Regional Rail — All Aboard

Earlier this week, the MBTA board unanimously embraced the general idea that we should radically improve rail service, both for “urban” communities inside 128 and for the wider region.  Over the next few months, the board will need to make some more definitive decisions about where, when and how to roll out improvements. View the live stream of the discussion at this link starting at 1:23:00.

The members of the board all expressed a desire to provide much more service everywhere.  However, they stopped short of formally embracing the maximal option before them which offered 15 minute service to most existing stations and included building the expensive North-South Rail Link.

Their first resolution recognized the need to vet service improvements on each line both economically and environmentally.    In truth, not every service expansion makes sense.  There is nothing desirable about running trains around empty –- one has to do a careful analysis of whether ridership is likely to materialize.

The resolution directed staff “[T]o develop a set of options that maximize the ridership returns on investment over the next ten years and support a pathway to more improvement over the long term, with particular emphasis on lines that are most likely to be well used.”

The board could have stopped there and waited for staff to develop the requested new set of options, but they chose to go further, provisionally embracing specific line improvements in a second resolution recommended by board chair Joe Aiello. That resolution directed the general manager to “implement EMU [electric multiple unit] powered service along the Providence/Stoughton line, the Fairmont line and the line from Boston to Everett to Chelsea to Revere to Lynn (the so-called Environmental Justice line).”

Over the past few months, advocates have repeatedly come before the board during its generous public comment period to urge better service on these lines which serve lower income areas.   Chair Aiello argued that those lines merit early attention, noting that promises had been made 10 years ago about the Fairmount line and making an intuitive argument that ridership will be strong on the inner North Shore line.

In the discussion before the vote on the second resolution, Board Member Monica Tibbits-Nutt acknowledged and emphasized the equity arguments for improving service on those lines, but went on to express her concern that the choice of lines at this stage would be inconsistent with the direction to develop options based on expected ridership.  She asked the chair to confirm that the line choice would be “consistent with what [staff] puts together for what the short, medium and long term elements need to be, [in other words, that] we are not going to supersede what [staff] come up with.”  The chair confirmed that.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack similarly commented that she was concerned about the “specificity” of the resolution noting that the board had no information about the cost or  feasibility of the new electrified service on these particular lines – how electrification would be implemented, whether the new service would require additional tracks, etc.

Chairman Aiello responded, “[S]taff is going to have to do their work, they are going to have to do their discovery,  . . .  I’d rather be a little bit on the blunt side and have the staff push back and the process push back.”

Board Member Brian Lang endorsed the sense of urgency but recognized, “We need to make some decisions with the information that we have now and if we have to alter them going forward . . . and there is a rational reason to do it, we will do it.”

The hard parts of the work to evaluate alternative options have already been done.  The Rail Vision team has already assessed the physical feasibility of different service configurations on the available tracks and has already run ridership models.  Hopefully, staff can be before the board again rather soon with that data.  The board appears ready to then revisit their more specific resolution and perhaps make a new choice of lines to prioritize in the light of feasibility and/or return on investment considerations.

As they return to the question of which lines to prioritize, the board should also return to Chair Aiello’s prophetic comment at the start of this week’s discussion: “[L]and use is a very very underappreciated element of what’s going to happen here.  . . . [W]hen we did the Orange Line and the Red Line extension projects, it was intended to serve what were then existing very very modest communities in terms of their wealth.  Little did we know that the world would change and these communities would be really where people of wealth wanted to live and effectively displace those that we thought we were serving in that generation of investment.  It could happen here if we are not careful.  So therefore there does need to be a collaborative effort with the communities we serve to maintain affordability. ”

Maintaining affordability of housing is one of our central challenges as a state and we have not done well at it so far. Unquestionably, equity considerations should weigh heavily in locating new service, but the top consideration should be where the service is likely to attract the most riders, because neighborhood demographic profiles do change. In assessing potential ridership, the board should have data before it as to the possible the impact of introducing discount fares for low-income riders — we do not want the current fare structure to deflate projections of possible ridership in low-income areas.

For further background, please see this prior post.

Published by Will Brownsberger

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

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44 Comments

    1. I’m not quite there. It’s a cool idea, but the cost and the disruption during the construction may outweigh the rather limited ridership. There may never be a lot of people commuting across the city from northern suburb to southern suburb. It seems it will mostly save subway changes within the city. Still studying it.

      1. The North South Rail Link is not about commuting across the city. It is about knitting the region together and opening up many more possibilities to get to jobs, recreation, or whatever, and not be limited by living on the north side or the south side. Many major cities that had bifurcated systems have built links between them, such as Philadelphia, London, Paris, Munich, and Frankfurt. It’s important for the long-term growth of the region.

      2. European cities like Vienna and Munich have excellent rail-subway overlapping systems. This makes sense from a transportation system viewpoint.
        The worries about gentrification are valid, but are not driven by improved transportation infrastructure (I believe). So that’s another whole kettle of fish.
        Finally, to make planning even more difficult for everybody, let’s be realistic about sea level rise and storm surges, which will fragment the geography of Metro Boston, thereby making entire municipalities disappear, and which will destroy the Metro Boston economic engine, which extends from New Hampshire in the north, Worcester in the west, and Rhode Island in the south.
        Gauging from the increasing rate of change of climate, that scary picture is not 100 years out, but much closer.
        Shouldn’t that ominous and looming reality underpin the overall land use, transportation and economic planning of our Commonwealth?

        1. Since I just bought an expensive condo specifically to live on the red line, I disagree that adding transportation options don’t lead to gentrification. The price of the condo has doubled in the last 10 years, but I’m willing to pay because traffic in Cambridge is terrible.

      3. Don’t forgot the benefit of added frequency. If trains don’t have to stop at South Station or North Station than they can continue on rather than stay at the train terminal and waste time there.

      4. Building a north-south connection is almost impossible as every lot between north station and south station are heavily developed, above the surface and underground. How can you do it now?

        Plus, it further strengthens the hub- and spoke topology of Boston ( the one center architecture), which did not help communities on the suburbs much.

        We would like to see a circular light rails, connecting all the commuter rails, subways and major developments in the suburbs to solve interconnection issues and spur more economic development outside of Boston

  1. If you want to “maintain affordability”, cut the fares and the administrative overhead (starting with Stephanie Pollack !). I lived in Madrid, Spain for three years, a city with a comparably old and complex metro system but with a much higher level of ridership; it was cheap, reliable, with none of the continual breakdowns and delays we, in our supposedly much more advanced city have here.

    1. I don’t feel that administrative overhead is the problem. If anything, they need more planning and engineering capacity. To your aside, IMHO, Stephanie Pollack is adding a lot of value as Transportation Secretary.

      Can’t comment on Madrid, but every city is different in the way its subway fits into it.

  2. HI
    IN GENERAL, THIS IS REALLY GOOD NEWS AND LONG OVERDUE.
    HAS ANYONE CHECKED WHETHER LIGHT RAIL REPLACING THE EXISTING OUTDATED HEAVY RAIL SYSTEM WOULD BE MORE AFFORDABLE OVER TIME? THE EXISTING SYSTEM HAS SUCH HEAVY NOISY AND POLLUTING LOCOMOTIVES AND TRAIN CARS THAT IT MUST USE A LOT OF FUEL AND COST A LOT TO RUN THEM. TO ALLOW FREIGHT USING THE RAILS PERHAPS YOU COULD HAVE BOTH TYPES OF RAILS WITH LIGHT RAIL HAVING LONGER “LEGS” TO REACH ITS RAILS THAT ARE INSERTED BETWEEN THE EXISTING RAILS? IS THIS FEASIBLE?

    1. We are likely to go electric and possibly single car units. But since some of the tracks are shared with heavy rail freight and Amtrak service, my understanding is that we have to run similarly heavy rail cars for safety in case of collision.

  3. I would like to see more of the Budd type (RDC) (rail diesel car) to run in the off commuter hours – they are smaller and were actually used all over New England for lesser traveled routes. These could be run with one or two people and consist of one or two cars. An option I would like to see is that they be able to run diesel or electric.

    On the issue of electrifying the system – that will be cost prohibitive and since we are facing electric shortages in Massachusetts – it might not be the right choice. That might mean we only electrify certain routes and have dual powered units so they could run over all routes.

    Expansion of existing service needs to be considered – like expanding the Lowell line to Manchester or Concord NH . Expansion of the Worcester line to Springfield, add feeders into Worcester and Springfield – or at least trials. Also looking at abandoned lines like the Hudson line or maybe a some others with RDC cars servicing and using connection stops where passengers transfer on to a main line train.

    I would also like to see the subway expanded like the red line out to Bedford along the minuteman bike path – with a parking lot off rt 128 . This would also replace the many of the parking spaces at Alewife T stop which really needs to be replaced instead of putting a band aid every ten years

    Most important is the need for flexibility – as very few of us can see into the future and what life will be like

    More Parking and large regional parking lots are needed

    1. Good thoughts. The bud car concept is very much in the mix under the name “diesel multiple unit”. DMUs and EMU are both under consideration. Leaning toward electric though. As you say we can mix service types.

  4. When my daughter and her partner find it’s cheaper to drive to Cambridge and park at a Harvard “remote” lot and walk than take a train from Fitchburg (2 stations) something is very broken.
    On Route 2 no tolls. Fitchburg isn’t an elite town, it’s working class and if data shows, deserving. I hope you can find a way to get input from people like them.
    I’m not arguing any one route is better (Except connecting North and South Stations) I don’t have the technical knowledge (very much appreciate those who do) but I’m wary of projects that reach for unrealistic climate change priorities over other methods of reducing our impact.
    I’m a Hardcore ecologist and environmental advocate; I help run our non- profit on cataloging invasive species so please don’t stereotype me. As I always say here watch out for unintended consequences and in this case multiple variables.
    Having said that I do prioritize helping those without the finances to even weigh the choices my daughter was able to consider. But I’m sick and tired of “affordable housing” in places that lack transportation. Or lists that are driven by well meaning people with tunnel vision.

  5. MassDOT’s rail proposals in the Allston I-90 project need to be updated to align with this great new direction established by the FMCB to have all-day 15-minute service. Specifically, there should be no layover yard in Allston, West Station should have 4 tracks, and tracks dedicated to bypassing West Station are not needed.

    You don’t need midday layover when the trains will be running midday. West Station needs 4 tracks so that trains to South Station and Kendall can move efficiently without complex switching and crossing moves. Tracks that bypass West Station do nothing for travel times when trains stop at Boston Landing or West Station. The few seconds that bypass tracks would save for express trains can be more than made up for by building high-level platforms at Back Bay and the Newton stations.

  6. When you try to serve 2 (or more) masters you end up pleasing no one. Need to define the primary objective of improvements and move forward with implementation.

  7. If we are talking about spending money to increase ridership, it seems like one of the easiest, low-capital ways to do that would simply be reducing fares. I’m sure there’s a solid reason why it costs $6.50 from Belmont or Waverly to Porter or North Station, but surely it’s a significant deterrent to a large set of potential commuters who find it cheaper to take a car or even an Uber into the city. Cutting the fare to something more like a subway cost for the 15-minute ride would presumably increase ridership quite a lot, with no capital costs apart from assigning more train cars during rush hour. Heck, even an off-peak reduced fair would do a lot to fill up otherwise pretty empty trains in the afternoon. As a recent arrival in this area, I found it baffling that a relatively progressive region has such high near-city commuter costs, though again, I realize that there must be some reason for it.

      1. Thanks — I hadn’t seen that. I personally believe that the benefits to increased usage of public transit well exceed the relatively narrow targets discussed there, such as traffic mitigation or CO2 reduction (though those are both important). Otherwise, by the exact same logic as in that post, why not increase the price of transit by 50% and put the MBTA firmly in the black, with only small costs to ridership, traffic, and CO2? Whatever the ideal amount of spending and use is for transit, it’s hard to believe the current situation is currently at that ideal point, and I side with those who consider public transit to be vastly underutilized compared to what would be best for our cities and commuters, and compared to what many other developed democracies have settled on.

        If subsidies via gas taxes are unpopular and regressive, then why not just pay for it with progressive general taxes rather than pitting transit increases against unpopular taxes? If electric cars save more carbon, why pit them against transit rather than doing both? And if it is difficult to target large subsidies only for low-income riders, then why use that as an argument against a general fare cut instead of an argument in favor of one? Essentially all of these arguments boil down to the central argument that we can’t afford to do it, and that’s just not true.

        But anyway, I know that was last month’s discussion! Thanks for thinking it through in such detail, even if the end result appears to be nickel and diming ourselves yet again out of increased public services.

        1. I’m all for increasing ridership, Nick. The point is that we can only increase it marginally by fare changes. We need to build the carrying capacity on key desired routes (which are all overloaded) and then we can increase ridership.

          To your suggestion we could alternatively raise fares and put the T in the black, we would have to roughly triple fares to do that. Fares cover only a small portion of the T’s cost, about 1/3. Certainly, that kind of fare increase would have a big negative impact on ridership.

          1. I didn’t seriously mean to suggest that we raise fares enough to put the T in the black; rather, my broader point was that, if we are going to be mathematical about it and claim that there is a predictable relationship between fares and ridership, why should we believe that the current fares are the best ones for ridership? It beggars belief that we happen to be at the optimal tradeoff. So if you are going to be empirical, what do *you* think is the best fare rate, assuming that whatever it currently is at, is unlikely to be perfection?

            I’ve also taken a look at the elasticity document linked in the previous post, and I worry about judging large fare changes on these sorts of linear estimates. I didn’t mean to really suggest tripling fares, but looking at the document you linked, assuming an elasticity of 0.15, by equation A.6.1, tripling fares would only decrease ridership by 30% (check the math yourself!); and in fact cutting the fares to $0.00 would only increase ridership by 15%. That lacks face validity in my view; these linear estimates are really only accurate for small changes. But even taking it at face value, 0.15 is an ungenerous assumption; using the more optimistic 0.30 upper range or the 0.35 estimate from 2013 for commuter rail, we get an 18% increase in ridership for a 50% cut in fares, which seems like nothing to sneeze at given that that is about a half of the largest possible ridership change. (And of course if only 1/3 of revenue comes from fares, then a 50% cut in fares would only decrease revenue by 17%.)

            Anyway, yes, I did just spend a half-hour of a holiday afternoon doing elasticity calculations; and no, I don’t expect you to get into these weeds! But thanks for the replies, I appreciate the real feedback. And I’m happy to be having this argument at least, rather than arguing over red herrings such as that we can only pay for this with dedicated unpopular regressive taxes, or that there also exist other good policies with which this policy is somehow in zero-sum competition (such as electric car subsidies).

            1. Thanks, Nick. The question of what is the ‘best’ fare rate is a deep one. Some people target a ‘fare recovery’ ratio that is perceived as fair. My answer is more or less as low as possible, but probably not free. However, lowering fares cost money. The judgment call in my previous piece is that we should focus on low income now and consider a broader reduction later when we have more capacity.

  8. We recently rode the commuter train from Belmont to get to Boston. We paid $13 for the 5 min ride to Porter Square and another $5 on the red line to Park Street. $18 for 2 to get to downtown one way, $36 round trip, no wonder no one rides the commuter train!

      1. Agree with the above, zone l fares are ridiculously expensive for the distance traveled; should be the same as a subway fare.

  9. Improving and expanding commuter rail service is a common sense goal imho also. The nuts and bolts will eventually be hammered out. A reminder though; the general public will not be inclined to use any sort of public transportation until we are forced to…which means to my understanding, the banning of single occupancy autos commuting into and out of Metro Boston during commuter hours (or even, business orders) which does not have much public support historically.
    The horse needs to be put before the cart.

  10. I disagree with you on the “empty trains” part. It is not just about ridership on every train but rather the frequency that matters. A major deterrent to many people who work in Boston from taking CR is the lack of frequency. Want to stay slightly later for a meeting at work tough luck you missed your train. Need to leave earlier to pick up your kids tough luck you have to wait an hour. It would take a bit but if you make it more convenient people will be more likely to use it.

  11. I do have concerns about paying for this. I am aware of 3 groups: the inner city folks (the 12 original communities of the T Medford, Watertown, Arlington, Belmont etc). The Bostonia benefits and will pay for it and embrace it. However the Suburban groups west of these out to just beyond 128 You will get the most push-back from the 128 because they adjusted to using cars. The dominant commute is suburb to suburb and so far the T expansion that does address this is improved service for getting them into Boston, not the next town over and why they should pay for this service will be a hard sell. , The far upscale suburban groups from 428 to the far reaches of the Berkshires will support it because this is a small part of their community budget.
    The 50,000 foot view looking at the big picture should be a guiding principle. Structure the transportation system to enable the INDIVIDUAL to make it possible to forego the car. (good suburban cross town connections). While this is unpalatable to Boston centrist planners, This can and should be organically grown. Case in point, when I was employed, I would take this little shuttle bus from Lexington center (“Lexpress”) to the Burlington mall then LRTA to north Billerica. I had co-riders who came from Newton to Waltham, walked about 1/4 mile from the Waltham line to Lexington get the Lexpress to the center. Some of them even went to Lowell to make a connection to Tewksbury .
    NOW just a little planning compassion would make a world of difference to these folks.

  12. From an equity point of view, transit improvements and more realistic transit choices serving the heart of Roxbury are far more important than the very expensive north south rail link.
    If any major subsurface project were to be done, connecting the blue line to the red line would connect residents in Revere and East Boston to jobs centers at MGH and all along the red line.

    1. The blue line connects with the green line which then connects with the red line. Please no more subway work until the groaning bus fleet is addressed.

  13. Lots of comment on North/South, electrification of a line specifically serving Boston, but today’s news (11/9) brings a story on a line from Boston to Springfield with possible federal support, bringing the western part of the State, a far more affordable housing market, and providing greater opportunities for Boston employees and employers in the coming years, a good possibility of BIG transportation improvement. This MIGHT even be a High Speed line, and as for numbers of trips, a morning and evening commute would certainly suffice to start!

  14. The North-South link should have been part of the Big Dig. The opportunity was missed.
    Hate to say it, but it seems the commission is dithering about alternatives while Rome burns/Boston floods. Maybe more citizen exposure would hurry them up. Thanks Will

  15. These plans without fare costs and lengths of commutes are meaningless in determining ridership. If commute times decrease significantly without increases is fares than it is fair to assume that ridership will increase significantly, but if commute times remain the same then I doubt ridership will increase.

  16. I do not get it. Connection between North and South stations is accomplished by disembarking from the train, getting on the subway(s), riding to the desired station, disembarking, and boarding the next train. I’ve done it countless times, always grateful for public transportation in our country.

    1. The N-S link’s goal is to improve regional transportation, so that trains from the south can continue on north and back. City commuters would benefit by faster service, but it isn’t primarily intended for them.

  17. As for preventing gentrification around new stations, that’s not part of the T’s business model. Whoever rides pays the same fares, rich or poor. Fares should be reduced for sure, and maybe off-peak reductions are the way to start.

    The gentrification issue is primarily for municipalities to deal with, but the Leg could signify by making it easier for local jurisdictions to say no to developers on the basis of housing equity. Methinks rent controls need to be part of the solution. There should be mechanisms like conservation easements and historic registries for sustaining urban housing and protect neighborhoods from becoming the next Davis Square. Our public servants need to get creative soon, before land prices get bid up.

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