T is rebuilding station in worst possible way

Auburndale upgrade wastes money and doesn’t address rider needs

MUCH OF THE MBTA COMMUTER RAIL network is still not accessible for disabled passengers. But the current proposed solution to add accessibility to the Auburndale commuter rail station in Newton will potentially cost $11 million and make service worse both for riders who use that station, and for the many thousands of daily riders on the entire Framingham/Worcester Line.

Auburndale is one of the villages of Newton, and has had its own train station since the 1850s. In the 1880s the foresighted Boston & Albany Railroad built a lovely new station, designed by H.H. Richardson and landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted. That station lasted until 1961, when the state demolished it along with two of the four tracks on the line.

In place of the landmark station, the MBTA’s predecessor built a single low-level platform on the south side of the tracks, right next to the then-new MassPike extension to Boston. Since then, passengers have had to climb steps to board a train from that low-level platform, so the trains are not currently accessible to people with disabilities. Both station entrances also require passengers to descend dozens of uncovered steps, which can be a hazard to all users in the winter.

Auburndale station stands today as an emblem of transit neglect, a station built in an auto-centric era that placed all of its mobility bets on massive highway projects like the Turnpike. Landmark stations like Auburndale’s – stations that respected and responded to transit riders – were viewed as standing in the way of progress.  Now that the MBTA has a chance to redesign the station, it ought to do so in a way that responds to today’s urgent need to encourage more transit use.  We talk a lot about the importance of modal shift – encouraging motorists to leave their single occupancy vehicles for transit alternatives – but that will not happen unless we take deliberate action to improve service quality every chance we get, with the goal of moving toward fast, frequent service that runs all day.

That’s not happening with the Auburndale station redesign. Regrettably, the MBTA has chosen to rebuild Auburndale station in the worst possible way. The new design is likely to cause service disruptions for all users of the Framingham/Worcester line.

Here’s why: the optimal design for a two-track line is to have two platforms at each station, one on each side of the tracks. With platforms providing access to both tracks at every station, the line can operate just like a road with one lane in each direction.

That simple and efficient operation hasn’t been possible since the misguided redesign in the 1960s, which reduced all three Newton commuter rail stations to one platform each, on the south side of the tracks.  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 pm train to Boston from Auburndale, you’ll have to wait until 7:31 pm, 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.

At a recent meeting, the MBTA unveiled the completed design – meaning it’s supposed to be ready to build exactly as is. In this plan, the station will continue to have only one platform. The current platform will be demolished and a new one will be built on the opposite track. The other two stations in Newton are not having their platforms moved, so the plan includes $6.68 million worth of new switching equipment to allow trains to swap tracks between Auburndale and the next station, West Newton. That’s 58% of the total project cost just to make it possible for the trains to safely make all those track changes.

Moreover, the MBTA still doesn’t know if it’s even theoretically possible to operate a reasonable schedule with this system of swapping tracks to get to the new Auburndale platform – and all indications are that it won’t be possible.

If that seems like a mess to you, you’re right.

There are better ways to undertake this project, and it’s time for riders and political leaders to insist that it’s done well. One obvious way to fix Auburndale is to build two high-level platforms. Two high level platforms would improve service for Newton residents – it would let Auburndale passengers catch an afternoon train to Boston to take in a Sox game (the line serves Yawkey Station) or go to the Symphony.  Equally important, it would eliminate the need for trains to switch tracks between Auburndale and West Newton, therefore eliminating the expensive switching equipment that constitutes over half of the project’s cost and threatens to seriously degrade service. Avoiding all these track change movements would reduce the risk of delays for all riders, and avoid the need for significant schedule changes.

The Auburndale commuter rail stop. Miles at http://milesonthembta.blogspot.com/2016/04/auburndale.html

The Auburndale commuter rail stop. Miles at http://milesonthembta.blogspot.com/2016/04/auburndale.html

Building two high-level platforms would cost about the same as the current proposal, based on the cost of similar recent MBTA projects (Yawkey and South Acton).  The current Auburndale proposal includes one platform and expensive switching – but reallocating that funding to two platforms and eliminating the switches is clearly the better solution. Doing this would be a step towards a more sensible and efficient Framingham/Worcester Line. (There are other possibilities as well.)

The MBTA went four years between public meetings without consulting or informing the public on this important plan and intends to start construction very soon. If the T goes forward with its current design plan, it will be spending scarce transportation dollars in a way that fails to improve – and likely will degrade – service along this important transit line. The proposed approach to making Auburndale station ADA compliant solves one issue in a manner that fails what ought to be a standard threshold for any such investment: do no harm to ridership or to service quality.

Meet the Author

Andy Monat

Board member, TransitMatters
It’s not too late for us to demand a new plan for Auburndale that makes sense. Now is our chance to fix the mistakes that were made in the 1960s, and restore better train service to riders in Newton for the next 60 years.

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, Josh Fairchild, Patrick Greenwell, Alon Levy, and David Perry contributed to this article.