Take long view, build N-S Rail Link

Don’t throw good money after bad S. Station expansion

DESPITE THE SORRY STATE of Greater Boston’s commuter rail system, it manages to function well enough to carry nearly half of the city’s suburban commuters to jobs and other destinations. This is less a testament to the efficiency of the rail network and more a reflection of the hours-long gridlock on the highway network every day. The trains are frequently crowded, yet the network’s capacity to add more service is constrained, in many cases less by line operations and more often by the two unconnected terminals at North and South stations. There, trains are required to slowly pull in to discharge passengers, and then reverse direction and pull out empty, simply to clear space for the next train to arrive. All of this is inefficient and expensive, but is required by the configuration of North and South Stations.

One way to mitigate this would be to build a bigger station. New York’s Grand Central Terminal is able to process 51 inbound trains between 8 and 9 a.m., but does so with approximately 60 tracks: Many trains drop passengers and then sit idle until the evening. At rush hour, three of the four tracks leading into Grand Central are used for peak-direction service, so there is an imbalance of capacity. In essence, Grand Central is a huge, underground rail yard. The South Station Expansion project in Boston attempts to replicate this (albeit on a much smaller scale), spending $2 billion to double down on an inherently inefficient system, just to squeeze a bit more capacity out of a terminal.

For more than a century, commuter rail service in Philadelphia looked much like it does in Boston: a legacy system with downtown terminals developed by separate railroad companies. There, much like in Boston, two separate terminals served commuters, as trains pulled slowly into stations through a complex series of tracks and switches, discharged passengers, loaded new passengers, and then pulled out. Given this setup, each track can serve about 1.5 trains per hour: in the peak hour at South Station, 18 trains pull in and out, utilizing 11 of the 13 tracks (the other two are used by Amtrak); the 10 tracks at North Station serve 12 trains per hour. In the 1980s—at the same time Boston was rerouting and extending the Red and Orange Lines—Philadelphia was busy, too, digging a connection between its two stations. Today, trains there pull into the downtown stations, drop and pick up passengers, and then keep going on the other side of downtown.

The tunnel built was not particularly wide. There are just four tracks between the two sides of the Philadelphia system. Those four tracks, however, serve 44 trains per hour, or 11 trains per track, an efficiency an order of magnitude better than what is possible for each track in a terminal-based system.

This is important. Increased downtown station efficiency is the biggest—if least-understood—benefit to the North South Rail Link, bigger than cross-regional connections or better destination access.

The benefits of a proper North South Rail Link are certainly substantial:

  • The rail link would allow direct trips between suburbs, say, from Framingham to Haverhill, which would help many commuters who currently would have to grapple with both an anemic reverse-peak commuter rail schedule and a three- or four-seat ride, squeezing aboard the Red and Orange Line at rush hour downtown to get between rail terminals. (Currently, few commuters brave the transit system for this trip, instead clogging the highways or losing out on access to jobs altogether.)
  • The rail link would provide much better access to workplaces which are not near the train stations downtown. If you live on the North Shore and work in the Back Bay, you have to transfer to the Orange or Green Line for a jam-packed, slow ride through downtown. The North South Rail Link would allow for a one-seat ride to most of the major employment centers in Boston, while at the same time lessening the burden on the already oversubscribed subway system.
  • An extreme, but certainly realistic, example would be for workers who live in South Acton and work at the Longwood Medical and Academic area. Right now, this is a two- or even three-seat ride which, if you make perfect connections, takes more than an hour. The first 20 miles of that, on commuter rail, take as little as 26 minutes. The final five miles? Close to an hour. The North South Rail Link would allow trains to run straight through from Porter to Ruggles or Yawkey, with the whole ride taking 35 or 40 minutes, faster than driving even without traffic (with rush hour traffic on Route 2, driving generally takes much longer). By distributing regional passengers directly to their destinations, the rail link would provide faster, more reliable trips and take pressure off the core capacity of the subways, improving conditions for passengers there as well.
  • The North South Rail Link would be layered upon and integrated with the current transit system, and could be designed to be complementary and act as a second subway system. In addition to the aforementioned connections to workplaces, it would allow a variety of new trips within the city to be made directly or with, at most, a single, cross-platform transfer downtown. The subway system today is already full approaching downtown and then has to run double duty filling the last mile for many commuter rail passengers. (A monorail between the stations, which has been suggested as a solution, wouldn’t integrate with service on either end and, for most trips, require multiple transfers. It would get little use.) With proper improvements to railroad operations (widespread use of high-level platforms, fare integration, electrification, EMUs –electrical multiple units, or essentially self-propelled train cars — and frequency and schedule improvements), even trips which require a connection downtown will be convenient via the commuter rail system. This happens regularly in Philadelphia—passengers change between trains in Center City as easily as, or more easily than, connecting between two subway lines. This process would transform the commuter rail system to (borrowing exactly from Philadelphia’s terminology) a “regional rail” system.

But these benefits pale in comparison to the improved conditions for railroad operations. Thus, we come back to Philadelphia (and, it turns out, several other cities abroad which have built through-running connections out of formerly stub-ended stations). The MBTA proposes to increase capacity by expanding South Station, at the cost of $2 billion for 7 more tracks, allowing it to run at most 30 trains per hour to South Station. This strategy is misguided for several reasons, not least because it doubles down on the current inefficient terminal, which requires hundreds of out-of-service (or deadhead) movements to take trains in and out of storage yards to serve rush hour. And even for a train running to the yard, it’s much faster to run it straight through the city rather than pulling slowly into a terminal, unloading passengers, and then pulling back out, occupying a platform for 15 to 20 minutes or longer. (Railroad regulations require crews to perform a brake test when changing ends in this manner, which can take several minutes.)

A 1998 study estimated that the MBTA spends $62 million (adjusting for inflation, $93 million today, and likely higher given the increasing costs of transit operation costs and fuel since then, plus additional rail service added to some lines) on this inefficient terminal operation. Every year the commuter rail system runs with its current layout, it costs $100 million more than it should: 25 percent of the total cost of the system’s operation. Building on this already inefficient operation will bake in these extra costs for decades to come, and every new train operated will simply add to the cost and complexity of the system. No matter what improvements are made to the outer stretches of the lines—like the much-needed $200 million Fitchburg Line upgrades and the improvements to the Fairmount Line—the current downtown stations will continue to inhibit capacity and drive up costs.

South Station expansion uses capital funds but does nothing to improve operational expenses. Yes, the North South Rail Link is expensive to build—more expensive than expanding South Station. But in the long run, it’s a lot cheaper and more efficient to operate, allowing more and better service with minimal public subsidies. Despite many inefficiencies, the commuter rail network already covers about half of its operating costs from fares. The North South Rail Link is the linchpin of a more efficient regional rail system that would be faster and more convenient for passengers and cheaper and more efficient for operators.

Downtown Boston and adjacent employment centers continue to grow, with billions in new investment planned (the Government Center Garage redevelopment, the Volpe parcel in Kendall, and the continued development of the Seaport—despite its transit unfriendliness—to name a few). Yet the city runs the risk of being strangled by a gridlocked roadway system and an inefficient rail system. Rather than throwing good money after bad, South Station expansion money should be funneled towards a full study of the North South Rail Link, and the future operational savings used as a down payment for construction. (In addition, in the long run, the rail link would allow the consolidation of maintenance facilities further out from downtown, opening dozens of acres of prime real estate in the Fort Point and near North Station for development.)

Meet the Author

Ari Ofsevit

Boston program senior manager/Board member, ITDP/TransitMatters
The North South Rail Link has been misunderstood as a “one-off” improvement of the rail system in the urban core. It is much more than that. It is a central component of a regional project which would propel the current commuter rail network from a vestige of the 19th century into the 21st, give better access to employment for millions across the Commonwealth, and allow the city and region to grow without choking on chronic traffic gridlock. In that sense, the rail link is a modern idea, in stark contrast to the old-think that permeates the South Station expansion project, which, if implemented, will do nothing to reduce operational costs or improve mobility in the long term. Boston is a global city, and needs to compete on a global scale. Scalable infrastructure is an important part of this. That is the promise of the North South Rail Link: With more efficient operations, trains would move seamlessly in and out of downtown Boston, allowing sustainable, urban employment centers to forge connections with the entire region.

Ari Ofsevit is a transit advocate, a member of TransitMatters and a master of science in transportation/master of city planning candidate at MIT. He lives in Cambridge.