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.

77 replies on “Rail Vision Study Underway”

  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!

    1. Boston has many abandoned rail beds. Abutters and concerned citizens have banded together to turn these ROWs into rail trails. I worry that the state will lose the right to re-convert the rail trails into light and heavy rail.
      For example, in early February I walked on the Bruce Freeman RT from Acton towards Lowell and return for a total trip of 5 miles. The ROW is 60 feet wide; however, several businesses and abutters have built into it or dumped trash in it. That width is certainly wide enough for a high speed trolley line connecting Framingham with Lowell and Lawrence. The ROW follows some heavily traveled roads for cars and trucks.
      Until the 1920s or so Class 1 railroads would drop their box cars at a siding where an electric trolley locomotive took them on spurs that a large engine with its long wheel base and weight could not use.
      Given the speed at which the US abandoned rail from 1915 to 1965 I would hope that public opinion would realize that the US has to return to the previous model sooner rather than later. So, folks, search for old railroad and trolley maps on the web. There are many! As I walked along the BFRT my mind envisioned connecting those railbeds to build mini-hubs such as the one that existed in Watts until that system “died”. And we all know that did to the LA inner city (not to mention the concrete subdivisions). In fact, these mini-hubs might lessen the need to connect North & South station with an expensive tunnel.
      One last thought … using electric power rather than diesel make the air cleaner and more healthy. It will also reduce maintenance costs although the up-front costs for the overhead power are expensive.

  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.

    1. Rather than build Boston West in Brighton as a mega project now, why not do that at the intersection of Rtes 128/95/30/16? Now that the toll plaza for the Pike has gone, even more smart development can occur there. Why build Boston West when a system can catch most of the drivers at Rte 128? Boston West s/b a hub for those switching to lines going to Cambridge, Brookline, etc.
      Another thought to the Rte128/95 plaza is that it is only about 1.5 miles from the Rte 20 interchange where the Fitchburg line crosses. That rotary has more than enough space for a large transit hub that would provide branch lines to the many businesses. In fact, the old Mass Central railroad’s ROW goes just north of Rte 20 behind the old Rte128 Auto Parts yard. The ROW continues westward along Roue 20 where it connects with the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail in Framingham.

  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.

  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….

  16. Thanks Will. So glad you will be involved. We know we will be kept informed.

  17. Another thought on the third component, Amtrak, is to run more frequent, smaller trains over the long haul routes with less frequent, but varied, stops. Of course you’d have to fight off the Koch brothers and others who seem to want less efficient modes of transporting ever larger numbers of commuters and tourists.

    1. This may be off topic, but Amtrak’s biggest problem in Massachusetts, seems to me, is in the nature of the lease they have with CSX (I think that’s the freight company) to use their tracks west of Worcester. Recently, I went to take the Lakeshore Limited from Springfield to Boston and was told it was two and half hours behind schedule. That’s extreme, but a 45 to 90 minute delay seems somewhat common. Hard to attract passengers when you can’t keep to a schedule. And you’ll sometimes get caught sitting on train at Worcester for an hour, that’s the worst. It’s not always as simple as buying a Peter Pan ticket instead. From what conductors and other passengers say, this isn’t some dysfunction within Amtrak, but has to do with CSX getting first priority to the tracks.

  18. Very appreciative of this update as a resident of Watertown. Glad you’ve been called to serve on this committee and thank you.

    Here in Watertown, we can hear and sometimes even see the CR trains but getting to them is next to impossible to use them. Help us make those connections as we’re an island in the spider web of rail lines and we miss the A line dearly.

    I like the parking garage idea from another poster. Why not follow the Crown Plaza model and build a/some MBTA-managed commuter parking lots over the Pike at the Auburndale, Newtonville, West Newton and/or a re-opened Newton Corner stop?

    You’d stop commuter cars from ever getting into the city this way and they’d never hit the streets of Newton, either.

    Our region’s in a housing crisis so add a few new TOD housing units to the projects to help cover the costs. We can build over the Pike in Boston but not out here?

    1. All valid points that I second as a Watertown resident in a rail-less community… parking across at Newton Stops may give more riders hips at these points .

  19. The answer to rapid transit commuter service lies more in the type of equipment than the rail network itself. The tracks, whether active, inactive or no longer there, serve hundreds of cities and towns as they have since the 1800s.

    The best way to have viable convenient commuter service people will use is with a fleet of diesel multiple units. Unless we electrify all the lines, we’re stuck with diesel service. Running catenary wires or a third tail throughout the network is not likely to happen for numerous reasons. Having locomotives thundering through our communities more often is not what anyone really wants. Diesel multiple units were once considered by the T as a way to solve the seaport’s horrific and worsening transportation problem. Why the DMU died has never been adequately explained. Rehab existing tracks, eliminate as many of the more dangerous grade crossings as possible, and purchase a fleet of diesel multiple units. Not perfect by any means, but nothing ever is. With all the discussion of regional rail transit expansion, not a word about what could be a quicker, relatively cheaper solution to gridlock.
    Unless and until the policymakers, the
    private sector stakeholders and the developers decide take decisive action, we’ll be awash I’m studies.

  20. I think the transfer station idea is at considering, especially if there is a circumferential service that parallels 95/128 that can carry passengers laterally that is coming with local employer financed “last mile” to destination buses.

  21. Thanks for the thorough update! I’m glad that you were selected to be on the advisory committee. Kate Wall

    1. The system is not there to make money. It’s there to keep the economy of the region going and help it grow.

  22. Glad to see you involved in this important study. It’s good they are looking at international systems. European cities have great public transportation because they invest a lot of money in it. First we need the North South Rail Link. Then we need to electrify the lines. Otherwise you can’t get the needed acceleration and deceleration nor enough frequencies. This shouldn’t come at the expense of the farther out cities in the region. Both markets can be served.

  23. Could definitely use more frequent service on the Fitchburg line, some Buddliners or whatever they call them these days would be great.

  24. I hope that a rail vision study will include a model like the one found in Vienna and Munich, amongst others: one where not only do local and distant high-speed trains operate on different tracks while using some of the same principal stations, but where there are no missing links like we have in Boston between North and South Stations.

  25. Oh, and by the way, some form of regional coordinating body will need to be created, to overcome the fragmented decision making procedures of separate cities and towns which any integrated rail system is meant to serve. For example, an MAPC with regulatory powers.

  26. thanks for this. I do believe West Station should be built. We need more frequent service, and service that reaches out to the gateway cities also.

  27. I loved the convenience of riding home from South Station in 20 min (15 train , the rest bus and walking) (to Boston Landing) and without the strenuous stairs of red and green line transfers.
    More frequent service esp on Friday and Sunday would help significantly as travel on bus and rail to NYC. I like to keep all transportation open as I choose not to drive and know many who depend on public transportation for the same reason.

  28. Hi, Will,

    I hope this study will look at shining examples of how long-standing legacy urban-suburban-satellite community transportation systems evolved into jewels (i.e. Portland, Oregon’s Tri-Met system, see https://www.wired.com/2009/11/portland-trimet-mass-transit/), rather than just trying to reinvent the wheel.

    It is a marvel of integrated transportation, and should be a great example of what Boston and Greater Boston+ should be aiming for. If tiny and quirky little Portland can create such a comprehensive system serving the needs of such a geographically diverse group, I think we really need to raise our bar and make our system one that ranks up there with Portand’s.

    Hope you can pass this along to someone in the study group. You can’t hit a lofty target until you start aiming high, and it gets done one shot at a time.


  29. If the goal is to increase ridership, I would place more “frequent commuter rail service” as a distant third on the list of priorities. And I say this as someone who regularly misses his evening train and has to wait until the next one.

    Much more important is increasing the number of cars on existing trains that are near–or over!–capacity every single workday. I pay the hefty premium to take the commuter rail instead of the red line because it is a more humane experience. If I have to keep standing in the aisle elbow to rib cage with my fellow commuters, it doesn’t seem worth it.

    Second is parking at important stations. I can name a dozen coworkers who have just given up on the T because they’re tired of getting to Alewife or Braintree and finding the lot full. They opt for the certain frustration of sitting in traffic, rather than the uncertain frustration of the parking lot-tery.

  30. The current rail vision survey (Feb. 2019) is very unsatisfactory. It presents a lot of either/or choices that create a false dichotomy. I want express trains and more frequent service to all stops. I want to be able to reach outlying stations as well as inner circle stations, etc.

    1. The team has been doing a lot of very detailed work to understand the choices that we will have to make given the infrastructure we have or reasonably could build. They have been using the best available rail service modeling software to understand what it takes to provide everything that everyone wants.

      It is theoretically possible to provide both express trains and more frequent service at all stops, but you physically can’t do that on the tracks we have on most lines. You need to add tracks and adding tracks means moving highways and/or tearing down buildings adjacent to the existing right of way. . . as the consultants say “there will be impacts”.

      So it is really appropriate to start talking about hard choices, either limitations on the service possibilities or significant relocations in neighborhoods all along the tracks.

  31. Thanks for the opportunity to comment. I took the survey in your newsletter which asked me what it would take to get me to ride more often, then asked questions that were totally irrelevant to the goal.

    I don’t ride the commuter rail because you can’t get there from here. I live in Arlington and used to commute to Canton, using a combination of bus, subway, and commuter rail the map says it would take 1hour 45 to 3 hours as the car only took 35 to 1h 15 I never tried the train. My job then moved to Marlboro and you really can’t get there from here.

    I also frequently fly to other parts of the country, most frequently on a 6am flight. The T suggests I catch a bus to a train before midnight and sleep in the airport.

    If we really want a regional public transport system that works we need to not only fix the transit on the relatively infrequent spokes of our hub and spoke system, but also add additional spokes, and some rings. If there has been a train option instead of sitting in traffic on 128 I would have been there even if strictly less economical than the car as the stress of the traffic is brutal.

    1. I take your point. The patterns of sprawling housing and employment that developed with the automobile in the 20th century are a principal barrier to reducing automobile traffic. Mass transit requires a concentration of people going from and to the same places. To the extent people are traveling in all different directions, we can’t really serve their needs. A ring service would be great, but more feasible would the north-south rail link so one could get much closer without changing trains.

  32. It’s particularly important to provide regular service to communities outside Boston since within a decade no current working resident will be able to afford to live in the City of Boston. I also notice there is no discussion around connecting stations ‘in the ring’ instead of making riders travel all the way into Boston to change train lines. Same issue with subway too.

  33. I believe the the MBTA should do a more comprehensive review of the routes to better meet the need of more than the commuter. They should make it possible to not own a car. There needs to be more cross suburb buses.

    I lived in San Francisco , where they had brochures which helped with transportation routing. One of the brochures gave directions to public entertainment and tourist locales. Another provided directions for hooking up with complementary transportation systems. They were very helpful. The MBTA should consider these transportation needs as well.

    In addition, the T should do better with access issues. In the subway, at the foot of every staircase, there should be directions to elevators and escalators. Of note, it is not just people in wheelchairs that have problems with stairs. Even jocks do on occasion!

  34. Hi, Will. As you know, I live in Watertown. The first question in the survey asks us our zip code and then the third one asks whether we live in the ‘Inner Region (Area within MBTA Subway Service)’ or the ‘Outer Region’. Watertown has no subway service and I can think of a few other places within the 128 belt that don’t either. How would you answer this question?

  35. There is only 1 survey available, and that is for non-riders. Transparency is questionable, since Rider Surveys (if available) were not advertised. It seems like the goal of the survey is slanted toward getting input from affluent suburban commuters rather than inner-city residents who rely on rail service.

  36. Hi there. I am currently a renter and my partner and I are looking to buy. We can’t afford homes in the immediate Boston metro area so would be looking to become commuter rail riders by moving to a community a little farther out and more affordable. I work in the Longwood area and my partner works in Cambridge. There are really no areas to live that would be convenient/doable for the both of us via commuter rail, with one of us likely having to face a difficult commute whether by having multiple transit connections or by having to become a driver. Us both being committed to a more environmentally sustainable model of commute, we would love to see something that makes commuting to Cambridge and on through to Boston/the Longwood area a less daunting task. Thank you for listening!

  37. The gas tax should be raised to make available funds for better commuter rail and other public transportation services. We have been subsidizing car travel at the expense of public transportation by keeping the gas tax low. The result is clogged streets and more pollution.

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