TransitMatters rebuts Brownsberger

Defends regional rail, rejects rush-hour focus

METRO BOSTON enters 2020 in the firm grip of a transportation crisis. That crisis manifests itself as a combination of the worst traffic congestion in the nation, an unreliable inner-core transit and bus network, and an antiquated approach to commuter rail operations that leads to outdated, inconsistent, and unreliable service. The crisis threatens our growing economy by depriving many people of easy access to their jobs, schools, and other destinations, and exacerbates regional and social inequity. For this reason, TransitMatters has made regional rail one of its key focus areas.  We are convinced that metro Boston will never emerge from this transportation crisis without a highly functioning rail system that uses cost-efficient, low-emission electric energy, and, most crucially, runs frequently all day providing a real alternative to people who don’t already fit the commuter rail rider profile.

The magnitude of the metro Boston transportation crisis has justifiably provoked public outrage and thoughtful discussion among a broad spectrum of stakeholders. Many voices must be heard, but to be impactful those voices must also be well informed. What specifically prompts this article is our concern that Sen. William Brownsberger’s recent op-ed on the topic of regional rail, while clearly well-intentioned, focused wrongly on a “rush-hour-only” approach to rail that contained significant misconceptions and proposed solutions that will fail to solve the overall problem, waste resources, and provide no relief to the commuting burdens of thousands of riders. This is, in fact, what we’ve been doing for decades. It has failed, and will continue to fail. It would further entrench an inequitable and failing status quo rather than move us toward inclusive solutions that recognize and respond to the magnitude and breadth of the crisis.

Focusing solely on rush-hour service, which seems fully rational, is what we’ve been doing for decades. That’s what helped create, and now exacerbates, the problem. While we agree that peak service should be expanded, the sunk costs that this expansion would require would make it wasteful to not run all-day service.

The way forward is to follow the recommendation of the MBTA’s Fiscal Management and Control Board, to take up the task of transforming the dismally performing commuter rail network into a modern one that meets the region’s needs, responds to current and anticipated private sector trends, and provides a thoughtful response to the changing dynamics of the inner core housing market. The opportunity moment is before us, and squandering it in retreat to a status quo “rush-hour-only” approach will only result in lower ridership, unreliable service, greater carbon emissions, and wasted resources.

Frequency Provides Flexibility

 The essence of true regional rail is its recognition that people live, and will continue to live, differently than they did in the middle of the last century.  Fewer people have traditional 9-5 jobs, more people have multiple destinations they seek to reach during a given day, and affordable housing may increasingly be found outside the transit-rich inner urban core.

While the vast majority of today’s commuter rail users ride to downton Boston at rush hour, this is an artifact of dismal service frequencies at all other times.  The assumption that the classic 9-5 job is a permanent fixture of our economy is belied every day by work schedules in a number of sectors that significantly depart from that model: tech jobs can easily be 12-to-8, consultants routinely work 9-to-7 or even 9-to-9, lawyers can work 10-to-8, doctors work in shifts, and professors don’t have consistent hours.  Many jobs in our increasingly service-oriented economy are structured around shift work in locations that require workers to have good transportation options. Retail workers routinely face jobs where they only know shifts a week or two in advance, and many have to work two jobs to make ends meet.  Trains that only run every two hours at midday and at night aren’t useful to these workers who are therefore forced to drive, adding to traffic congestion and placing a financial burden on their households to cover the costs of auto ownership and parking.

The current commuter rail service model emphasizing “trains to Boston in the morning, back in the evening” fails potential peak riders who require schedule predictability all day. Many people simply do not have the luxury of choosing rail if they do not have the comfort of knowing that they can get back home with reasonable predictability at any time of the day. For example, the Providence Line only runs every two hours in the reverse-peak direction and about every two hours midday; faculty at Brown University who live near Boston can’t rely on it because the service rarely reaches Providence at the right time for their classes. This schedule also fails to provide flexibility for people who need to get home in the middle of the day unexpectedly.

Imagine a person who lives in Sharon and has a job in Boston. That person might take commuter rail but chooses not to because he is concerned that, if he receives a call at 2 p.m. to return home to tend to a sick child or an elderly parent, he will be stranded as a result of today’s poor off-peak frequencies.  So that person also drives, adding to traffic congestion and placing a financial burden on himself that he need not have to bear.  If he could count on a train at least every half hour, instead of the status quo of nearly two-hour long gaps on the Providence Line, then the train is a realistic option. That’s how you build ridership, and how you encourage the modal shift that reduces traffic congestion.

Where trains provide frequent off-peak service, more people ride the trains outside rush hour. This is not theoretical. On Paris’s commuter rail network, Transilien, trains run every 15, 20, or occasionally 30 minutes all day in both directions on most branches; a handful even run every 10 minutes. A research institute in the outer suburbs is served by a train every 15 minutes all day, and the trains come reliably on a schedule. As a result, the proportion of boardings at suburban stations that happen in the morning rush hour is only 46 percent, and this even includes some reverse-peak ridership to suburban job centers.

And frequency is not just important for people trying to access jobs. American public transportation models lean heavily on work trips, perhaps thinking, as was true generations ago, that people do not travel outside the neighborhood except for work. This is an outdated mode of thinking. In today’s era, people ride trains to care for their children and parents, to go shopping, to socialize, or to go to medical appointments. Even urban rail systems like the Boston subway have insufficient off-peak service, so that ridership is about half as high as on European systems with comparable rates of transit commuting, such as those of the main French cities other than Paris. Commuter rail and its 1-2 hour headways is simply insufficient for the task today. This is the reality of 21st-century transportation.

High frequency is especially useful in inner suburbs, like Belmont. Belmont is located on the Fitchburg Line, and has ample ridership on urban transit, such as the 73 trolleybus. Commuter rail connects it quickly to North Station as well as to the Red Line with a connection at Porter. However, the frequency is too low to be viable, leading to low ridership. The line currently runs every half hour at the peak and every hour-and-a-half off-peak; someone from Fitchburg, facing a 90-minute trip to Boston, might still be willing to endure these frequencies, but from Belmont, the trip to North Station takes 17 minutes, which means that the wait time for the train swamps any other consideration.

We transit advocates like to say frequency is freedom.  Nobody would tolerate keeping roads or sidewalks open for short isolated periods during the middle of the day, when there is less demand for their use, for marginal savings on maintenance. Taking the same approach to mass transit is equally nonsensical.

 The Need for Regional Connectivity

A peak-focused model also is of little use to people who do not work in downtown Boston. There are a large number of jobs in or near Boston that are not located within walking distance to North Station, South Station, or Back Bay that could be reached more easily by rail with additional investments. There is also great potential to better serve reverse commutes, intercity trips such as those to Worcester and Providence, and inter-suburban commutes, including via shuttle connection to Route 128 office parks, which would be squandered by continuation of the status quo.

Commuter rail in New York, which has higher reverse-peak and all-day frequency, moves a noticeable number of riders who work not in Manhattan but in White Plains, New York, and Greenwich and Stamford in Connecticut, all of which have office buildings near the train stations. Why wouldn’t more frequency result in more office growth along our commuter rail lines, particularly in Gateway Cities? There are already several mid-scale employment centers near commuter rail in the suburbs, such as in Dedham and Norwood. Regional rail frequencies would expand their workforce and customer base dramatically.

Imagine a person who lives in a community along the Interstate 90 corridor, and works in jobs-rich Kendall Square.  She faces over a decade of massive traffic congestion as a result of the necessary reconstruction and relocation of the Turnpike at Allston Landing. She could have easy transit access to her job if we provide frequent all-day service along the Framingham/Worcester Line, with a more direct connection to Kendall Square at a new West Station, via transit on the Grand Junction line crossing the Charles River. Most of the basic infrastructure already exists, and the reconstruction of the Turnpike provides the opportunity to make this rail connection happen in the relative short term. Or, imagine a person who lives in Newton and works at Framingham Tech Park, who also faces disruption as reconstruction of the interchanges between the Turnpike and Route 128 and I-495 proceed in the same decade. She could bypass the bottlenecks with a train every 15-30 minutes from Newtonville to Framingham station, with a reliable, timed, and fast shuttle connection to her job from there.

To underscore our concern: a focus only on suburb-to-city peak hour commuting would likely delay or even preclude service and infrastructure improvements intended to serve dynamic, changing travel patterns such as operating transit on the Grand Junction, or even opening West Station itself – which has already been subject to unacceptable delay. A continued refusal to run bidirectional service will ignore the needs of reverse commuters. If we do not commit to implementing all-day regional rail service along the Worcester Line, and providing connections along the Grand Junction as well as first-last mile connections to job centers in Framingham and elsewhere, we deprive people everywhere from Newton to the communities of MetroWest and the city of Worcester of access to their jobs.  Massachusetts cannot afford to deprive everyone living along the Framingham/Worcester line of a viable alternative to the Turnpike’s congestion for a decade or more.

The op-ed also noted that regional rail on its own cannot produce economic growth in Gateway Cities, ignoring the growth that is currently taking place and manufacturing a metric that ignores the role of regional rail as one part of an overall solution.  Imagine, for example, that you are the private sector developer and owner of the WooSox, building a 10,000-seat stadium, housing, and office space within a one-tenth of a mile walk from Union Station.  You will be opening your development, and baseball games will be played, but (contrary to the op-ed’s assertion that Worcester is well-served all day) the Framingham/Worcester line (despite being the fastest growing line in the network) only has four trains in each direction in total on weekdays between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., and the trip to Boston is over an hour-and-a-half long. The people buying or renting your housing, or working at the stadium, won’t have frequent all-day service on commuter rail, and, without frequent all-day service, people living in Framingham, Natick, Newton, and Boston either will not come to see a game, or will drive and need more parking. How comfortable would you be about your major investment in Worcester?

A Peak Hour Focus is Wasteful

More peak hour service is indeed an essential part of resolving our congestion and mobility issues. Regional rail, with electric multiple unit train sets and high-level platform boarding, will more than double the amount of service during peak hours and will serve even more people in that window by allowing for greater flexibility and lower penalty for missing a train (missing a train will mean a 15-minute delay instead of 30 minutes to an hour or more). Regional rail also provides frequent service all day – no more 2-hour schedule gaps midday – and in every direction.  As our regional rail proof of concept recommended, modern terminal train-turning operating practices and relatively minor track/switch improvements should be implemented, greatly increasing the capacity of South Station to facilitate regional rail frequencies and better accommodate the staggered phasing of the system as lines are incrementally transitioned to more modern operations.

While it may seem counter-intuitive, maintaining a peak-hour-only focus to the exclusion of all-day frequency improvements is not cost-effective. It wastes money and squanders expensive (if not invaluable) assets. The reason is that rail service has very high fixed costs and modest variable costs – simply put, purchasing a trainset and hiring staff to run it costs about the same no matter whether the trainset makes one daily roundtrip, as the Heart-to-Hub service from Worcester to Boston does, or runs continuously back and forth for 18 hours a day, as many subway and regional rail services do in British or German cities. Equipment does not depreciate faster if it runs more hours every day: the London Underground has such high off-peak frequency that its trainsets average almost twice the annual route-miles of the New York City subway, but in both cities trains last 40 to 50 years.

Even operating costs are dominated by peak-driven fixed costs. The reason is that if trains only run at rush hour, then crew members work split shifts and must be paid during the day (as they generally can’t return home between shifts). Thus the costs of both capital and labor are determined largely by the amount of peak service. The staffing levels required to expand peak service dramatically would require an investment in labor that would make it possible to provide service throughout the day. The good news is that this means the cost of adding midday service is far lower than one would assume. With modern equipment, it amounts to less than $1 per car-mile, about one-tenth the cost of modern regional rail service, and one-twentieth that of MBTA commuter rail service. Adding more frequent trains midday is a cost-effective solution.

We also note that use increases as frequency increases. Today’s dismal share of trips by rail is reflective largely of high fares and poor frequency. The cheapest train would not be useful if it didn’t operate when people needed it to. That’s why proposed “solutions” of eliminating fares on the Fairmount Line, and incorporating Lynn into Zone 1A, are insufficient and fail to address the core issues that are at the heart of today’s inefficient, unreliable, and underused rail system. A combined approach of lower fares in inner-core communities, systemwide higher all-day frequencies, and last-mile access to job centers not easy to reach from rail stations will do the most to improve mobility for low-income riders.

The Fairmount Line Needs Better Service

Claims that the commuter rail system provides enough service in the middle of the day are entirely contrary to the evidence, but nowhere is this more obvious than with regard to the Fairmount Line. The op-ed’s assertion that ridership did not grow with the introduction of hourly clockface service in the middle of the day is flat-out wrong. It did – by over 200 percent. The line still has the system’s lowest ridership, but so would the Red or Orange Line if it only came once an hour, and people could connect by bus to a more frequent line. That ridership tripled with the introduction of higher frequency, lower fares, and an easy-to-memorize schedule should tell us something. How much can ridership grow if trains run every half hour? Every 15 minutes? What if trains run as frequently as they do on the Red Line branch to Ashmont?

The op-ed unfortunately perpetuates a misconception that the line has poor ridership because of low surrounding density. In reality most of the surrounding areas are as dense as many of those around our subway stations. What istrue is that the lines serve mostly residential populations, as opposed to employment centers, but this makes high frequency service to job centers even more essential, along with first/last-mile connections to nearby employers such as those in the Newmarket industrial district and to the Eversource plant near Uphams Corner. Indeed, the high density explains the low ridership: the denser a neighborhood is, the more useful all-day transit becomes. The buses to Ruggles, Dudley, and Ashmont are well patronized despite being highly unreliable, in no small part because of their frequent service – a classic case of riders taking a subpar transit service out of necessity. More frequent Fairmount service and improved connections from these buses to the line would enable faster trips downtown – and the opportunity to rework the bus network to add new destinations.

Electrification Meets the Need for Reliable and Fast Service

 Throughout this article, we have repeatedly emphasized reliability, because none of these goals are achievable without trains that run more reliably than the current equipment. For this reason, we were puzzled by the op-ed’s implication that electrification may not be necessary to improve use of the rail system. On the contrary, electrification is the best investment the MBTA can make in terms of reliability as well as speed. As we have previously demonstrated, modern electric multiple unit (EMU) trains fail far less frequently than even the best diesel locomotives. The EMUs operated by Metro-North are 5-10 times more reliable than the T’s fleet (even at its best), and European models perform even better. As a result, EMU-based railroads spend far less money on maintenance and more on providing service. More importantly to the riders, they experience vanishingly few delays in passenger service as compared to the infuriatingly normal day-to-day delays experienced by Boston commuters.

The best EMUs take about 13 seconds to slow down and 13 seconds to get back up to speed; the MBTA’s locomotives take about 1 minute and 10 seconds to do each. Because of these benefits, electrification facilitates more reliable, faster, and more frequent service. The data and experience from markets that have adopted them are clear: EMUs are the future of rail transit. Of course, nobody rides a train because it is electric; people ride trains when they can depend on them and arrive when they need them to, which electric power facilitates. MassDOT’s failure to say this explicitly is irrelevant and, frankly, may be nothing more than entrenched status quo bias that prevents Massachusetts from having the public transportation network its people and its economy require.

Finally, let’s not forget the negative health outcomes of the communities that current diesel trains are running back and forth through every day.  Boston area transit pioneers in 1890 understood why electric motive power was superior to diesel. The rest of the developed world electrified their regional rail and much of their longer distance intercity service decades ago.   How it is that some people – especially those who care about sustainability – continue to resist a committed, deliberate transition to EMUs act is beyond us.

The urgency of regional rail

It is neither bold, nor smart, nor economical, nor forward-looking to shackle the residents of Massachusetts to an outdated rail business model that neglects to modernize the commuter rail system and run frequent all-day service. Yet that is the future if all we do is improve rush-hour service. It is a future that utterly fails to respond to current needs or to private sector investment. It is a future that neglects to provide basic access people must have to jobs and other key destinations. It is also a future where we do nothing to make the system more reliable. If that future sounds familiar, it’s because it’s nearly unchanged from the failing status quo. This mid-20th century mindset about suburban and intercity rail has failed and will continue to fail to offer people the kind of access they need, want, and deserve in the 21st century and we will end up doubling down on current regional and social inequities as primarily the most well-off commuters will benefit.

A regional rail system that operates at reliable and frequent levels all day, every day, grows ridership, making full use of the important public asset that is our rail system. The Fiscal and Management Control Board, to its credit, understands the magnitude of the problem and the way to solve it.  Its directive to General Manager Steve Poftak is the right first step toward advancing a regional rail future for metro Boston.

At TransitMatters, we have spent two years developing detailed white papers based on national and international best practices demonstrating that this vision is both necessary and achievable. In the coming months, we will be releasing another series of reports, highlighting how to achieve modernization and a regional rail standard of service on the three lines – Providence, Fairmount, and Newburyport/Rockport – flagged for early action on this transition. We will continue to develop and advocate for a mitigation plan for the I-90 corridor that provides relief for commuters and facilitates the same transition on the growing Framingham/Worcester Line.

Meet the Author

Josh Fairchild

Co-founder, board member, and legal advisor, TransitMatters
Meet the Author
Meet the Author

Meet the Author

Alon Levy

Freelance writer, Transportation issues
We invite everyone who cares about reducing traffic congestion, reducing auto and diesel rail emissions, supporting economic growth, and bringing true regional and social equity to people across the region to join us in support of regional rail in its full conceptualization: a fully electrified rail system that offers people frequent all-day service. Nothing short of that will succeed.  Nothing short of that will respond to today’s needs.  Nothing short of that will build a better future for all residents of metro Boston.

Josh Fairchild is the president, Ethan Finlan is the regional rail lead, James Aloisi is a board member, and Alon Levy is a member of the advisory committee of TransitMatters.