Dear Gov. Raimondo: Express trains wrong ask
Let’s improve existing service and help all passengers
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We read with interest your call for express rail service from Providence to Boston. You are spot-on in thinking that improved rail connections regionally will be beneficial to the people, the economies, and the environments of our respective states. But rather than single express trains serving a few commuters, we respectfully suggest low-cost, common-sense improvements that would benefit everyone.
At our non-profit TransitMatters, we’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how to improve intercity rail in Massachusetts (we will be rolling out a regional rail white paper before the end of the year). We believe that better service is a combination of improved speed and frequency, providing a wider range of benefits in many corridors. The good news is that in the Boston-to-Providence corridor, there are two relatively low-cost steps—high-level platforms and electrification—that the MBTA can take (perhaps with Rhode Island’s help) that would significantly improve service between these two dynamic cities.
Here’s how we would do it.
The first step is simply to reduce the dwell times—the time trains spend loading and unloading passengers—at stations. This is accomplished by replacing the low-level platforms along the line with those that allow level boarding. Why is this important?
Most of the busiest stations on the commuter rail network are on the Providence Line. At rush hour, commuter rail trains spend 20 percent of their time loading passengers at these stations. This process is slow because most passengers have to climb or descend steep steps, and because trains can only use half the doors since regulations require that each set of doors is staffed. So, for example, when several hundred passengers board or alight at Sharon, it causes delays of approximately 2 to 4 minutes, which is repeated at Mansfield, Attleboro, and South Attleboro. By the time a train gets to Providence, Ocean Staters have spent anywhere from 8 to 16 minutes stationary as their Bay State brethren climb off the train.
High-level platforms (now in place at Providence, Route 128, and Back Bay stations) allow all doors to open and passengers to step onto a level surface, reducing boarding time by a factor of 4. High-level platforms are required by Americans with Disability Act regulations, so any improvement to a station requires their implementation. With high-level platforms, those with limited mobility would no longer have to board at the far end of the platform, but could instead board any car of the train, so implementing this provides all riders with faster service and provides real equity to those with mobility challenges.
“What does this cost?” you may ask. High-level platforms are relatively inexpensive: since Providence Line stations—Hyde Park, Canton Junction, Sharon, Mansfield, Attleboro, and South Attleboro—already have accessible vertical circulation in place (ramps and elevators), the cost, based on similar MBTA project scopes, is only about $4 to $5 million per station. (Mansfield, owing to its location at a junction with a freight line, would cost somewhat more.) For a total cost of $25 to $40 million—not much more than the cost of buying an additional locomotive and coaches for express service—all of the Providence Line stations could be upgraded.
Introducing high-level platforms would save the most time for busy peak-hour trains—10 minutes for the average train, a bit more for the busiest. This time saving is about as much as would be experienced with an express service, without requiring additional capital rolling stock or operating expenditure. In fact, it would save the MBTA money, because train crews would spend less time in transit. Depending on whether simple crew time calculations are used, or whether the total operating cost is calculated, high-level platforms would save the T between $120,000 and $2 million annually in operating costs alone.
And Gov.Raimondo, here’s the best part. Passengers would save time, too, and we believe that this service would attract new riders to the train. Faster trips would make the train more appealing to commuters, taking cars off the road and bringing in new revenue to the T on trains it already runs. You may have read that at the last Fiscal and Management Control Board meeting, T officials worried about declining ridership. The kind of initiative we are talking about here would help boost ridership in a meaningful way.
Providence passengers would benefit the most, but passengers at other stations would also see speedier trips. Depending on the passenger count used, it would save passengers on the Providence Line a total of between 250,000 and 350,000 hours of transit time per year. For Providence passengers, this would mean several hours each week freed up from travel time, just by building these platforms. That improvement to the quality of life of your residents may just be priceless.
While most train lines in the United States are old and slow, the line between Boston and Providence is an exception. It’s old—the remarkably-engineered Canton Viaduct dates to 1835—but fast, with top speeds of 150 mph. Amtrak’s fastest trains operate at an average speed of over 100 mph, start to stop. These benefits accrue thanks to the investment made in electrifying the line in the late 1990s, and Amtrak takes full advantage of it. Unfortunately, the MBTA doesn’t.
The MBTA treats the line like any other: old and slow. Despite operating on the fastest rail line in the country, MBTA trains are limited to a top speed of 79 mph, and its heavy and slow diesel equipment can barely muster even that. Rather than pulling power from wires above, diesel trains carry power and fuel on board, limiting their output and creating slow acceleration, exactly the opposite of what you want on a line with frequent stops. The best practice alternative—used in New York, Philadelphia, Denver, Montreal, Chicago (and extensively abroad), and planned in San Francisco and Toronto—is called an Electric Multiple Unit, or EMU. Each car in an EMU has an electric motor and can accelerate quickly and cruise at over 100 mph. In other words, they have the acceleration of the subway combined with the top speed of Amtrak.
The good news: the vast majority of the infrastructure is already in place to run EMUs. The Providence Line is entirely electrified, with the exception of a small number of yard tracks and sidings. While some additional electrical capacity is required, the buildings housing this equipment were built larger than necessary to accommodate power upgrades.
EMUs are proven technology in the Northeast Corridor, using the same power and signaling systems that are already in place; in fact, the commuter trains running in Connecticut today could be run through Providence and into South Station. Faster electric trains are more compatible with faster Amtrak service; MBTA trains could be slotted between Amtrak departures and would no longer have to sit on sidings at Attleboro to let Amtrak trains pass (this occurs daily, and is the reason one of the busiest trains, the 4:55 p.m. departure from South Station, takes 1 hour and 12 minutes to get to Providence).
EMUs are less expensive per car than diesels and coaches, and they could replace some of the T’s oldest equipment, 20 percent of which was built in the 1970s. They’re also much more reliable. MBTA commuter rail locomotives fail about once every 3,000 to 4,000 miles (and given that the Providence Line runs 10,000 miles a week, this accounts for a breakdown two or three times a week); In Connecticut, Metro-North’s new EMUs experienced failures every 150,000 to 200,000 miles, and the railroad is disappointed with these numbers and striving to do better. This is the difference between a couple of breakdowns per week and a couple of breakdowns per year.
Would you trust a 40-year-old car to get you to work? Neither should the thousands of Rhode Islanders who ride MBTA commuter rail every day. We all should be working with MBTA officials who are now developing a 15-year plan to invest in new equipment (among other things), to ensure that investment in EMUs is part of the plan. If it isn’t, the T will be making a long-term decision that fails to leverage the infrastructure already in place on the Providence Line. It will be a historic missed opportunity.
EMUs will likely require a new maintenance facility along the Providence Line. The most-easily developable land for the facility would be adjacent to the line in Pawtucket, resulting in scores of skilled, permanent jobs based in Rhode Island. EMUs could also be used for Rhode Island-based service, providing much faster travel between Providence and Westerly. The Rhode Island Department of Transportation could work with the MBTA, much as the Connecticut Department of Transportation works with Metro-North. The equipment used by Rhode Islanders would keep maintenance jobs in Rhode Island.
The benefits of high-level platforms and EMUs are additive: combined, they would save 20-24 minutes for every peak-hour train to Providence. With these improvements in place, trains could reliably operate between Providence and Boston in just 45 minutes, even while making intermediate stops.
Equipment utilization becomes much more efficient with EMUs as well. With high-level platforms and EMUs, every train could make two trips at rush hour. The current schedule, which requires 8 trains, could be run with just 4, halving operation costs and reducing the overall fleet requirements. This would result in a capital cost reduction of approximately $90 million, which, if annualized over 30 years, is $3 million per year. That’s a substantial savings to the MBTA and a substantial time benefit for riders. The “backhaul” would also benefit Providence, with reverse-peak service to Providence every 30 minutes, allowing easy access to jobs in Providence for people living in Boston and along the line.
Alternatively—and quite possibly necessarily, given the much faster service compared with driving—service could be increased using the proposed new fleet. Right now, 8 trains provide service between Providence and Boston approximately every 30 minutes during rush hour. Because commuter rail is so slow, it has to clear the line for faster Amtrak trains, resulting in service gaps at the peak of rush hour: no train arrives in Boston between 7:36 and 8:16 in the morning, and no train departs for Providence between 4:55 and 5:40 in the afternoon. With EMUs, the same 8 trains could provide service to Providence every 15 minutes, and the most a schedule would have to vary to accommodate Amtrak would be 4 or 5 minutes. This would provide similar headways (times between trains) for the Providence Line as the Red Line provides between Braintree and Boston. You’d barely need a schedule: you could just show up at the station in Providence and be in Boston—in the worst case—in an hour.
Midday service would be similarly improved. Today, the T provides a train every two hours or so: miss the train at 11:10 a.m. and you’re stuck waiting until 1:05 p.m. (Goodbye lunch meeting.) With just two trains—fewer than operate today—Providence could have offpeak service to Boston every hour, on the hour. (With four trains: every 30 minutes.)
As you can see, Gov. Raimondo, improving service between Providence and Boston without moving to express train service is both possible and cost-effective. We support making these kinds of investments in our intercity rail system for a number of reasons:
- It is an effective way to link regional economies: think Harvard to Brown, MIT to Rhode Island School of Design, or the Cambridge Innovation Center in Kendall Square to the under-construction innovation center in Providence, in an hour.
- It provides people with the mobility they need to access jobs equitably, putting the Boston job market much closer to Ocean Staters, and making jobs in Providence more easily accessible to those in Massachusetts.
- It provides alternatives to the growing regional traffic congestion that is costing our residents millions of dollars annually in lost fuel and time and diminishing our quality of life.
- Finally, it gives Rhode Island commuters 40 minutes a day to spend with their families instead of sitting on a train.
Ari Ofsevit is a transit advocate, a member of TransitMatters, and a master of science in transportation/master of city planning candidate at MIT. James Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation, a principal at Trimount Consulting and the Pemberton Square Group, and a member of the TransitMatters Board.