub and the commuter-rail platform, but was chased away by an LRTA employee in a pickup truck. The platform here is a low-level center platform, between the westernmost pair of tracks, with a half-length high-level platform accessed from the 700-space garage, which is built across the tracks. The line quickly narrows to two tracks north of the station before crossing the Pawtucket Canal, and narrows to a single track at the wye with the Stony Brook. There is no layover facility on the Lowell Line, so trains entering and leaving service must do so at Boston Engine Terminal in Somerville; the lack of such a facility is one of the major constraints on increasing service on the line (because there is little room to store additional trainsets that would be required). In 2018. more than 1,500 people a day used the station.

That concludes the March–April run of MBTA station “weekend excursions”, but the project as a whole is far from complete: in addition to the new stations currently under construction (six stations of South Coast Rail, to open 2024; New Chelsea, opening later this year; New Natick Center and Central Falls–Pawtucket, opening next year) there still remain all of the stations that I avoided because they were in crowded areas and there’s still a pandemic on: Boston Landing, Lansdowne, Back Bay, Ruggles, Forest Hills, South Station, JFK/UMass, Quincy Center, Braintree, North Station, Malden Center, and Porter, plus the rest of the Fairmount Line and three stations in Rhode Island. In addition, Mansfield station, which I last saw while it was still under construction, fully opened in 2019. I’ll be fully vaccinated in a few days, and weather permitting, I still have plenty to do and see.

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