Changing the mindset on commuter rail

Earlier this year, the MBTA announced a misguided approach to renovating the Auburndale Commuter Rail station. While it would make the station ADA-compliant, it would do so in a way that foreclosed the possibility of improving service there, and might degrade service on the entire Framingham-Worcester Line. A few weeks later the T floated a proposal to eliminate weekend commuter rail service for a year. That idea was withdrawn after numerous elected officials, including the Commonwealth’s entire congressional delegation, announced their opposition.

Both of these misguided ideas suggest an unfortunate lack of vision for the future of the commuter rail system. Without an expansive and service-oriented vision for commuter rail, Massachusetts will not be able to encourage the kind of modal shift that is an essential element of a sustainable transportation system.

Today’s commuter rail system is still designed around the 1950s mission of moving white-collar workers from their homes in the suburbs to nine-to-five jobs in downtown Boston. The current system is built on the premise that people must organize their lives around its schedule. It has failed to adapt to present-day riders’ need for flexibility, such as dropping children off for school before catching a train, or traveling mid-day, or going to and from a second-shift job. The system also runs too slowly to be a compelling option for many potential riders who choose to drive instead.

Sadly, riders and officials look at the current state of the system and suggest minor changes, presuming the status quo will continue for decades. Much more than the status quo is possible—is indeed desirable and necessary—and we must demand more.

We can and must replace our current commuter rail system with a world-class regional rail system.

What would a world-class regional rail system for the Boston area look like? It would allow access to all parts of Boston and the surrounding region. It would be fast and run frequently all day, seven days a week. It would ensure that every station was accessible to all riders. It would be priced to be available to all riders, not just those with white-collar jobs. It would use electric rather than diesel power to provide faster service while producing less pollution in city neighborhoods where there is already a high incidence of asthma in children.

All this would dramatically increase ridership. Although there’s no definitive measure of current ridership levels, with numbers ranging from 104,000 to 144,000 daily rides, estimates from TransitMatters technical experts suggest regional rail could add 100,000 to 200,000 new daily riders. That’s like adding a whole new subway line’s worth of ridership, more than the Blue Line (about 60,000 trips on a typical weekday) and possibly as much as the Orange Line (about 200,000 trips).

This proposed transformation of what we know as commuter rail is within our grasp. We know how to achieve all these goals.

First, trains need to get from one end of the line to the other in less time. Because there are a lot of stops, the trains have to be able to accelerate (and brake) faster than our current trains, which are pulled by diesel locomotives. The best technology for this is electric-powered train cars where each car has its own motor, similar to subway cars, but with a much higher top speed. These train cars are called Electric Multiple Units (EMUs), and are in widespread use in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey. EMUs are powered by overhead electrical wires, the same as Amtrak uses from Boston to New York.

EMUs would enable a train to go from Providence to South Station making all stops in about 43 minutes, versus about 75 minutes now. Forty-three minutes is faster than you can drive from Providence to South Station without traffic on I-95 and I-93, and anyone who has made that drive knows there is heavy traffic during rush hour and at many other times of day. EMUs are also much more reliable than diesel locomotives, making service run better and saving on maintenance. In Japan, where the railroads have prioritized reliability over everything, nearly all passenger trains are EMUs, from local commuter lines to the bullet trains.

Faster, more reliable trains can be run closer together, similar to subway trains. Given enough trains, analysis done by members of TransitMatters indicates that at peak times it should be practical to run trains every 10 minutes within Route 128, and every 20 minutes outside it. Many lines currently get a train no more often than every 30 minutes at rush hour and 2 hours—or longer—off-peak.

Another component of a full regional rail system would be to connect South Station and North Station. That would allow riders living north of Boston to easily get to jobs located near South Station, and provide riders living south of Boston easy access to the North Station area and to the Orange and Green lines northbound. Letting trains run through Boston also makes it easy to take trips like Providence to Reading, or Fitchburg to Quincy, with at most one quick change of train in Boston.

Other measures needed for a full regional rail system can be started now and will improve existing commuter rail service as soon as they are completed. For example, one reason current commuter rail trips take so long is because at many stations people have to climb stairs from low-level platforms onto the train. It seems like a small thing, but it can add many minutes to a trip, and so each station will need high-level platforms to speed boarding; high-level platforms are also needed to make stations accessible to all riders. Another deficiency in the existing system is that parts of some lines only have one track rather than two, which makes it more challenging to run a frequent schedule.

A regional rail system like the one I envision here—with electric trains on lines with two tracks everywhere, stopping at stations with high-level platforms and running through downtown—makes service to many destinations fast and convenient. But there is one final piece of the puzzle: fares. Currently, riding commuter rail costs far more than nearby bus and subway lines. For instance, a Red Line trip from Braintree to South Station costs $2.25, and includes free bus transfers. A commuter rail trip between those same stations costs $6.75, which is three times as much, and doesn’t include any free transfers.

Fare disparity results in the economic stratification of the entire transit system, where commuter rail is for the well-off, and buses and subways are for the less well-off. A well-planned and equitable fare policy for regional rail and the entire transit system would allow people at all income levels to get where they need to go. With fare policy equity, Gateway Cities such as Worcester, Lowell, and Lawrence would in effect become integrated parts of Boston’s urban core.

Building this system will require significant new capital expenditures, because no significant improvement to the system is cost-free. But the capital expenditures that would be needed to fulfill our vision are not as much as might be expected. For example, many of the existing commuter rail locomotives and coaches will need to be replaced at some point whether or not we switch to EMUs, and those which are still in good shape can be used to provide rail service in central and western Massachusetts. Additional funding could come via one or a combination of several methods. One possibility is a regional transit district approved by voters in a ballot initiative. Legislation seeking to authorize such local initiatives is pending before the Legislature. A congestion charge, which is a toll paid by drivers entering the congested parts of the region during peak times, could generate significant revenue, as could carbon pricing on non-residential parking within the commuter rail service area. Lastly, value capture coupled with transit-oriented zoning around stations could also raise funds, as in the deal Somerville recently struck with a major Union Square developer that puts $5.5 million towards the Green Line Extension.

Regional rail will also impact operational costs. Running more trains will require more engineers. On the flip side, switching to proof of payment will reduce the need for conductors, just as Red and Orange Line trains that used to have an attendant to operate the doors now run with only a driver. And since EMUs are widely used and are much more reliable than diesel locomotives, maintenance costs can be expected to decline significantly.

Starting now, all commuter rail projects should be judged by whether they bring us closer to this expanded vision of regional rail. For instance, Auburndale station should be rebuilt with two platforms rather than one, allowing more trains to stop there. Weekend commuter rail service should be continued with improved schedules.

Meet the Author

Andy Monat

Board member, TransitMatters
Starting now, we should be building for our future. Our mobility future should include a sustainable, world-class regional rail system as a critical integrated component of the entire system. The MBTA is more than a subway and bus system—it is (or can be) the primary link between the urban core, the metropolitan Boston region, and adjacent Gateway Cities. The regional rail system that we envision can respond to the needs of a geographic area that is home to about 75 percent of the Commonwealth’s population and includes many areas that offer opportunities for affordable housing but which are not reachable by today’s rapid transit. That fact alone ought to make a commitment to building a reliable regional rail network a matter of importance and urgency. This approach will improve mobility, reinforce economic activity, and establish a more equitable approach to rail travel throughout Greater Boston and surrounding areas.

Andy Monat serves on the board of TransitMatters, a transit advocacy group, and is the creator of MBTAinfo, a transit tracking application. TransitMatters members Jim Aloisi, Peter Brassard, Josh Fairchild, Alon Levy, and Ari Ofsevit contributed to this article.