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.
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