Urban Rail — not coming soon

Commuters and transit advocates have hoped for many years that we could create a new kind of subway-like “urban rail” service that would offer new rapid connections to and within Boston.

Theoretically, we could use self-propelled train cars (“DMUs” or “EMUs” — diesel or electric multiple units) on existing railroad tracks — commuter tracks, freight tracks and abandoned tracks.   For example, we could create much more frequent downtown service from Brighton or Belmont/Watertown using DMUs that shuttled back and forth along the commuter tracks.

Announced pilots of the idea generated a lot of enthusiasm a couple of years ago, but it seems clear now that there are a host of reasons why urban rail may be very difficult to implement.

Some of the problems are related to the tracks:  First, it is not really possible to safely provide rush-hour subway-like service on commuter tracks without getting in the way of the through commuter trains.   Many of the commuter lines have only one or two tracks, not the four that one would ideally have to completely avoid conflict.

Second, North and South Station are already clogged with traffic, so adding more service terminating there is difficult.  Any alternative termination would require enough real estate to allow the necessary vehicle storage tracks.  It is hard, often impossible, to site or expand new stations in a dense urban area.

Additionally, the commuter tracks use long signal blocks designed for lower frequency commuter service.    Signal blocks are stretches of track with lights at each end which are controlled to assure that a train does not move forward until the next block is clear.  Subway-like service requires much closer blocks to allow for more tightly spaced trains.   Signal upgrades are very expensive.

Other problems relate to the cars. The Federal Railroad Administration requires that DMU/EMU type cars running on the same tracks as commuter or freight rail meet higher crash test standards than are required in Europe.  As a result, the cars popular with European transit agencies cannot not be used in the places we would likely want to use them.   Moreover, FRA compliant MUs are slower than the European MUs and have not been popular, so they are not currently being produced. That means that the MBTA would bear the costs and risks of a new manufacturing run.

The MBTA already has to maintain skills and parts inventories for more vehicle types than most transit agencies.  Adding another type is, in itself, a problem, but operating a fleet of bleeding-edge vehicles is especially unattractive.

Finally, of course, there is the question of who would run the service.  If it is running on the same tracks as the commuter rail, it would make sense to have it managed by the same entity.  Right now, however, Keolis, the contractor that runs the commuter rail, seems to have more than enough problems to solve.

The MBTA made an important decision recently to remove funding for DMU service from its five year capital plan.  It seems clear to me, having asked a lot of questions of the MBTA’s planners, that it will be much more than five years, likely decades, before new urban rail service can make a real difference for commuters.  Isolated pilots may be possible sooner, but wide implementation would require a substantial redesign and rebuild of the commuter rail system in ways that may never actually be possible.

For now and a long time hence, the MBTA will need to stay focused on improving the reliability and capacity of its existing subway and bus lines. For more about the MBTA’s long term plans, visit mbtafocus40.com.

Please note: The decision about new urban rail does not affect plans for new commuter rail stations in Brighton, which are moving forward.

Alert: It appears that there is a single individual, usually using computers owned by Harvard University or Harvard Business School, who is posting multiple comments on this thread under different pseudonyms — “Chow”, “Fencer”, “Maria”, “Lateral0”, “Sami”, “Martin K”, “Doria”. This individual supplies bogus email IDs as the origin of his/her comments. Someone is manufacturing a conversation on this thread. This began after January 1, 2017. The earlier comments and some of the later comments are legit.

Please contact me if you wish to take responsibility for one or more of these pseudonyms and we can clean up your message and get it out in a fair way.

Published by Will Brownsberger

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

45 replies on “Urban Rail — not coming soon”

  1. Disappointing news, Will, certainly for this Allston resident, but as ever, I greatly appreciate your thorough inquiry. I guess we should concentrate on getting West Station into the I-90 plans, along with a Harvard-Longwood shuttle bus through the station–and please, please, some consideration to making the #66 a viable bus service.

  2. “It seems clear to me, having asked a lot of questions of the MBTA’s planners, that it will be much more than five years, likely decades, before new urban rail service can make a real difference for commuters.”

    I find statements like this irresponsible. Even if DMUs have a number of issues that may prevent their adoption, it is quite likely that adding new stations along the existing commuter rail could indeed make a real difference in the near term. This has already happened at Yawkey Station and is currently moving rapidly ahead at Boston Landing. The same could be done at West Station on the Framingham line, or at Alewife on the Fitchburg line. Both locations will see extensive commercial and residential growth over the next 5-10 years, and providing commuter rail service at both spots would help dramatically improve commutes to and from those congested areas. Historically, there were at least 4 stations on the Fitchburg line between Porter Square and Belmont Center. Hard to believe all those new West Cambridge residents couldn’t support at least one more stop in that same stretch.

    1. Thanks, Doug.

      Your point is well taken. I agree that the new stations will serve a need and the existing commuter rail service, when it stops at those stations, will help serve people close in. I support that and I expect it to happen.

      The point I am making here is that it appears we are a long way from adding the subway-like DMU service that would be truly transformative for people served by those stops.

      1. Thanks, Will- much appreciated. The loss of potential DMU service may have a small silver lining, at least as far as the Grand Junction rail trail goes. Much of that project’s complexity and added cost stems from the continued insistence that any plan for a new path also be able to accommodate future DMU service from West Station to North Station. If that service is truly off the table, perhaps we can stop designing for a complex and expensive eventuality that is unlikely to actually ever materialize.

  3. Yes the lack of more tracks is a limiting factor but if there are pilot programs, please offer to be the pilot in our area! Has there ever been any discussion about a new commuter rail near North Beacon/Nonantum and in the vicinity of Brooks St? The new RMUD district could be served by a new stop there(there are zero stops in Watertown for rail and this could serve a very large and growing need). Athena Health/New Arsenal/all the new Residents/office facilities could be serviced by a commuter rail stop(walk to the destination). The company I work for was looking in Watertown but took it off the table due to no commuter rail support. (and they would not consider a TMA from Brighton as a solution). Food for thought….

    1. Got it.

      All of the legislators in Brighton and Watertown are very interested in looking for new transportation options.

      The particular location you suggest is probably a little too close to the planned New Balance station.

      Will stay focused on addressing the crying need for better service!

  4. Has the MBTA considered replacing the stock for one entire route with DMUs for the entire route instead of keeping the existing commuter trains for the suburban stretches? That is how Metro North does it in CT. The same EMUs run through CT all the way into Penn station. The multiple units are more efficient and faster to start and stop than the heavy commuter trains even if new infill stations were not added. The time saved could be used to incorporate the urban rail portion on the existing route without adding a separate set of tracks. That was supposed to be the original concept anyway – not some convoluted mishmash of DMUs and heavy commuter trains sharing tracks and schedules.

    1. Yes, I do know that the concept of fully electrifying some routes has been discussed — it would also reduce diesel particulate pollution.

      I’m not sure what all the considerations are (beyond cost) that have compelled a negative answer so far.

      I’ll ask the question.

    2. The T staff do work weekends.

      Here is the gist of their Saturday reply:

      We have studied the issue of electrification in the past, most comprehensively as part of the planning work for the South Coast Rail project. Electrification raises many of the same challenges – on a larger scale – that urban rail does: it would require a wholesale change of our current infrastructure and rolling stock, as well as our maintenance capabilities. It has been estimated to cost in the multiple billions for the system as a whole.

      As for changing over a single line, that is conceivably possible but would limit the T to a fleet of vehicles that can only be used on a single corridor. This would be an inefficient and inflexible set up, and would further burden the T’s already complicated fleet mix. The single-line scenario was studied for South Coast Rail.

      There are certainly advantages that would come from electrification, although the air quality benefits would depend in part on the sources of the electricity available to the T at the time (renewables vs conventional). Current locomotives have a better particulate profile than do the older ones, but not as good as non-diesel vehicles. But the challenges remain cost and technical complexity and the ability of the MBTA to essentially rebuild itself as an electrified system.

      1. Thanks for the reply. I was thinking more along the lines of changing an entire line over to multiple units which can be diesel – I.e., if all stock on a line are switched to DMUs, you no longer have light urban trains competing with heavier commuter trains – they are the same trains with all infill stations incorporated just with time savings from the fast slow down and start up of the multiple units on the commuter line.

  5. I am continually disheartened and dismayed by Boston’s inability to adapt to the growth it seems to be wanting to promote. The entire MBTA system is a mess, and every attempt to make it better gets met with “that’s just not possible.” People can’t afford to own property in Boston proper, but the more reasonable areas outside the city have no good public transit options. Where does the relief come? What exactly is Massachusetts’ plan to do something about its unreliable and insufficient public transit system? Does it even have a plan?

  6. Will the issues of block sizes and signalling become non-issues if and when the T upgrades to a modern GPS-based, wireless train control system? (GPS wouldn’t work in the tunnels, but the hardware for a WiFi based system with repeaters should be very cheap, compared to the electromechanical systems currently in use, to install and maintain in the tunnels. Most of the cost would be software, and that only has to be built once.) Or is a 21st Century control system too pie-in-the-sky and couldn’t possibly happen in the next several decades?

    Another thought: maybe they would only need to double-track (with local and express tracks in both directions), at the new, close-in stations, which mostly haven’t been built yet. The longer distance commuter trains could bypass some of the closer-in stations, and pass the EMUs and DMUs stopped at the stations while they load and unload passengers. When both sorts of trains are moving (e.g. between stations), they would be moving at about the same speed and thus not interfering with each other. This might provide most of the benefits of 4 tracks, but be much cheaper to build.

    1. Communications based control systems can replace block systems, but can actually be more expensive — at least in the Red Line context, they were much more expensive (and rejected as an option).

      You are right that there are many ways to try to solve the traffic mix problems — one does not necessarily need four tracks all the way. But the more cramped the track space, the more precise the timing has to be and we have not had good luck maintaining commuter rail timing.

  7. This is discouraging news for Watertown, since a new study projects that the sprawling new developments on Arsenal Street may add more than 6,000 vehicle trips daily to an area that is already congested. That doesn’t bode well for pollution, CO2 emissions, or quality of life. Are developers forced to contribute to public transportation costs? And if not–why not?

    1. Typically developers need zoning changes and in that negotiation, they are required to pay mitigation costs, which can be applied to transportation improvements. That has been true in the major Watertown developments along the Arsenal Corridor. Those have not been applied to mass transit, but rather to road improvements.

      1. Yes Will that is true. But Watertown has not gotten nearly enough mitigation from these developments.

  8. The hub and spoke urban model has hit it’s limits to growth with congestion at it’s terminal nodes. More thought needs to be given to bypass lines. The GLX will fail for the same reason. There should be more thought about a transit line from assembly square mall/orange line to alewife through Somerville, A bus route from Belmont center to Arlington center,

      1. It could be done piecemeal. Like re-routing the 73 bus to alewife, 78 bus return through Belmont ect. I agree that doing the whole system at once is another big dig, but the manifest destiny of the MBTA is to be a poster child for Chapter 9 bankruptcy no matter how you slice the transportation pie.

  9. Part of the solution to congestion at North and South Stations is to build the North South Rail Link. This should have been done years ago and should be at the top of the list now. It is needed for the current low level of commuter service and essential for EMUs/DMUs. I’m really tired of hearing that we in Mass. can’t make the necessary improvements in transportation because we’re stuck in 19th century structures and ways of thinking and don’t want to invest in the future.

    1. John,

      I understand the beauty of this concept.

      But, however tired we may all be of the challenges we face, our fatigue and annoyance will not make the challenges disappear — our transportation management team has finite bandwidth and my hope is that they will maintain focus on getting the core system working over the next few years.

  10. Hi Senator Brownsberger,

    We now have a private equity firm interested in a financing a solar-powered, ultra-light suspended railroad. See http://www.transitx.com for more information. We need an agreement from local municipalities for the rights-of-way — similar Google Fiber’s agreements for installing their network huts. Service could begin in 2 years. Transit X is working to make Boston car-free within 10 years — all privately financed.

    CEO, Transit X

  11. Will,

    Both Belmont and Watertown can significantly benefit from a solar-powered, economical, no cost to the municipality transportation system that we have spoken with you about at least twice since mid-2015. Now that we have commitment from a national private equity firm, we would appreciate your support to move us into the transportation 21st Century.

  12. You’re now chirping out Pollack DMU talking points when most of Boston is away? Seriously, everyone has received these same debunked talking points. Get with it.

    1. Sorry, Maria, I had to delete the first sentence of your comment — too vulgar for this site.

      But, I think readers will still understand your drift without the vulgarity.

      If you have an alternative analysis, I’d really welcome it. You can publish freely here, but keep it clean.

      1. Your article sounds like Pollack-speak. You may want to get in touch with your fellow state sens about transit funding. The GLX corridor gets a different story, and reap the benefits of each transit cut in Boston, Belmont, etc. Amtrak’s Downeaster train service makes GLX construction a non-starter on day one, and also explains the bloated pricetag

      2. You may want to have a chat with the greater MA delegation. Down in DC, Pollack claimed you’re “in the bag”. Not a good sign. Alongside the points made across this discussion stream, another side to this story is resilience. If the Fairmount-Indigo line gets its long needed DMUs, the current locomotives on the F-I line can be transferred to other branches, boosting Allston, Belmont, and others.

  13. Several parts of the Mass CR system are one track; yet have two-way peak and non peak service. You should talk to an engineer; not a political agency, even as a politician. The Fairmount Line could have cheap sole source DMUs this year. The Fairmount “conflict” is that Mass CR will have to limit non-passenger relays until afterhours.

  14. Tons of good discussion here and as always, I appreciate your post and responsiveness, Will. I’m like most and totally disappointed in the DMU demise. I like the comments in here about pushing the engineering questions more, though. Certainly worth persistence. Please.
    I have a few points to add. One is that for folks in Watertown, the DOT’s preliminary study outputs on the Arsenal Corridor include a BRT-like solution for North Beacon Street which we envision hitting Boston Landing and West Station either by way of Lincoln or N. Beacon Streets in Allston. Please help us keep that dream alive as well as a possible linkage to the Warren Street Green Line stop.
    Also, to Watertown question about developers, we DO have developer committments for a TMA shuttle service in the making that could be transformative in reducing SOV’s coming out of the Pleasant Street residential areas into Watertown Square as well as the new housing being built on Arsenal itself. The Town Council and staff is working with the 128 Business Council to make that happen.

    1. I second the engineering points. DMUs are not a specialty item, they’re ironically needed to fix the current MBTA system. The new commuter rail stops on the Fairmount Line sounded good on paper as Big Dig mitigation. However, they’re slowly killing the system. The commuter rail stops are only a few blocks apart. The current locomotives were not designed for such start-stop activity. Imagine if UPS used a big-rig for a local package delivery route. The strain would knock out the big-rig and costs would mount for UPS as they try to repair their big-rig fleet. The same goes for Keolis. Locomotives are crashing at an alarming rate due to this start-stop activity, effecting service across the network. So why hasn’t this been mitigated? The individual who pressed for the new Fairmount stops without considering the vehicle systems was; wait for it; Stephanie Pollack. When was the last time you heard Pollack say I was wrong? And thus the conundrum

      1. You should clarify your analysis then. The delay isn’t because of technology, tracks, or policy, its because we have an unqualified donor wife running MassDOT. Every loose dollar goes towards the $3 Billion Green Line Ext. Ms. Ken Snow has got to go

        1. Maria, you should post under your own name if you are going to call people out in such a personal way. I don’t censor this site except to keep it OK for family TV, but really, you should be ashamed for making personal attacks that you aren’t willing to own.

      2. The conversation should end at some point. right? Its 2017, and Boston’s black community doesn’t have a metro line; yet every other core community does. Although I wouldn’t use Maria’s language, she’s right. This isn’t about vehicles; Toronto is a good case study for that; its about leadership. Secretary Pollack has one thing on her mind, building the Green Line Extension, even if it means bankrupting the state; her words.

    2. Thanks, Aaron, for your leadership on transportation issues.

      I love the ideas you are developing.

      I hope that we can build more urban rail that works. I am just convinced it will take longer than we want it to.

  15. You should head to Toronto and look at their SmartTrack program. Some of it is bluster, some of it is real. All of it is relatable to Boston. Toronto struggles with CR electrification, but in the meantime deployed a DMU (that can be electrified in the future)for a pressing need.

  16. I’m still trying to figure out why Somerville needs new surface transportation trolley service ? I realize there was some promise made with the Big Dig, but they act like they have NO SERVICE now ! They have a few bus lines that already come out of Lechmere. The #88 Clarendon Hill via Highland Ave., the #87 Clarendon Hill via Som’l Ave., a bus that goes from Lechmere to Arlington Ctr. They also have a bus, #85 Spring Hill out of Kendall Sq. Never mind the Red Line service to Davis Sq.

  17. Whoa, wth? Senator, IP addresses can be altered. Various personal devices can mirror IPs in 2017, its mainly for security, but also used for trolling; as seen below. My email address blocks everything from a bot too. Last year’s election is a good reminder, IT changes everyday. As for the content, have you been on Twitter? There’s a steady stream of Pollack ripping, many from fake accounts. Delete the trolling, add a login/email ver, and you should be good

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