Improving the MBTA: Regional vs. Intercity Service

The MBTA commuter rail lines are laid in such a way that there’s an inherent tension between providing local service and providing longer-distance intercity service. It’s less apparent on the Providence Line because the intercity component, i.e. Boston-Providence, follows immediately just from serving the suburbs between Boston and Providence, but elsewhere there are greater problems. Good local service would have intense frequency in the inner portions of commuter lines; unfortunately, most lines only meet right next to the termini, reducing the opportunities to use interlining to create high-frequency inner segments.

Good local service also needs many infill stops, while good intercity service needs higher speeds. My proposals for the Providence Line essentially go with intercity service needs, justified by the facts that Providence is a major anchor, that high top speeds are possible on the line, and that the line should also host high-speed trains. Fortunately, the Providence Line has an opportunity for more intense local service using the Stoughton Line to add frequency; while this would end up overserving Canton Junction and Route 128, Readville and points north would get adequate peak service, and acceptable off-peak service. This is not as true on other lines, especially on the North Side, in which there’s a tradeoff between fast service to outlying cities and good service within Cambridge and Somerville.

Of course, the issues I’ve focused on in my previous post on the subject – electrification, high platforms, modern rolling stock – are useful for both. A fast-accelerating EMU could connect Boston with the various terminals at the same time as today’s express trains while making all stops as well as some extra infill stops. The problem comes from trying to fit trains into a clockface schedule. On a few lines, for example the Lowell Line, it’s actually easier to close very lightly used stations (Mishawum) or stations that are very close to other stations (Wedgemere).

Another issue is outbound extensions. With some, there’s so little traffic beyond the current terminus, or sometimes even beyond a point slightly closer than the current terminus, that the decision should be easy. This contrasts with the MBTA’s approach of proposing more and more outer extensions. With others, the intercity functions make extensions more reasonable, within certain bounds. I believe the following list of judgment calls would be reasonable:

1. Providence Line: no extension required – the line’s natural end is Providence. If Rhode Island wants to provide a low-frequency glorified parking shuttle from Wickford Junction and the airport to Providence, it’s its business, as long as it doesn’t muck up timetabling that’s based on Providence-Boston service.

2. Stoughton Line: an extension to Taunton would work, and possibly even to New Bedford. I’m iffier on Fall River, which has stronger commute ties to Providence; however, Providence-Fall River requires too much new infrastructure to be easy.

3. Franklin Line: either extend it to Milford (which may be easier to serve from the Worcester Line), or cut it back to Franklin. The Forge Park terminus is close to a lot of office park jobs, but the local road network is so sprawled out that it’s not worth the extra few minutes of travel time.

4. Fairmount Line: building infill stations is an excellent idea, though it should be coupled with increase in frequency and service level to make them more useful. One way to improve off-peak frequency is to route all Franklin Line trains along this line, and perhaps add supplementary trains that turn at Readville. The advantage of this is that the Fraknlin and Fairmount Lines used to be one railroad, with a grade-separated crossing over the Providence Line; in contrast, the junction at Readville is flat, making it more operationally cumbersome to have trains cross from one line to the other.

5. Needham Line: no extension necessary – the only possibilities would dismember the line in favor of much lower-density suburbs than Needham. Better would be to eliminate the line entirely and put Needham on a branch of the Green Line, and restore past plans to extend the Orange Line to West Roxbury. This would dismember the line too, but in favor of more service to dense areas rather than less. I don’t know what’s Needham’s commute tie to West Roxbury, but its commute tie to Newton and Brookline is fairly strong, 1,300 vs. 3,400 to Boston and another 3,400 in-town.

6. Worcester Line: Worcester is the natural terminus, so no extension should be entertained.

7. Greenbush Line: Greenbush is the natural terminus. The greatest urbanization is on the coast rather than along the railroad, and this limits the line’s usefulness.

8. Kingston/Plymouth Line: the natural terminus is downtown Plymouth, slightly farther out from the current Plymouth station, which should be renamed North Plymouth or just closed for lack of utility. In addition, Plymouth sends Boston 2,565 commuters, and Kingston only 797. Either the roles of Kingston and Plymouth should be switched – Plymouth would get served all day and Kingston would get only supplemental rush hour trains – or the Kingston branch should be closed, and replaced with a station on the main line.

9. Middleborough Line: for ordinary regional traffic, the line should be marginally cut back, to place the Middleborough station at the center of the town. In fact, there’s a dropoff in commute volume south of Brockton, and yet another south of Bridgewater; Middleborough is a fine terminus, but is not a proper anchor like Providence, Worcester, or especially Plymouth. On the other hand, there’s some potential for intercity traffic to Cape Cod, capturing some commuters as well as vacationers heading the other way.

10. Fitchburg Line: the MBTA’s proposed extension to Gardner looks weak to me, though not completely daft. That entire region of northern Worcester County has much stronger commute tie to Worcester than to Boston, in similar vein to the issue of Fall River’s connection to Providence. The commute tie to Framingham, as in the MBTA plan to have a branch leaving Framingham toward Leominster, is even weaker than that to Boston. It would be better to have a regional line connecting Gardner to Worcester, which would also have the advantage of taking a much more direct route than the freeway network; connecting Fitchburg and Leominster would require more work and compete with I-190 directly.

11. Lowell Line: here an outbound extension is natural and desirable, since Nashua and Manchester have a nontrivial commute tie to Boston and are significant cities in themselves, though as with Cape Cod this would be more of an intercity line. New Hampshire had a plan for such an extension, but it was killed by state Republicans early last year. This is unfortunate, since Nashua in particular has a less than great freeway connection to Boston, which a fast electric train could consistently beat.

12. Haverhill Line: Haverhill is a natural terminus. Although Rockingham County has a strong commute tie to Boston, the greatest part of it comes from very sprawled out towns near I-93, far from the line.

13. Newburyport/Rockport Line: the split at Salem allows natural interlining to give the towns with the strongest commute ties the most frequency. An additional branch to Marblehead would be prudent, providing even more frequency to Lynn, Chelsea, and additional infill stops in Revere. At the north end, Portsmouth looks like a fine intercity terminus, but in fact that part of Rockingham County is a marginal commute market to Boston, better than that feeding into Haverhill but much worse than the I-93 sprawl.

Not discussed above are station placement and infill stations. Station placement is relatively easy, since bad cases like Westborough and the aforementioned Middleborough and Kingston look obvious on a map. In addition, such office park stations with terrible ridership as Mishawum and River Works are already treated as such, so almost all trains skip them and their ridership is very low, making them clear candidates for closure.

Infill stations are harder. The problem is that on the North Side, the four lines split too early. This means that, while infill stations are possible, it’s hard to give them adequate frequency. Short-turning local trains could help somewhat, but is the most difficult on the two lines that serve Cambridge and Somerville, the Lowell and Fitchburg Lines. It’d be much easier to do this with Lynn (which already benefits from interlining and would benefit even more from a Marblehead branch) or Malden (which has the Orange Line).

That said, the Lowell Line might be able to support a local train to Winchester and an intercity train that makes zero or one intermediate stop between North Station and Winchester. The commute market is not great at this distance, though; Belmont has 3,100 Boston-bound commuters, and 290 inbound riders at its two commuter rail stations. A reroute of the Fitchburg Line along the Charles River Branch through Watertown might get more ridership; it would be slower, but it has zero intercity function, compared with strong potential at and east of Brandeis. To succeed, high frequency and short station spacing are required. For an example using the Charles River Branch, see here.

On the South Side, the Worcester Line begs for infill between Yawkey and Newtonville, but some of the people it would serve may already be riding the Green Line. The Green Line doesn’t perfectly parallel the line the way the Red Line parallels the Old Colony Line or the Orange Line parallels the Providence Line and the Haverhill Line, though, and there’s room for two or three stations serving Allston, Brighton, and Nonantum. On the other hand, some of these stations would compete with Watertown somewhat, and are less ideally placed in that the Worcester Line has an intercity function whereas the Fitchburg Line doesn’t.

Finally, another unmentioned issue is the effect of rapid transit extensions, especially of the Green Line. The extension plan to Somerville, which the state is obliged to build as one of many mitigations for the traffic induced by the Big Dig, is effectively a replacement for Lowell Line infill in Cambridge and Somerville; the line would only really need one infill stop to connect to the Green Line, and perhaps the Green Line would need to be extended to West Medford, if not to Winchester. That said, the interaction with rapid transit is more complex than this, and I will discuss it more in a future post.


  1. anonymouse

    Unfortunately, the Charles River Branch is almost entirely gone, and I’m not sure it makes sense to rebuild it from scratch just for commuter rail service. It might make sense as a light rail line of some sort, but even then, it’s not entirely aligned with regional travel patterns, though the Waltham-Watertown section could be useful. Assuming the short bit through the center of Waltham on the Fitchburg Line is double tracked, there should be just about enough capacity for a peak 3 tph of locals to Brandeis and expresses to points further out, maybe even 4 tph of each with electrification. There’s probably just about enough room at North Station for that kind of service, and Waltham can certainly use some decent commuter service to Cambridge, as it’s a pretty dense are and there’s not really a good directly competing highway.

    • Alon Levy

      To clarify, the commuter rail map I posted for the Charles River Branch goes with the local service paradigm, with high frequencies, say 4 tph off-peak and 8 at the peak. Of course the same can be done via Belmont, but Watertown is denser on average as well as seems more developed next to the former ROW.

      I was thinking of making it a branch of the Green Line instead, but that faces two complications. First, the branch would end up looking not even C-shaped, and more like a tadpole, the two outer branches would be so close; at best it could be promoted to a C-shaped line if it were interlined with the E branch. Second, the natural outer end of the line is Brandeis, and the best way to access it is on the legacy track; it’s possible to have a tram-train, but those trams are nonstandard, and would have implications for rolling stock choice on the entire Green Line.

      Of course all of this assumes decent mainline rail regulations. If the MBTA can’t get FRA waivers – and based on its size, it almost certainly can – then it’s pointless to invest as much in its commuter lines, though electrification and high platforms could still work okay with M8s.

      • anonymouse

        The light rail line would run from Downtown Waltham to Alewife, with a transfer to the Red Line at Alewife, and maybe through-running to a reinstated A branch at Watertown, at least going as far as a new commuter rail stop at Newton Corner and frequent local commuter rail service for a quick ride to Downtown. The problem is that nobody really wants to go to North Station: the main employment centers are around Back Bay and South Station, and around Kendall Square in Cambridge. A transfer to the Red Line would serve the latter pretty well, while a transfer to the commuter rail at Newton Corner would serve the latter, with a travel time of 12 minutes from Alewife to Kendall and 10 minutes from Newton Corner to Back Bay (15 minutes to South Station).

        • Alon Levy

          That might work, yes. That said, the transfer would be a problem. I don’t know how people react to a light rail-to-subway terminal transfer; most likely, they react better than to a downtown transfer from commuter rail, and worse than an ordinary transfer on a subway or a transfer nearer to their point of origin. Putting the transfer halfway through the trip is a problem.

          That’s why I was thinking of sending the Green Line there and not the Red Line: the Green Line is built to go out to the surface and have tons of grade crossings, but the Red Line isn’t. The Green Line doesn’t go to South Station, but it does go to Government Center and Park Street, which are right in the middle of the Boston CBD. (Park Street is the busiest subway station, if one includes transferring passengers and not just O&D.)

      • Zmapper

        Do you know if there is much of a performance difference between the M8s and Silverliners?

          • Alon Levy

            The Silverliner looks like it has initial acceleration of maybe 1.2 m/s^2. It seems to take 17 seconds to get to 60 km/h and 29 seconds to get to 90. At low speeds, it’s as good as non-compliant trains. I’m not sure how it fares at medium speed because I can’t find its motor power, i.e. its power-to-weight ratio, but from the video it probably loses 14-15 seconds accelerating to 60 mph. It’s only weighed down by the FRA at higher speed – there’s no way it has the FLIRT’s 21 kW/t when it weighs so much.

      • David Alexander

        I was thinking of making it a branch of the Green Line instead, but that faces two complications.

        You could always restore the old Watertown Branch of the Green Line and then connect to Brandeis using the old railway ROW. Given that we’re dealing with a Stadtbahn, you could always cheat with tunnels in various locations to increase average speed…

          • anonymouse

            Why do you think this is the case? And if you assume whatever conditions that make this the case, how much of the discussion in this article is moot anyway?

          • Matthew

            It’s been over 40 years. The T is allergic to street-running. It didn’t happen when the tracks were usable, and now they are gone. Big shots in Allston don’t want it back. I also have a theory that the MBTA doesn’t want to deal with outdoor junctions on the Green Line. The switch at Packard’s Corner has a tendency to freeze up in the winter, and I even remember the heater itself catching on fire not too long ago.

            None of this really pertains to the rest of the article, except maybe the last point.

  2. Matthew

    Do you know about the Wildcat branch between Haverhill and Lowell lines? Currently used by the Downeaster and certain express commuter trains. If they stopped in Somerville that could provide some additional service. Of course, I’d rather see the green line extension.

    Infill stations on the Worcester are needed. But they’re not competing with the green line, save for Allston. Perhaps the 57 or 64 buses in Brighton. More likely, it’s competing with I-90. In Allston, the issue of restoring a station by the old depot comes up once in a while. There’s new condo development going on near the depot, and rumors about something happening once CSX vacates Beacon Park.

    • Levi Ramsey

      I would say that it’s the Turnpike that is the main competition for the Framingham-Worcester line: they share ROW from the Charles River, after all.

      And it’s the tolls on the Extension that make the lack of a decent P&R station on the line at 128 one of the biggest deficiencies in the system. It’s $2.50 to go past Newton Corner on the Extension, and for downtown-bound travelers, they face the hassle and cost of parking downtown. Extension of the D branch a few hundred yards to a cross-platform Riverside Transfer near the old B&A Riverside station has to rank up there on the list of cheap increases in CR ridership, even if it’s not electrified.

      Without electrification, that improvement probably moves a few hundred car commutes to transit: there’s a decent number of commuters from Wellesley, Natick, and Framingham who work in Newton, Brookline, or Longwood. The Turnpike and transit aren’t great options for them, so Route 9 is the competition. Allow for a transfer (best case: free CR to light/rapid transit) from CR to the D branch at Riverside and the speed is now competitive with Route 9.

      Expand Riverside’s parking capacity (maybe a garage over the yards with FastLane/EZPass ramps to 128?) and allow a free ride on the tracks from the current station to the transfer, and you’re talking about a 12-14 minute ride to Back Bay after electrification with Silverliner V-type equipment, which is a speed competitive with the Extension at rush hour. If you add up the cost and time of driving to, say, Copley vs. riding from Riverside to Back Bay you probably get something like $30 and 35 minutes roundtrip (counting vehicle wear and tear and all-day parking) from the Exit 14/”Exit” 15 split for driving vs. $22 and 45 minutes roundtrip for park & ride at Riverside (with the advantage of being productive en route) and I think you’d get maybe a thousand extra round-trips a day.

  3. JJJ

    A few points:

    Mishawum, which you propose closing, essentially already is. It gets either 1 or 2 trains a day on weekdays. I dont know why, might even be for schedule reasons? (Theres a lot of single tracking)

    Wedgemere, while close to Winchester, provides the very local type of service you were talking about in the last post. Parking is very limited, so it doesnt encourage sprawl, it just encourages nearby residents to take transit. That being said, Wedgmere and Winchester Center would be better off as stops in the green line extension, with the commuter rail running express past 128 into the city.

    Worcester line: The natural extension would be at springfield, but obviously not as commuter service, just as a necessary state service.

    As for shorter service on the Winchester/Lowell line….the natural choice is to restore service to Woburn and use that as a terminus (there used to be a loop there). That allows you to provide better roadways along the route closest to Boston, and gives Woburn transit it really needs.

    • Alon Levy

      Mishawum, and the other almost-closed stations, should be closed purely for timetable simplification.

      The issue with Wedgemere is that it really is unusually close to Winchester. They’re walking distance apart. Another issue is that, for good timetabling purposes, end-to-end travel time plus turnaround time should be an integer or at worst half-integer multiple of the headway. If we accept half-hourly frequency, this means that end-to-end travel time should be about 25, 40, 55, 70, or 85 minutes, requiring 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 sets. It’s okay to be a little faster and give trains more breathing room, but being slower than this by more than about 1 minute bumps the train to the next category, requiring an additional set.

      As it happens, the length of Boston-Lowell is 41 km, so a 160 km/h EMU would take about 15:40, assuming no stops, throat reconfiguration allowing full speed in and out of North Station, and track maintenance that allows high superelevation through the curves in Winchester and Billerica boosting their speed to about 140 km/h. To allow for recovery from delays, the schedule must be padded; the Swiss standard is 7%, which would yield 16:45. Each stop adds about 80 seconds to the travel time (45 acceleration + deceleration penalty for a high-powered train like the FLIRT, 30 seconds dwell, 5 seconds for the 7% pad), or maybe 70 if we push dwell time to the absolute minimum limit. Put all of this together and you get that 6-7 stops are allowed, or maybe 8 if you push everything to the limit – 26 minutes one-way run time, 20-second dwells – and this includes one of the two terminals. So the question arises, which 5-7 locations are the most deserving of a stop. Wedgemere is not in the top 7 – it’d be better to drop it and Mishawum and put infill at Tufts and somewhere in Somerville.

      The same logic applies if the line is extended north. Lowell-Nashua adds just under 15 minutes with the proposed stops, as does Nashua-Manchester. In principle an eighth intermediate stop is possible; in practice, you’d probably want to go easier on turnaround time and have trains do a one-way trip in 54 minutes rather than 55.

      Of course everything changes if the line has local and express trains, or if the Green Line is extended along the Lowell Line. Then the express trains should make about 6-7 stops (clearly, the pattern I described above is more like the intercity paradigm, as with the Providence Line), still dropping Mishawum and Wedgemere but with a stop at Woburn or an extra stop in Somerville or Medford.

      • JJJ

        “Mishawum, and the other almost-closed stations, should be closed purely for timetable simplification.”

        One has to look at track maps to see if it’s the case. If the train scheduled to stop there has to stop anyway to let an opposing train by (if theres single track), might as well open the door and let the 3 people use their stop. That’s one thing your analysis fails to include. With the exception of the providence line, every MBTA line has single tracking areas. The lowell line also has to deal with the amtrak schedule, and of course, freight.

        I dont know if thats actually the case here. Im just saying it might be.

        “The issue with Wedgemere is that it really is unusually close to Winchester. They’re walking distance apart. ”

        Measuring how the crow flies, yes. But how about in terms of terrain? Winchester is not a flat area. In an ideal world, theyd be further apart, but the terrain (like the lake) the location of the town center and such make it impossible to spread them out. Meanwhile, Winchester to Anderson is quite some distance

        And theres the legacy factor. One does not just remove a station in one of the richest areas in the metro area and expect no consequences.

        BTW, we were talking about Hastings before. Do you know what the station looks like?
        It’s too funny to not have it be a station
        “As of 2008 there is no handicap accessibility at this station, and only 6 parking spaces. There are currently no platforms, safety signs or warning bells, only the crossing gates to protect pedestrians from the street. There is a small dirt parking area just south of the tracks. There is almost nothing to indicate the presence of a station stop except for 2 signs warning passengers to “stand clear of track until train comes to a complete stop.””

        • Alon Levy

          On Google Earth, the Lowell Line appears completely double-tracked. There are two visible tracks the whole way, neither of which looks in total disrepair; the civil infrastructure is double-tracked or more; the stations have one island platform (Anderson) or two side platform (the rest); both tracks have trains captured by the satellite imagery.

          Threading the Downeaster is not particularly difficult, in principle. There are 6 intermediate stations south of the Wildcat Branch, including Wilmington but not North Station. There should be about 5, but let’s stay with 6, which is possible if the line is extended to Nashua. Today’s lumbering diesels lose about 2 minutes per stop – that is, 12 minutes. If peak frequency is a train every 15 minutes, it means that a Downeaster can do it if Wilmington is triple-tracked; the junction could even stay flat. If instead service is modernized, i.e. electrified and fitted with level boarding, then trains would lose only the aforementioned 70-80 seconds per stop, i.e. 7-8 minutes, giving a nonstop intercity train ample time to pass through (and at any rate, the performance difference between modern regional EMUs and Amtrak rolling stock would negate the stop penalties). In practice there may be difficulty with matching the train schedules of the Lowell and Haverhill Lines for this, but remember that making trains accelerate faster and make fewer stops makes it easier to run local and intercity trains on the same track pair.

          As for Wedgemere, the lake issue goes both ways. The street network west of the stations is such that there’s no point in using Wedgemere unless one lives inside the lake, or to the southeast of the station, in an area much of which is a forest. And the station itself is purely residential, with a baseball diamond to one side and a small parking lot to another; it’s not like Winchester Center, where (going purely by Google Earth tourism) there’s something resembling urban development near the station, even if it’s over-parked hell.

          I don’t know what people in Winchester would think about this. Wedgemere gets a lot more ridership than I’d expect for its location, though still less than Winchester Center. But income itself is not a good predictor: Caltrain managed to eliminate service to Atherton, and eviscerate local service to Burlingame and Belmont and the secondary stations in Palo Alto with the Baby Bullet. (What I’m proposing for the Lowell Line is a Baby Bullet on steroids – 96 km/h average instead of 81, local service taken over by light rail rather than retained in a low-frequency fashion, electrification and modern operating practices bringing reasonable all-day frequency.)

        • Alon Levy

          As for Hastings, all I can say is that stations should just not look like that. If they can’t build something approaching level boarding, they shouldn’t put a station there.

          I don’t know if it’s true in Massachusetts as in California, but dirt patch stations that also have a center “platform” have a hold-out rule, preventing two trains from occupying the station regardless of whether they stop or not.

        • Adirondacker12800

          Manitou. Metro North stops one train a day in each direction. No one gets on or off most weekdays. No authoritative source to back this up but they do that because the easement they have to use the right of way says they have to stop a train once a day in each direction…. you have to go digging around in the agreements that were made 150 years ago to see if they are required to stop a train once a day in each direction….

          • Levi Ramsey

            AIUI with Manitou and Breakneck Ridge, those are stations that are pretty much only used by hikers on weekends.

      • anonymouse

        If you just assume even headways throughout the day, it definitely doesn’t make sense to have “special case” stops like Mishawum (which used to be the 128 P&R stop until Anderson was built). But if you have a rush hour, and have trainsets that are going to be laying over at the end of rush hour, then it’s not as huge a disaster to have a train make that extra stop and take 27 minutes instead of 25, because it’s going to the yard afterwards anyway, not to a return trip. And it makes even more sense given the MBTA’s current operation because even if they tried the whole even headways thing, increased dwell times would kill it during rush hour anyway, though level boarding and automatic doors should greatly reduce that problem. I know the Swiss don’t believe in rush hour, but it’s something that’s going to have to be taken into account in Boston.

        Also, 7% seems like a lot of padding. That’s like 5 minutes from the current Providence-Boston commuter rail trip time, or 6.5 minutes for an SJ-SF caltrain local. Maybe it makes sense in Switzerland’s tightly integrated grid with plenty of single track sections and lots of connections, but the MBTA commuter network doesn’t really have a lot of connections except through to Amtrak at Providence and Haverhill.

        • Alon Levy

          The Swiss do believe in rush hour. What they do not believe in is having an excessive gradient between peak and off-peak service levels.

          Very generically, an S-Bahn will usually have twice as much peak as off-peak service. In medium-sized cities, this comes from making each line twice as frequent at the peak as in the off-peak, and the extra peak trains will usually be on the same clockface pattern as the peak trains, at the half-points; I’m essentially cribbing the 15/30-minute service pattern from Stuttgart here. In larger cities, usually there are supplemental peak services, with or without an additional frequency increase on the base service. Paris breaks the clockface schedule in the peak, but German-speaking cities do not. For an example from Berlin, see here, and note that the half-service offered is for the evening, not for the afternoon off-peak. The prominence of the peak is generally smaller when the S-Bahn is used as local urban transit – in the Berlin example it exists only in some supplemental services, in Zurich the difference is I believe 16 tph vs. 24 in the central tunnel, on the Paris RER A and B it’s 18 vs. 30 and 12 vs. 20, and in Hamburg it’s always 10 but there are 4 services off-peak and 6 in the peak.

          You’re right that if the train is going out to lay over then an extra stop is not as horrible. But still. Very few people use that stop; the official numbers are for inbound boardings only, but Mishawum is a reverse-peak job destination stop (and not a reverse-peak source stop as Fordham is), so its riders are seen as inbound PM boardings. High platforms may cost too much for that traffic, and with low platforms, it’s a schedule risk.

          • Richard Mlynarik

            The peak versus off-peak schedule for mainline trains in Switzerland is mostly a matter of lengthening trains, with comparatively few supplemental peak add-ons to the day-in day-out Takt.

            Local bus and tram are more peak-y, but nothing like what we see with US “service”.

            I wrote some code to generate diagrams of train platform occupancy based on the online public timetables, and a quick eyeballing of the results shows that train service is remarkably and usefully constant throughout the day (and year).

            Here for example is Zürich’s main station (in the old 2011 timetable). There’s some obvious intensification of the S4 and S10 trains on platforms 1 and 2, but those are hybrid trammy thingies that are lighter than US “light” rail. The S-bahn traffic on the through tracks 21/22 and 23/24 goes from 16tph base to 20tph peak and that terminating at 51/52/53/54 goes from 12tph-ish to 15tph, but that’s about it.

            A random S-Bahn Zürich suburban station. Peak? what peak?

            As usual, apologies in advance for any broken links. And yes, cities in Switzerland are the size of US suburbs. But with a zillion times the transit mode share, for some reason or another.

          • Alon Levy

            Sorry, I just now saw this comment, long after getting it in my email. For some reason, WordPress thought this was spam – not the links, since my maximum is 6 and beyond that you get into moderation rather than spam.

        • Walter

          On trains up to Poughkeepsie on Metro-North’s Hudson Line, which is all-diesel, Metro-North schedules 18 minutes between New Hamburg (the penultimate stop) and the terminus Poughkeepsie, despite being only 9 miles apart on a stretch of track where trains should hit 75 mph, so lets say there’s a pad of about 9 minutes. On the timetable the trip from New York to Poughkeepsie is scheduled as taking an hour and 50 minutes, so the pad is about…8%.

          Even the electric Harlem Line offers between eight and ten minutes of schedule padding between Brewster and Southeast (less than a mile apart) for the 90 minute scheduled ride from New York. The pad works out to be between 8% and 10% depending on the train. Alon’s 7% pad is entirely reasonable, and actually better than Metro-North’s New York state operations.

          As an aside, a look at the New Haven Line schedule can see just how terrible diesel operation is for commuter rail: normal electric service to New Haven has 16 minutes between Milford and New Haven (about 10 miles apart, so say a 6-7 minute pad on the trip) while extreme late-night trains are scheduled to allow for diesel service and show a whopping 31 minutes between Milford and New Haven.

          • Alon Levy

            The Fairmount Line study for the MBTA quotes acceleration performance of the MBTA’s existing push-pull sets, and of Colorado Railcar DMUs. If you do the math, the current trains lose 70 seconds accelerating to 60 mph, and the DMUs 41. EMUs lose much, much less – on the order of 20 for M7s judging by Harlem Line schedules, and 13 for FLIRTs.

        • Alon Levy

          Never mind, Richard informs me that I rather massively overestimated how much peaking there is in Switzerland. See track diagrams at Zurich, Geneva, Bern, and especially Basel.

          Also, see here for the Stuttgart S-Bahn schedule. Two lines run 15/30, and that’s with a very expansive definition of rush hour; the other four run every 30 minutes all day. The PACA TER does run something like 15/30, though the extra peak trains skip stops and are no longer at the quarter-hour points when they get to Monaco (and why they gain 5 minutes from skipping 3 stops, I don’t know – they’re EMUs, the dwells are fairly short, and the top speed on the line is 90 km/h).

  4. Dan

    Is there any work flow data for massachusetts that is more specific than county-to-county available? I vaguely recall that someone created an interactive workflow map for MA that might have even been at the town-level.

    Thank you for your MBTA-related posts!

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  8. Ryan

    I’m not as well versed in logistics and scheduling as you are, and I’ll freely admit that – but I’d like to run something by you, if that’s okay.

    The plan, as I understand it, is for the Providence Line to be incrementally extended two more times: first to Kingston Station (which really should be renamed Kingston/URI), and then again to Westerly. (At this point, Shore Line East extends operation to Westerly and closes one of the two big NEC commuter rail gaps.) From there, infill stations at Cranston and Pawtucket (and East Greenwich too, IIRC), and then control of the line will be handed over to RIDOT/RIPTA, with MBTA service rolled back to T.F. Green if not to Providence. In the future, the new RIPTA line would be extended into Woonsocket as well.

    Now, I think Wickford Junction -as it exists now- (I can’t stress that qualifier enough) is indeed a pox on the MBTA system. This is because it’s not really built for one-way operation. Wickford’s usefulness depends on tie-ins to Westerly as well as Providence, and better public transit at both ends of the state, as well as bus service to Newport out of Wickford or Kingston.

    My questions, then, are twofold:
    1) Would regular service of Rhode Island Rail (either terminating at Providence or running through Providence to Woonsocket) interfere with the scheduling of the Providence Line (either terminating at Providence or T.F. Green)?
    2) Assume there are no problems with #1. Why not branch the Franklin line at Franklin? One branch makes the local stops (Back Bay, Ruggles, Hyde Park, Readville[?]) and runs to Milford, and the other branch bypasses the local stops, running down where the Southern New England Trunkline Trail is into a new terminus at Blackstone, MA. The RIPTA train could be extended to that Blackstone station as well, fostering inter-connectivity.

    • Alon Levy

      The big problem with this is that any local rail service south of Providence interferes with intercity trains. The same is true north of Providence, too, but Providence-Boston is important enough a commuter line to warrant a blended plan, whereas Providence-Kingston isn’t. Some blended plan is possible (and from about Kingston south the line is no longer useful for intercity trains, so local service gets first dibs), but it’s harder to justify the cost of constructing passing tracks. Probably there’s enough demand down to about Warwick to warrant four-tracking everything again and run local trains, but beyond that things get murkier.

      On top of that, I don’t want to judge, but South County doesn’t have all that many people. If there’s money for new track construction in an existing railroad ROW, it should probably go to a second line to West Warwick rather than to keeping service to South County. (Of course, none of this holds a candle to the cost of reviving the East Side Railroad Tunnel.)

      The question is why it’s so important to have continuous commuter rail service on the NEC. If it’s that Amtrak is too expensive, then maybe the solution is to run low-cost HSR; the low end of HSR fares is not much higher per km than the cost of commuter rail tickets, especially with the impending fare hikes, and a system built around low staffing could do even better.

      As for question 2: I thought about it, and it’s possible. The reason I’m a bit skeptical about it is that the Franklin Line is a good local corridor whereas the Providence Line is the better intercity corridor, in terms of what’s at the outer end (Providence vs. Franklin) and how much development there is in the middle (Dedham, Norwood, and Norfolk vs. less development in Sharon, Mansfield, and Attleboro). Of course an express train could beat any train with connection, even one involving HSR due to the distance between Blackstone and Providence, but then you’d be seriously overserving Franklin and Blackstone. Without express Franklin service, Woonsocket-Boston is faster via Pawtucket or via Providence with HSR than via Blackstone.

      • Ryan

        There doesn’t need to be any new track construction, I don’t think, if we pull HSR off of the existing tracks and onto I-95 near Kingston. Trains could pass at T.F. Green or the hypothetical East Greenwich station if we were going to stretch four-tracking that far. It’s ~17 km, give or take, between Wickford Junction and T.F. Green, and another 12 from Wickford to Kingston. Rounding up, we’ve got – at worst – 30 km of two-track ROW to deal with, which could be tight, but I don’t think that it would be at all insurmountable if handled properly. Worst case scenario, the local trains are languishing extra minutes at an airport, which is hardly an unprecedented disaster and might not even be noticeable if enough people are moving luggage at the station.

        As for why continuous commuter rail service on the NEC is important – it isn’t a matter of cost savings (especially not when, as you said, we’re going to be approaching cost parity between commuter rail and HSR one way or the other relatively soon) but a matter of possible end points in travel. There are certain locations – like the University of Rhode Island at Kingston Station, or the Mystic Aquarium in Mystic – where there would be a demand for local rail travel but absolutely zero demand for long-distance rail travel. Nobody is going to ride HSR from, say, Westerly to URI – why would they? At the same time, you need to keep the total number of stops down on HSR – no matter how fast you run those trains or how quickly they can hit top speed or brake, past a certain number of stops the train just gets too bogged down to function as intended. The fastest train in the universe that needs to stop 50 times is probably going to lose to a train moving at half that speed and making half that number of stops. In fact, by keeping a continuous operation of commuter rail with cost parity, you can start dramatically slashing the number of stops HSR would have to make, allowing for transfers onto or off of commuter rail to make up the difference. We could get HSR on the NEC down to just eight stops: BOS, PVD, NHV, NYP, PHL, WIL, BWI, WAS, and letting regional or local rail handle the rest.

        That was probably rambling on, so I’ll summarize: even at cost parity, jumping on HSR at Providence with the intention of getting off at T.F. Green is not the best possible use of HSR. Continuous commuter rail service isn’t needed so that someone can ride from BOS to DC Union Station without ever setting foot on HSR, it’s needed so that someone can make the trip from URI to T.F. Green or Providence to T.F. Green or Westerly to Mystic or New London to New Haven without having to set foot on HSR, so that HSR never has to stop at more stations than is absolutely necessary.

        • Alon Levy

          Oh, of course HSR shouldn’t be used for short commutes. The problem here is different: there’s a two-track segment from Providence to Kingston that both HSR and commuter trains should want, and South County just doesn’t have the population to make its commuter needs the more important interest.

          Now, for the record, if everything north of the airport is four-tracked (Warwick, Cranston, Olneyville, and Silver Lake are big enough between them to justify local service on its own tracks), then South County trains can use the existing track pair between the airport and Kingston and make 2 intermediate stops in between, and if there are 4 HSR trains per hour, then no overtakes are required. Those would probably just run as far north as Providence, so that their schedule would only have to be constrained at one location, and so that they could be shorter than trains between Boston and Providence.

          That said… Wickford Junction is in the middle of nowhere. East Greenwich is a possible station location, but it’s just one town. For Kingston, you could have 1 or 2 HSR trains per hour stop there and the rest skip, and only connect it by regional rail to the south and west, to Westerly and New London, where the Shore Line is curvy and HSR would have to follow I-95. The airport has lost a third of its traffic since 2005, and because about 20% of passengers are bound for Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, HSR would cut traffic further. Ultimately the decision is a matter of careful cost-benefit analysis, more than the first-order calculations I do here.

          • Ryan

            T.F. Green International Airport and the whole Interlink set up strikes me as a direct attempt to compete with Logan International, to be honest. Of course HSR is going to take a lot of passengers off of outbound flights from Green – but, what about the inbound flights? People formerly flying into Logan are shown instead this option to fly into Green, hop onto the train and be at South Station – right in the middle of the CBD – within an hour. At the same time, people who were formerly making the drive up to Logan are presented with this alternative, and if HSR becomes lucrative enough, Green can start slashing flights to NEC destinations and replacing them with more service to places they don’t have the capacity to serve now, further cementing them as an alternative to dealing with Logan International Airport.

            I see Amtrak abandoning HSR to Providence Station in favor of HSR to T.F. Green – it’s right in the middle of the state’s portion of the NEC, and is intended as a major transit hub. You’d never be more than three stops at most from either Kingston or Providence, and Kingston is already serving buses to Newport even if what I think is the end-game for Wickford Junction falls through.

            Which brings me to the reason why I’m posting. Wickford Junction is an absolutely palatial park-and-ride facility, nestled in the midst of a development wasteland near to the crossroads of Routes 102 and 4 and promising painless access to Routes 1, 95, 403 – not to mention a perfect busway that’s only missing the signs labeling it as such (and the buses to Newport, Coventry/Points West and Quonset Point, of course.) Westerly Station is Stonington Station as much as it is anything else, and it can also handle the west half of the South Coast Beach traffic (which is a much better use of the abortive #90 “Park ‘n’ Rides” bus) and Kingston Station can cover URI and Charleston’s demands plus the other half of the South Coast Beaches with the #64, #66, and a new bus route (#65?) to Point Judith. That frees up Wickford Junction to also be Quonset’s stop, Newport’s stop, Richmond’s stop, Exeter’s Stop, and the parking garage that doesn’t exist at Kingston and probably won’t exist at East Greenwich.

            Come to think of it, East Greenwich’s stop might as well be Wickford Junction – especially if a new ROW to West Warwick can get built.

          • Alon Levy

            Ryan, Rhode Island’s transit hub is Kennedy Plaza. Always will be. Building a mini-hub around the airport isn’t going to change that, and wouldn’t even if there were development around the station other than the airport. (Warwick doesn’t have much of a walkable secondary downtown the way Pawtucket does, though one of its suburban employment clusters is at least sort of close to the train station.)

            The problem with making Wickford Kingston’s stop is that there’s no real reason to drive so long just to take a train, unless you’re taking the train to a place that you absolutely can’t drive to. This is not too useful for most intercity trips (that’s why Amtrak stops at Trenton and not Princeton Junction – even though, owing to the impossibility of driving into Manhattan at rush hour, Princeton Junction is the busier NJT station). Anecdotally, about one third to one half of the weekend ridership I see on the Providence Line originates at Providence (on weekdays, the proportion is about 10%); park-and-ride hell like Mansfield doesn’t generate that kind of all-day, all-week ridership.

            An even bigger problem is that a station is useful as a destination, rather than as an origin, only if it is right near where you want to go. People are a lot more transfer-averse at the destination end than at the origin-end. See for a very rough survey here; the examples given are from Toronto and San Francisco, but something similar is true in Boston, with the South Station commuter lines getting a better market share than the North Station lines. It’s true of both intercity and commuter travel, with the added hitch that intercity travel is even more weighted toward the center of each region, because of all the business travel. There’s already a concentration of jobs in Downcity, but if you remove the kind of jobs that doesn’t generate business travel – Warwick Mall, small businesses all over the state, etc. – you’re left with an even larger concentration of destinations.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Princeton Junction has side platforms. Which means the Amtrak train has to switch from the express tracks to the local tracks or use the local tracks. Also the reason why Cromwells Heights doesn’t have the service it used to have. Amtrak also has to consider it’s capacity constraints and load management. If the Regional is stopping at Princeton Junction fewer people are going to get on Acela in Trenton or Metropark.

            Princeton Junction is where the parking lots are – it’s much easier to park in West Windsor than it is in Trenton, so the park-n-riders go to Princeton Junction. Same thing with Metropark.

          • Ryan

            I suppose, but I’d argue more from the position that Kennedy Plaza ought to be Providence’s transit hub, with T.F. Green and the Interlink as the transit hub for the state itself – the local hub and the regional hub. A station that has limited use as a destination but tremendous usefulness as an origin point, transfer point and general purpose people-mover shouldn’t be considered without merit – and I’m not convinced that back-end transfers are really anathema to travelers.

          • Alon Levy

            Local and regional hubs are usually at the same place. The curbside buses can pick up wherever they’d like, but they end up gravitating to downtown hubs. Where Megabus picks up in Providence is a spit’s distance from Kennedy Plaza.

            For the endpoint transfer problem for intercity trains, there are some extra references in section 2.4 of Clever’s thesis.

            The other problem with these suburban stations, even as origin-only stations, is that it’s more time-consuming for a train to stop at them. The urban stations tend to be near a host of slow zones – e.g. there’s a very sharp curve right next to Providence Station. The suburban ones aren’t, or if they are, e.g. BWI, it’s very easy to build bypasses. Short of building expensive bypasses, there’s no way to avoid those slow zones, and this means the time cost of stopping at Providence, Baltimore, Newark, etc. is the time cost of slowing down from 90 km/h to 0, whereas that of stopping at BWI, T. F. Green, etc. is that of slowing down from 240 km/h to 0. Wilmington, which is between two very sharp curves but could have an intermediate-cost 200 km/h bypass built around it on I-95, is a borderline case.

            (In particular, this is why express trains should stop at Providence and skip Route 128, even though the difference between them in terms of ridership isn’t that big and they don’t compete with each other for travelers the way Baltimore and BWI do.)

        • Adirondacker12800

          We could get HSR on the NEC down to just eight stops: BOS, PVD, NHV, NYP, PHL, WIL, BWI, WAS

          Penn Station in Newark NJ has slightly more riders than BWI. Buried in BWI’s numbers are local traffic using Amtrak instead of MARC because MARC curls up and goes to sleep for the weekend. It’s busier than Providence. Not quite as busy as New Haven but close. Trenton, Wilmington, Metropark, Back Bay etc may not be your idea of busy stations but together they make the system more useful. And for many people serving them cuts a transfer from the trip and reduces their door-to-door time.

          There’s no reason why there couldn’t be super-express trains and not so express trains serving the corridor. Vaguely like the Regionals versus Acela. Or Nozomi, Hikari and Kodama.

        • BruceMcF

          What I wonder about:

          We could get HSR on the NEC down to just eight stops: BOS, PVD, NHV, NYP, PHL, WIL, BWI, WAS, and letting regional or local rail handle the rest.

          … is not whether we “could” do it but whether we would want to do it. Absolutely minimizing the number of stops seems likely to push toward a one-size-fits-all approach to those stops, whereas complementary stations with strong urban destination draw and local transit connections at some and strong regional road network car and intercity bus connections at others seems more likely to offer well suited station choices for each.

          • Adirondacker12800

            I forget whether it was Penn Central or Amtrak who tried Metroliner super expresses. I’d have to go rummaging around in the historical schedules on…. there were trains that originated in DC and didn’t stop until they got to Metropark and then expressed to New York. And southbound only stopped at Capital Beltway which was near what is now New Carrolltown. They weren’t very popular. Amtrak also has tried NY-Philadelphia-DC Acelas which weren’t very popular either. …and no reason why, once frequency is up to three or four an hour, why there can’t be expresses and locals…. Nozomi, Hikari and Kodama….

          • Ryan

            Adirondacker brought up Nozomi, Hikari and Kodama – the Tōkaidō Shinkansen, and we could take that system and apply it here.

            As I’ve said, it doesn’t matter how fast you can run a train if it gets so bogged down under the number of stops it has to make that a far slower train (or even a car) making less stops will beat it to its final destination, and the train should keep its transit times down enough that it becomes a viable competitor to a plane. Now, if you want to bring the absolute maximum number of possible destinations into the network, you have to sacrifice something somewhere – either by ‘forcing’ some people to transfer on the back end of their trip, or by slowing down the train through adding more possible end points for a single seat ride.

            An inter-regional express train would depart from Union Station in D.C., make a stop at BWI Airport to pick up people connecting off of a flight or connecting to regional service in Maryland, then express to Wilmington, which would also serve a number of regional trains for Delaware. The next stop after that is Philadelphia, which would serve the regionals for Pennsylvania as well, and so on and so forth. I picked those eight stops so that the inter-regional express would have exactly one stop in each state first and foremost, and then so that the maximum possible number of useful connections could be made – which is why PVD would relocate into the T.F. Green interlink.

          • Anon256

            “make a stop at BWI Airport to pick up people connecting off of a flight” Almost nobody connects from flights to intercity rail, especially at airports like BWI where this requires a shuttle bus. It’s much easier, and nearly always much cheaper, to just fly to the major airport closest to where you’re going. The Maryland stop should be Baltimore Penn Station. (See also Alon’s most recent post about destination centralization.)

          • Adirondacker12800

            As I’ve said, it doesn’t matter how fast you can run a train if it gets so bogged down under the number of stops it has to make that a far slower train

            Fastest way to get between NY and DC and many points in between is on Acela. The second fastest way is on a Regional. Third fastest is by car, then probably by bus and then by plane. ( getting to and from airports in the Northeast sux ) IF the super express is making NY-DC in 90 minutes the local toddling along and stopping at the major commuter stops is gonna do it in 2 hours give or take a few. Faster than today’s Acelas.

          • Anon256

            Buses can definitely beat the Regional when traffic is light currently, and sometimes even beat the Acela. (Of course, no transport system is designed for periods when traffic is light.)

            How fast the local trains of the future are depends on the extent to which greenfield high speed lines bypass existing local stops, vs. straightening curves enough to serve them.

          • Adirondacker12800

            The fastest Greyhound bus is scheduled for 4:20, That’s optimistic, if two drivers look cross-eyed at each other on the New Jersey Turnpike it’s not going to happen. Median Regional makes it in 3:20 and the slowest Regional makes it in 3:57.

          • Ryan

            As far as I know, the Greyhound bus doesn’t speed or adjust for surrounding traffic patterns, so it’s a poor standard to set for vehicular traffic.
            Now seems like a good time to note that I do not speak for the blog or Alon Levy and I am in no way condoning or advocating illegal behavior. Remember to drive defensively and always obey the posted signage, because you don’t want your final destination to be a hospital bed!

          • Adirondacker12800

            Google says it’s 226 miles from NY, NY to Washington, DC. Assuming you could maintain 65 MPH, the maximum speed limit along the route, it would take 3.47 hours. 3 hours 28 minutes in nice round numbers. Google also says that the trip would take 4:30. Google is notoriously optimistic. Most people would make a stop or two if they were driving.
            Acela and the Regionals are faster than driving or taking the bus.

          • Ryan

            Assuming you could maintain 75 mph, which is doable and safe (if not strictly legal…) the trip drops to 3 hours even, better than the median Regional. Any faster and you’ll definitely get ticketed for your trouble, and the gains aren’t worth it even before factoring in lost time on a traffic stop.

            The real gains come in if you factor the full trip BOS-DC Acela vs. driving, where you can spend 50 to 60 miles and evade the hell that is driving through New York, and 75 mph becomes more doable.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Ryan, if you average 90 it’s only gonna take two and half.
            It takes four hours under optimal conditions. thats longer than taking a regional.

            Timed so that the guy taking the train just misses the Regional and spends almost an hour sipping coffee in Penn Station

  9. Anon256

    I’m less familiar with the NY-DC route, but I’ve definitely been on Chinatown buses from Boston to NY that made it in little more than 3 hours (departing late in the evening with no traffic). The last Regional of the evening takes 4:45.

    • Matthew

      The shortest (but not fastest) distance from NY Penn to Boston South Station is 212 miles. Last time I measured that route I ended up covering 224 miles (684 – 84 – 90) in just over 4 hours. I think it’s safe to assume your trip was in that range. That Chinatown bus driver would have to be averaging approximately 70 mph. They have been known to speed excessively, and this anecdote would confirm that.

      The last Regional to Boston takes extra long, for whatever reason. Typical Regional trips range from 4:00 to 4:20 duration.

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