Two months of thinking about buses

You may be wondering why I never followed up on my promise to simulate Regional Rail ridership for the Providence Line. In part that’s because it’s actually really hard — the Providence Line is much more complicated than the Worcester Line in terms of the number of services it must integrate (Amtrak, Stoughton Line, Franklin Line), the weird set of short-turns, service into central Rhode Island, and the sheer number of passengers (it is the MBTA’s heaviest-ridership commuter-rail line). I’ll get back to that soon, I hope. But the primary reason, as the title of this post suggests, is that I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about buses.

I made a Google Map showing the nine MBTA bus routes which serve more than 10,000 passengers per weekday (counting the SL4 and SL5, which overlap for most of their route along Washington Street from Dudley station to downtown, as a single route). The busiest route in the entire system is the 28, a former streetcar route connecting Mattapan to Grove Hall and Dudley, with many trips extending to Ruggles station, serving 12,880 passengers on 233 bus trips per weekday. Based on the (2017) system-wide average operating cost information the MBTA has reported to the Federal Transit Administration and the route-specific information reported in the Better Bus Project‘s route profiles, I guesstimated that this route costs approximately $7.5 million a year to operate. Other routes connecting southern Dorchester to northern Roxbury serve similar numbers of riders and have significant route overlap, including the 22 (Ashmont–Ruggles via Columbus Ave., 8,020 riders), 23 (Ashmont–Ruggles via Dudley, 11,810 riders), 29 (Mattapan–Ruggles via Columbus Ave., 2,250 riders), 21 (Ashmont–Forest Hills via Morton St., 4,290 riders), and 31 (Mattapan–Forest Hills via Morton St., 6,100 riders) — all told, 1,168 bus trips per weekday serving 45,350 people a day. (That’s more than the entire system-wide ridership of any of the state’s 11 Regional Transit Authorities — PVTA comes closest, at 39,368 average weekday riders.)

In any other city, a ridership of more than 10,000 passengers per weekday — 2.6 million riders a year — would more than justify a shift to a higher quality transit mode. But of course this is Boston, and all of those routes serve minority communities, so they have been stuck with diesel buses since the trolleybuses (which replaced the original streetcars) were moved to Cambridge in the 1950s. (They replaced streetcars in Cambridge, too — the trolleybus routes that currently operate from North Cambridge carhouse were originally bustituted to free up streetcars to operate the then-new Riverside Line through Brookline and Newton.) Taken together, this particular set of bus routes serves on the order of 11.8 million riders per year. (This number can only be approximate because what we are actually counting is not really rides or riders but so-called “unlinked trips”, which is a single ride on a single bus, and therefore double-counts transfers.) Surely this would justify a substantial capital investment to get those people to where they need to go faster, in greater comfort, and at lower operating expense?

It was time to start seriously looking at the map. It was pretty clear how a modern tramway would fit along the route of the 29: Blue Hill Ave., Seaver St., Columbus Ave., and Tremont St. are all at least 80 feet wide and could easily support a center reservation. But the 29, again, only serves a couple thousand riders and doesn’t run frequently enough to justify the conversion on its own. The MBTA even admits that the 29 only exists to save riders the trouble of transferring from the 28 to the more frequent 22. The 31 runs very frequently, and would share part of the 29’s reservation, but again, it only serves 6,100 riders a day, which (while it would be excellent for a “new streetcar” project in most of the US) doesn’t really justify the investment here. The Ashmont routes are even worse — the streets of Dorchester are for the most part only forty feet wide, which is barely wide enough for a reservation and two-way car traffic with no parking; when these routes were streetcars before, they ran in mixed traffic (which was of course much lighter 80 years ago than it is today), and a big part of the benefit of tram conversion would be getting out of mixed traffic if not complete grade separation. So I put this speculation aside.

There is one route, however, which has no such issues — but it’s not one of the Dorchester routes, it’s the SL5, part of the “Silver Line”, which was marketed as “bus rapid transit” at a time when the Federal Transit Administration was strongly favoring such projects. The main segment of the “Silver Line”, the South Boston Piers Transitway, was built as a part of the Central Artery/Tunnel Project, and includes a dedicated bus tunnel under Fort Point Channel from South Station to South Boston; because this tunnel lacks ventilation it is restricted to electric buses only, and in practice is operated with 60-foot dual-mode trolleybuses. The SL5, however, is different. It (and its companion route the SL4) were created to respond to the demand of the Roxbury community for a service along Washington Street that was “better than a bus” after the Orange Line was relocated from the Washington Street Elevated to the Southwest Corridor to the west in 1987. The SL4/5 operate frequent service with 60-foot diesel buses, and the route along Washington St. is theoretically a reserved bus lane although the markings are poorly maintained and rarely enforced. The rest of the route is in mixed traffic, which affects the SL4 (to South Station) more than the SL5 (to Park Street and Boylston stations).

There is a subway tunnel underneath Tremont Street — part of the original Tremont Street Tunnel, in fact — which was last used by streetcars in the 1940s. It even has a flying junction at the south end to speed cars diverging to South Boston (the #9 City Point route used to run this way) and Roxbury. For a while, the state was studying converting this perfectly good rail tunnel into a bus tunnel, but ultimately decided it would be too expensive. (This was tied up with constructing a new bus tunnel all the way to South Station, parallel to the Red Line, because buses are just so awesome.) The old tunnel portal (currently blocked by a park) is barely a block from Washington Street, and pretty much every advocate for “Washington Street replacement service” since the 1980s has been demanding that the T create a new F branch of the Green Line to serve Dudley along this old streetcar corridor.

Sandy Johnston (@sandypsj) pointed out on Twitter how the Portland Streetcar, which opened 20 years ago, was able to use a modern construction technique that significantly reduced the cost of construction by reducing the amount of concrete required for the trackbed (and thus the depth of the excavation and the amount of utility relocation required). That doesn’t solve the issue with street width, but perhaps it could make the construction of a new reservation cheap enough to justify the project just on that basis. And certainly for replacing the SL4/5 it might be worth the expense.

The MBTA is currently engaged in a “Bus Network Redesign” project. The T also just approved a very unambitious 20-year capital program, and is working on replacing or renovating all of its ancient and inadequate bus garages. And it’s also working on modernizing the Ashmont–Mattapan High Speed Line, which is currently operating using five-times-overhauled PCC streetcars from the 1940s. At the MBTA board meetings I’ve attended or watched recordings of, there is considerable frustration at the fact that the T is essentially unable to increase bus service at peak periods because it has no space in its bus garages to park or maintain additional buses. I started thinking again about replacing high-ridership bus routes with tram routes, wondering if the project could be justified solely on the basis of reduced operating costs (trams have larger capacity and so could operate less frequently, alleviating bunching and congestion at major stations like Ashmont and Dudley) and freeing up buses and garage space for other routes that are less practical to restore trams on.

I spent several more hours staring at maps and trying to think of which of these bus routes, when considered together as a complete system, would make sense as part of modern tramway system, assuming the T could somehow manage to build something for a reasonable cost and in a reasonable time, with the goal of eliminating the need for an entire bus garage worth of buses and representing an overall operating cost savings to the T. The F-Dudley extension is a somewhat different case, because for schedule adherence (which matters a great deal for capacity in the parts of the Tremont St. Subway that are shared with the existing Green Line branches) you don’t really want to interline it with the other routes, except maybe off-peak on weekends and holidays when it could interline with the 28, so the assumption would be that it would take over one of the two GLX branches and its rolling stock could be stored at Lechmere where a new carhouse is being built to support GLX anyway. In any event, I came up with five distinct sets of projects:

  • Roxbury–Dorchester system: routes 22, 23, 28, and 29, including three of the highest-demand routes in the entire system (22, 23 and 28), representing 35,000 daily riders, and approximately 460 revenue bus-hours of service on today’s schedule. The 22 operates 188 trips per day, the 23 runs 250 trips, the 28 runs 233 trips, and the 29 a mere 77 trips. Nearly all of the 28 route is on streets that are wide enough for a full reservation, so with better stop spacing and signal priority, a large fraction of the 28’s nearly 13,000 daily riders should experience reduced trip times. The 22 and 23 would see less benefit, because more of their route is in mixed traffic. The overlap between the 22 and the 29 is substantial, however, and more than half of the 22’s length would be in a reservation along Blue Hill Ave, Seaver St., and Columbus Ave.
  • Roxbury supplemental routes: the 44 and 45 have substantial overlap with the the first set of routes, enough that I thought it was worth including them in my plan even though the ridership (3,450 on the 44; 3,140 on the 45) and vehicle requirements (98 bus revenue hours) hardly justify tramification. On the other hand, these routes serve mainly transit-dependent passengers and could have a real positive impact in those neighborhoods. However, they would be operating in mixed traffic on narrow streets.
  • Forest Hills system: routes 21, 31, 32, and 42 all converge on Forest Hills station in Jamaica Plain. When routes in this area were streetcars, they were served by Arborway carhouse on Washington St., which is a bus garage today. The 32 is one of the most frequent bus routes in the system, running from Wolcott Square in Readville, next to Readville commuter rail station, to Forest Hills, nearly entirely on Hyde Park Ave. Only the northern part of HPA is amenable to a reservation; the southern part (roughly, south of American Legion Hwy.) would be in mixed traffic. Roughly half of all 32 runs are short-turns from/to Cleary Square, next to Hyde Park commuter rail station, but in my estimation of operating hours and costs I have not accounted for this, so the numbers I have for operating costs on the route are not to be trusted. The 42 is another lower-volume (2,560 riders) route, but it runs straight along Washington St. between Forest Hills and Dudley, so it provides a connection between the two systems; it would however cost significantly more to operate than the current bus unless the schedule was cut back to the point of uselessness. Finally, the 21 and 31 connect Ashmont and Mattapan to Forest Hills via Morton St. and the Arborway; the 31 would operate mostly in a reservation, but east of Blue Hill Ave., Morton St., Gallivan Blvd., and Dorchester Ave. are too narrow to build a reservation so that half of the 21 route would be in mixed traffic.
  • E-Arborway restoration: route 39 was instituted to provide service along the E Line between Heath St. and Forest Hills when the E branch was truncated in 1985. Restoring the E Line was a Central Artery Project mitigation commitment which the state reneged on when business owners in Jamaica Plain objected to the loss of “their” on-street private vehicle storage that would be required to make the E fully accessible. A decade ago, the City of Boston tore up the tracks and repaved South Huntington Ave., Centre St., and South St., making any service restoration much more difficult. (The overhead electrification was trolley wire and would have had to be replaced in order to support modern trams.) In recent years, Boston has partially repented and asked for the restoration of the line as far as Hyde Square, and an anonymous guest post on Ari Ofsevit’s blog talks about the practicalities in doing that in much greater detail. For the purposes of this analysis, however, I considered complete restoration of the service, which would allow allow the E Line to again be based at Arborway.
  • F-Dudley branch: finally, as previewed above, I am most strongly advocating for a replacement of SL4 and SL5 service with a new F-Dudley Green Line branch. Moving the E Line back to Arborway would free up enough storage space at Lechmere carhouse to allow all of these trams to be stored there, and as the F would be by far the shortest route south of downtown, it would make sense to pair it with the longer of the two GLX branches, to Tufts and eventually Mystic Valley Parkway. In order to make enough capacity in the subway between Park and Government Center, one of the existing branches would need to loop at Park during peak hours; since the B Line is the longest south/west branch in running time, it makes sense for it to be the one.

In order to get any meaningful travel-time savings, it’s necessary to do something about the bottleneck along Warren St. between Grove Hall and Boston Latin Academy. Like Washington St. and Talbot Ave. in Dorchester, Warren St. is only 40 feet wide until you get north of Quincy St. — but it’s a very important and heavily traveled street, and most of the congestion-related delays experienced by the 28 happen in this section. I strongly suspect it would be highly unpopular to completely eliminate on-street parking in this stretch of road, never mind eliminating car traffic entirely, which is probably the environmentally superior option; there are no parallel surface streets, the east-west streets in the area are primarily residential, and residents of Quincy St. in particular would not welcome the additional traffic. Having ruled out any plausible surface route, I decided to propose a shallow, cut-and-cover tunnel. The state would not under ordinary circumstances make that sort of investment in an area that is predominantly inhabited by lower-income people of color with little political influence, but perhaps now with representation in Congress (Roxbury and most of Dorchester are in Rep. Ayanna Pressley’s district) the winds could shift.

In this exercise, I’ve started from the counterfactual “What if the MBTA was competent at capital construction?” As a result, I’ve assumed the use of modern, Euro-spec trams and reasonable costs for tramway construction. However, tunneling is a different story altogether. If the costs of bored tunnel construction were at all reasonable, I might propose a whole new subway line, taking over the route of the 23 — but they’re not, especially not in the US. Even cut-and-cover tunnels are still quite expensive, as it happens, and for a short bypass tunnel of ¾ mile of Warren St., that’s the low-cost construction technique. That’s also the one tunnel segment that would benefit the most people on the entire surface network.

So I collected a lot of data, traced out routes and stops using the distance-measuring tool, and tried to guess what the operating costs of these routes are today as buses and would be as tram routes, based mostly on public data. I collated all of this data in a Google spreadsheet so you can check my work, laugh at my unrealistic assumptions, etc. Unsurprisingly, since these heavily traveled routes account for a lot of bus trips per day, they also cost a lot to operate — although the 21, somewhat surprisingly, seems to be profitable. For operating costs, I first estimated the number of revenue hours and revenue miles from the Better Bus route profile (which gives a breakdown of trips by daypart and also has a section that shows the actual operating time of each route compared with the scheduled running time). Using the 2017 summary data page from the National Transit Database, I estimated the operating costs for each route as the average of the per-mile and per-hour costs — since those costs are given as system-wide averages the actual per-route numbers might well be much higher or lower than what I’ve calculated. I computed the replacement tram running time based on a formula that accounts for lower average speed of mixed-traffic operations (approximately equal to that of a bus) and a 30-second stop penalty for each stop taken (for some routes, applying a stop factor to account for not all stops being taken on every trip). I chose service levels on the tram routes to generally ensure a comparable level of comfort for current bus passengers while reducing the number of trips to account for the higher capacity of 90-foot trams over 40-foot buses.

On the basis of these calculations, I concluded that the current service on these routes costs nearly $54 million annually to operate (that’s not counting capital costs for new buses or bus garages, because transit agencies do not take depreciation charge-offs). On the basis of my tram operating schedule and the current hourly cost of Green Line operations (again taken from the 2017 NTD summary page), I calculated that a full build would save $13.2 million annually in operating expenses, nearly a quarter. If the less used 42, 44, and 45 routes were left as buses rather than converted to trams, the savings increases to $15.2 million. Of the remaining routes, the E-Arborway restoration alone accounts for $3.8 million of savings annually, and replacing the SL4 and SL5 with a new F-Dudley is worth another $1.7m. (Of course the full-system numbers need to be discounted for the issue with route 32 short turns that I discussed above.)

So what about those capital costs? That’s where it starts to get sad. Even with very optimistic assumptions about construction costs, and assuming only $350 million per mile of tunnel, the full-build scenario costs nearly $1.8 billion — and let’s be brutally honest, the MBTA is never going to spend that much money on poor brown people in the city. (It doesn’t even want to spend that much money on barely-acceptable-by-European-standards commuter rail service that mainly serves rich white people like me.) That would be $19,240 per passenger. Even dropping the tunnel doesn’t help much; assuming you could magick away the on-street car storage and build a reservation down one side of Warren St., that only drops the price by 16%, to just over $1.5 billion. I still think it’s worth doing, but it seems like a really hard slog. (And if you could actually get nearly $2 billion for Roxbury and Dorchester, again you’d probably be better off building a new bored-tunnel subway that wouldn’t need to line up with the street layout.)

But the two easiest cases I have to make would be for restoring the E Line to Arborway (eliminating the 39 bus entirely) and building the F Line. I put a bit more effort into breaking these out, because the numbers look quite favorable (although I’m not convinced they’d pass an equity analysis). Both of these projects have significant unknowns: for the E Line, it’s the cost of making the existing E Line stops fully accessible, and for the F Line, it’s the cost of rehabilitating the Tremont St. Tunnel, making Boylston Station accessible, and reopening the old portal. I don’t have a good idea what these would cost, although the accessibility improvements are already in various long-term plans. Beyond these unknowns, I also assumed the use of new Type 9 LRVs — if the MBTA actually committed to doing either project in a reasonable time (which is much sooner than they are capable of deciding to tie their shoelaces at present) then they could just tack on a few more cars to the existing Type 9 order being built by Spain’s CAF (and assembled in New York State), which is a cost that we do actually know. On that basis, I estimated the surface parts of the F-Dudley at $122.4 million, or $7,600 per passenger per weekday, and the E-Arborway at a slightly higher $115.2 million ($9,930 per passenger). These numbers seem a lot more reasonable, but still difficult to get FTA funding for.

You can see all of these numbers and the formulas used to calculate them on the “Summary” tab of my spreadsheet. That’s all I have time for now, so I’m going to put this project aside and go back to thinking about Regional Rail.

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Updating my MBTA Commuter Rail modeling for the Worcester Line

On Friday, the MBTA quietly released the results of its 2018 in-person passenger counts. I’ve been waiting for this numbers since I started modeling service on the Framingham/Worcester Line last fall, and apparently everyone else has been waiting for them since late spring. I first learned about the release on Saturday, when I saw a retweet by an advocacy organization of a Friday tweet by Laurel Paget-Seekins of the MBTA’s Office of Performance Management and Innovation, and of course I had to take a look at the numbers and rerun my ridership model. The new figures represent a 40+% increase in F/W ridership over 2012, and include the effects of the “Heart to Hub” morning superexpress and the opening of the very popular Boston Landing station in Brighton.

My model is a kind of static demand model: it simply maps the existing ridership onto a new schedule, without any consideration for whether the attractiveness of the schedule would induce more ridership, or indeed for constraints like connecting bus schedules and parking availability at stations that might limit the willingness of riders to alter their schedules. The Rail Vision program is running a dynamic model that hopes to address some of these issues, and indicate where investments in first-mile facilities are necessary to maximize ridership. But with the new figures, I wanted to rerun the analysis I did last year and figure out what the passenger loading looks like when mapped onto an all-electric system with single-level articulated EMUs.

My preferred schedule from last time around involved running two different service patterns: an all-local short-turn pattern in shoulder, reverse peak, and midday, and a zone-express pattern in peak, with four trains per hour (two Worcester local, two Framingham local) middays and eight trains per hour (four Worcester express and four Framingham local) in morning peak. (I don’t model the PM peak, but it’s more spread out so the morning rush is the stronger scheduling constraint.) I demonstrated that this schedule can be operated with 24 75-meter, 260-passenger articulated EMUs using no more than two EMUs in a consist. With 2018 ridership, even at 8 trains per hour, there are two express trips that absolutely require three EMUs, because we don’t want to have more than 120 standees on the non-stop segment from West Natick to Boston. The problem with running “triples” is that Yawkey station, which discharges about a hundred passengers from every train in AM peak, is substandard and lacks the real estate to platform a 750-foot train. But suppose you resolved that, either by erecting signs at all stations directing Yawkey passengers to the front two cars, or (at considerable expense) lengthening the platform: does that open up any additional scheduling possibilities?

More specifically, does allowing three-EMU consists yield a lower overall equipment requirement if you slightly reduce the service frequency? I constructed a service model that runs only six trains per hour in the morning rather than eight: such a service might conceivably reduce the vehicle requirement. (I did not redo the original equipment schedule for the new ridership numbers, but I’m assuming based on the increased traffic that it will require around 30 EMUs.) The unfortunate result of the simulation is that this doesn’t help: as soon as you reduce frequency in the peak, you start requiring four-EMU consists, which are just plain impossible (they would require 1,000-foot platforms). It’s worth noting that the Rail Vision team are not planning for anything better than four trains per hour, which locks them into either extending platforms for using exclusively bilevel equipment — the former is expensive and the latter is a bad choice for passenger comfort, convenience, and speed of boarding, especially with our 48-inch high-level platforms.

What if, instead of 260 seats per train, you could get 290 seats per train? It seems plausible that an 80-m EMU (about 267 feet) — which is the longest practical single-unit length for the MBTA’s 800-foot platforms — could hold that many (figure 5 m of additional length gives you six rows of 3+2 seating for 30 more seats). So what if you take the same ridership estimates and distribute them over larger EMUs? In that case, the “6/6/4” schedule works out quite well, requiring only 26 EMUs and providing at least 50 open seats on every train to allow for ridership increases — and you still have the option of increasing frequency back to 8 trains per hour, which works given the constraints of the line. (I checked: there aren’t enough additional seats to get you back down to two-EMU consists; there really are that many more passengers.)

Just to review the major constraints: I assume full electrification and two full high platforms at every station; Alon Levy’s operating schedule for fast, light EMUs like the Stadler FLIRT; turnaround times of at least 12 minutes at each terminal; and no more than the currently available overnight layover space. Alon’s schedule requires some additional superelevation, but this is a relatively small expense compared to construction of catenary and high platforms. I assume that some midday layover space is available, although the schedule is flexible with respect to which end of the route that layover space is at. (Having some midday layover space in Boston makes it easier to ramp up for PM peak; obviously, you could also run the same service level all day, although this would result in unfavorable headlines in the Herald.) I assume that trains can follow each other with three minutes’ separation, although the proposed schedule provides somewhat more. Finally, I assume that the traffic doesn’t demand a counter-peak express service: this is important because the schedule assumes that westbound Framingham trains can lead westbound Worcester trains, which only works if both branches run local service in the reverse commute.

In developing the equipment schedule, I planned for the line to be operated with two distinct fleets of identical EMUs — one set of “Worcester” cars and separate set of “Framingham” cars — although the equipment can be swapped around at will when not in service. An actual operating service would have the same cars operating Providence and Fairmount service, so spares could be pooled and vehicles could easily be rotated through the network for preventive maintenance and washing.

All of the updated model run results, as well as the new ridership data and my spreadsheet showing the schedule, is available in my GitHub repository. This specific version of the printed spreadsheet contains the results described in this post (except for the 8/8/4 equipment schedule).

The Rail Vision Advisory Committee and the MBTA board have both expressed interest in service plans that allow for phased implementation. With that in mind, I’m going to put at least an evening’s worth of effort into scheduling a service that runs electric local service from Framingham and diesel expresses from Worcester. That’s in preparation for the real challenge, which is to figure out what the Providence Line looks like, with its challenging mix of Amtrak and MBTA service plus the single-track Stoughton branch. But first, I have to tweetstorm my notes from today’s board meeting — after some exercise.

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MBTA Rail Vision’s “Peer Systems Review”: Adding Helsinki to the mix

The day before Thanksgiving, while I was already away and visiting with family, the MBTA Rail Vision team published their Peer Systems Review paper, describing a number of domestic and international commuter rail systems with detailed statistics about their service area, costs, and demographics. I was of course put out that they didn’t include Helsinki, so to remedy that, I’m presenting the same data in the same format. I unfortunately don’t have the GIS setup or databases to answer some of the questions at the same level of detail, and all the caveats in the original paper for international agency statistics apply equally to Helsinki.

Helsingin Seudun Liikenne -kuntayhtymä (HSL, Helsinki Regional Transport Authority in English) is responsible for coordinating transit service, fares, and schedules in the nine municipalities of Helsinki Region (which includes, in addition to Helsinki itself, Espoo, Vantaa, Kauniainen, Kerava, Kirkkonummi, Sipoo, Siuntio, and Tuusula). Most have historic CBDs, of which Helsinki’s is the largest in terms of both resident population and employment.

HSL operates no service of its own, but contracts with private and public operators to provide bus, metro, tram, commuter rail, and ferry services; operating subsidies come from the member municipalities and the Finnish state. VR Group currently has a monopoly on regional and intercity passenger rail service and operates the commuter rail service for HSL, some parts of which are substantially integrated with intercity service; commuter rail service is being put to public tender for the first time, with the new operator contract to start in 2021. A €1 billion project to construct a new, primarily underground rail connector to Helsinki-Vantaa International Airport opened in July, 2015.

Unless otherwise stated, information sourced to HSL/HRT comes from the 2017 Annual Report

Demographics and land use

Information HSL/HRT source MBTA commuter rail HSL/HRT commuter rail
Major City Served N/A Boston Helsinki
Population within 1 Mile of Stations N/A 1,716,012 N/A
Name of UZA N/A Boston, MA-NH-RI Helsinki
Size of UZA (sq. miles) OECD 1,873 291 (2,452)1
Population of UZA OECD 4,181,019 1,041,177 (1,498,050)1
Jobs in area OECD 2,677,320 780,252
Average Wage in Area OECD $64,080 $42,7652
Time spent in congestion TomTom 29 min 27 min
Major Geographic Features Maps Boston Harbor, Charles River Baltic Sea; numerous bays, inlets, rivers, and lakes
Mode Split (Drove Alone) Deloitte 67% 39%3
Mode Split (Transit) Delotte 13% 30%3

1OECD “city area” shown; metropolitan area data in parentheses.

2OECD average wage for entire country, conversion on PPP basis in 2015 US dollars as supplied by OECD. Regional average is believed higher.

3Deloitte Mobility Index includes the four core municipalities of the Helsinki Region: Helsinki, Espoo, Vantaa, and Kauniainen.

System Characteristics

Information HSL/HRT source MBTA commuter rail HSL/HRT commuter rail
Number of Lines HSL/HRT system map 14 4 (14 service patterns)4
Length of Longest Line (miles) Wikipedia 63 approx. 30
Number of Route Miles 388 625
Number of Track Miles N/A 697 N/A
Number of Stations system map 138 506
Percent Stations That are Accessible N/A 75% N/A7
Annual Unlinked Trips HSL/HRT 33,830,904 64,800,000
Percent of Agency Unlinked Trips HSL/HRT 8% 17.3%
Number of Central Terminals System Map 2 1
Central Terminals in Relation to CBD System Map Both in CBD In CBD
On-Time Performance (System-Wide) N/A 89% (2017) N/A8
Peak Line Frequency (Most Frequent/Other) Schedules 20 minutes / 25–50 minutes 5 minutes / 30 minutes9
Off-Peak Line Frequency (Most Frequent/Other) Schedules 40 minutes / 1–2 hours 10 minutes / 60 minutes9

4The four rail lines are the Coast line, the Airport Ring Line, the main line, and the Lahti line. These lines are served by a variety of local, express, short-turn, and skip-stop services; two services provide counter-rotating local service on the 30-mile-long Airport Ring Line. Three services on the main line and one service on the Lahti line are operated substantial distances outside the HSL region by VR on its own account, and one service on the Lahti line is included in HSL system maps and timetables but is entirely outside the HSL region.

5This figure appears to include only services operated using class Sm5 low-floor EMU rolling stock, leased by HSL from Junakalusto Oy.

6Excludes 20 more regional and intercity stations outside the HSL district served by R, T, D, G, and Z trains operated by VR.

7No information about station accessibility is available; however, all stations within the HSL district are served by at least one route using class Sm4 or class Sm5 low-floor EMUs.

8No information about on-time performance is published. However, published service reliability (percent of trips operated out of scheduled trips) exceeded 99.3% in 2017, short of HSL’s service reliability goal of 99.59%.

9Comparison is difficult because of the numerous service patterns operated on the four lines; at some major stations, local, express, and short-turn trains all arrive at the same time. All commuter trains stop at Pasila station, about 32 trains per hour peak and 12 trains per hour late night. Some distant stations have peak-only service.

Operating Characteristics

Information HSL/HRT source MBTA commuter rail HSL/HRT commuter rail
Annual Operating Expenses HSL/HRT $403,654,786 $797,160,00010,11
Farebox Revenues HSL/HRT $198,331,440 $439,971,00010,11
Farebox Recovery HSL/HRT 49.1% 55.2%
Fare Range (Single One-Way Trip) HSL/HRT
fare schedule
$2.25 – $12.50 $3.57 – $8.8610,12
Operating Expenses per Vehicle Revenue Mile N/A $17.15 N/A13
Operating Expenses per Unlinked Passenger Trip HSL/HRT (derived) $11.93 $2.1610,11

10Converted at a rate of €1.00 = $1.23.

11Figures for entire HSL system, including bus, metro, tram, commuter rail, and ferry. As HSL owns no vehicles itself, operating costs include contracted service operators’ costs of capital and depreciation, as well as the cost of leasing commuter-rail trains from Junakalusto Oy.

12HSL has three geographic fare zones and fares are independent of mode (except for Helsinki trams). Fares shown are for single-use one-way tickets purchased at a ticket vending machine; lower prices apply for tickets purchased through a mobile app or from an on-board automated fare validator using a stored-value Travel Card.

13HSL reports operating expense per passenger kilometer as approximately €0.12 for the commuter rail, on par with the Helsinki Metro and significantly cheaper than bus, tram, and ferry services. In comparable US units, this would be $0.24 per passenger mile. As described in note 11 above, this includes a substantial amount of what in the US would be classified as capital costs.

Fleet Characteristics

Information HSL/HRT source MBTA commuter rail HSL/HRT commuter rail
Fleet Operator (Name, Internal/External) HSL/HRT External (Keolis) External (VR Group)
Number of Vehicles in Fleet HSL/HRT 480 11714
Percent Spare Vehicles N/A 12.3% N/A
Average Vehicle Age (Years) Wikipedia 23.0 515
Power Source(s) Stadler Rail Diesel 25 kV 50 Hz overhead catenary
Seated Capacity of Trains (Approximate) Stadler Rail 800 52016

14Includes both Junakalusto Oy-owned class Sm5 EMUs leased to HSL and VR Group-owned equipment (primarily class Sm4 EMUs) used on HSL services under contract.

15Class Sm5 EMUs only, built 2008–2017.

16On a typical peak-period train consisting of two class Sm5 EMUs with 260 seats each. Of the total, 232 seats are fixed and an additional 26 folding seats are shared with wheelchair bays and standing room. The class Sm5 is capable of operating in three-unit consists but passenger demand does not currently justify it.

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My comments on Rail Vision

I attended the meeting of the Rail Vision Advisory Committee on Wednesday, and summarized what I saw in an interminable Twitter thread, which I’m not going to repeat here. After writing all that, I spent another few hours composing an email to MassDOT’s Manager of Transit Planning, the only person whose name is given on the official Rail Vision web site summarizing my further comments (beyond what I said during the public-comment period at the meeting proper). Since I have no idea how or if any of my comments will make it into the public record, I’m posting most of what I wrote here (edited for formatting):

First, a few process concerns.

I signed up a month or two ago for “Rail Vision”-related email. I did not receive any notice of this meeting, or indeed about any other Rail Vision activities. There was no agenda mailed out that I saw; I only found out what was going to be discussed by continually refreshing until the event listing started showing more information.

The project web site does not identify who the members of the Advisory Committee are nor their affiliations. This made it particularly difficult when I was writing up my notes this evening as many of the speakers did not identify themselves. It seems pretty fundamental for any public body, even if a mere Advisory Committee, to have a public membership list so that members of the public who attend the meeting know who is being represented.

From the agenda, it appears that you were discussing something today you called the “Tier 1 Evaluation”, which again does not seem to be public — the committee members were complaining about not having had enough time to read the documents and there’s again nothing on the official project web site. This makes it very difficult for members of the public to determine whether there is any value in attending the meeting or what particular issues they should raise with the people who represent their interests on the committee.

My overall response, despite these process concerns, is that I’m cautiously optimistic, based on the comments I heard from all the committee members today, but I am somewhat concerned that you may be, in the words of the great architect Daniel Burnham, “making small plans”. Given that the rail system is going to require a substantial public investment, it is absolutely vital that this “vision” be a truly forward-looking one, a world-class rail system for our world-class city — we the taxpayers are going to have to be convinced to pay for it, and minor tinkering around the edges while traffic and service get worse for a decade or more is not going to do that. Ask for the best system you can justify, independent of resource constraints, and if we have to make some compromises to pay for it, make sure taxpayers, legislators, and the governor know that we’re settling for less than what we deserve.

As I said at the meeting, the one way forward that actually addresses all of the committee members’ goals — which should be everyone’s goals — of fast, frequent, reliable, all-day, bidirectional rail service, is system-wide electrification with fast, lightweight Electric Multiple Units. The very least we should aspire to is “at least as good as Helsinki”, and given that the Boston-Providence CMSA has five times the population of metropolitan Helsinki (and very similar population densities in the suburbs) this really shouldn’t be that great an ask.

A few of my own notes, a little bit disorganized because I’m extracting them from the longer tweetstorm about what the committee members said:

  • [The speaker] draws the natural conclusion that what we really want is high-frequency service on *all* lines across the board. (Compare or my own proposal for a revised service standard. People talking like barely-adequate 2 trains/hr would be a huge win!)
  • What’s a “vision”? Whether you call it “aspirational”, “ambitious”, or “barely adequate by the standards of small European cities”…
  • There was a lot of talk specifically about growth in and service to the 495/MetroWest corridor, perhaps because many of the committee members are from that area. I actually spent all of Veterans Day weekend researching and writing a specific proposal for this region, where I personally have lived for 17 years. The project should include in its universe of possible service expansions initiating service at least as far as Marlborough on the Agricultural Branch. See the publication list below for more information and motivation.
  • Even if Wellesley doesn’t “deserve” better service [because it’s not creating enough new housing], it may be better for both operations and for riders if the service is more uniform and the same high frequencies are provided everywhere. [My own proposal, see below, runs 8 tph peak on the line, mostly following the current zone-express pattern with 4-tph Worcester trains running express and 4-tph Framingham short-turn/Northborough/Clinton trains running local. Obviously EMUs, double-tracking, and full high-level platforms required.]
  • In response to Josh at T4MA: (Sorry, Josh, we don’t need a bar car, we need to shave half an hour off your commute from Worcester.) In all seriousness, bar cars — any distinct type of coach, especially a non-powered coach — is Bad with a capital “B”. Save those for the east-west intercity service. With only minimal upgrades, the proper EMUs should be able to cut the Worcester express’s running time to 50 minutes, while still serving all stations within Boston city limits. This then eliminates the need for the terrible “Heart to Hub” service and regularizes rush-hour schedules for the entire line.
  • Josh also calls for “flexible trainsets”: this is really an argument for modern, long (75 to 80 meter, 250 to 267 foot) articulated EMUs — not something 1850s-rail-car-sized like the Metro-North EMUs. Then you’re adding/subtracting passenger capacity in units of 250-400 passengers (depending on design and fraction of standees) rather than 160-passenger coaches. This also means you can easily, quickly, and safely make and break consists on the platform to ramp capacity up and down as needed.
  • Mike from Beverly brings up a great point about reliability targets: if, like many commuter rail commuters, you have to make a connection to another MBTA service, then suddenly you don’t have 90% reliability any more, you have 81% reliability, or even worse. (God forbid you have to get from Lowell to Logan Airport — a two-connection commute would be only 73% reliable and you’ll probably be fired for tardiness after the first month.)

While my comments were mostly in agreement with former Secretary Aloisi’s statement, I wanted to disagree with him on one point (which I didn’t raise at the meeting for time reasons): as a Framingham resident, I don’t support the concept of A/B testing service patterns with EMUs on the Providence Line and diesels on the Worcester Line. To get the track capacity required for the level of service we want and deserve, you need the power and acceleration that only EMUs give you. However, Sec. Aloisi is absolutely right on the need for Allston Viaduct mitigation, and I have argued and will continue to argue that this is an ideal demonstration environment for hybrid battery EMUs.

The gap between Yawkey and Boston Landing, during the Allston construction, is too long for a train to coast through, especially considering that the low clearances at Beacon St. will prevent energizing catenary there until all the bi-levels are gone from the South Side. A battery system with sufficient capacity to power the EMU at reduced speed for the 2½ miles from Yawkey to Boston Landing would not add too much to the weight of the vehicle — and such a vehicle would also have operational benefits elsewhere, during service disruptions and construction projects where catenary must be de-energized.

(By contrast, diesel multiple units, like the diesel FLIRT Fort Worth is buying, and which I was previously fairly high on, have a poor power-to-weight ratio and physically cannot accelerate fast enough for the close stop spacing on this line. However, DMUs purchased as part of the same family of rolling stock with EMUs have potential for short-term expansions of service in applications like East-West Rail, Worcester-centered service on the Pan Am and the Providence & Worcester, early implementation on the Old Colony lines, capeFLYER, and service to Nashua.)

I followed this up with an index to my long-form writing and analysis on this subject, which you all have presumably read because it’s all been posted here on the blog. (Any newcomers: welcome! Please be aware that my thinking has evolved as I’ve done more research into these issues and talked with some experts, so the most recent posts are more reflective of my current views than older posts.)

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A further examination of the Agricultural Branch for Regional Rail

About a month ago, I posted the most recent of several posts about using the former Agricultural Branch Railroad, the CSX-owned freight line which runs from Framingham to Clinton, for passenger service under Regional Rail. I made a Google Maps overlay with the route and most of the station locations shown; see the previous link for it. One frustration I had was that, since there is no existing passenger service, there are obviously no passenger counts, and I certainly have no budget to commission survey research to find out who would take such a service, nor which employers would be likely to offer employee shuttles to rail stations. I didn’t even have a good idea what the employment picture was like in the area, other than in Framingham where I live. I had seen some anecdotal evidence that the I-495 corridor is a whopper, employment-wise, but Dell EMC is a major employer and they’re in Hopkinton, south of the Worcester Main Line. And I’m no GIS nerd so I didn’t have a set of geospatially indexed databases ready to hand.

Doing a few quick Google searches, however, I was able to find two timely and extraordinarily usable data sources. The Missouri Census Data Center‘s Circular Area Profiles tool takes geographical coordinates and a radius and resamples the American Community Survey (2012–17) data to generate a broad and informative demographic profile of the people living within the circle so described. (The original census data is reported by blocks and block groups, which are designed to line up with political and physical boundaries rather than abstract geometric figures.) And in the same mode, the Census Bureau’s own Center for Economic Studies produced a fabulous interactive web app, OnTheMap, which provides data on employment from the LEHD Origin-Destination Employment Statistics 2015 data set for arbitrary geographies — and even better for my purposes, because the data set includes origin-destination pairs, it can actually answer questions like “how many people live within walking distance of point A and work within walking distance of point B”. (Both of these tools have important caveats relating to sampling error, especially at small radii, and a more GIS-informed analysis would use more sophisticated tools that took into account actual travel times on the existing roads and sidewalks rather than an arbitrary radius. Maybe someone can ask CTPS to do a real study?)

I’ve used this data to put together another slide deck. Since this presentation is heavily illustrated with Google Maps aerial photos, which I don’t actually have the rights to, I can’t release it under a liberal license for other people to give presentations from, but you’re welcome to download it, read it, and show it to other people.

Some of the key takeaways:

  • There are far more jobs in the corridor than there are people to fill them: the MetroWest/495 region is a net importer of labor — and many of the people who live in the region don’t work there.
  • With the “full build” program, comprising four phases (Framingham yard and stations; Southborough, Marlborough/495, Northborough Center, Northborough/290; Clinton; infill stations at Mt. Wayte Ave., Marlborough Jct., and Berlin/Boylston), 7,000 workers and 20,000 jobs are within walking distance of a station.
  • 79,000 jobs and 52,000 workers live within two miles (reasonable park-and-ride or corporate shuttle distance).
  • 4,650 people work within two miles of a station and live within walking distance of the Framingham Line, Orange Line, Red Line, or SL1 bus — it can be expected that nearly all of these people are currently car commuters. That’s an extraordinary reverse-commute potential, and could be significantly expanded with Regional Rail service to the region.
  • In the more traditional direction, 9,300 people live within two miles of a station and work within walking distance of the other services. These numbers would be even higher after accounting for other potential bus transfers, like the CT2 to Kendall.
  • The biggest proposed stations for residences within walking distance are Clinton (3,800), Framingham State (3,700), and Mt. Wayte Ave. (2,400) — all urban stations. For suburban small towns, Northborough and Southborough both come in respectably, at 1,700 and 1,100, respectively.
  • By far the biggest job center by walking distance is Framingham Technology Park, at over 8,000, but if you consider that most will take corporate shuttles from the station and expand the radius to two miles, that number jumps up to 16,000. It’s difficult to directly compare stations at this radius because none of the stations are more than four miles apart, so most of the commutersheds overlap in one or two directions, but the full set at this distance is worth looking at: Clinton, 4,750; Berlin/Boylston, 775; Northborough/290, 8,125; Northborough Center, 5,450; Marlborough/495, 20,800; Marlborough Jct., 12,200; Southborough, 16,500; FSU/Salem End Rd., 17,050; Mt. Wayte Ave., 25,000. (Note that all of Framingham’s CBD is within two miles of the Mt. Wayte Ave. station site, but most of them would find South Framingham a more convenient station; about 1,000 jobs are within walking distance.)
  • I estimated the “not to exceed” cost for full build at about $490 million, mostly by looking at the aerial photos and making some semi-educated guesses about what things cost. Notably, this accounts for neither the cost of acquiring the line from CSX nor potential benefits from PPPs at some station locations with high development potential, nor does it include the cost of rolling stock. This is a bit pessimistic compared to my previous post, primarily driven by an estimate of $10 million per mile for catenary, trackbed improvements, double tracking, switches, and signals. Some additional costs for RoW and station site acquisition are expected.

UPDATE: I went and drove as much of the route as is possible today, paying particular attention to the station sites. Marlborough Jct. has an aggregate mill that probably ships by rail and would need to be taken and replaced with more appropriate development. The Ken’s Foods “Corporate Headquarters” shown by Google Maps is actually a salad-dressing factory and receives tank cars (corn syrup?), but this use is probably compatible with the station if an island platform is used, but the second track here would be quite tight. Northborough Center could host a full-length platform by dead-ending Pierce St. Finally, I concluded that Northborough/290 station should actually be north of I-290, with access from Whitney St. — land use on that side of the freeway is more favorable for the sort of interceptor P&R that I envisioned, and no additional highway construction would be required to handle the traffic.

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Three Reasons the Commonwealth Needs to Commit to Regional Rail Now

After writing that very long slide deck, I thought it was worth boiling down my conclusions for policymakers to three important points:

1. There is a large investment of some sort required in commuter rail infrastructure over the next ten years. Either we can spend billions of dollars to keep the service limping along as it has been, or we can spend only slightly more to replace it with a vastly superior service. The longer the Commonwealth delays action, the more money will be wasted on keeping the obsolete equipment and the obsolete service running.

2. Riders deserve to see visible evidence of capital investment. This sounds shallow and unscientific, but public support for, and continued use of, the MBTA’s service depends to a great degree on riders seeing actual improvements happening before our eyes. We see this with the subway network: Those of us who are following things closely all know that signal system modernization and new rolling stock, if properly implemented, will alleviate many of the pain points on the Red and Orange Lines, but that’s not visible to the average rider stuck in a tunnel for half an hour with today’s broken-down trains and antiquated signals, and discourages use of the service over the long term. High platform and catenary installation are highly visible construction activities that riders can see and follow the progress of on their daily commutes, and that give evidence of ongoing work to improve service long before new rolling stock shows up or new schedules are implemented. Of course, that doesn’t excuse crumbling stairs, broken elevators, and water leaks, but riders need and deserve some visible evidence of progress. (And as soon as high platforms are implemented at a station, service immediately improves for the riders there, before any of the other investments are completed.)

3. Work on the I-90 Allston interchange is scheduled to start in 2021. While it’s unlikely that we could have full Regional Rail on the Worcester Line before then, MetroWest and Worcester commuters need mitigation — practical commuting alternatives during the anticipated eight-year construction period — which the current commuter rail service is far from being able to provide, and the sooner we get Regional Rail implemented on the Worcester Line, the more effective a mitigation strategy it will be. While it might not be ready for 2021, there is every reason to believe we could have a full implementation by 2023, only two years into construction, if the right decisions are made now.

Schedule thoughts: if we decided to do this, really seriously, with a board vote in January, then the MBTA could start issuing design-build contracts for Providence and Fairmount Line improvements and electrification late in FY19, have an RFP for rolling stock in the spring of 2019, and issue the rolling stock contract (about $2–3bn) in about a year from today (say, October 2019, so early FY20). Pilot cars (if Stadler is the chosen vendor) could be delivered by ship from Europe about a year later, call it January 2021, just in time for the completion of PTC implementation and AFC 2.0. Get a dozen pilot cars and test during winter and spring of 2021, and you can introduce them to revenue service on Providence and Fairmount lines in time for the summer 2021 rating, and take delivery of 30 more cars a year, every year, from the US assembly plant once the pilot cars are accepted.

Meanwhile, you let a single design contract for the remaining catenary and substation construction, and a separate contract for all platforms, with biddable design packages for the Worcester Line due by summer 2020 at the latest. Separate station improvements contracts for Back Bay, Newton, Wellesley-Natick-Framingham, and west-of-Framingham, so that you can start service to Framingham by late 2022 and to Worcester in early 2023. At that point, the newest commuter coaches and locomotives get redistributed to the other lines, and the oldest equipment can be sold for scrap rather than being replaced.

Oh, and you should build my Framingham-to-Northborough proposal.

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A comprehensive Regional Rail slide deck

Hard to believe it’s my 400th post on this here blog, but given recent trends it’s not hard to believe that it’s about transportation rather than computer networking, figure skating, sliding sports, travel, or (most of all) cooking. I’ve spent most of my free time over the last week putting together a slide deck on Regional Rail, although I have no plans as yet to give an actual presentation. (I would be happy to do so for any group or political body that was interested, provided the schedules can be made to work out.)

The purpose of building the slide deck was two-fold: first, I wanted to make something that would serve a broad audience with a somewhat different emphasis from the report; second, I wanted to synthesize a lot of what I’ve learned over the past few months in modeling and analysis (and in reading modeling and analysis by smart people who actually know something about operating rail networks), with the intent that the slides (or an audience-specific subset of them) could be used by many people to present the Regional Rail concept to organizations and political leaders who have an influence on the MBTA’s budgets and capital priorities. (The presentation weighs in at 66 slides, because I’ve put all the information in writing, whereas a deck designed for a more specific audience would leave more of the content for the presenter to give aurally — sorry, Steve Poftak! On the other hand, this makes it more accessible to the Deaf.)

I am releasing the presentation to the public under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 4.0 International license, but with a special exception that excludes presentations based on these slides from the “no derivative works” clause, even if recorded or transcribed. This is basically to protect me, in case someone decided to release a maliciously altered version of the slide deck without my permission, but it’s also why there is only one photo in the presentation (because I would have had to go out after work, in the dark, and take the pictures myself). So please do feel free to use these slides, in whole or in part, to give a presentation on the subject to people you have a connection with, or if you’d be interested in having me actually give the presentation (mind: my only qualifications are as someone who wishes he could take the commuter rail), please see the contact information on slide 62.

I need to thank a bunch of people whose blog posts, blog comments, tweets, and private communications provided important information, and in some cases corrected misconceptions of mine, including Zachary Agush (@zagush), Sandy Johnston (@sandypsj), Alon Levy (@alon_levy), Ari Ofsevit (@ofsevit), David Perry (@FramWorMBTA), Ted Pyne (@Ted4P), and a number of anonymous railfans. However, all of the opinions expressed and any factual errors in the presentation are mine alone.

UPDATE 2019-10-26: Updated to respond to Alon Levy’s comments on Twitter, and correct the power and maximum acceleration for the 75m FLIRT based on the Stadler data sheet. See the GitHub repo for more details and comments regarding the limits of this simulator.

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Interlude: Physics of train acceleration

This past week I’ve been working on a slide deck that people can use to present the Regional Rail concept to non-transportation-nerd audiences, and one of the things that I wanted to include, just as an aside, was a couple of slides explaining the “stop penalty” and why it’s so bad for traditional diesel-hauled commuter rail like we have in Boston. This led me down a horrible rabbit-hole for the better part of two days, trying to figure out a closed-form expression that would allow plotting comparisons showing speed over time, or distance over time, or speed over distance. I am quite certain that there actually is such a solution, but I couldn’t come up with one that looked believable when I plotted it out, so I went back to square one and wrote a simple numerical simulator that would just generate the data points I needed to make my plots rather than trying to come up with the general formula.

In doing this simulation, there are three different regimes we have to consider, which derive from different limits (mechanical, physical, or legal) on the train system. At high speeds, there is a regulatory speed limit: the train is not allowed to go faster than a certain speed, because of track conditions, grade crossings, or the sort of signal system it has. At low speeds, the limits are mechanical: the motors can only apply so much force without the wheels spinning (or the axle shearing, or the gears stripping, or the motor windings burning up). In between these two regimes, however, physical law — Conservation of Energy — directly limits the acceleration that can be achieved. Any train will have the ability to generate (or draw from batteries or overhead wires) a certain maximum amount of power, and even without accounting for all the losses in the system (electrical resistance, inefficiency in the motor controllers and the motors themselves, friction, drag, and so on) this limits the acceleration attainable. In fact, at constant power, the conservation law tells us that

\displaystyle a_{max}(v) = \frac{P}{m\cdot{}v}.

If we assume that you always want your train to accelerate as fast as it can until it reaches the speed limit (or until it has to slow down for the next station), then a \leq a_{MAX} when we are in this power-limited regime, and a \leq F_{max}/m (where F_{max} is the maximum force the motor can exert in the forward direction, called “tractive effort”) when it hasn’t reached maximum power yet. In both equations, m is the mass of the entire train, including locomotives, coaches, fuel, and all the passengers. Note that in the energy-limited regime, acceleration is a function of velocity — in fact, it’s inversely proportional to velocity. Acceleration is the first derivative of velocity, which means this is a differential equation; luckily it’s one that has a solution, although as I said I had trouble figuring this out (because I never took Diff. Eq. in college, most likely) and couldn’t figure out how to do the integration piecewise — because what we really want to figure is speed as a function of time, and then integrate that to get distance traveled as a function of time. But just to make things clearer, here’s a plot showing the three different regimes for three different train configurations that I set up in my numerical model.

The image shows acceleration as the dependent variable and time as the independent variable, with different regimes identified depending on what the cause of the limit on acceleration is (mechanical, power/energy, or legal)

The three train configurations modeled are two trains with 500 passengers, all seated — one with my favorite articulated EMU (Electric Multiple Unit), the Stadler FLIRT, and one with a diesel locomotive of the type the MBTA uses and three bi-level coaches — and a third diesel train with the same locomotive but a nine-coach consist and a crush load of 1600 passengers (the highest load and the longest train currently operated on the MBTA). I assume that all coaches are bi-levels because I don’t have a source for the mass of a single-level coach: in actual operation, at least one single-level coach is required in every train for accessibility.

One thing is abundantly clear: that 1600-passenger “monster” load is extremely slow to accelerate. In the formula above, you’ll note that the mass of the whole consist is in the denominator of the acceleration equation, which is a consequence of Newton’s Second Law (F=ma). Naturally, the heavier the train, the slower it can accelerate, unless you have a way to add power somehow. With Multiple Units, you do have a way to add power: a single FLIRT trainset has two 1,000-kW electric motors, for a total power of 2 megawatts, and if you couple two FLIRTS together, all four motors work together at a system power of 4 megawatts. (You can couple up to three, but in most cases where you might want that many seats, you should be running more frequent trains instead.) The poor commuter-rail train has only one diesel engine with a power output of just over 2.2 megawatts no matter how many cars you couple to the end. (Yes, that does mean that a diesel locomotive on its own could accelerate faster than the electric train, because it weighs less and has more power — but that doesn’t help move any passengers!) One thing is clear: the heavy train takes inordinately long to reach the speed limit of 79 mi/h that I’ve set on this simulation. (On the Providence Line, the speed limit is 125 mi/h, but Regional Rail trains making more frequent station stops would not reach that speed, and it wouldn’t make sense to buy trains that were designed to go that fast — 99 mi/h is easily as fast as is useful on commuter trains.) This is even more clear if you look at the acceleration as a function of distance:

A line graph compares acceleration of three different train configurations; this is the same as the last graph except that the independent variable has been changed to distance traveled.

Look at that heavy train: it takes about 4.5 kilometers (more than 2¾ miles) to reach the speed limit that’s typical on the current MBTA commuter lines! Remember, that’s just acceleration; you still have to decelerate for the next station stop, and if the stations are less than 9 km (5½ miles) apart, that train is never going to reach the maximum speed allowed on the line. That’s why the current service pattern favors expresses: if you can go twelve miles without having to stop or slow down significantly, you don’t have to pay this “acceleration penalty”. (That’s only part of the full “stop penalty” — the other part is the actual time the train has to spend stopped at a station while passengers board and alight, the “dwell time”. Regional Rail aims to solve both of these issues at once with better design, EMUs, and level boarding.)

Another way to visualize this is to look at how long it take to travel a given distance. The graph below shows the same three train configurations, but the x-axis is distance and the y-axis is time, the exact opposite of how you’d normally look at this sort of physics problem, but very useful when you’re thinking about train schedules:
A line graph comparing three different train configurations accelerating from a stop, with distance as the independent variable and time as the dependent variable

The two-trainset FLIRT consist reaches the speed limit first, for obvious reasons (it has nearly double the power), at about 4500 feet of travel, and the three-coach diesel train hits the speed limit at about 6500 feet; after this point, they are traveling at the same speed and those two lines are parallel, separated by about 13 seconds that is the residual advantage of the electric train’s quicker start. The nine-coach diesel barely reaches the speed limit by the right-hand side of the plot, which is at a distance of three miles. If you assume that a train can decelerate exactly as fast as it can accelerate (which is not unreasonable for dynamic or regenerative braking, I’m not so sure about friction brakes), then the long heavy diesel shouldn’t be stopping more than once every six miles or more — which is far from what that train currently does, and that’s why even the “express” trains are quite slow (unless you’re getting on or off right before or after, respectively, the express segment). On the inner parts of many of the commuter lines, stations are spaced much more closely together — as little as a mile or two — and on lines that don’t have stops like that now, those are the exact places where Regional Rail envisions adding “infill” stops to provide better service to residential and commercial areas in the urban core. (Ideally, every Providence Line train would stop at both Forest Hills and Ruggles, for example — but this would only be acceptable to Mansfield commuters if the stop penalty were effectively mitigated so their commutes were not lengthened.)

The code for the simulator is in my GitHub repo, in the file physics.rb. The slide deck will be posted here once I finish writing it.

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Restoring passenger service to the Agricultural Branch

I’ve written here a few times in the past about the prospect, under Regional Rail, of operating passenger service on the former Agricultural Branch Railroad through Framingham. Twitter user @h100gfld convinced me to take another look, and I identified a number of potential station locations and traced out the length of the line on aerial photos. To run service all the way to downtown Clinton, a relatively old, and therefore dense, Worcester suburb, you would need to reconstruct and twin most of 24 miles of track, including building new signals and electrification, some of which will be in an environmentally sensitive area (the flood plain of the Nashua River near Wachusett Reservoir), which would be unlikely to cost less than $10 million a mile in addition to the nine stations. I had another nice Twitter discussion with Sandy Johnston, a planner at MassDOT, about how you model reverse-commute service into areas like this, which currently have a heavily car-dominated mode structure: understanding the potential for some of these stations requires a good model of how transportation demand management can operate in highly suburban areas of the metro. A station where there are already private shuttles (operated by individual employers, office-park developers, or Transportation Management Associations) or public transit services (operated by the MBTA or a local agency) would have more reverse-commute potential than a parking lot surrounded by undevelopable conservation land, even if the latter is actually the location of a historic passenger station. However, as @h100gfld pointed out, there are a number of locations along the Ag Branch with significant potential for “traditional” commuter rail services.

While some of the Regional Rail advocacy emphasizes the transportation value of reverse-commute and suburb-to-suburb services, especially when some of our “suburbs” are themselves urbanized areas larger than the core cities of other metros. In my own modeling of the Framingham/Worcester Line, I’ve emphasized the need to treat Worcester as a “first-class citizen” destination in its own right, rather than assuming that nobody would ever want to work or be entertained in downtown Worcester. (That this is clearly wrong will be even more demonstrable in a couple of years when the Red Sox’ AAA affiliate moves from Pawtucket, R.I., to a new ball park immediately adjacent to the railroad just west of Worcester Union Station. It would be a great shame if a platform is not built there to allow Worcester trains to be extended to the park on game nights.)

But let’s at least look at the “traditional commuter rail model” for the Ag Branch, and what that would imply about where you want to put stations. As it’s practiced today, you’re looking to intercept car commuters convenient to their residence or close to a major highway, and give them a big flat parking lot (cheap) or garage (expensive) to park on. This means that you tend to avoid putting stations in the historic downtowns they used to serve (and which would provide potential for TOD or have existing destinations desirable to travelers) — as witness the Westborough, Southborough, and Ashland stations on the Worcester Line, which are located well outside walking distance from anything other than their own parking lots. It also means that you don’t want to build stations on separate lines “too close” to each other, because the federal funding paradigm only rewards new riders, not riders diverted from an existing station by the addition of a more convenient station. This was one of the conclusions from the last time the Ag Branch was studied as a potential commuter rail line: it would not draw enough new riders, but rather, it would just take riders away from the Framingham Line. Because the Ag Branch service was viewed as “competing” with the Worcester Line service (which had not yet been restarted at the time of the study), it was not advanced out of preliminary study into more formal planning. Of course, there have been many, many changes in both land use and transportation (not to mention congestion) since then which mean that the conclusions should be revisited. Since the time of that study, the branch continuing through Nobscot into Sudbury (the former South Sudbury Industrial Track, part of the former Framingham & Lowell Railroad) has been abandoned and tracks lifted — and even more unfortunately, the branch from Marlborough Junction to downtown Marlborough, which is now something of a destination in itself, has been totally obliterated by development.

One thing the Regional Rail paradigm gives you, even for a relatively peaky, commuter-oriented service, is a lower stopping penalty — thanks to electrification, all-door boarding at high-level platforms, and lightweight, quick-accelerating electric multiple-unit trains, adding a station stop typically means less than a minute in travel-time penalty for through passengers. That means that you can have both downtown stations and big park-and-ride interceptor lots where the traffic justifies them, and with frequent all-day service, travelers who are parked at a P&R can get off at a downtown station to shop or dine without having to worry about being stranded there waiting for infrequent off-peak or reverse-peak service.

This then leads me to a route map for passenger service on the Ag Branch that I created in Google My Maps. This map shows nine station sites, two of which are redundant with each other. The map also shows an approximate half-mile “walkshed” around each station location, indicating which businesses and residents would have car-free access to the train.

Downtown at the old station location in Depot Square
On West St. at the old station location; probably shouldn’t be built unless the towns of Boylston and Berlin agree to pay for it as a somewhat anemic P&R site replacing what appears to be a public-works yard just north of the old station
A park-and-ride site straddling I-290, about a mile and a half north of Northborough’s old downtown station; local traffic entrance on Bearfoot Road, and you could probably do half of an urban interchange on the west side to intercept cars coming from Shrewsbury on I-290
Northborough Center
I surmise the historic downtown station either is Mama’s Pizza or was located there; there are plenty of amenities and a reasonable amount of residential within walking distance
Take the Suburban Propane facility off Simarano Drive on Cedar Hill St. for a large surface P&R lot a half mile from I-495. Note that I did not put a station at Marlborough Junction, although there is surely room for one, because there simply isn’t anything there: the Simarano Dr. location would be more convenient for most drivers and there are neither walkable destinations nor much in the way of residences near Marlboro Jct. This is a location that would be a prime candidate for an infill station if Marlborough either committed to funding shuttle service to downtown or changed zoning to encourage high density around the potential station location.
I’ve moved the platform north from what I think was the original station location to put the north end of the platform close to Southborough Medical Center. I would rename the existing Southborough station to Cordaville, which is the historic name of the neighborhood, so that the station in the center of Southborough can be named “Southborough”; the two stations are just about three miles apart along Route 85. Note that even though the Cordaville station is not convenient to the Turnpike or I-495, its large P&R lot regularly fills up before 7 AM on weekdays, so there is justification for building a new station that would attract traffic from the northern part of the current station’s commutershed.
Framingham Technology Park
I’ve discussed this station location frequently in the past. It’s within walking distance of Bose corporate headquarters and a large Sanofi (Genzyme) facility, and has existing MWRTA shuttle service; it’s just off Route 9 and at the Mass Pike interchange; on the other side of Route 9 is Staples corporate headquarters. All told there are probably five thousand jobs in this area, plus a big hotel, and the whole industrial park is ripe for higher-density development made possible by frequent rail service.
Salem End Road
I’ve illustrated two possible station locations for Framingham State University. Both are located at existing FSU parking lots and have site limitations that restrict platform length, but this whole line is probably limited to 600-foot platforms at best. (With the equipment I’ve proposed, that’s more than enough to carry 500 passengers per train, and with service every 15 minutes at peak that would be more than enough to meet the demand on this line.) The northern station location is at Salem End Road, very close to the grade crossing at Route 9. It’s the clearly superior location in terms of access to Framingham State’s campus and to other businesses and residences in Framingham Center, but if a grade separation needs to be built over Route 9 it might not be constructible.
Maple St.
The second Framingham Center station is south of Maple St. and just north of the existing bridge over the Sudbury River. You could possibly justify building a station at Mount Wayte Ave. instead, or building both Salem End and Mt. Wayte (the north end of the Salem End station site is about 7/8 mile from Mt. Wayte Ave.) but if so, it should be paid for by the owner of the shopping center on Franklin St. Maple St. is within walking distance of more residences than Salem End Rd., which tends towards the commercial, but I think there’s a stronger case for Salem End if you can actually build it.

In terms of priorities, I would build this project in four phases: phase one is to Tech Park, phase two is to Simarano Drive, phase three is to I-290, and phase four is the rest of the way to Clinton, probably at least 20 years out unless someone can make a compelling case for doing it faster.

For any passenger service, it will be necessary to construct additional platforms at South Framingham (the current “Framingham” station at Routes 126 and 135 in downtown Framingham). Because CSX needs to get wide freight loads from Framingham (Franklin St.) yard to Mansfield via the Framingham Secondary, there needs to be a freight bypass, or else expensive and maintenance-intensive automatic gap fillers at the new high platforms. And in order to have even a minimal-length, 600-foot platform, the existing western wye track needs to be relocated. I’ve put together a diagram in Google Maps showing how this all fits, and you can see it below:
Diagram drawn on a Google Maps aerial photo showing new platforms and tracks at Framingham station

Relocating the wye track, in addition to making room for the necessary platforms, also opens up more than an acre of land to expand the MBTA’s parking lot. In order to compensate CSX for the loss of parking behind their building, I show about a third of an acre as parking for CSX employees in addition to an expanded MBTA lot. Longer term, it may make more sense to move CSX operations back to the “south” yard (east of route 126 near the Ashland town line), and if it’s not too expensive, building a completely new freight track directly from the south yard to the Framingham Secondary would be not be difficult and would be operationally beneficial for passenger service. Indeed, redevelopment of the Franklin St. yard — which is on a large pond that could make it desirable for transit-oriented residential development — might well pay for building such a connection. (I’ve drawn two plausible routes from the south yard to the Framingham Secondary on yet another Google map. Construction of either alternative would permit the abandonment of the north end of the Framingham Secondary and closure of one of the two remaining grade crossings on Route 135 in downtown Framingham, and would simplify the elimination of the grade crossing of Route 126.)

UPDATE 2018-10-21: I built a physics simulator that allowed me to actually predict a schedule for this service. Assuming you only build it as far as the Northboro/I-290 station and not all the way to Clinton, the timing looks like:

Station Minutes
Northboro/290 0
Northboro Center 3
Marlboro/495 7
Southboro 13
Tech Park 17
Framingham Center/FSU 21
South Framingham 24

At South Framingham it becomes the “local” train for the Framingham/Worcester line, so it would probably require two-trainset consists at peak. I modeled this assuming the track is reconstructed for 59 mi/h service; getting to 79 mi/h saves a whole two minutes so I doubt it’s worth the added capital investment.

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Next steps for Regional Rail

At the October 1 meeting of the MBTA’s Fiscal & Management Control Board, there was an extended discussion of capital investment planning. The presenter, in the capital projects department, noted that in past years, the MBTA had been unable to spend all of its capital budget due to a lack of a program pipeline, due in large part to a lack of management capacity to oversee and close out contracts on a timely basis. FMCB chairman Joseph Aiello noted that the plan for remedying the MBTA’s investment backlog over 15 years, which was part of the revitalization program the board approved, has a “hockey stick” graph in expenditures, hitting nearly $1.5 billion (in 2015 dollars) in fiscal 2021 and remaining level (in constant dollar terms) for the next ten years. Aiello expressed concern that the agency may not be issuing enough contracts for capital construction and vehicle purchases to be actually making the $1.5 billion investment on schedule, because these projects would need to be in the pipeline now for the actual expenditures to be made in the out years.

On my way home from the meeting (which had no public comment session) I tweeted that I could think of two easy ways to quickly ramp up that spending: building the Red-Blue Connector and making a full commitment to Regional Rail. Red-Blue doesn’t count as “state of good repair” (SGR) spending, but a big chunk of the bill for Regional Rail — replacing all of the rolling stock and upgrading yards and maintenance facilities — does. In addition, building high-level platforms at all stations will entail both accessibility and SGR improvements for platforms and station structures at more than a hundred stations. That got me thinking — of course, the state hasn’t committed to Regional Rail — but supposing they did so before December, what would that mean for the project pipeline? What plans and “early action” procurements need to proceed immediately, in the current fiscal year, to be able to obviate future SGR spending on obsolete commuter rail equipment? I came up with a list of five:

  1. Design/Build: Mansfield high platforms and freight bypass (or automatic gap fillers — if practical, faster to implement, and maintenance costs are not much higher than the bypass)
  2. Design: Sharon substation expansion to full capacity (should be relatively easy because the existing Amtrak traction substation was built with this in mind, and it’s not on the critical path to converting the Providence Line itself; it’s needed for Stoughton, Franklin, Framingham, and revenue Readville service) (construction contract to be advertised 1Q FY20)
  3. Planning: initial procurement activities to support EMU purchase and FRA waiver application; target 2021 delivery of pilot trains (probably includes hiring a consultant to develop the RFP, evaluate bids, develop the testing program, and oversee the rolling stock production and delivery) (rolling stock RFP 1Q FY20)
  4. Design/Build: remaining Providence Line high platforms and any vertical circulation required under ADA; Readville and Fairmount station upgrades after substantial completion of Providence Line
  5. Design/Build: yard electrification, maintenance facility upgrades, and additional required catenary installation at Providence Line station sidings and layover facilities; Fairmount Line catenary

I added Fairmount catenary to the “early action” list (which wasn’t in my original Twitter thread) because it supports the maintenance and testing of the EMUs; you’ll need to test the pilot train(s) somewhere, and the Fairmount is short, adjacent to two major yards that will need electrification, and a potentially viable alternate route with a (current) low level of scheduled service to interfere with. The Fairmount Line is already being used to move diesel trains from the Readville layover yard to South Station to start service in the morning, and it is an ideal location to test the new trains until revenue service is ramped up sufficiently.

Ari Ofsevit came up with an intentionally pessimistic station platform upgrade estimate of $3 million, plus $20 million wherever new vertical circulation is required — but the new high-level island platform at Worcester Union Station, including track and signal work and vertical circulation, is forecast to cost only $4 million in design and $8–$12 million to construct, so hopefully this is closer to the actual figure. Various numbers exist for installing main line catenary, but it’s harder to find the cost of catenary special work like turnouts and yard tracks, and harder still to estimate them without a good track map. Figure $3.5–$4.5 million per mile for the Fairmount Line itself.

Mansfield is separate because it needs high platforms but can’t have them currently due to a requirement for wide freight to pass the existing station location; the site is rather constrained, because the Framingham Secondary joins from the west immediately north of the station, and just south of the station is a two-track viaduct. However, the land on the west (southbound) side of the station is mainly parking lots, so it’s conceivable that you could shift the southbound platform west and north, leaving the existing southbound track as a bypass track. Whatever solution is chosen, this station needs vertical circulation and will probably cost on the order of $20–$30 million to upgrade — and this needs to start now because there is no other option for Mansfield commuters; the special work alone could take a year to procure, so the specifics of the design need to be settled quickly. The other stations that need high platforms are Attleboro, South Attleboro, Sharon, and Canton Junction; it appears that none of these stations need additional vertical circulation. Hyde Park station also needs upgrades, but that stop can be serviced by the Franklin Line until it’s upgraded, so it’s not an “early action” station.

Once the “early action” items are in process, a somewhat slower process can be engaged with longer-term contracts to finish the job. A single design firm should be engaged to handle platform and circulation upgrades at the remaining stations, with design packages coming up for construction bids on a line-by-line basis, in priority order. Another firm should be engaged to plan the electrification infrastructure, starting with identifying any clearance issues so work to fix them can be contracted as quickly as possible, and substation locations for traction power on the other lines so permitting and land acquisition can begin. (Sharon substation can service Providence and Fairmount, but not any of the other lines because of distance limitations.) If you want to build my Framingham State/Tech Park extension, now would also be the time to bid a design package for double-tracking, electrification, two stations, and the layover facility.

What about that priority order? While nearly everyone agrees on prioritizing the Providence and Fairmount lines — Providence because it’s already (mostly) electrified and Fairmount because it’s an alternate route to Boston, requires no substations, and it’s an environmental justice community that would benefit from faster, more frequent, non-polluting trains. I tweeted this question with my own proposed list, and Ted Pyne of TransitMatters responded; I have no reason to disagree with his suggestions, so here is the list we seem to have agreed on:

  1. Providence
  2. Fairmount
  3. Framingham/Worcester (and you should go back to treating Framingham short turns as a “branch” with an independent service and its own layover facility to support early-morning and late-night service)
  4. Eastern Route (Newburyport/Rockport, also serves Chelsea, Lynn, Salem, and is the busiest of the North Side lines)
  5. Lowell
  6. Haverhill
  7. Fitchburg
  8. Franklin
  9. South Coast Rail phase 2 (New Bedford/Fall River via Stoughton)
  10. Old Colony (Kingston/Plymouth, Middleboro/Lakeville, Greenbush — the newest lines, opened 20 years ago)
  11. Needham (should be replaced by rapid transit rather than implementing Regional Rail)

Do you electrify the Wildcat Branch, or is that now pointless? Should you do the Stoughton Branch before you actually settle on the final South Coast alignment? (Everyone who isn’t a Bristol County state legislator seems to agree that South Coast phase 1 is a bad idea, myself included.) You’ll want to do a longer-term study to figure out what kind of rapid transit the Needham Line should have — I think there’s broad agreement on extended the Orange Line to West Roxbury, but not so much agreement on what happens to the rest of the Needham Line, which has no other connection to the rail network now that the Millis branch of the Needham Junction wye has been rail-trailed.

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