Followup on the Providence Line and Woonsocket Trains

There’s a pretty bad mistake in my post about MBTA-HSR compatibility: the length of the Boston-Providence line is 70 kilometers, not 67 as stated in the post. In my defense, 67 (42 miles) is what the official mileposts say, on Wikipedia and on the catenary poles along the line. In calculating travel times I used a mix of milepost and Google Earth data, leading me to slightly understate the travel time difference between future high-speed trains on the corridor and improved regional rail. The difference is small, but is important for choosing overtake locations.

The correct technical travel times for nonstop 300 km/h HSR and 160 km/h regional trains making all current MBTA stops are 19.25 and 38.75 minutes, respectively. It’s offset by just half a minute from the technical time I originally thought was correct, but more of the difference occurs near Providence than near Boston. The upshot is that the single-overtake option in Sharon is loose in the north, allowing an additional Boston-area stop, and extremely tight in the south, requiring 200 km/h trains and not necessarily allowing regional trains to stop at Pawtucket.

This doesn’t directly affect Woonsocket trains, for which my example schedule is based on Google Earth lines and should be considered accurate given the assumptions. However, in a comment, I’ve been linked to a 2009 Providence Foundation study of the feasibility of a regional train to Woonsocket, under present FRA regulations, achieving similar trip times to those I propose but with fewer stops. The service proposed is very good relative to the regulatory and organizational environment it has to deal with – the projected cost per rider is about $25,000, fairly low by US standards.

The Providence Foundation study also includes a timed transfer at Pawtucket between Woonsocket and Boston, something I did not originally think of. Since the exercise on this blog assumes organizational competence on the MBTA’s behalf, we can choose an overtake option that makes this work optimally with short turnaround and transfer times. We should also include fare integration in the scenario, something that doesn’t currently exist even just between the MBTA and Amtrak. Under some HSR operating scenarios, it could charge the same fare as low-speed rail on the same corridor and have integrated ticketing, making a Pawtucket transfer less useful than an HSR transfer at Providence. Under others – for example, an HSR fare surcharge as currently practiced on the Shinkansen or ICE – it is not possible, and while integrated ticketing is still possible and desirable, cost-conscious commuters would need a solution not involving intercity trains.

It turns out that a single-overtake option does not accommodate Pawtucket transfers well, even if a Pawtucket stop could be squeezed into the schedule. Consider the following 200 km/h schedule north of Providence, with the 7% pad, rounded to a half-minute:

Providence 0:11:30
Pawtucket-Central Falls 0:15
South Attleboro 0:18
Attleboro 0:22:30
Mansfield 0:28
Sharon Arrive 0:33:30, Depart 0:37:30
Canton Junction 0:40
Route 128 0:44
Readville 0:46:30
Hyde Park 0:48:30
Ruggles 0:54
Back Bay 0:56
Boston South 0:58

It’s possible to replace Readville with Forest Hills; the point is that there’s room in the schedule for it. The times above were chosen to make :00 the symmetry axis – i.e. southbound regional trains leave Boston at :02. Moving the symmetry axis is possible but requires giving up through-service to Warwick – the timetable would be too tight. Under this schedule, southbound regional trains would arrive in Pawtucket at :45, and HSR trains would arrive immediately after, at about :48; thus, southbound Woonsocket trains would arrive at the earliest at :50 and :20, timing them to just miss the northbound connection to Boston. Clearly, under such an option, the only way to provide satisfactory Woonsocket-Boston service is to connect to HSR at Providence.

The two-overtake schedule looks much better. It’s a tighter fit for Woonsocket trains between the faster MBTA and HSR trains, but once they fit, the transfer works well. Consider the following 160 km/h two-overtake schedule, with four-tracking between Readville and Route 128:

Providence 0:07
Pawtucket-Central Falls 0:10:30
South Attleboro 0:13:30
Attleboro Arrive 0:18, Depart 0:22
Mansfield 0:27:30
Sharon 0:33:30
Canton Junction 0:36:30
Route 128 Arrive 0:40, Depart 0:41
Readville Arrive 0:43, Depart 0:45
Hyde Park 0:47
Forest Hills 0:51:30
Ruggles 0:54
Back Bay 0:56
Boston South 0:58

Southbound MBTA trains arrive at Pawtucket at :49:30 and southbound HSR trains pass by Pawtucket at :44. Southbound Woonsocket trains have a window of about 1.5 minutes – they can arrive at Pawtucket between :51:30 (after the MBTA) and :53 (before the next HSR) to fit in on the same track pair used by the MBTA and HSR – but within that window they have a convenient transfer: 2.5-4 minutes to the next northbound MBTA train, at :55:30. Note that even in the off-peak, when MBTA trains would come every 30 minutes rather than every 15 minute, this works – we can just shift the slots used by MBTA and Woonsocket trains. Earlier arrival is good for the entire turnaround schedule for Woonsocket trains, which based on trip times would “like” to arrive at Providence at :58 and at Pawtucket at :51, though, if the Mineral Spring stop for Woonsocket trains is dropped, then :52 arrival is very comfortable at all ends.

The inclusion of Woonsocket service also favors ant6n’s proposed no-overtake schedule, in which Boston-Providence trains run at 200 km/h and skip stops near Boston and let Stoughton trains provide local service, and trains run every 20 minutes. It’s tight if MBTA trains stop at Pawtucket, but gives Woonsocket trains ample time for anything. Assuming a Pawtucket stop can be squeezed, for :58 Boston arrival northbound regional trains would depart Pawtucket at :27, i.e. southbound MBTA trains would depart at :33 and HSR would pass by at :35, right on their heels. Woonsocket trains could be slotted anytime between :37 and :47:30, where :41 would be optimal for their own turnaround times and :45-46 would provide the shortest robust connection.


  1. JJJ

    Being able to get from Boston to Providence in 20 minutes would blow my mind. Brown being just as “close” to South Station as BU? Amazing.

  2. Jef Nickerson

    Another monkey wrench is possible New York-Hyannis service. The Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority is currently working to bring back Cape Codder service, which I think last ran in the late 80’s. The trains make their way from the canal along the Lakeville Line then across to the NEC joining just north of Attleboro I believe.

    Preliminary service would likely be couple runs on Friday, and a couple more on Sunday/Monday.

    I don’t know how the trains ran in the past, if they just redirected a couple Boston bound regionals or had special service to the Cape. A train could meet Amtrak at Providence. When they last ran, I beleive MBTA was not serving Providence and there was no Acela.

  3. ant6nd

    One can talk about organization, and it’s fun, but imagine if one just threw in a couple of hundred million dollars at the problem. The rail line between Providence and Pawtucket already seems to be mostly triple-tracked – with some money this could be 4-tracked. And in Boston itself there are some extra tracks (i.e. regional trains and long distance trains don’t need to share tracks all the way to South Station). Those millions to upgrade the NEC could be better invested upgrading the urban tracks, and then scheduling without overtakes is not a big problem anymore, and urban capacity would be much larger.

    Then add in that abandoned East side Rail tunnel into the mix. If that was restored and electrified, with two tunnel stations – one directly intersecting with that trolley tunnel, and suddenly you have the basis for a complete S-Bahn-style System centered around Providence, with good connections to it’s surrounding towns and Boston. Plus, there’s a ROW going from Providence East side North to the NEC, potentially giving even more schedule flexibility.

    • Alon Levy

      You know, I was just thinking about using the tunnel for both regional and intercity service. The main expense there is connecting it to the mainline again at the downtown end. It would have to involve a new elevated station downtown, either two tracks over Kennedy Plaza or four over Memorial one block north. Intercity trains would even gain 30 seconds from this, since the route remains straight for longer. The big question mark is the cost – probably (very) low hundreds of millions.

  4. Pingback: New York-New Rochelle Metro-North-HSR Compatibility | Pedestrian Observations
  5. Pingback: Commuter Rail Speed (Hoisted from Comments) | Pedestrian Observations
  6. Pingback: Improving the MBTA: Regional vs. Intercity Service | Pedestrian Observations
  7. Pingback: The Limits of Clockface Scheduling | Pedestrian Observations
  8. Pingback: Why Long Island Should Get An HSR Spur | Pedestrian Observations
  9. Pingback: Followup on the Providence Regional Rail Shuttle | Pedestrian Observations
  10. Pingback: Plan B for HSR | Pedestrian Observations
  11. Pingback: Northeast Corridor HSR, 90% Cheaper | Pedestrian Observations
  12. Pingback: Northeast Corridor: Dealing With Capacity | Pedestrian Observations
  13. Pingback: The Magic Triangle: Infrastructure-Timetable-Rolling Stock | Pedestrian Observations
  14. Pingback: Suburban Geography and Transit Modes | Pedestrian Observations
  15. Pingback: Coordinated Planning and High-Speed Rail | Pedestrian Observations
  16. Pingback: NEC Future: Moving Sideways | Pedestrian Observations
  17. Pingback: Ted Nesi’s Saturday Morning Post: Nov. 7 | WPRI 12 Eyewitness News
  18. Pingback: When There’s Nothing Left To Burn, You Have To Set Money On Fire | Pedestrian Observations
  19. Pingback: Greenbelts Help Cars | Pedestrian Observations
  20. Pingback: When Through-Running Is Inappropriate | Pedestrian Observations
  21. Pingback: Slotting Intercity Trains on Regional Lines | Pedestrian Observations
  22. Pingback: Some Notes About Northeast Corridor High-Speed Rail | Pedestrian Observations
  23. Pingback: Mixing High- and Low-Speed Trains | Pedestrian Observations
  24. Pingback: Institutional Issues: Coordination | Pedestrian Observations
  25. Pingback: How High-Speed and Regional Rail are Intertwined | Pedestrian Observations

Leave a Reply to JJJ Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.