Improving the MBTA: Electronics and Concrete

Where improvements in New York and other very large cities can easily include multiple new subway lines, the same is not true of Boston. The concrete pouring would be wasted, since Boston’s existing subway lines are not at capacity. The busiest line, the Red Line, has a peak frequency of one train every 4.5 minutes, which could be doubled with appropriate signaling improvements and more rolling stock if necessary. The Green Line has bigger issues coming from branching – its core segment already runs close to 40 trains per hour – but this could be resolved by obtaining fully low-floor vehicles and lengthening trains to allow one or two extra branches.

Another thing that Boston lacks and other US cities do is very busy bus lines to railstitute. Boston’s busiest bus line is the Silver Line to Dudley Square, which used to be the southern part of the Orange Line and should be light rail; unfortunately, the MBTA rejected it as cost-ineffective (see pp. 36-7) by applying a wrong cost-per-rider metric, as I will explain in a later post. But beyond that, the list of bus lines (p. 50 of the Bluebook) doesn’t contain anything nearly as juicy as New York’s bus lines: New York’s 50th busiest bus is roughly even with Boston’s top bus at 15,000 weekday riders, and its top routes have 50,000, making them obvious choices for subway extensions.

Since Boston does not have a capacity problem requiring more concrete pouring on its subway lines, nor high-productivity buses to railstitute, concrete pouring should focus on the other main reason to build rapid transit: to extend service to areas that do not have it. That’s the main reason to build the North-South Rail Link: it’s as much about direct service from suburbs north of Boston to downtown and maybe Back Bay as about rationalizing service and permitting through-running. As in Philadelphia and as should be the case in New York, through-running is primarily not about suburb-to-suburb service, but about access to job centers near the stations of the other half of the commuter network (in New York those would be at Newark, Brooklyn, and Jamaica; in Philadelphia, at Temple and 30th Street Station and in University City).

The list of concrete-pouring, lines-on-a-map extensions of the MBTA in or near Boston should therefore be limited to required Big Dig mitigations, and not much more. This is not just because they are legally mandated. They are also good transit by themselves – the North-South Rail Link for the aforementioned reasons, the Assembly Square stop on the Orange Line because of the TOD potential, the Red-Blue connection because of the East Boston-Cambridge service need, and the Green Line extensions because they provide much-needed transit service in Somerville that would otherwise need to be picked up by commuter rail, at the cost of good intercity service on the Lowell Line. Apart from these, the only major radial extension that should be pursued is the dismembering of the Needham Line outlined in my last post, in which the Orange Line would take over the portion within Boston and the Green Line would take over the portion in Needham.

What should be done instead of more expansive extension plans is very aggressive use of electronics to make regional rail more useful, recalling that its share of the suburbs-to-Boston market is about one third. This necessitates a lot of concrete pouring as well – on high platforms, on track repairs, on double-tracking some single-track segments, and on other things that do not show up easily on maps – but much less than adding tunnels.

The one difficult bit of concrete pouring that has to be done, in conjunction with the North-South Rail Link, is grade-separating the junctions that lead up to North and South Stations. Without the rail link, the South Station throat is such that, run right, it’s operationally at least two stations (one for lines serving Back Bay, one for the rest), and as many as four (Worcester, the lines feeding into Ruggles, Fairmount, and Old Colony and Greenbush); this allows for zero-conflict moves, higher capacity than the MBTA thinks, and a system in which delays on one line do not affect the others. With the rail link, those two to four systems need to feed into one track pair in a way that avoids opposite-direction flat junctions. The need for grade separations right in the station throats would add substantially to the cost of the rail link over a simple two-track tunnel; that’s why I’m not instantly dismissing it as something that at normal-world costs would take a relatively trivial $500 million.

Despite the rail link’s cost, the electronics are themselves substantial.  Signaling improvements are also required, to enable tighter overtakes. Moreover, full electrification should be non-negotiable – the MBTA’s stop spacing may not be as close as that of Metra or the LIRR or Metro-North or SEPTA, but it’s short enough that electrification would make a significant difference in performance. It also interacts interestingly with FRA waivers: on the one hand, without electrification, there are no good FRA-compliant trains – the Colorado Railcar DMUs have mediocre performance and are expensive and vendor-locked, and locomotive-hauled trains have terrible performance. With electrification, there exist decent FRA-compliant trains, but there also exist very good noncompliant trains. According to the Fairmount Line DMU document, current trains have a total acceleration-only penalty of 70 seconds to 60 mph, and Colorado Railcars shave that to 41 (see chart on p. 10); judging by timetable differences and dwell times, the best compliant EMUs lose about 20-25, and judging by YouTube videos FLIRTs lose 13.

The timetable examples I’ve put out – for the Providence Line in past posts, and for the Lowell Line in comments – are very ambitious, and require the signaling, electrification, and rolling stock to be perfect. The costs are not very high by US standards, but are nontrivial. Electrification costs a little more than a million dollars per kilometer (or about $2 million per mile), though it’s unclear whether this is based on route-km or track-km, as one citation I have is for a single-track line and another does not make it clear which one is under consideration. The cost is thus either about $750 million or about $1.5 billion, exclusive of rolling stock. But the benefit is commuter trains that can beat the freeways while also providing adequate regional service and connect to urban rail.


  1. Matthew

    The highest ridership bus besides the Silver Line is the 66, which crosses a whole bunch of radial lines. It’s route is also a total mess, which zigs and zags a bit, and I think it also manages to hit every single horribly slow intersection in the outer areas of Boston and Brookline. Of course, those tend to be near the good places to go, which attracts ridership.

    Then there’s 57 bus which was the Watertown branch and the 39 bus which replaced the Arborway branch of the Green Line. So really, we’ve been going backwards for quite some time.

    As for Assembly Square TOD – I’m afraid it might turn into another big fat failure. Have you seen the plans? It’s going to be a giant parking lot.

    • anonymouse

      As far as ridership on the 66 goes, I suspect that it loses a significant amount to people just taking the Red Line to the Green Line, because it’s faster and more reliable, with closer and more predictable headways. A few BRT-style improvements with queue-jump lanes and signal priority and such could go a long way to making the 66 more reliable, build up more ridership, and eventually justify railstitution. The other two routes where railstitution makes sense are the 39 and the Washington St Silver Line. Note, though, that since Boston is smaller than NYC, its bus routes are shorter, and ridership per route is lower. What you need to compare is ridership per mile.

      • Alon Levy

        I can’t comment on queue-jump lanes (I’ll need to see how many lanes there are and where the traffic problems are, for one), but signal priority is something that can and should be implemented systemwide. The same is true of POP. It’s completely ridiculous that what is a normal feature of buses in a lot of cities around the world is considered a special BRT-only amenity in the US.

        Even Monaco has signal priority on its five bus lines, which stop running at 9 pm. (And they get 9 million riders a year, which is pretty amazing given how tiny and auto-friendly the place is.)

        • ofsevit

          The T doesn’t even have signal priority for it’s streetcar lines. So you can have a three-car light rail train on the B line at crush capacity (600 riders) stopped at a light so that four or five cars can make a left turn. Not only would it save riders a lot of time, but they could probably shave enough time off of these runs to need fewer cars in total. The ROI for that might be measured in months.

          • Matthew

            Hah, I’ve been on a 3-car crush capacity Green Line train stopped at a light waiting not only for a few cars to make a left, but for traffic to stop blocking the intersection. For three cycles of the light (I was pressed against the window)!

            Boston drivers just pile into intersections, green or red light.

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, the 66 is a strong candidate for railstitution. It looked like a natural route to upgrade, from Harvard across the busiest surface stations of the B, C, and D branches, even before I realized that the route in question already had the city’s second busiest bus on it.

      The 39 looks really weird; I can’t really tell why it exists, since it mostly duplicates the E branch, just extended to Forest Hills. Don’t people in Forest Hills just take the Orange Line?

      Also, all I know about Assembly Square comes from your blog about it.

      • Matthew

        It is possible that someone might take the Green Line to the Red Line at Park to go from Brighton to Harvard, but only if they don’t know better – it’s a 40 minute trip vs 15 minutes on the 66 bus. It serves an important corridor, but I’m not really optimistic about the prospect of railstituting it. There’s not currently any ROWs to take advantage of, and I can’t imagine there being support for digging up the streets to build a subway anytime soon. Most Urban Ring proposals (rail or bus) have focused on the Grand Junction, which is about a mile away from Harvard Ave.

        The 39 (like the 57) is a bustituted trolley. Basically, one day in 1986 the MBTA decided to “temporarily” turn back every “E” train at the Heath Street loop and they never restored service past that again. Every so often, it seems like the T might pull the same trick and terminate at Brigham Circle – ending the last vestige of street-running service – but I’ve heard that the VA Hospital at Heath Street is opposed to losing their subway stop. Basically, the current peculiar arrangement of the 39 and the “E” is largely a political matter.

        The 39 (formerly Arborway) does connect to the Orange Line at Forest Hills, but it runs a few blocks west of the new Orange Line alignment and slowly gets further away as it approaches Huntington Ave. It runs down Center Street – the Jamaica Plain business district – and South Huntington Ave. It is true that people at Forest Hills can take the Orange Line, but the “E” or the 39 is much more convenient, especially if you are going to points west in Green Line territory.

        • anonymouse

          Looking at the MBTA’s trip planner, the 66 takes up to 23 minutes during middar to get from Harvard to Coolidge Corner, and runs every 9 minutes. The Red Line takes 9 minutes to get from Harvard to Park Street and runs every 6 minutes at midday, and the Green Line takes 19 minutes to get from there to Coolidge Corner and runs every 10 or so minutes. The average travel time is thus 27.5 minutes on the bus, and 26 minutes on the subway via Park Street. On weekends, the bus runs faster, but headways drop to 15 or 20 minutes, and I’ve heard complaints of missed trips, which are much rarer on the subway. And timekeeping is better in the subway, even on the Green Line, than on the bus. I don’t have time to check this, but I think for Comm Ave, the 66 is a win over the B, due to the atrociously slow segment through Boston University where it’s basically the campus shuttle (another top priority for easy fixes, btw). But for the C and especially D lines, it actually makes sense to go via Park. Which is probably why the transfer there is getting overloaded, and why a faster, better 66 is so important.

          • Matthew

            The further south you get from Brighton, the better the Green/Red transfer looks. You’re right that “D” is definitely better. I’m not so sure about “C” though – it is also quite slow. I suppose that it makes sense for the times to be about equal. But anecdotally, I think it will take 30-35 minutes to get from Coolidge Corner to Harvard via Park. I checked the trip planner and it seems to agree with my intuition, FWIW: about 20 minutes from Coolidge Corner to Park, and about 11 minutes from Park to Harvard.

            Part of the reason the 66 takes extra time is the jog to Union Square. I always wondered about this, and the only answer I was ever able to find indicated that it was partly political: the folks over there wanted a stop, so they got it. I can watch the 66 bus arrive at Brighton Ave, then I turn and walk to Cambridge Street, and easily beat it there by 3-4 minutes. Just did it today, again (NextBus was down, but I didn’t need it for this prediction)!

            I’ve been thinking about easy fixes for the “B” line for years now (especially while riding it) and further stop elimination is sorely needed. The problem is that I think that should go along with station consolidation, which means building new stations in better locations, but that runs up against a bunch of obstacles. I have a friend who does construction work for the T and I’ve been told (unofficially) that one of the reasons that many of the platforms on the “B” line don’t get upgraded is because they are currently “grandfathered” from ADA compliance regulations. For example, consider the ridiculous platform at Chestnut Hill Avenue. There’s approximately enough width for one thin person to stand up straight, very carefully, between the train and on-rushing automobiles in the adjacent vehicle lane. Always fun to board there.

          • JJJ

            This year they looked into removing the union square jog, but found that a large percentage of riders board or get off there, as its a major transfer point.

            That was considered good enough to keep. The logic was, you dont remove a high ridership stop (or in this case, an absurd three stops)

            No one looked into weather existing transfers would continue to ride (and walk the 1.5 blocks) and if the faster. trip would lead to more riders elsewhere

          • Jim D.

            I just used the trip planner for various midday departures – the trip from Harvard Square to Coolidge corner via the 66 bus averaged 22 to 37 minutes with a 14-minute headway between buses, while the Red Line to Green Line trip averaged 39 to 45 minutes.

            The problem with the 66 is the fact that the majority of the route travels along two-lane roadways and the routes passes through several highly-congested commercial districts. Signal-priority would help save time at various intersections but wouldn’t solve all of the delays at places like Brookline Village, Coolidge Corner and the Harvard Avenue stretch from Commonwealth Avenue through Union Square. The route would also benefit from the use of articulated buses and a proof-of-payment fare system.

          • Adirondacker12800

            and the routes passes through several highly-congested commercial districts.

            Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.
            The highly congested commericial districts give people who live along the less congested residential districts, someplace to go. Some of the congestion is caused by people circling the block(s) looking for parking. If parking is a PITA it makes taking the bus even more attractive…. Virtuous circle…

          • Matthew

            When the 86 was re-routed away from Union Square, I think they may have left the 66 there as a compromise. My memory is a bit fuzzy on this. Union Square is important but… my question is: are the majority of the transfers coming from the 57? Surely they are not from the 64 – a low-frequency bus with the dubious distinction of being the first bustituted trolley route (IIRC) in the city. If so, then they are inflating the importance of the Union Square transfer, since the 57 and the 66 share Brighton Ave all the way to Harvard Ave.

            The 66 is pretty slow through Allston. I think it’s average speed is approximately walking speed. One of the biggest problems with the Union Square jog is that the bus is forced to pick up passengers in the right lane on Harvard Ave, and then sharply make a left turn from the curb, through a busy intersection, onto Brighton Ave. Never understood that.

          • ofsevit

            From Coolidge Corner to Harvard, the best option is a bicycle (which can take a shortcut across the Pike). But it really depends on the time of day: in the morning, when traffic in Brookline isn’t bad, the 66 is far quicker than going downtown. In the evening, when Harvard Ave can turn in to a mile-long parking lot, the trains are better. Also, if I can get anyone to explain why the 66 runs two long sides of a triangle up to Union Square (other than it’s a vestige of two bus routes which were merged in 1989) …

  2. JJJ

    “Don’t people in Forest Hills just take the Orange Line?”
    If theyre going to where the orange line goes, sure. But not everyone lives at Forest Hills and wants to go downtown.

    As for the 66, since 2008 there HAVE been plans to add bus jumper lanes, signal priority etc. First Brookline drew up plans because the route passes through them and they can make road changes. Then the MBTA started their own “key bus improvements” project, so Brookline delayed theirs to wait for the MBTA results. The MBTA plan was supposed to begin “construction” in Fall 2011.

    Nothing has been done.

    The 39 was also going to get similar stuff, including stations that push out into the road so the bus doesnt have to merge in and out. Original construction date was 2006. Billions of meetings were held and such, plans were drawn up, and things were ready to go.

    Now, you wont find a single reference to it on the website.

    My guess? The same thing happened to the 39 improvements that happened to the bicycle track that had been presented and agreed upon in the north end. Local meetings say yes, city says yes….but one day, the plans mysteriously disappear and a regular bike lane is put in instead.

    Clearly, someone made a phone call which tops months of work amongst the plebs.

  3. Jim D.

    I think you’re partially missing the point in looking at the current MBTA bus ridership figures. The Boston Elevated Railway set up the city’s transit network as a hub and spoke system and the MBTA has made only a few fitful attempts in recent decades to improve crosstown transit services (the three ‘Crosstown’ routes, which began as pseudo-rapid transit limited stop services, have potential but are pitifully ignored and didn’t even warrant Key Bus Route designation). The Urban Ring studies have shown the potential value of improved crosstown transit. The transportation funding crisis in Massachusetts may have rendered the building of rail lines unachievable for now, but that doesn’t mean we should give up on starting the process of transforming the current network. I am certain that a system of enhanced bus services – operated with effective dispatch and supervision, and featuring a proof-of-payment fare system and greater use of articulated vehicles – would be enormously successful and could pave the way for true Urban Ring services to become a reality.

    • anonymouse

      The Boston Elevated Railway set up the city’s transit network as a hub and spoke system, with many lines feeding into large hubs at places like Dudley Square, Sullivan Square, Forest Hills, Harvard Square, etc, where riders could easily transfer from trolleys to rapid transit or other trolleys. The BERY’s successors have been slowly dismantling this network. All of the crosstown and most of the radial surface rail lines were bustituted and got more and more bogged down in traffic, leaving only a few surface rail lines that feed into the Tremont Subway. The rapid transit lines, meanwhile, have had “improvements” that reduce their capacity, and are slowly getting more and more overloaded, as are the central transfer stations.

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