Newton cut off from all-day rail

Newton has found itself on the outside looking in as the MBTA’s commuter rail system transitions from service geared around morning and afternoon peak periods to more frequent service at standard one-hour intervals throughout the day.

On the Worcester commuter rail line, which runs through Newton, service out of South Station under the new system starts at 4:55 a.m. and runs at roughly one-hour intervals through the day, with some extra service thrown in during the late afternoon that runs just to Framingham. Service from Worcester into Boston, after a 4:15 a.m. start, runs every hour on the hour beginning at 5 a.m.

But while stations in Worcester, Grafton, Westborough, Southborough, Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, and Boston see service every hour, the Newton stops on the line are bypassed by trains heading west for long stretches of the morning and heading east for long stretches of the afternoon and early evening.

In a letter to MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak last month, Newton Mayor Ruthann Fuller said her community was being shortchanged and needed relief. “We have found that Newton is the only community along the Worcester Line that the planned schedule changes would have less service starting on April 5 than we had earlier in the pandemic,” she wrote.

Newton’s current plight can be traced back to poor decision-making by state transportation officials back in the early 1960s. As Andy Monat of TransitMatters explained in a blistering CommonWealth article back in 2017, the optimal design for the two-track Worcester Line is to have two passenger platforms at each station, one on each side of the tracks so passengers going in either direction can get off at each stop. 

But Monat said that optimal design was scrapped when the Massachusetts Turnpike opened running through Newton in the 1960s. He said the existing Newton stations were demolished and replaced with one passenger platform at each station on the south side of the tracks, next to the Turnpike. To make matters worse, none of the platforms were handicap accessible. 

This means that at busy times of the day, it’s not possible to serve passengers who are reverse commuting (coming out of Boston in the morning or going into Boston in the evening), because the sole platform at each Newton station is needed to serve the peak-direction riders. The result? If you miss the 1:12 p.m. train to Boston from Auburndale, you’ll have to wait until 7:31 p.m., even though six inbound trains will go through the station in the interim without stopping. They’ll be on the wrong track, where there’s no platform for you to board,” Monat wrote.

State transportation officials offered up a Rube Goldberg solution in 2017 – tear down the existing platform at the Auburndale stop and replace it with a new handicap-accessible platform on the north side of the track. The plan also called for installing switches to allow trains to swap tracks temporarily to service the platforms at the other Newton stations.

Monat said the solution provided handicap accessibility at Auburndale but at a steep cost to the line overall in terms of efficiency. Then-Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack agreed. Even though the project had been fully designed, she pulled the plug on it and went back to the drawing board.

What emerged from the review process was a $46 million project to rebuild handicap accessible platforms on the south side of the tracks at three Newton stations and leave the question of adding platforms on the north side to a later date. The project addresses the inaccessibility of the existing platforms but not the service issues associated with having just one platform at each stop.

That’s why Newton can’t fully participate in the T’s new scheduling experiment, the first step in what advocates hope will eventually be a more subway-like service on the commuter rail system.

The MBTA is offering folks in Newton some temporary fixes to the gaps in service by running shuttle buses to the closest commuter rail stop (It’s call railbus on the schedule) or to the Green Line. But Greg Reibman, the head of the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce, says businesses are not happy with the shuttles. “It’s totally unacceptable,” he said. “Newton really got screwed with this concept.”

Mayor Fuller wants the situation addressed, presumably with the construction of platforms on the north side of the tracks. In the meantime, she wants the T to run express buses back and forth between Newton and Boston. 

We need the MBTA to stand up right now to help all of us recover, reopen, and rebuild,” she said in a statement.




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