TransitMatters: Our plan for regional rail

A roadmap of short and long-term initiatives for state officials

MASSACHUSETTS BENEFITS GREATLY from a legacy passenger rail network mostly built out in the late 19th century.  Thankfully, much of it was saved from the worst impulses of mid-20th century auto-centricism, which makes us a rarity among large metropolitan areas in the United States. It’s the kind of priceless infrastructure that you just couldn’t build today if you were to start from scratch.

But for all its worth, our rail system is vastly underutilized, a precious asset we squander. Despite dramatic shifts away from the commuting paradigms of the late 20th century, we still operate our “commuter rail” network with service patterns that reflect the values of post-war suburban-living, downtown-working, white collar commuters. This has left us with a system that leaves our passengers paying too much for too little useful service; and our transit agency paying too much for too little ridership. Meanwhile many commuters are stuck in traffic; our region is split between uncrossable sub-regions of North Shore, South Shore, and Metro-West; and there are too many places in the state for which it can be said “you just can’t get there from here.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. Recent polls show that a supermajority of Massachusetts residents want something much better.

In February 2018, TransitMatters published its report entitled Regional Rail for Metropolitan Boston, a statement of principles and detailed analysis that offered a clear pathway to a modern intercity rail network, what we dubbed regional rail. Our goal was to provide a broad survey of North American and global best practices with regard to policies, operations, equipment, and infrastructure. Using this analysis, we identified five straightforward steps toward inaugurating a new approach to service delivery. We have developed our regional rail concept through detailed assessments of possible future service for each line on the system, as well as analyses of the costs and benefits of the proposed expansion of South Station and the North South Rail Link.

Our objective has been to inform the discussion and provide a fact-based roadmap for the phased implementation of a statewide rail network that is responsive to our growing economy, offers alternatives to congested highways by being more useful for all kinds of trips, closes the gap on regional and social equity, and is less expensive to maintain – all while being measurably more reliable and resilient than the current commuter rail system. Perhaps most importantly, we proposed a system that can help meet our state’s environmental and land use goals.

Our plan for regional rail is transformative. It recognizes that the only way to effectively manage and reduce traffic congestion in metro Boston is to provide people with reliable rail alternatives that are offered with fast and convenient all-day frequencies. It recognizes that we cannot effectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions unless we transition away from today’s dirty diesel locomotive fleet and embrace the proven clean technology and superior acceleration of electric multiple units – trains which, similar to our subways, have a propulsion system in each car allowing for significantly faster trip times. And it calls out the critical need to make the system function across all metro Boston regions as an accessible system with high level platforms everywhere, thus speeding up boarding and offering more access to rail stations in every sense.

We have estimated that the full build out of our plan, not including the cost of a fleet upgrade that will have to be undertaken in any event, will cost about $5 billion. The capital investment required for our plan is measurably more cost effective than that for maintaining the status quo. The life-cycle costs of running electric multiple units is significantly lower because they are easier to maintain, and 5-10 times more reliable than even the best diesel locomotives. Dollar for dollar, our plan for investment in a modern, electrified system with the type of trains we recommend will allow the MBTA to provide more than twice the level of train service to at least twice the number of passengers, whose trips can be expected to be about one-third faster than current trips.

We also estimate that the T can save about $3 billion by not undertaking the proposed South Station expansion initiative, so the net new cost of our approach to regional rail is remarkably affordable. Our recently released Regional Rail Proof of Concept report proves that even with the increased service frequencies of our regional rail plan, current South Station platforms serving modern trains will be sufficient if the T can accomplish specific operational reforms and upgrade switch layouts for pennies on the dollar compared to the cost of adding new platforms. The sensible approach at this juncture would be to shelve the costly expansion of South Station while the MBTA undertakes less expensive capacity-enhancing upgrades and improvements to increase capacity at South Station. Starting now, and while those South Station improvements are underway, the MBTA can begin implementing regional rail on an incremental basis, with the goal of complete transformation by 2035.

[Editor’s Note: For a review of the MBTA’s cost and impact analysis of various regional rail approaches, check out the agency’s rail vision website and a recent T comparison of alternatives and cost estimates, many of which are higher than the TransitMatters estimate.  TransitMatters disputes the T numbers, saying: “The MassDOT figures reflect unreasonably high costs that are not supported by the industry standards that form the basis of the TransitMatters estimate, and appear to be based upon assumptions that reflect an unwillingness to reform outdated practices.” ]

Immediate action can be taken to revitalize three key lines in the next few years – the Providence Line, the Fairmount Line, and the Framingham/Worcester Line – as the way to jump start a comprehensive region-wide transition to regional rail.  The Providence Line is already nearly fully electrified. Electrification of the Fairmount Line concurrently with the Providence Line initiative makes good on prior promises of truly frequent subway-like service to long-overlooked urban neighborhoods along a short rail line that will never be optimally-served by diesel service, while also  removing a source of pollution from communities that have long-suffered from disparate health outcomes. With significant portions of the diesel fleet freed up by electrification, the rest of the system can benefit from the larger fleet by enjoying frequent all-day service as it is gradually modernized and electrified.

The Worcester Line can be the single initiative that provides better access to every resident along the I-90 corridor during an anticipated decade or more of Turnpike reconstruction at Allston Landing. What begins as mitigation for construction-caused delays will become a rail corridor that serves an ever-increasing share of the trips from west of Boston. And an early build four-track, two-platform West Station and expeditious upgrading of the Grand Junction line to accommodate passenger rail service will support the sustainable growth of Kendall Square while giving many Cambridge office workers a viable transit alternative.

The moment for decision making is upon us. On Monday, the Regional Rail Advisory Committee will be meeting jointly with the Fiscal and Management Control Board following a public hearing on the six rail alternatives under consideration. The control board will be holding a potentially definitive meeting on November 4.

The decisions that will be made in the coming weeks will direct the Commonwealth’s rail policies, and their impact on our economy and quality of life, for generations to come. These will be profoundly important and impactful decisions. They must reflect a deliberate move away from the status quo. They must be made with an eye toward future growth and a commitment to fulfilling the state’s greenhouse gas reduction goals. They must reject timidity or small steps, and they ought to take advantage of the opportunities we have described in our report and in this article.

Our framework for decision making can be boiled down to the following seven commitments, which we call upon the control board and the state transportation secretary to adopt:

  1. Full regional rail across the entire system by 2035, including full electrification, with service at least every 15 minutes inside Route 128 and at least every half-hour beyond, all day, every day.
  2. Beginning this transition with a phased approach that includes electrification of the Providence/Stoughton and Fairmount lines before 2021, the Worcester line before 2027, and operating trains at least every half hour all day between Boston and Beverly by 2021, supported by electrification and fleet shifts on the aforementioned South Side lines.
  3. A regional rail-based mitigation plan for the I-90 corridor that includes: (i) providing all-day service on the Worcester Line, keeping two tracks operational during all operating hours during Turnpike reconstruction, (ii) building a four-track two-platform West Station, (iii) developing an economical and rapid infrastructure and service plan for implementing  frequent service on the Grand Junction line in the short term ; (iv)  funding and technical support for municipalities to improve parking at and/or access to rail stations and (v) relocating the layover area away from Allston to a better substitute location like the Readville yard in the city of Boston.
  4. Commitment to high level platforms at all stations by 2035, in coordination with the electrification of each line.
  5. Commitment to full electrification of the entire current system by 2035. This is not an overly ambitious schedule by international standards, and it’s not as expensive as you may think. There is nothing about electrification that hasn’t already been figured out elsewhere in the last 140 years since electrified train service was pioneered in places like Boston.  Electrification is best practice, and Massachusetts must embrace it as a central feature of our rail future.
  6. Commitment to pause all activity connected with South Station expansion while assessing and implementing the less costly operational changes we recommend in our South Station proof of concept report.
  7. Commitment to immediate adoption of a rational fare policy for commuter rail that includes the following elements:

Rationalized fare zones. Trips inside of Boston and all of the service area inside of Route 128 should cost the same flat fare as the Green Line to Riverside or the Red Line to Braintree. This alone will free up many buses (and the road space they use) from serving passengers who would ride the rails but can’t afford it, instead opting to pay with their time on buses stuck in traffic. It will induce additional transit usage while being more equitable to current riders.

Free transfers between commuter rail and subways and buses so that they operate as one integrated system. The subway or bus fare should never be stacked on top of the commuter rail fare.

Discounted off-peak and reverse peak fare programs to encourage travel at those times.  The weekend $10 fare has already proved that this approach increases ridership – and revenue. The new reverse-peak fares for the Foxboro pilot are another step in this direction.

Commitment to study and implement a new and overall less expensive fare regime for commuter rail, especially for Gateway Cities where we need to increase housing and grow ridership.  Gateway Cities that are now more than an hour ride by commuter rail will become closer to 40 minutes, but the more affordable housing in these cities cannot be paired with eye-popping transit costs that negate all rent savings.

Expansion of university pass programs to all higher education institutions served by the commuter rail system.

Meet the Author

Meet the Author

Josh Fairchild

Co-founder, board member, and legal advisor, TransitMatters
Thanks to many people, including rail and transit advocates, municipal and state leaders, the transportation secretary’s Regional Rail Advisory Committee and the Fiscal and Management Control Board, we are poised to make a historic and impactful transformation of the Commonwealth’s intercity rail service.  That transformation, based upon our regional rail service delivery model, and following the specific commitments we have laid out here, will become a foundation for regional and social equity, helping us build a stronger and more inclusive economy that attracts private sector investment and jobs to Gateway Cities, and offering all our citizens better access to housing they can afford, jobs they can reach, and opportunities that can improve their lives. Regional rail will pollute less, cost less over time, and attract significantly more drivers out of their cars.  That is a goal we should all embrace, and we look forward to action by the control board and the transportation secretary that embraces this new approach to regional mobility.

James Aloisi is a former secretary of transportation and a TransitMatters board member. Josh Fairchild is president of the TransitMatters board. Ethan Finlan, the TransitMatters regional rail campaign lead, contributed to this article.