Bustitutions aren’t the only option during shutdowns

Maybe commuter rail trains could operate as MBTA shuttles

THE MBTA RECENTLY ANNOUNCED that the Orange Line would be shut down on weekends between Ruggles and Forest Hills for much of this summer and into the fall. These shutdowns are the consequence of the long-overdue initiative to close the T’s $7.3 billion maintenance backlog. The work coming to the Orange Line now and in the near future will help alleviate major slow zones, prevent sources of frequent delays, increase capacity, and generally bring the route in line with expected standards for rapid transit, all in concert with the approaching introduction of new subway cars.

Critical maintenance and repair work won’t be confined to the Orange Line.  MBTA leadership has warned the public to anticipate major service disruptions across large swaths of the system as work to address the maintenance backlog is undertaken in the coming years. These disruptions are unfortunate and unwelcome, but they are unavoidable. TransitMatters strongly supports this necessary work.

While we recognize that service disruptions will be necessary to carry out these projects, we also believe that the MBTA should provide replacement service in a way that minimizes inconvenience to riders. Doing this requires creativity, flexibility, and efficient use of resources to mitigate significant impacts on T riders.

Performing critical maintenance and repair work cost-effectively, while simultaneously maintaining a high level of quality service, is a test of an agency’s ability to creatively balance and manage multiple interests. In the spirit of holding the state’s principal transit agency to high standards of repair and service, we believe that the MBTA’s usual approach to substitute service – using fleets of shuttle buses in mixed traffic on city streets between stations (something we like to call “bustitution”) – may not be the best way to provide alternative service to Orange Line riders during the anticipated outages. The use of conventional buses to replace higher-capacity Orange Line transit sets results in crowded conditions, significantly slower trips, and a need to operate many buses to approximate the capacity of a single train. It is no surprise that every rider’s heart sinks at the first mention of “shuttle buses between Forest Hills and Ruggles” – or on any other trip.

A sample poster for an MBTA shuttle service using commuter rail.

Beyond the rider experience, bustitution also has significant impacts on service and budget. The MBTA either uses its own buses for replacement service or hires private companies to provide buses. Both approaches come with downsides: the MBTA’s internal bus driver shortage limits the availability of drivers for replacement shuttles, while the latter comes at considerable expense.

TransitMatters believes that replacement service during these necessary disruptions may be enhanced through creative measures. One alternative worth exploring is the use of available MBTA commuter rail trains and network capacity on the MBTA commuter rail system to provide shuttle service when disruptions occur on rapid transit lines which parallel those of the commuter rail, such as the portion of the Orange Line affected by this upcoming project. This would allow the shutdowns to have productive work windows, while still providing high-quality service to many affected riders. A rail shuttle, as this option might be dubbed, would meet two goals. First, it would provide improved service for Orange Line riders during service suspension, making many trips faster and relieving many travelers of the burden of riding on extremely crowded shuttle buses. Second, such a commuter rail shuttle would provide an important opportunity to explore more creative and efficient usage of MBTA rail assets.

With specific respect to the suspension of Orange Line weekend service, we suggest exploring use of the commuter rail tracks that parallel the Orange Line in the Southwest Corridor to provide replacement service.  A large percentage of Orange Line riders travel between the Forest Hills terminus and Ruggles and Back Bay stations, on a right-of-way shared with commuter rail. On weekends, reduced commuter rail schedules make available spare track capacity and idle trains – both of which could be put into use providing replacement service.

While buses would remain necessary to connect stations not served by the commuter rail (Green, Stony Brook, Jackson Square, and Roxbury Crossing), a rail shuttle would  mitigate crowding on the buses by serving end-to-end riders, providing a more direct and faster connection than that provided by the bus shuttles, which require the use of an indirect route on slower, often narrow roads.

We estimate that with four train sets, a service between Forest Hills and South Station would be able to operate every 12 minutes, frequency nearly identical to that of the Orange Line on weekends.  A smaller-scale version of the shuttle (which may be necessary depending on the time needed to change operating ends at the terminal stations, and complications from other summer work such as the installation of positive train control anti-collission equipment) could run between Forest Hills and Ruggles or Back Bay. While the ultimate decision will require an assessment of the availability of fleet and train-turning time, our initial recommendation would be to operate to South Station, where the infrastructure offers the most flexibility. Additionally, because South Station is in walking distance to much of the same catchment area as the Orange Line’s Downtown Crossing stop, it is possible that many riders would benefit from a one-seat ride on the rail shuttle in lieu of a required transfer, keeping many trips fast even during a service disruption. This scenario would also allow a one-transfer trip from Forest Hills to the Seaport, which is currently not possible on weekends (and only rarely on weekdays). In any event, the necessary infrastructure and capacity exists to provide replacement service in a flexible, rider-friendly manner while still allowing for extensive maintenance work.

TransitMatters does not anticipate a great cost savings from this proposed experiment, although we believe it is possible that the cost of this proposed alternative would be lower than a full bustitution solution.  Moreover, there may be other benefits and cost-efficiencies from using a rail shuttle.  For example, running a rail shuttle to Back Bay or South Station could also enable the MBTA to shut down a longer stretch of the Orange Line at a single time, allowing more work to be done during a given weekend and potentially creating significant cost savings. For these reasons, we believe this circumstance presents an important opportunity to demonstrate that the T can provide quality service to riders through these necessary repairs and associated service disruptions, while exploring creative operational strategies and using the system’s assets to their full potential.

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Meet the Author

Josh Fairchild

Co-founder, board member, and legal advisor, TransitMatters
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This rail shuttle approach to providing better service during maintenance and repair disruptions is a logical outgrowth of the recent interest in finding ways to utilize existing rail assets more creatively and robustly. As we at TransitMatters have advocated, together with a growing coalition of influential leaders and advocates, the commuter rail system should be better utilized through what we call a regional rail operating model, providing frequent, all-day service which would supplement and expand the reach of the rapid transit network. Exploring the use of commuter rail lines for substitute service would represent an important step in this direction.

If the rail shuttle model proves viable and a positive experience for riders, it could be rolled out to other places across the MBTA network, including the Braintree branch of the Red Line and the northern section of the Orange Line, from North Station to Malden Center and Oak Grove, as the need arises. There will certainly be great need to accommodate repair and construction disruptions in the coming years as new signals are installed on the Red and Orange Lines and the MBTA executes work to bring the entire system into a state of good repair. TransitMatters looks forward to working in partnership with the MBTA, Keolis, and other stakeholders to develop a more detailed rail shuttle conceptual plan and explore other opportunities for creative service paradigms.

This article was written collaboratively by TransitMatters members led by Ethan Finlan, Josh Fairchild, and James Aloisi.