TransitMatters: South Station expansion unnecessary

Quicker train ‘turns’ would eliminate need for more tracks

THE ADVOCACY GROUP TransitMatters says a number of relatively simple changes in commuter rail operations could increase the number of trains moving in and out of South Station and make a planned $2.5 billion expansion of the facility unnecessary.

South Station has 13 tracks that currently serve 20 trains per hour in and out. By increasing the speed of trains coming in and out of the station, dedicating specific tracks for specific train lines, and changing crews more swiftly, TransitMatters said in a report that train throughput could increase to at least 26 to 30 trains per hour in and out.

“South Station expansion is completely unnecessary. The billions of dollars [saved] can pay for an electric fleet,” said Josh Fairchild, the president of TransitMatters, which is known for its pro-transit advocacy and the willingness to dig into the nitty gritty of transportation.

According to the TransitMatters report, the big problem at South Station is the time it takes to move a train in and out of the station, which industry officials call a turn. TransitMatters said trains in Germany are often turned in less than 5 minutes, while many US train operators turn trains in 10 minutes. Fairchild said Keolis Commuter Services, the MBTA’s commuter rail operator, turns trains in 15 to 25 minutes, which means fewer trains can move in and out of the station each hour.

To reduce the turn time, TransitMatters said the speed of trains coming in and out of the station needs to increase from the current 10 miles per hour to 30 miles per hour. To accommodate the higher speed, the report recommended modifications to the existing switching systems on the approach to the station and the dedication of specific tracks for specific train lines. The report also recommended having replacement train crews on standby as trains pull in.

Fairchild said it may not be possible to reach 30 miles per hour between Back Bay and South Station with the existing diesel locomotives, which are slow to accelerate and decelerate. TransitMatters favors phased-in electrification of the commuter rail system, which would allow faster acceleration and deceleration.

The longer-term goal of TransitMatters is to transform commuter rail into a more subway-like service, with trains running at regular intervals throughout the day. In addition to phased-in electrification, the advocacy group recommends level boarding at all stations, which would reduce dwell times at stations and be accomplished by elevating station platforms so passengers could board without climbing up steps into rail cars.

TransitMatters also recommends moving away from bilevel coaches and replacing them with single-level coaches with automatic doors that open at multiple locations. Again, the goal is to speed up the process of getting on and off the train. “Some trains take five minutes to fully unload at South Station at rush hour. It can feel like waiting to deplane from the rear of an aircraft,” the report said.

“Any further investment in bilevel coaches or diesel locomotives would be, in our view, not merely questionable – it would be irresponsible as it continues a system that is highly inefficient and that, because of its inherent inefficiency, serves as a constant drag on better frequencies and requires unnecessary costly initiatives like South Station expansion,” the report said.

One casualty of the more frequent commuter rail service could be the Needham Line. The line, which runs between South Station and Needham, was omitted from a chart in the report showing the proposed frequency of trains on various lines. Fairchild said the Needham Line was omitted because its line could not accommodate all of the increased traffic. Fairchild said it would make more sense for the Orange subway line to be extended to Needham, a project that TransitMatters mentioned in an earlier report but which is not under consideration by the Baker administration.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

North Station gets little attention in the TransitMatters report, largely because the station has adequate capacity. But the report does support an initiative already in the works to add tracks approaching North Station to put the Lowell and Fitchburg Lines on separate tracks.

The TransitMatters report also makes a pitch for a rail link between North and South Stations, which would increase capacity dramatically on almost all lines. The big concern with the rail link is its cost, which would run into many billions of dollars. In its report, TransitMatters described the rail link as a “non-trivial investment in concrete infrastructure.”

Officials at the MBTA and Department of Transportation offered no reaction to the TransitMatters study.