Rail Vision Study Underway

Open House on March 5, 2019

The Rail Vision Team will be holding an open house on Tuesday, March from 4:30 to 7:00PM at the MBTA Board Room 10 Park Plaza, 2nd floor, Boston. This is a good opportunity to understand and give input into the developing vision.

Above: MBTA subway map and inner core of Purple Line commuter rail map.

MassDOT is delivering on its promise to give full consideration to the possibility of providing more frequent service to inner core communities on existing commuter rail lines.

I posted 18 months ago that MassDOT had found it more difficult than it initially hoped to provide urban rail. MassDOT has, however, commenced a study that should help resolve its plans for urban rail.

The study is framed more broadly. It recognizes that there are potentially conflicting goals for our rail system. I represent inner communities near rail lines.  Belmont, Watertown, Allston, Brighton, Fenway and Back Bay are all near current commuter rail stops. So, I am focused on the possibility of running frequent urban service for those communities. If frequent enough, this service could offer a meaningful new option for people going downtown.

But there are other very legitimate goals for our rail system. Of course, the current model serves an important goal. It provides long distance commuting service to suburban communities. Commuter rail ridership is small compared to subway ridership. All commuter lines taken together handle roughly 130 thousand passengers per week day, less than half the number of passengers that the red line handles. However, since commuter rail takes passengers so far, the passenger-miles traveled on commuter rail are only slightly less than the passenger miles traveled on all the subway lines combined. So, it is arguably the most important part of the MBTA system from the standpoint of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Another goal for the rail system is to connect our gateway cities to Boston. Rapid express service from Worcester, Lowell and other gateway cities could help relieve our shortage of affordable housing in the Boston area. It could also support more job development within those communities if it allowed reverse commutes for Boston residents.

Achieving all of these valid goals may or may not be possible on the tracks we have. Express service can conflict with suburban service that collects commuters from many stops along the line. Inner core urban service can conflict with both suburban and express service.

The rail vision study is designed to develop some concrete options and define the necessary tradeoffs between the different approaches. The study will begin by identifying different possible service models. For example, one way to use our tracks would be to simply run more trains all day long along the existing routes. This would be a step towards urban rail, but it would also benefit suburban riders. It would not address the need for express service.

Another model would be to run less frequent service outside Route 128 and have transfer stations at 128 where inbound riders would board urban service that runs much more frequently. Other models might blend express, commuter and/or urban service on the same tracks.

The consultants running the rail study have been conducting a survey of both U.S. and international rail systems to develop a broad set of alternative models. Working with an advisory group the consultants will choose a smaller set of models to give closer study. The advisory group includes Senator Boncore, the Senate Chair of the Transportation Committee, and, at his invitation, me.

The chosen options will then be evaluated using a fully detailed model of our track system to determine which options could actually work with on our current rail network or on feasible extensions of our network. The intention is to develop models that could offer short-term improvements as well as stretch models that might require substantial investment.

The study process will be very transparent and I look forward to sharing more information as it unfolds. More information will be posted at willbrownsberger.com and on this official study site.

Above: First meeting of the advisory committee to the rail vision study.

Note about West Station in Brighton:

The Rail Vision Study is about the model for the whole system. Different lines on the system may require different solutions, but the rail vision study will not consider particular stations. It will, however, inform the conversation about particular stations. Secretary Pollack has committed to build West station in Brighton, but the question of when MassDOT will build West Station is a matter of continuing discussion. The Rail Vision Study will speak to the question of what service may be available to West station when.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

Join the Conversation


  1. Very interesting, Will–thanks for keeping us posted. Two comments/questions:
    1) You note, correctly, that Allston (technically Brighton) is now served with a commuter rail station, but much of Allston is not all that close to it. Bus service would remain the best solution for many of us–if only the MBTA could make it work. I hope the study will consider the problem of failed urban connections by bus, since the rails don’t go everywhere you need them.
    2) In the I-90 discussions the West Station/Kendall Square connection via Grand Junction seems to be one of the most valuable options–except that DOT seems
    to be pretty defeatist about it. You don’t directly mention it, but I hope it will be strongly considered.
    I’m really glad you’ll be part of the study group.

    1. Thanks, Brent.

      Bus service will not be within the scope of the rail discussion. But it will be very much part of the separate A-B mobility study that MassDOT is kicking off with the City.

      Will definitely try to keep Grand Junction in the conversation.

  2. There are strong arguments for improved rail service based on reducing congestion. Inside Rte 128 rail makes sense even with the promise of driverless cars that will remake our transportation needs in unforeseen ways.
    However, I’m skeptical about the environmental benefits of rail vs. cars. A few years ago I tried to analyze the literature on the question I concluded that rail probably doesn’t have significant environmental benefits. For one thing, it takes as much fuel to haul an empty commuter train back for a second trip as it takes when the train is full of people. Moreover, auto emissions are a fraction of what they once were, and electric cars are making the calculation more problematic.
    We should take advantage of our existing rail infrastructure. But we shouldn’t count on it reducing our emissions.

    1. Bill, do you have references to the information you read? I’ve been using “Sustainability Energy – without the hot air” by David Mackay as my rough guide, which doesn’t at all agree with your conclusions above. He does admit to there being trains not always full, so he takes the best case of several KWh/100 person km (he uses KWh instead of g CO2 equivalent as an intuitive unit) up to 15 KWh/100 person km, but that’s still substantially below the number he uses for a typical U.K. car (which is smaller than a typical U.S. car): 68 KWh / 100 person km. http://www.withouthotair.com/c20/page_120.shtml

      Still seems to make giving up our cars and using rail and bus where possible way more appealing than relying only on so called zero emission vehicles, which at best will do about 50% better unless NE ISO miraculously (not to mention wherever they’re manufactured) starts having a very different fuel mix on the grid, that as we’re retiring nukes. Moving to not owning a car is a great experience btw. for a number of reasons, so I’d encourage you all to try. Cars may have improved some, but in Massachusetts transportation is still the number one culprit for CO2 emissions what with the efficiency efforts but perhaps more due to natural gas being burned instead of coal.

      I found it really inspiring to see 1000 or so people line up for Senator Markey’s Climate Change Summit last night, but that was dampened somewhat when I considered how the line wound its way through a parking lot full of cars. Seems we’re just getting started on getting out of this hole we’ve dug ourselves and that perhaps we’re a little heavy on the “someone must do something” and a little light on the “what does this carbon calculator suggest I should do.”

  3. In my German home town they build two additional tracks along the existing rail lines from Cologne to Aachen to accommodate fast urban transit. Essentially noone drives anymore to the big cities because it is cheaper, faster and easier to take the train. I am concerned that giving up rail road beds by the MBTA to use for bike paths or other uses will make future rail transit expansions impossible. We need to keep this on mind!

  4. Transit X (transitx.com) should be evaluated in this study. Transit X is building and operating a privately-financed podways (an ultra-narrow gauge railway) where solar-powered, automated, ultra-light vehicles (pods) provide on-demand, high-capacity mobility that could travel along MassDOT rights-of-way.
    The founder (Mike Stanley) both lives and works in your district.

  5. I know it is not your district. But I have an easy solution for my neck of the woods. Put back the shuttle from the Riverside T on existing rail bed and make a new stop on the Framingham/Worcester line off Recreation Road and the Liberty Mutual property. This would allow those coming from Worchester and Metro West to make an easy connection to the Green line and than to the Longwood Area. Just involves adding the shuttle train and building a new station and parking at Recreation Road and or the Liberty Mutual site.

  6. Thanks, Will. Please ensure that the study considers the benefits of adding a commuter rail stop at Alewife, as this location represents a rapidly expanding nexus for both residential and commercial development. With another 6 million square feet of space still to be added by 2030 (projected to included 9000+ more commuters), together with the 5 million square feet of space added in the past 8 years, we believe this location is deserving of dual subway/urban rail service. The map above shows such dual service at 7 other locations outside the urban core. Alewife is far denser than any of them. We need to get Alewife commuters out of their cars. A new rail station at Alewife will help immensely.

  7. Couple comments:

    The MBTA has the highest debt load of any transit system in the country – something like $9 billion – with and additional $7 billion in deferred maintenance.
    So where is all this money going to come form for expansion?
    Another commentator here points out that the MBTA had abandoned railbeds for bike paths. These railbeds go right to high-density suburbs (Lexington, Concord, etc.) In hindsight, that may have been short-sighted. How do we know the current plan isn’t equally short-sighted?
    The comment is made that bus service is not included. That’s a major oversight for any study that is offering itself as a comprehensive transportation plan.
    Another commentator here mentioned that emissions and fuel efficiency has changed dramatically in the last 5-10 years – hence many of the estimating factors for the cost/benefit (car vs mass transit for outlying communities) are likely out of date. This is a major red flag.

    This study is far from complete, and gives evidence of flawed analysis.

    1. “Another commentator here points out that the MBTA had abandoned railbeds for bike paths. These railbeds go right to high-density suburbs (Lexington, Concord, etc.)”

      Ahem, credit where credit is due. I wasn’t in the country at the time, but popular wisdom around here has it that it wasn’t the MBTA who didn’t want redline expansion to Lexington but Lexington’s own residents, who are a highly engaged and politically active population (more often for the good I suppose, but I guess not immune from NIMBY). Are these false tales I’m hearing? The story as usually told says we could have had redline to Arlington Center too if not for Arlington residents opposing it.

  8. I would also recommend one day a line that goes along the center strip of 128 with connections at all the Commuter Rails lines and the Green Line at Riverside and any other possible connections.

    1. The circumferential route is a very worthy idea. I’m not clear whether that falls within the scope of the study as MassDOT has conceived it. There are hard questions to answer just on the radial routes.

  9. an aside: when the Alewife garage was brand new we went on a tour with Mary Jane Gibson, our rep. It was proudly announced that in the future at least two more floors could be added if needed. The time has come! A garage full by 9 AM and turning away potential commuters is most unfortunate. Of course it will be expensive but so is the impact of commuter traffic with one person in every car, as we all know. Getting these cars off the local roads would be a good investment though admittedly only a drop in the bucket.

    1. The Alewife garage is rapidly collapsing. It’s hpgoing to lose floors, not gain them.

    2. Yes, we’d love to do that.

      The problem is the access — we can’t get the cars in and out right now with all the traffic that cuts through and goes to Cambridge Park drive. That has been carefully studied.

      1. An easy fix to that would be an exit ramp from the garage directly onto rt. 2 westbound, bypassing the traffic lights and rotary. Can’t believe that wasn’t done to begin with, I think road designers hate drivers, traffic flowed better years ago with the old rotary before some genius decided to redo it and added signals.

        1. The real barrier to this is environmental opposition. There are strong supporters of preserving the Alewife reservation. Encroaching with new ramps is big red flag for many.

  10. I would be concerned about the Boston Centric mindset. The plan should include crosstown model of suburb to suburb commuting without cars (connecting 128 stations through buses). Otherwise there will be limited public support for another “Boston thing” There are those who need transit but don’t need Boston

  11. The North Cambridge gridlock will just get worse and worse as residential and business construction continues unabated. Not to mention new construction east of North Cambridge that will put increasing traffic demands on Route 2 and 16. To say that maybe there may be money for a pedestrian overpass of the commuter rail tracks at Alewife but not for the long-envisioned Alewife commuter rail stop is a dangerous game of “let’s pretend” because explaining why new business and/or general taxes would mean real leadership. I don’t blame you Will, but much of the state administration and legislative leadership would appear to ignore uncomfortable truths than show real leadership.

  12. I’m all for additional public transportation options. Car traffic and commuting times are terrible, and parking is getting scarcer all the time.

    Please keep in mind:

    -New rail stations and greater ridership need to be supported by additional access methods, including ample parking and additional bus routes. It won’t work if people can’t easily get to the stations from their neighborhoods and workplaces.

    – Also, self-driving cars and robo-taxis are coming in the near future. Any new terminals must be able to handle this access traffic, as the lifetime of the terminal will be much longer than the time to arrival of self-driving cars. This technology will have major ramifications on commuting patterns, and when it finally does come, the impact will come quickly. A highly likely first use will be for access to high volume transfer stations. At the least we should be planning for higher volume passenger transfer lanes and islands. Someone should be thinking ahead about how this will impact rail stations, and service.


  14. A few questions. Will this study work with the advocacy group Transit Matters? http://transitmatters.org/ They have mentioned a lot of practical suggestions for improving transit in Metro Boston. Along those lines will electrification of lines as well as raising platforms be included as those can help to improve frequency and speed up commutes? Also would the state support changing zoning laws near CR stations similar to the recently defeated https://slate.com/business/2018/01/california-bill-sb827-residential-zoning-transit-awesome.html this would boost ridership and help with housing crunch.

  15. This is a great start to relieving congestion in Boston. However the spider web needs filling in with crossing lines for people who don’t need or want to get to Boston but need public transportation. Thanks for all you do, Will….

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