What’s their rationale for another Big Dig?
FORMER GOVERNORS Mike Dukakis and Bill Weld are heading up to Beacon Hill next week to put a rail link between North and South stations on Gov. Charlie Baker’s radar. Dukakis cooked up the Democrat-Republican collaboration, reaching out to Weld, who serves with him on the board of the Boston Harbor Island Alliance. Weld, of course, is a political mentor of Baker’s, and both Dukakis and Weld are into trains. Dukakis, a big MBTA supporter, previously served on the Amtrak board. Weld said Dukakis knows more about train policy than him, but he’s no slouch. “I’m not as big a train buff as Michael, but I’m a pretty big train buff,” he said.
The rail link is an old idea that few people fully understand any more. What follows is a primer on the subject based on interviews with Dukakis, Weld, and others.
Why is the political odd couple of Dukakis and Weld pushing for a north-south rail link?
It’s a mutual interest. Dukakis tried to get the link built as part of the Big Dig, but ran up against stiff opposition from the administration of Ronald Reagan. Weld pursued the north-south rail link when he was governor, and his administration did a lot of the planning for it. Weld says he first saw the need for the rail link when he was 11 and on his way to boarding school at the Middlesex School. He took the train from his home in New York to South Station and then had to schlep himself and his bags to North Station to continue his journey to Concord.
Why do we need to connect South and North stations?
The goal isn’t to just connect North Station and South Station. The goal is to connect the separate northern and southern commuter rail lines and to connect both of them to the MBTA subway system. A link would allow Amtrak trains to travel right through Boston on up to Maine. It would also allow someone to travel on commuter rail from Plymouth to Newburyport or out to Worcester and Framingham. Ideally, the link would better connect workers and employers across the region.
What’s the advantage of that?
Proponents say it would mean the planned expansions of North Station and South Station would be unnecessary and allow the possibility for the commuter rail system to run more like a subway system. Right now, passenger trains coming into South Station have to stop there. If the passengers on the trains want to go north, they have to take the subway to North Station and board a new train there. If the two networks were connected, passengers could go straight through to their destination.
Why wouldn’t the North Station and South Station expansions be necessary? We keep hearing the stations are running out of room.
They are, but with the north and south commuter rail lines connected you wouldn’t need more tracks at the two stations. Currently, trains coming into South Station pull in and unload passengers, then they board passengers and head back out the way they came in. It’s an inefficient and space-intensive process. It can take 25 minutes or more for a train to enter and depart a terminal platform. If the north and south commuter rail lines were connected, trains would just stop briefly at downtown stations and then continue on, eliminating the need for more track berths and layover space for trains. Layover areas at North Station and South Station, where land is potentially very valuable, could be pared back and moved to other locations on the commuter rail system where land is cheaper and future expansion easier.
How much money would be saved by not expanding North Station and South Station and how much money would the north-south rail link cost?
The expansion of South Station is currently priced at $1.6 billion. The North Station expansion, for which land has already been acquired, is at least several hundred million more dollars. It’s not clear how much the north-south rail link would cost, but $2 million earmarked in the state’s capital bond bill to update prior engineering and environmental studies could help answer that question. Dukakis and Brad Bellows, an architect collaborating with the former governor, say the downtown rail yards freed up by the north-south rail link would generate a lot of new tax revenue. Skeptics say the MBTA is having a hard time extending above-ground Green Line trains to Somerville and Medford, so it has no business even thinking about digging a tunnel to connect the north and south commuter rail lines.
How would the north-south rail link allow the commuter rail system to operate more like a subway system?
The idea is to have two or three underground rail stations in downtown Boston where commuters could not only connect to the subway system but also connect to other commuter rail lines. Someone coming into town from the South Shore could travel to any of the northern or western lines with a cross-platform connection in Boston, or to subway lines with an escalator connection.
How would the north-south rail link be built?
With tunnel-boring machines.
This is starting to sound like the Big Dig all over again.
The Central Artery was built with the so-called “cut and cover method,” which caused great disruption in the city. The rail link tunnels would be dug with automated tunnel boring machines operating almost entirely below the surface. It’s the same technology that was used to extend the Red Line into Somerville in the 1980s, and it has been used on hundreds of other similar projects around the world. Still, problems do crop up. A very large tunnel boring machine dubbed Bertha ran into a steel pipe in in Seattle in 2013 and incurred severe damage, resulting in extensive delays and cost overruns.
Isn’t the commuter rail system in the process of purchasing new diesel locomotives? Would they work on this new system?
The system took delivery of 40 diesel locomotives late last year and they are now entering service. They could not be used underground, so building a north-south rail link would also require purchasing new engines capable of switching between diesel and electric power.
This is starting to sound pretty pricey.
It won’t be cheap, but the alternatives are also costly and do little to improve service. Dukakis and Weld say a north-south rail link would make the region’s transportation system operate more efficiently, give passengers a lot more flexibility, and open for development a lot of prime real estate that is currently being used to warehouse trains. The former governors also say the rail link would also take 55,000 cars a day off the area’s highways and reduce carbon emissions.