Baker admin. looks to lease electric trains from Amtrak

Could improve commuter rail service on Providence line

MASSACHUSETTS AND RHODE ISLAND might lease electric locomotives to provide quicker, cleaner service along the MBTA commuter rail line connecting the two states.

The potential small step towards electrification, for which there is no timetable, came up during a discussion at the National Governors Association in Boston on Tuesday, where Gov. Charlie Baker played host to his counterparts from New Hampshire, Maryland and the Ocean State.

“This is a chance for us to work across state lines and across party lines,” said Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, a Democrat, speaking generally about tackling the problem of traffic congestion. “Governor Baker and I are working together around regional rail. You have tens of thousands of people that go across state lines every day from Rhode Island to Massachusetts.”

Baker later expounded on the cross-border rail project, which he said would require discussions with Amtrak about obtaining electrified locomotives and coach capacity, as well as considerations about schedules for the train line that the T’s commuter rail shares with Amtrak. The governor also contemplated the possibility of an express train along the line that connects the two state capitals – the last leg of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor – but he said scheduling would be an impediment to that.

Some environmental advocates have tried to push the MBTA to completely electrify its commuter rail fleet, which runs on diesel, and decried the T’s decision to continue using diesel locomotives in its plans to expand service to the South Coast cities of New Bedford and Fall River. The move towards experimenting with electrified service on the Providence line would represent a change towards a cleaner source of energy for the trains.

But the T doesn’t have any such electric locomotives to experiment with, so the plan is to talk with Amtrak about leasing electric locomotives, according to Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, who said purchasing new locomotives would be expensive.

“The biggest problem we have is we don’t have electric locomotives. All of our locomotives are diesel-fired locomotives. So while the line is electrified and Amtrak has electric locomotives, the MBTA does not own a single electric locomotive,” Pollack told reporters. “So what we are talking to Amtrak about is whether there is a possibility to lease either an electric or what’s called a dual-fuel locomotive that can run on either diesel or electric for us to run on the line.”

Pollack said Massachusetts owns the track from the Rhode Island border to South Station, and the MBTA wouldn’t need Amtrak’s permission to pilot new electrified service to Providence.

Rhode Island is building a new station along the route in Pawtucket opening in 2022, according to Pollack, who said she assumes the cost of piloting electrified train service between the two states would be shared. Operation of the commuter rail is outsourced by the T to Keolis Commuter Services.

The idea, which Pollack said Rhode Island wanted Massachusetts to look into, is still in the early stages, and Pollack said there is no timetable yet on when electrified service might begin.

Meet the Author

Andy Metzger

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

“I don’t have a time-frame for ya,” Pollack said.