Quick Note: MBTA Electrification

I’ve been thinking about MBTA modernization recently, and realized that although the principles underlying modernization are similar throughout North America, the concrete benefits and the resulting political alliances that could push for it are very different. In New York and Chicago, commuter rail is already quite good if you’re a suburban middle-class commuter working in the CBD at regular business hours. Penn Station may not be ideally located for Midtown commuters, but the LIRR is building East Side Access to fix that; this leads to arguments such as this one, about which group of riders (or potential) riders to prioritize.

The MBTA is completely different. It does not provide adequate service even for peak-hour commuters, because the speed leaves a lot to be desired; where the LIRR runs decent if not good rolling stock, the MBTA rolling stock loses 70 seconds accelerating just to 60 mph (FLIRTs lost 24 seconds accelerating to 160 km/h). As Purple City notes in comments, electrification would be a Pareto-improvement, allowing large increases in speed even with infill stops. The discussion of whether to prioritize short-distance or long-distance service is still important, but any choice would substantially improve service to everyone over the current offering.

This means that the politics of modernization is different. In New York, Long Island commuters are the primary obstacle: modernization would replace their peak express trains with reverse-peak trains on the one-way Main Line, and crowd their trains in the outbound direction. In Boston, there aren’t enough urban riders to result in so much crowding, the speed would go up substantially, and, with the North-South Rail Link, North Side commuters would have service to the CBD and not just North Station.

The cost of such modernization consists of four main projects: the North-South Rail Link itself, complete electrification of all lines, full-length high platforms at all stations, and new rolling stock. The latter is perhaps $1.5 billion initially, corresponding to 600 cars, but in reality displaces equivalent or higher cost that has to be spent on new diesel locomotives and cars under the current operating pattern. The NSRL was pegged at $3-4 billion, but since it’s in easy geology (the ground was already cleared during the Big Dig), costs do not have to be higher than in the rest of the world, which would be closer to $2 billion for two large-diameter bores. Complete electrification is perhaps another $1.5 billion. It’s a fraction of what the state spent on the Big Dig, and not a large multiple of what it’s spending on a few thousand daily riders for South Coast Rail.

The political alliance in this case would be the exact one that would oppose modernization in New York and Chicago. This list of projects does little for the inner city, with exceptions around possible infill station sites like Allston. However, it provides much higher speeds for the suburbs. This is what’s so interesting about it. It’s not even easy to unbundle the parts that are useful to the suburbs from the parts that improve service in general, since the North-South Rail Link, which is crucial for service from the north to Boston, requires electrification, and once that’s in place, high platforms and infill stations are cheap. Whereas elsewhere, political inertia makes modernization hard, in the Boston area, once someone proposes it, I believe large chunks of the mainstream will jump on the idea.


  1. Alon Levy

    Well, there’s one way to screw this up: leave some lines unelectrified and only electrify the highest-ridership lines. On one forum, people proposed only electrifying the Providence Line (which is already electrified, and runs diesels anyway), the Worcester Line, and the Fairmount Line. This is stupid: other lines, such as Franklin, actually have higher ridership per unit length (=electrification cost) than Worcester, and once most of the system’s electrified, it’s worth getting rid of the remaining diesels just to avoid fleet duplication and high operating costs of lightly-used equipment.


      It’s a good starting point though. Providence is already electric. The cost to improvement is minimal, as it can be done via standard procurement schedules. Electrifying Fairmount is the next best step because it also provides redundancy for Amtrak. However, Id to Needham before Worcester, as it should be light rail anyway.

      • F-Line to Dudley

        I don’t know of any locals who would rank Franklin before Worcester. But that’s mainly because. . .

        1) Dedham is a downright weird enclave with longstanding passive-aggression towards transit.
        — Despite bordering Boston (and a bus-dense area of Boston at that), Dedham opted out of the bus system when the MBTA’s creation swallowed up the last remaining private local-bus operators. The only T routes it has are 3 that stop at the big suburban-sprawl mall a mile from the city line, one of those routes expressing straight through the whole rest of the town en route to Norwood. All other T routes originating in Hyde Park and West Roxbury terminate at the city line. The town contracts out some local routes within its borders to a private operator; limited service hours, pathetic headways. But it’s theirs and doesn’t interact with the smelly masses from Boston, so that’s all that matters.
        — Dedham also opted out of commuter rail service in the 70’s, the 3-stop spur line to Dedham Center out of Readville closing and their two Franklin Line stations closing. The T actually forced the re-open of the Franklin stations over their heads a few years later because of the lunacy of skipping right over.
        — Dedham opted out of the Orange Line extension to West Roxbury and Dedham that nearly happened in the 70’s. Bought the ROW 5 years ago from the T on premise of building a rail trail, then proceeded to re-zone it residential and build houses on it. It’s obliterated. By design.
        — Refused numerous offers to build a rail trail on their ex- commuter rail spur, which is 100% grade separated and at minimum would enormously improve their connectivity to Readville station as a trail.

        This situation has never changed in 50 years, even as car traffic slowly engulfs the town. The working-class residents who cluster around the Boston border simply get perennially outvoted by the rich NIMBY’s everywhere else, so estate mentality rules the roost. More than any inside-Route 128 ‘burb, even the ones that are weller-to-do.

        2) Walpole, despite its stop’s sky-high ridership, is another weirdly anti-transit town. They’re vehemently opposed to Foxboro commuter rail branching off the Franklin and putting more trains on the other north-south line that runs through town. Even though it would double their own train frequencies. They bitch and moan about out-of-towners using their commuter rail station and keep asking the state to have different-tiered parking pricing for residents vs. non-residents. And they’re against better bus service from the nearby transit-deprived towns of Medfield and Millis into their station. They use their station…they but they’d rather nobody at all were allowed to use it than share it with out-of-towners. And that makes dealing with them nearly impossible.

        3) The Worcester Line has the largest collection of colleges served at commuter rail stops of any line on the system, with many commuter students taking advantage of school-subsidized commuter rail passes and regular campus shuttles coordinated to the train schedules. Wellesley and Babson Colleges from Wellesley Sq. station, Framingham State U. (commuter school) at Framingham, Tufts U. Grafton Campus literally at Grafton station, and all Worcester-area schools (WPI, Worcester State U., Holy Cross, Clark U., UMass Medical Campus, Becker College, Quinsagamond CC, etc. etc.) having campus shuttle and/or city bus access to the station. Their student housing crunch has gotten so acute that the former Osgood-Bradley factory directly across from Worcester Union Station is being redeveloped as a student-only, non- school-specific housing complex.

        Throw in the MetroWest legislative bloc being a lot more vociferous about Worcester Line improvements than the Route 1A bloc on the Franklin, and the advocacy is rather one-sided.

        This may not show up to out-of-towners looking at a two-dimensional density map or bunch of crunched demand numbers based on population, but local effects sometimes can’t be quantified that way. And this is one of those cases. Especially when it comes to Dedham and the transit mentality so institutionally ingrained there they’re a cinch to be the very last of the inside-128 towns to get with the post- peak car program. I feel bad for Norwood because they really do want to plan their downtown’s future around enhanced Franklin service, but they’re fighting a mightly lonely battle. While MetroWest is pretty much an unbroken chain of politicians and college trustees pounding the desk for better Worcester Line service. To say nothing of Newton and Allston who really badly want those 15-minute Indigo Line frequencies oft-teased but never with an action plan.

        At a certain point the people who WANT to plant their butts in a Purple Line train’s seats outslug on priority the theoretical numbers on another corridor where the people really don’t give enough of a crap whether there’s more trains. This is one of those cases. Poll the locals, and Worcester wins every time. The locals aren’t idiots. That’s the corridor that wants it bad enough and is willing to spell out the reasons why, while the other strangely doesn’t. I don’t know why that’s the case, but it is what it is.

        • Alon Levy

          How ingrained is this anti-transit mentality in Dedham, anyway? Arlington used to be the same back when the MBTA was extending the Red Line to Alewife, but it’s a different town now with a different profile of resident, and high ridership on the 77.

          As for the colleges on the Worcester Line… so what? Yes, Worcester has a lot of universities – like every other major city. They’re not particularly close to the train station. The name of my blog actually comes from a photo collection I put up on Flickr and Facebook documenting the streetscape I encountered while trying to walk from a conference at Holy Cross to the station, and somehow ending up in the median of a grade-separated arterial without sidewalks. Getting to WPI is easier, but getting to Brown and RISD from Providence Station is still way more pleasant, despite the hill.

          It’s a pretty important difference between Brandeis and the Worcester colleges, by the way. The poor service offered by the MBTA mainly suppresses local ridership, because the shorter the trip, the more frequency matters. Boston-Worcester is an intercity line branded as commuter rail, which means boosting off-peak frequency above that of a village, while still useful and necessary, is less of a ridership booster than for local service like Boston-Waltham and Boston-Norwood.

          Finally, the numbers on the Franklin Line are already there. Look at ridership per unit of route length. The residents are in fact putting their butts in seats. They’re even walking to those stations occasionally, which is more than I can say for the residents of Westborough, with its out-of-town parking-lot station. They’re exactly the profile of people who use the line and would use it much more if it were modernized. The politicians may not realize this, but so what? At no point has the MBTA so much as shown a sample schedule, a basic necessity in countries where voters are empowered to accept or reject plans.

          • F-Line to Dudley

            Dedham is about as hopeless a cause as it gets on reversing anti-transit mentality. Arlington does have (non-)buyer’s remorse today for turning down the Red Line when it had the chance, and that sentiment is going to intensify when the Green Line extension scoops in some of the Arlington Center-Medford bus routes in transfer and reminds them anew of what they’re missing. But Dedham–still–won’t even accept a low-cost rail trail that puts some pretty dense residential in easy walking distance of Readville station. And still doesn’t want any bus routes. And routinely torpedoes lucrative mixed-use density developments for nonsensical reasons while rubber-stamping any big-box sprawl that applies for a permit. It’s a very strange, very stubborn place unlike any other town inside Route 128. And they don’t seem to care that their future is going to pay for it.

            As for Worcester vs. Franklin…as I said, ridership per route length and whatnot is meaningless when you’re talking counterintuitive attitudes like this. You have communities like Dedham and Walpole that use the train but act like NIMBY’s on improving the train. They were offered an improved train with the Foxboro branch…32 mainline round-trips per day inbound of Walpole instead of 16…and are fighting it hysterically. Then you have MetroWest commuters and their representatives screaming in unison about better train service. We’re way past the point of quantification here, and well into realization about not being able to force-feed a man who won’t drink. Nobody’s going to impose it on them unilaterally from above because crunched numbers say X and this is for their own good. They’ve heard all that many times before, don’t care, and are choosing to be weird and obstinate. At a certain point the hint gets taken and priorities get adjusted accordingly to the next-biggest target possessing a viable coalition of the willing. That’s where actual local demand diverges from a demand equation: when one corridor demands improvements and the other corridor demands to be left alone. Every transit district has its iconoclastic holdouts–the proverbial Dedhams–that defy logic and reason. It’s why approximations are inherently…approximate.

    • Nathanael


      The first thing I thought was “Well, some of the lines are practically inner-city, like Needham and Fairmount, so this should get some inner-city support in addition to the outer-commuter support.” But if you electrify only some of it… you lose that.

      The whole thing should be electrified and the only question should be “in what order”.

      There are a few spanners in the works though.
      One, the MBTA is very badly underfunded and loaded with debt, still. And so is the state. This is mostly due to the Big Dig. Still.

      Two, some of the lines, mostly on the North side, are utterly decrepit. Before electrifying, it will be necessary to finish spending the money to double-track them and bring them up to speed. A bunch of the station platforms need to be replaced, like, several years ago, too. There are also bridges in need of replacement. Some of this needs to be done before (or at the same time as) electrification, because it involves track realignment. There’s also some places where the track should be realigned for speed and hasn’t been due to lack of money.

      So you need a line item for the costs of bringing the North side lines up to state of good repair. It has to be spent anyway, but it’s several billion dollars, so it matters.

      • Nathanael

        As a comparison point, Ontario just announced its intention to electrify most of the GO Transit system. The borders of planned electrification are basically the points at which GO Transit ownership of the track ends (they don’t want to argue with the freight railroad owners about electrification). Finally. MBTA could do something similar, and MBTA owns *all* of its lines.

        • Adirondacker12800

          Ontario is almost as adept as New York when it comes to announcing grandiose plans, and never building them.

          • Alon Levy

            That’s just because of Rob Ford. Otherwise, when Ontario announces a plan, it builds it. What Ontario gets stuck on is the study phase: it likes studying the same things over and over. But once it commits to something, it’s a different story, modulo a uniquely clownish politician winning the election.

          • Nathanael

            Ontario has done a completely unreasonable number of studies on GO electrification, but this isn’t a study — this is a ministerial commitment by the Premier. It is also backed by the Mayor (now that Ford is gone, thank goodness).

            GO electrification already has overwhelming popular support, and has had for years now — there’s been a very loud “no diesel” NIMBY movement who have been advocating electrification for years on health grouns.

      • Alon Levy

        Do those bridges need to be replaced? On ArchBoston, when cornered, one of the regulars said that the bridge over the Mystic is problematic because the lineside signals are placed at a location that’s hard for train drivers to see (and in-cab signals are impossible because of 2 daily freight trains run by Pan Am, which isn’t long for this world). If there’s one place where electronics before concrete is a literal principle, it’s this one.

        • F-Line to Dudley

          The Mystic Bridge, because of its proximity to the North Station/Boston Engine Terminal terminal district, is a less-awful constriction than the Chelsea grade crossing cluster and the decrepit state-of-repair outbound. The geometry of the bridge is what it is because they had to construct it on a less-favorable alignment in 1988 in order to keep service on the old Mystic drawbridge uninterrupted during construction. The result is speed-restricted, but still better than having constant bridge openings for barge traffic that was still very heavy in that spot 25 years ago. They can live with that if it weren’t for these bigger issues:

          — The single-track split with the Western Route near Sullivan Square. Haverhill/Reading is sharply pinched for capacity here, and the Eastern has to cede some of its priority here. Why they never upgraded this to a clean double-track junction like the Beverly split between ER branches is baffling.

          — Chelsea grade crossings. 25 years ago the speed limit after the current Mystic Bridge was 60 MPH. It now stays 30 MPH the entire distance through Chelsea because of too many train-vs.-car close calls at the extremely congested roads. Everett Ave. is the system’s most dangerous crossing because of the way car queues from the nearby traffic lights and Mall boxing the cars onto the tracks. Eastern Ave. is a heavy trucking route with heavy gas tanker traffic and a bad-angle crossing. A major service improvements report called for bridging Eastern Ave. over the tracks 11 years ago because it would lift an extra mile’s worth of speed restrictions. Never acted upon. And the new Silver Line Gateway BRT plan along the ROW retains the Everett Ave. crossing and makes the congestion there that much worse by inserting a new road signal cycle.

          — Saugus Drawbridge has a 25 MPH speed restriction on an otherwise 3-mile stretch of 100% tangent track, and has had problems in recent years with its piers sinking into the silt and needing frequent patch work. River traffic has dwindled to the point where it can be replaced with a slightly taller fixed span (and will have to be if they plan to extend the Blue Line to Lynn on adjacent tracks), but there has been no interest whatsoever from the state in doing that. Mainly because they don’t want to be pinned into any statements or half-commitments whatsoever about building Blue. Aside from a too-brief speedup past the Eastern Ave. crossing this makes the whole first 9 miles of the Eastern Route one giant toilet clog. Express trains do not make noticeably better time than the locals south of Lynn because of this.

          — Beverly swing bridge has a 30 MPH speed restriction and similarly decrepit condition and state-of-repair issues forcing a slow zone between Salem station and Beverly Depot. And has very frequent boat openings in-season. No means to outright eliminate the moving span, but if they simply converted it from a problematic swing to a fast-moving lift they’d have a huge increase in train slots and be able to go track speed through this 100% tangent stretch to Beverly Jct.. Are they doing that…of course not, they’re spending a wad of money to rehab the swing which won’t lift any of the speed restrictions. Beverly is much less of a problem than the glut of performance limiters inbound of Milepost 9, however.

          ^^^ If it were ONLY the Mystic Bridge and its approaches with a speed restriction, we’d be in a different universe altogether. As I recall the conversation on AB.org never got as far as treating whole-line infrastructure issues three-dimensionally because it was quickly sidetracked by other single-issue sidebars about freight and electrification. There is quite a bit of “concrete” that needs to be addressed here before there’s a game-changer to apply on busiest northside lines. There are several southside lines way more ready out-of-the-box to see instant gains from electrification. I thought that was clear enough on the thread, Alon, but perhaps not.

        • Nathanael

          I wasn’t actually referring to the big bridges, which are mostly fine. A bunch of the little bridges — tiny little stone arches or trusses or girders from the 19th century which you’d barely notice on your trip or on Google — are in terrible shape and require expensive replacements.

          • Nathanael

            …basically the thing to understand is that the engineers weren’t too solid on the understanding of how you should put support piles in the ground that early in the 19th century, and a bunch of the bridges simply have bad foundations.

      • Sascha Claus

        Unless you want to realign your tracks and rebuild your bridges twice, you might want to specify your elictrification needs before realigning tracks and rebuilding bridges.

        • Adirondacker12800

          25kV 60Hz over head catenary. Catenary and for that matter even third rail, can be designed around track structures. It’s not llike they are going to go for underground conduit. Which can probably conform to almost any track structure.

        • Nathanael

          As Adirondacker said, it’s 25kV 60 Hz overhead catenary with a standard clearance profile. The bridges which need help are mostly undergrade bridges, so they really can be replaced first.

      • F-Line to Dudley

        Their fleet is hardly uniform with all the varieties of unproven Frankenlocomotives they keep on their roster. There’s more to it than just (significant) institutional brainrot.

        Amtrak is the main culprit here. They built the east-of-New Haven electrification infrastructure only powerful enough to handle their own traffic.

        — ConnDOT is having to invest in major power upgrades to get EMU’s running on Shore Line East. And build a whole new set of platforms at New London at an inferior location because Amtrak wants them evicted off the existing mini-high on its mainline tracks. SLE…not a watt to spare for itty-bitty SLE.

        — The T will have to do the same with the Southampton Yard and Sharon substations. Both coincidentally built with the hookups already there for this missing substation capacity, so it was an intentional lowballing of capacity. And wire up some of their own station platforms since there is no electrification infrastructure touching some of their own platforms such as Attleboro.

        — RIDOT is going to have to pay through the nose for clearance improvements before it can run electric intrastate service Providence-Westerly with the MBTA as their mercenary operator. T.F. Green Airport’s commuter rail platform is the freight clearance track set 2 feet lower than the mainline tracks. To wire that stop up for their own use they have to pay Amtrak to take the mainline tracks out-of-service one at a time to drop the trackbed by 4 feet so the freights can move to the center…because they will no longer clear the platform track if that has wires. Amtrak owns the track and performs all track work, so the state pays the going rate they say. Why was this not done before? Because why charge the state once when you can do it twice.

        This racket isn’t just east-of-New Haven, either. . .

        — MARC is outright retiring its Penn Line electric fleet and voluntarily sacrificing its performance to convert to 100% diesel in a protest over the gouging they get from Amtrak on their electric rates. It no longer cares that it’s a degradation of service; they’re too small to keep paying the ever-increasing rates and if Amtrak doesn’t cut them a less punitive deal the Penn Line diesels start rolling–forever–starting 2016.

        — NJ Transit long ago stopped running EMU’s on the Northeast Corridor line because of the gouging it gets from Amtrak. Loco-hauled electrics ended up the only tolerable way to reduce their payouts because they use less electricity than a significantly power-hungrier EMU consist. This is all unlikely to change when they fulfill their new EMU order…expect the push-pull pigs to stay while the Gladstone, M&E, and NJCL lines get the big EMU refresh. They know it sucks. But even with a (welcome) swing back towards EMU’s as higher % of the overall fleet in this next order they’re going to have to gerrymander the assignments on keep-away from Amtrak’s wires.

        How many places can this happen up and down Amtrak’s NEC ownership before it becomes a wider-ranging issue than simply cro-magnon commuter rail operators acting cro-magnon? You have 2 operators’ own bottom-lines saying it’s significantly cheaper to operate diesel on the NEC…one of them a pre-existing electric user fully acknowledging that they’ll be incurring a performance hit. You have 1 operator’s own bottom line saying it’s significantly cheaper to run push-pull pigs instead of EMU’s on the NEC…fully acknowledging that it’s a performance hit on their most congested line. And you have two tiny upstarts having to contort themselves like pretzels with double-dip electrification capital costs to even get in the game.

        There’s no shortage of criticism to fling around for cro-magnon commuter rail operating practices, but let’s see a smidge less rigged an extortion racket on those NEC wires first. Something quite artificial is wrong here if the less-costly operating mode ends up so much more costly to operate that none of Amtrak’s tenant railroads can do it without taking a bath.

      • Adirondacker12800

        SLE…not a watt to spare for itty-bitty SLE.

        Connecticut was busy trying to kill off service east of New Haven when Amtrak was electrifying.

        NJ Transit long ago stopped running EMU’s on the Northeast Corridor line because of the gouging it gets from Amtrak.

        This must come as a shock to the people who use the Arrows running on the line. NJTransit runs multilevels because we should have completed new tunnels to Manhattan in the 90s. Multilevels have approximately 25% more capacity than single levels.

        • Joey

          Is there any good reason why NJT’s next order of rolling stock for the NEC line shouldn’t be bilevel EMUs?

          • Adirondacker12800

            It’s difficult to wedge all of that stuff into something that will fit through the tunnels under the Hudson.

          • Joey

            Is it? UIC loading gauge is even more restricted (slightly more height but much less width and rounded at the top), and they seem to have no trouble fitting that equipment into bilevel EMUs.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Not ones that can run on 60Hz and 25Hz. At 12.5kV and 25kV.

          • Alon Levy

            15 kV and 16.7 Hz is even harder than 12.5 kV and 25 Hz (not that they shouldn’t reelectrify at 60 Hz, but different argument).

          • Joey

            Yes, but as I mentioned, NEC loading gauge has considerably more cross section than UIC loading gauge. Looking the multilevels, it looks like there’s quite a lot of single-level section at the ends (above which electrical equipment is placed). And looking at the Arrow IIIs, the amount of equipment between the bogies looks like it wouldn’t have much trouble fitting in that space. Of course this is very approximate, but I’m still skeptical that it’s impossible.

  2. ardecila

    Why do you lump Metra in with LIRR? LIRR is already electrified running multiple units, albeit heavy ones. Metra runs the same push-pull units as MBTA, practically speaking, with only one exception.

    The elephant in the room, really, is that Metra and other commuter services can’t compete except in the narrow suburb-to-CBD market. Even for those who work in the city just outside the CBD, parking is often easier to find and free, and driving in from the suburbs is the cheaper option. Outside of rush hours, it’s faster as well. But all that costly rail infrastructure just sits there, virtually useless to most people in the city outside of a select few circumstances.

    • Alon Levy

      Metra has CBD service, and very short stop spacing in inner suburbs. The core lines also have high peak frequency, including express trains, so that the speed isn’t terrible; the Franklin Line has nearly hour-long service gaps during rush hour.

      • ardecila

        I guess I’m just not sure why MBTA is a better candidate for a transformation into regional rail than other large commuter systems, other than the (political) fact that Metra, LIRR, etc. have a larger and more influential ridership base that would complain about the necessary trade-offs of such a transformation.

        Poltiics is, of course, tremendously important – see SEPTA, which already has the infrastructure you’re proposing for MBTA but doesn’t use it correctly for political reasons. But from the perspective of settlement patterns, engineering, geography, or other “hard” factors, MBTA doesn’t seem any better-suited than other large cities.

        • Alon Levy

          Oh, no, in terms of settlement patterns, New York is far and away the best US candidate (and the next ones are Washington, LA, and SF). My point here is entirely political: LIRR modernization is slightly bad for established users, while MBTA modernization is very good for established users.

        • Eric

          SEPTA Regional Rail also has a big geographical difficulty – its many lines are limited to the north and west of the metropolitan area, so a through-running train is almost never the most direct route to where you are going. Also, major suburban job centers like King of Prussia, are not well served by SEPTA. So fixing the overstaffing and other political problems would not be enough to make the through-running especially useful.

          Sometimes I imagine SEPTA taking over the PATCO line and a couple other New Jersey rail corridors, and routing them into the regional rail tunnel. That would make the system significantly more useful (a spur to King of Prussia would help a lot too). But of course, this would be a very long way away politically.

        • Adirondacker12800

          SEPTA ran trains hither thither and yon for years. It gave foamers goosebumps. Unfortunately there wasn’t any demand.

          • Adirondacker12800

            SEPTA didn’t run them Conrail did. Before the tunnel from Suburban to Market East opened. After the tunnel opened foamers everywhere said there would be thundering herds of people who wanted to take the train from Thither to Yon. There weren’t. Partly because the few people who did want to travel across downtown where in Hither and West Yon. They had to change trains anyway Which is why things terminate at Temple or University City now.

  3. nei

    Is MBTA speed that much slower than NYC commuter rail? Salem to North Station (just under 17 miles) has a schedule speed of 31-34 minutes. Great Neck to Penn Station at around the same distance is 28 minutes express, 33 minutes local. The local train stops more than the MBTA train for the same speed so I guess that’s where equipment makes a difference. But other western Nassau LIRR aren’t that different in speed than than the MBTA. For outer lines, trains that run express in the inner half of the line (such as the main Metro North lines) are much faster than the MBTA lines, most of the rest aren’t. Seems like the speed difference is only apparent with a high number of stops. But even the Fairmount Line isn’t too different in speed (25 minutes for 9.2 miles with 7 stops) from a local Harlem Line train (25 minutes for 10.5 miles with 6 stops) though maybe there’s schedule padding.

    • Nathanael

      MBTA speed varies by line. Fitchburg is in poor shape. Needham has exteremly frequent stops and so electrification would benefit it a lot.

      • F-Line to Dudley

        Fitchburg’s getting a lot better now that the last stage of the rebuild is wrapping. It’ll be end-to-end rated for 79 MPH authorized track speed in 5 months (I think with the only restrictions being around a couple of moot-point areas that overlap with station-stop approaches). After decades of barely cracking the low-50’s and being the most delay-prone line on the system. It’s already bleeding minutes off each subsequent schedule revision, and will clock in at less time to the new Wachusett stop than it did to Fitchburg alone 2 years ago when the upgrades were only half-complete.

        The problem is too many more lines need to get “Fitchburged” with nearly the same level of state-of-repair reboots rolling back the ravages of age before electrification has the oxygen to do its thing. None more than the Worcester Line inside of Framingham, which is the new system-worst with its 59 MPH speed limit and near-total lack of passing opportunities due to ancient signal system. Eastern Route and inner/Reading half of the Western Route similarly bound-and-gagged by their obsolete infrastructure and 21st-century carpocalypses around the worst-of-the-worst grade crossings. And the failing signal system on Lowell south of Wilmington (i.e. where Downeaster schedules go to die) quickly becoming its own gimp.

        The performance increases from electrification have to be predicated on the moving-target of what real state-of-repair would look like, not current conditions. No amount of wires are going to make the Eastern and inner-Worcester all that much better than what they are now until you fix what’s broken. A gimp is a gimp is a gimp until it gets the kind of ‘unsexy’ rehab work Fitchburg’s been subject to the last few years. We’re finally at a point where it’s possible to realistically model what a Fitchburg with more modern ops practices would behave like. You couldn’t make a reliable prediction with some of the others without doing the same…it’s too abstract an exercise.

        As for Needham…that is in good state-of-repair, but it’s in a tough spot needing to share the unexpandable 3-track NEC congestion inbound of Forest Hills in the tunnel. The crossing moments at Forest Hills Jct. and fact that it stops 100% of the time at Ruggles instead of skipping on less traffic-favorable slots like all other lines do imposes a hard-to-lift ceiling on how much fuller it can be packed. And a lot of that ceiling is political expediency. Needham always sits at the very bottom of the southside dispatch priority pile vs. 4 other lines using the NEC to Back Bay and all manner of Amtrak traffic. Whether it’s operationally possible to give Needham it’s cake too there’ll always be expediency-related justifications for giving the lion’s share of those slots to the other lines so Needham’s lot in life doesn’t end up improving much in the bottom of that scrum.

        So the only electrification future that really makes sense for them is the electrification that excises it entirely from commuter rail: Orange Line extension from FH to West Roxbury and a Green Line branch from Newton Highlands to Needham Jct. Same as has been proposed–and which the locals have been asking for–since the 1940’s, with a near-miss in the 70’s of getting exactly that. What really clinches that are the buses. 8 Forest Hills-terminating routes pass directly by Roslindale station as they merge at Washington St. for the route duplication into FH. They’re slamming into a brick wall on how much bus traffic Washington can handle and how much the dangerously overcrowded FH Orange platforms can handle at rush. Those are inter-neighborhood transfers to straight to Orange for alightings at a lot of the ‘tweener stops (and buses out of the ‘tweener stops) not covered by commuter rail. 4 of the 8 bus routes can outright terminate at Rozzie and really clean up FH a lot if the Needham Line got punted to rapid transit. They’d continue having to cram up the gut of Washington if it stayed commuter rail. So do the cleanest thing and give it to Orange. Probably not too expensive a conversion either if they kept their temptation to build palatial stations in check.

        • anonymouse

          Looking at aerial photos, there’s actually enough room on the existing alignment to run a single Orange Line track to Roslindale, as a sort of interim measure. And timetable-wise, an 8 minute headway (every other train at the service level they’re planning after the new cars arrive) would work out even with the single track. And there’s no need to build anything remotely fancy there, just a platform and some faregates. The only significant structural change might be some kind of busway to accommodate the bus lines that would now terminate at the station.

        • Nathanael

          Makes sense! Thanks for your highly informed comment, F-Line.

          A Needham Line conversion is a sensible project.

          Worcester Line seems to at least be high on the queue for upgrades. Every town along the line seems to be gung-ho in favor; it even benefits Amtrak. The state finally managed to purchase the whole line after years of negotiations, and I don’t think the upgrades could have been done before that.

          • leviramsey

            It’s not the Worcester Line west of Framingham (which is what they bought from CSX) that’s the barrier to improved service, it’s the inside-of-Framingham portion, with one crossover (CP11, between Wellesley Farms and Riverside/Auburndale) west of Allston and signals that limit speeds to 59 mph. Those tracks have been owned by the state for decades (though inside of Riverside was owned for most of that time by the Turnpike Authority, not the MBTA).

            West of Framingham is modern (well, 1980s era Conrail, vs. pre-1960) signals, with crossovers allowing for abundant passing opportunities and multiple service patterns (crossovers between every pair of consecutive stations), and far easier to get up to 79mph and faster shape.

  4. Henry

    Would you really need to get rid of Long Island peak expresses if you built the Third Track? Third Track + ESA would add a lot of additional capacity.

    Of course, the best option if we could go twenty years into the past would’ve been to rip up East Side Access entirely and build a twin bore tunnel from Atlantic to GCT and Sunnyside, and shifting over Laurelton Branch service to a triple or quadruple-tracked St. Albans Branch, but instead we stuck with a plan from 1963.

    • Alon Levy

      No, but given that there’s no third track yet, the only competent way to run trains is to prioritize two-way service over peak-direction express service.

      • Adirondacker12800

        And have even more people standing on slower trains? So that mostly empty trains can run in the opposite direction. Sounds like a plan.

  5. ofsevit

    Ugh, MBTA commuter rail service. The first piece that needs to be mentioned (I have a blog post sitting in a half-finished state about this somewhere) is that MBTA commuter rail grew four-fold between 1980 and 2000, a much faster rate than any other commuter rail system. That was due to new rolling stock, some system expansions, and an increase in traffic and parking costs. Have they used best practices? No, they put a bunch of new stations at park and ride lots far from town centers, often kowtowing to NIMBYs who then regret not having downtown train service. But in 1985, there was no service to Worcester, Providence or Brockton. There’s more, now.

    But they provide what I’d say is a lowest common denominator service. It works for the people who use it, and there is very little interest, at least in the last 15 years, about getting more people to ride. And it shows. If you look at by-train passenger counts, faster, express trains always attract more passengers. Why? Because especially at longer distances, time becomes an issue for riders. And the T does pretty much zero to increase train speed. (One minor exception: upgrading the Fitchburg Line to 80 mph.)

    The Province Line is a case in point. Amtrak runs from Providence to Back Bay, with a stop at Route 128, in 41 minutes. The fastest T train only makes three stops, yet takes 18 minutes. Does it take 9 minutes to decelerate and accelerate at each station stop? Nope. While the line is mostly signaled for speeds of 100 mph or higher, the T specs its vehicles for no faster than 80. It’s still faster than driving downtown (try driving from Mansfield to Boston in 27 minutes at rush hour), but for someone who then makes a subway transfer, it can make a difference.

    And the rest of the system is similar. Worcester to Boston is 44 miles and has a total of four grade crossings, in two pairs. Most of the line could conceivably be upgraded to 80, 90 or 110 mph without major issues (it’s generally pretty straight) one would think, but no one ever talks about that. Worcester is the second-largest city in the state, has great TOD potential downtown within a stone’s throw of the beautifully-restored train station, and could be an option for people who wanted access to the Boston job market without the sky-high rents. But the fastest the T can muster service is 1:15, when 45 minutes—or less—should be well within reason.

    Then there are the godawful, one-sided platforms in Newton which preclude all-day service, even though it’s the most densely-populated part of the route (5000-8000/sqmi) it has the worst service. Will those be upgraded any time soon? Probably not, since they’d have to be made ADA accessible, and that’s seemingly anathema to the T (god forbid they build high-level platforms for speedy boarding). Then the Worcester Line goes within a mile of Kendall, Harvard and BU, but there are only sketchy plans to build a station and decent connections, so everyone there drives, even though there is usually a 20 minute backup to get on or off the highway at rush hour.

    So, yeah, the MBTA commuter service is run like a poor stepchild of other legacy commuter rail systems. Part of that is because it was the only such system to almost disappear and, since then, a history where it has always been privately run (and usually poorly), but a lot of it is obstinate politicians and poor management, as well as a lack of investment. And all of that conspires to create a stagnant system which works well enough for a portion of the population, but never actually with the possibility of growth or or using transportation to leverage growth and development.

    Complete electrification for 350 miles is probably more like $2b, and the NSRL could be a later stage of a project which could use a grade-separated line through Cambridge on the Grand Junction to allow commuters from the west to access Kendall Square and (more easily) Harvard (this could be done almost entirely cut-and-cover within the existing ROW, and be extended to Sullivan for a transfer to North Side lines). NSRL would allow you to build a new station connected to State and Haymarket and jettison North Station all together (it’s mostly surrounded by water) which would open a nice swath of land for redevelopment on both sides of the river. Projects like South Coast Rail and regional service to other parts of the state (Springfield, Amherst, etc) should be seen more as intercity rail and come out of a separate pot: they’re important projects to leverage the state’s dense industrial cities, but shouldn’t be seen as straight commuter projects. And a lot of this could be done incrementally: first electrify the Back Bay Lines an the Fairmount Line (redundancy), then the North Side, then the Old Colony, or something of the sort. Figure out a long-term funding scheme, create a plan, sell the benefits, and do it.

    To expand on some other comments:

    Yes, the North Side needs work. The current project on the Haverhill Line is going at completely glacial speed, even though it’s just adding a few miles of double track. There’s still some barely-signalized territory, plenty of single track, and a couple of areas that scream for grade separation (West Medford and Waltham in particular). Some of the single track the T created for themselves in the ’70s building rapid transit (Malden, Old Colony) while others are structural (the single-track tunnel in Salem). But others (Readville, much of the Haverhill Line) are just penny wise and pound foolish. And, yes, the T is slow, but as I point out above, a lot of that is their own doing by poorly specing equipment and never doing any work to upgrade existing lines (at least some of the Old Colony and the Newburyport extension were built to Class 4). But the state has bought a lot of money to buy nearly the entire system. It’s about time they put it to good use.

    • anonymouse

      For the most part, I agree with you, but the T is, very very slowly, building high level platforms on the commuter rail network. Littleton has them and South Acton is about to get them, and Salem just got one as well. And the new greatly expanded Yawkey station has high-levels, as will the new Brighton station if and when that’s built. Newton is stuck in a chicken-and-egg situation, where ridership isn’t high enough to justify huge improvements, but without improvements, they can’t offer enough service to attract ridership.

      • Alon Levy

        Newton has two incentives: ADA regs, and the platforms’ current placement. Stopping trains are single-tracked through Newton, and that makes it hard to run service even farther west.

    • Nathanael

      After the fifth or sixth round of lawsuit settlements, the T has finally gotten serious about ADA accessibility. I’d actually rate it as the best attitude toward ADA access issues east of the Rockies and west of the Atlantic Ocean.

      They have stated that they do intend to make all station platforms on all lines full high-level. They still have no money for it, though.

  6. anonymouse

    We should call it something fancy like Total Route Modernization and advertise it as a long-term rolling program that will eventually extend to the whole system (and maybe beyond the existing system with some extensions). And much of it really can be done incrementally, even NSRL. Perhaps a good start would be renting some recently-retired toasters for the Providence Line and building some temporary wooden platforms on top of the existing low level ones. I’m reasonably sure that the experiment will prove sufficiently successful that it would justify the expense of making it permanent and expanding it to other lines (with high-level platforms, electrification, new rolling stock, fare reform, and more efficient operating practices). But first, we need to find some way to get the T to get things built efficiently and quickly. The way the Haverhill Line project is dragging on is not an encouraging sign.

    • Adirondacker12800

      …. recently retired toasters…

      There are reasons why Amtrak wanted to replace them.

    • F-Line to Dudley

      The AEM-7’s (or at least the 28 slightly fresher stimulus-remanufactured AEM7-AC’s that are still in decent enough condition for continued light duty) aren’t going to be around long enough for the T to take advantage of.

      #1. There are unwired commuter rail station platforms still to hook up.
      #2. Electrical substation expansion has to happen before the T can share the wires.
      #3. The large layover yard in Pawtucket that has to be wired.
      #4. The T has to cut a deal with Amtrak to maintain the electrics for them due to lack of any T facility capable of handling them. And the T would have to build more layover yard space to get its other equipment out of Amtrak’s yard before there’s enough room for any electrics maint. Something it is planning to do at Beacon Park, but which can’t happen until MassHighway’s realignment of the Mass Pike in Allston serves up the yard site.

      Of these, even if #1-3 were expedited #4 is locked to an unimprovable 2020 schedule on a major highway project and there’s just no way to juggle the bodies in Southampton Yard well enough to do it. The last roadworthy Toaster will be long gone by then. There’s nothing a more ops-progressive imagination would do to square the timeline, so if they ever get head out of arse on Providence electrics it unfortunately won’t be gently introduced on low-cost used equipment. That much at least you can say is nobody’s fault except for unfavorable timing.

      MARC or SEPTA…them I could see getting a deal for the Toaster remans since they each already use Toasters of their own. MARC getting them as Amtrak payola so they drop their dieselization threat on the Penn Line, SEPTA simply because their rush hour express push-pulls sets are so worn out and agency procurement finances so shaky that the short-term infusion of better-condition power would do them a lot of immediate good.

    • Nathanael

      Total Route Modernization has a nice ring to it. It would have to be done as a sales pitch to the legislature for direct state funding, though. In other parts of the country, they’d go to the voters for a transit tax, but IIRC Massachusetts doesn’t do that kind of referendum.

  7. Pingback: When Nationwide Electrification is Called For | Pedestrian Observations
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