Massachusetts Sandbags the North-South Rail Link

Boston has two main train stations: South Station, and North Station. Both are terminals, about 2 km apart, each serving its own set of suburbs; as a result, over the last few decades there have been calls to unify the system with a regional rail tunnel connecting the two systems. This tunnel, called the North-South Rail Link, or NSRL, would have been part of the Big Dig if its costs hadn’t run over; as it were, the Big Dig reserved space deep underground for two large bores, in which there is clean dirt with no archeological or geotechnical surprises. The NSRL project had languished due to Massachusetts’ unwillingness to spend the money on it, always understood to be in the billions, but in the last few years the pressure to build it intensified, and the state agreed to fund a small feasibility study.

A presentation of the draft study came out two days ago, and is hogwash. It claims on flimsy pretext that NSRL would cost $17 billion for the tunnel alone. It also makes assumptions on service patterns (such as manual door opening) that are decades out of date not just in Europe and East Asia but also in New York. The Fiscal and Management Control Board, or FMCB, discusses it here; there’s a livestream as well as a link to a presentation of the draft study.

The content of the study is so weak that it has to have been deliberate. The governor does not want it built because of its complexity, no matter how high its benefits. Thus, the state produced a report that sandbags a project it doesn’t want to build. People should be fired over this, starting with planners at the state’s Office of Transportation Planning, which was responsible for the study. The way forward remains full regional rail modernization. As for the cost estimate, an independent study by researchers at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government estimates it at about $5 billion in today’s money; the new study provides no evidence it would be higher. I urge good transit activists in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire to demand better of their civil servants.

Tunneling costs

The study says that the cost of a four-track NSRL tunnel under the Big Dig would be $17 billion in 2028 dollars. In today’s money, this is $12 billion (the study assumes 3.5% annual cost escalation rather than inflation-rate cost escalation). It claims to be based on best practices, listing several comparable tunnels, both proposed and existing:

  • California High-Speed Rail tunnels (average estimated cost about $125 million per km, not including overheads and contingency)
  • Crossrail (see below on costs)
  • The M-30 highway tunnel in Madrid (average cost about $125 million per km of bored tunnel in the mid-2000s, or around $150 million/km in today’s money)
  • The canceled I-710 tunnel in California (at 7.2 km and $5.6 billion, $780 million per km
  • The Spoortunnel Pannerdensch Kanaal (around $200 million in today’s money for 1.6 km of bore, or $125 million per km)

Unlike the other tunnels on the list, Crossrail has stations frustrating any simple per km cost analysis. The headline cost of Crossrail is £15 billion; however, I received data from a freedom of information request showing that the central (i.e. underground) portion is only £11.6 billion and the rest is surface improvements, and of this cost the big items are £2.2 billion for tunneling, £4.1 billion for stations, £1 billion for tracks and systems, and £2.7 billion for overheads and land acquisition. The tunneling itself is thus around $150 million per km, exclusive of overheads and land (which add 30% to the rest of the project). All of this is consistent with what I’ve found in New York: tunneling is for the most part cheap.

With the exception of Crossrail, the above projects consist of two large-diameter bores. The mainline rail tunnels (California HSR and Pannerdensch Kanaal) are sized to provide plenty of free air around the train in order to improve aerodynamics, a feature that is desirable at high speed but is a luxury in a constrained, low-speed urban rail tunnel. The highway tunnels have two large-diameter bores in order to permit many lanes in each direction. The plan for NSRL has always been two 12-meter bores, allowing four tracks; at the per-km boring cost of the above projects, this 5 kilometer project should cost perhaps a billion dollars for tunneling alone.

The stations are typically the hard part. However, NSRL has always been intended to use large-diameter tunnels, which can incorporate the platforms within the bore, reducing their cost. Frequent commenter Ant6n describes how Barcelona used such a tunnel to build Metro Lines 9 and 10, going underneath the older lines; the cost of the entire project is around $170 million per km, including a cost overrun by a factor of more than 3. Vertical access is likely to be more difficult in Boston under the Big Dig than in Barcelona, but slant shafts for escalators are still possible. At the worst case scenario, Crossrail’s station costs are of an order of magnitude of many hundreds of millions of dollars each, and two especially complex ones on Crossrail 2 are £1.4 billion each; this cost may be reasonable for Central Station at Aquarium, but not at South Station or North Station, where there is room for vertical and slant shafts.

It’s possible that the study made a factor-of-two error, assuming that since the mainline rail comparison projects have two tracks, their infrastructure is sized for two urban rail tracks, where in reality a small increase in tunnel diameter would permit four.

Researchers at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government came up with an estimate of $5.9 billion in 2025 dollars for a four-track, three-station NSRL option, which is about $5 billion today. Their methodology involves looking at comparable tunneling projects around the world, and averaging several averages, one coming from American cost methodology plus 50% contingency, and two coming from looking at real-world cost ranges (one American, one incorporating American as well as rest-of-world tunnels). Their list of comparable projects includes some high-cost ones such as Second Avenue Subway, but also cheaper ones like Citybanan, which goes deep underneath Central Stockholm with mined tunnels under T-Centralen and Odenplan, at $350 million per km in today’s money.

But the MassDOT study disregarded the expertise of the Kennedy School researchers, saying,

Note: The Harvard Study did not include cost for the tunnel boring machine launch pit and only accounted for 2.7 miles of tunneling (the MassDOT studies both accounted for 5 miles of tunneling), and no contingency for risk.

This claim is fraudulent. The Kennedy School study looks at real-world costs (thus, including contingency and launch pit costs) as well as at itemized costs plus 50% contingency. Moreover, the length of the NSRL tunnel, just under 5 km, is the same either way; the MassDOT study seems to be doubling the cost because the project has four tracks, an assumption that is already taken into account in the Kennedy School study. This, again, is consistent with a factor-of-two error.

Moreover, the brazenness of the claim that a study that explicitly includes contingency does not do so suggests that MassDOT deliberately sabotaged NSRL, making it look more expensive than it is, since the top political brass does not want it. Governor Baker said NSRL looks expensive, and Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack is hostile as well; most likely, facing implicit pressure from above, MassDOT’s overburdened Office of Transportation Planning scrubbed the bottom of the barrel to find evidence of absurdly high costs.

Electrification costs

Massachusetts really does not want or understand electrification. Even some NSRL supporters believe electrification to be an expensive frill that would sink the entire project and think that dual-mode locomotives are an acceptable way to run trains in a developed country in the 2010s.

In fact, dual-mode locomotives’ weak performance serves to raise tunneling costs. Struggling to accelerate at 0.3 m/s^2 (or 0.03 g), they cannot climb steep grades: both the Kennedy School and MassDOT studies assume maximum 3% grades, whereas electric multiple units, with initial acceleration of 1.2 m/s^2, can easily climb 4% and even steeper grades (in theory even 10%, in practice the highest I know of is 7%, and even 5% is rare), permitting shorter and less constrained tunnels.

As a result of its allergy to electrification, MassDOT is only proposing wiring between North Station and the next station on each of the four North Side lines, a total of 22.5 route-km. This choice of which inner segments to electrify excludes the Fairmount Line, an 8-stop 15 km mostly self-contained line through low-income, asthma-riven city neighborhoods (source, PDF-pp. 182 and 230). Even the electrification the study does agree to, consisting of about 30 km of the above surface lines plus the tunnels themselves, is projected to cost $600 million. Nowhere in the world is electrification so expensive; the only projects I know of that are even half as expensive are a pair of disasters, one coming from a botched automation attempt on the Great Western Main Line and one coming from poor industry practices on Caltrain.

A more reasonable American budget, based on Amtrak electrification costs from the 1990s, would be somewhat less than $2 billion for the entire MBTA excluding the already-wired Providence Line; this is the most familiar electrification scheme to the Bostonian reader or planner. At French or Israeli costs, the entire MBTA commuter rail system could be wired for less than a billion dollars.

Another necessary element is conversion to an all-EMU fleet, to increase performance and reduce operating costs. Railway Gazette reports that a Dutch benchmarking study found that the lifecycle costs of EMUs are half as high as those of diesel multiple units. As the MBTA needs to replace its fleet soon anyway, the incremental cost of electrification of rolling stock is negative, and yet the study tacks in $2.4 billion on top of the $17 billion for tunneling for vehicles.

A miscellany of incompetence

In addition to the sandbagged costs, the study indicates that the people involved in the process do not understand modern railroad operations in several other ways.

First, door opening. While practically everywhere else in the first world doors are automatic and opened with the push of a button, the MBTA insists on manual door opening. The MassDOT study gives no thought to high platforms and automatic doors (indeed, the Old Colony Lines are already entirely high-platform, but some of their rolling stock still employs manual door opening), and assumes manual door opening will persist even through the NSRL tunnels. Each train would need a squad of conductors to unload in Downtown Boston, and the labor costs would frustrate any attempt to run frequently (the study itself suggests hourly off-peak frequency; in Paris, RER lines run every 10-20 minutes off-peak).

Second, capacity. The study says a two-track NSRL would permit 17 trains per hour in each direction at the peak, and a four-track NSRL would permit 21. The MBTA commuter rail network is highly branched, but not more so than the Munich S-Bahn (which runs 30 at the peak on two tracks) and less so than the Zurich S-Bahn (which before the Durchmesserlinie opened ran either 20 or 24 tph through the two-track tunnel, I’m not sure which).

Worse, the FMCB itself is dumbfounded by the proposed peak frequency – in the wrong direction. While FMCB chair Joe Aiello tried explaining how modern regional rail in Tokyo works, other members didn’t get it; one member dared ask whether 17 tph is even possible on positive train control-equipped tracks. My expectations of Americans are low enough that I am not surprised they are unaware that many lines here and in Japan have automatic train protection systems (ETCS here, various flavors of ATC in Japan) that meet American PTC standards and have shorter minimum headways than every 3-4 minutes. But the North River Tunnels run 24-25 peak tph into Manhattan, using ASCES signaling, the PTC system Amtrak uses on the Northeast Corridor; the capacity problems at Penn Station are well-known to even casual observers of American infrastructure politics.

A state in which the FMCB members didn’t really get what their chair was saying about modern operations is going to propose poor operating practices going forward. MassDOT’s study assumes low frequency, and, because there is no line-wide electrification except on the Providence Line and eventually South Coast Rail (where electrification is required for wetland remediation), very low performance. MassDOT’s conception of NSRL has no infill stops, and thus no service to the bulk of the contiguous built-up area of Boston. Without electrification or high platforms, it cannot achieve high enough speeds to beat cars except in rush hour traffic. Limiting the stop penalty is paramount on urban rail, and level boarding, wide doors, and EMU acceleration combine to a stop penalty of about 55 seconds at 100 km/h and 75 seconds at 160 km/h; in contrast, the MBTA’s lumbering diesel locomotives, tugging coaches with narrow car-end doors with several steps, have a stop penalty of about 2.5 minutes at 100 km/h.

Going forward

The presentation makes it very clear what the value of MassDOT’s NSRL study is: at best none, at worst negative value through muddying the conversation with fraudulent numbers. The Office of Transportation Planning is swamped and could not produce a good study. The actual control was political: Governor Baker and Secretary of Transportation Pollack do not want NSRL, and both the private consultant that produced the study and the staff that oversaw it did what the politicians expected of them.

Heads have to roll if Massachusetts is to plan good public transportation. The most important person good transit activists should fight to remove is the governor; however, he is going to be easily reelected, and replacing the secretary of transportation with someone who does not lie to the public about costs is an uphill fight as well. Replacing incompetent civil servants elsewhere is desirable, but the fish rots from the head.

Activists in Rhode Island may have an easier time, as the state is less hostile to rail, despite the flop of Wickford Junction; they may wish to demand the state take lead on improving service levels on the Providence Line, with an eye toward forcing future NSRL plans to incorporate good regional rail practices. In New Hampshire, provided the state government became less hostile to public investment, activists could likewise demand high-quality commuter rail service, with an eye toward later connecting a North Station-Nashua-Manchester line to the South Side lines.

But no matter what, good transit activists cannot take the study seriously as a planning study. It is a political document, designed to sandbag a rail project that has high costs and even higher benefits that the governor does not wish to manage. Its cost estimates are not only outlandish but brazenly so, and its insistence that the Kennedy School study does not include contingency is so obviously incorrect that it must be considered fraud rather than a mistake. Nothing it says has any merit, not should it be taken seriously. It does not represent the world of transportation planning, but rather the fantasies of a political system that does not understand public transportation.


  1. Michael James

    This confirms what I have been ranting about for years. In the Anglosphere, government in-house expertise has been either lost or fatally politically compromised. IMO, this is the prime driver of cost inflation. We can’t really blame all the private constructors, contractors and sub-contractors etc because it’s their job to maximise their profits and maximise the volume of work. The only player who can regulate and contain these private operators is the one who is paying. They are, or should be, our (tax-payers) representatives looking after our interests. Instead they either don’t have the expertise (because of deracination of executive government over the last 3 or 4 decades as a matter of political philosophy) or they have been subjugated to the politicians of the day. Of course those politicians are supposed to represent our interests but, again in the Anglosphere, that is less and less the case. Not least because of revolving doors between top positions in government (or their proxies) or politicians and positions in the private enterprises, and their boards, that they previously regulated. Driven by the outsized remuneration of the executive ranks of big companies.
    I don’t know how to change it. There are various institutions that are supposed to keep a lid on it, like Office of Management & Budget and ICAC (Independent Commissions Against Corruption which have the highest judicial powers compelling testimony with criminal penalties for lying). It is deeply cultural.

    • Alon Levy

      Ordinarily I’d agree with you, but in this particular case I think this analysis misses the mark. The problem is usually that the private consultants put together reports that try to satisfy everyone and don’t have cost control as a primary objective. But the MassDOT study does not suffer from that problem; its problem is that there was political pressure to find reasons to reject NSRL, and as a result the costs magically doubled. Something similar happened with the Red-Blue Connector: the mayor didn’t want it so its cost magically tripled.

      Historically this also happened with BART. The original plan was to only go underground in Downtown San Francisco and Downtown Oakland, and run elevated, alongside freeways, or in railroad rights-of-way elsewhere. Berkeley demanded an underground rather than elevated station and was willing to pay the cost difference; the planners, who didn’t want to do this, then came up with a prohibitive cost estimate, and Berkeley had to commission an opposing study arguing that the cost of underground construction in the city wouldn’t be so high (P.S. Berkeley ended up being right).

      The problem isn’t that the process is privatized (although it is, and elsewhere it’s indeed a problem, e.g. NEC Future); it’s that it’s politicized. If there’s an Anglospheric element to it, it’s the aversion to public spending. Here, when a piece of infrastructure gets politicized, what usually happens is that the state builds it despite a low cost-benefit ratio, as with M18. In the US, the impetus isn’t to build more infrastructure no matter how cost-ineffective but to spend less money no matter how cost-effective a big project might be. Politicians here and even in Britain would jump at the opportunity to do something as transformative as NSRL, but in the US and Canada they see big infrastructure projects as political liabilities rather than assets.

      • Tunnel Vision

        This study was put out for bidding last year. The company I work for proposed but were unsuccessful. So in essence this is the work of consultants who really should know better. Here in the US investment in public infrastructure is still seen as a boondoggle or waste as you cant make money from it. Even with the Boston Locals involved, who make NY Locals look reasonable, the project should not cost $17bn.

        One comment on tunnel size. Your comment about Barcelona is somewhat misleading. In Barcelona they put two tracks in one tunnel with stations. This introduces a whole slew of operational issues that need to be addressed as crossovers and switches become much more difficult to design inside the tunnel envelope especially for long commuter trains. We were involved in the single bore study for VTA Silicon Valley project and these issues are not easily remedied as your train lengths get longer, signal blocks get longer and gradients get more constrained, and you also have to deal with one or two trains in a vent zone for fire life safety design. Think about how much space you would need to have the lower track rise and the upper track drop to enable a level crossover to be installed for a dual mode locomotive with an eight car commuter train for example and you might not have enough space between stations to do this. Granted you mention two large tunnel drives but that will drive costs up as all that extra free space has to be excavated and disposed of. You also need to ventilate it and as your train to tunnel ratio decreases you lose the ability of the trains to self ventilate the tunnels via the piston effect. From a safety perspective compliance with NFPA130 requires you to maintain a tenable environment at 750F, the large the tunnel area the greater the quantity of air needed as Q=VA, meaning your ventilation requirements increase so does cost, For example the Channel Tunnel between England and France has very limited ventilation capabilities. What they do have every 375m I believe is a so called piston relief duct. This allows the air being pushed ahead of the train in one tunnel to be diverted into the other tunnel. The vacuum or slipstream effect behind the train then helps to suck air through the cut thereby creating a continuous re circulation of air through the tunnel as trains push and pull air from both directions. Even if you put station platforms in the large tunnels you need more than just inclined access for escalators. You need ventilation shafts for smoke control as stations are typically designed to be separate fire zones from the tunnels, you need utility and ADA access shafts. If you have an escalator you also need an elevator to comply with ADA and yes I know they have inclined elevators in France or somewhere? You need a concourse area, control rooms, incident rooms, sub stations etc. etc.All of this will have to built outside the large diameter tunnel and if the Big Dig is sitting on top of it access for ground treatment will be tricky. Which is why the stations are always the most expensive part of any project.

        All that being said it sounds like the report reached a foregone conclusion for shortsighted political reasons.

      • Michael James

        I don’t disagree with you though I think it is the same thing. As I understood from you, the feasibility report was an internal (government) affair, like “planners at the state’s Office of Transportation Planning”. That’s already a bit surprising because these days they mostly outsource to the usual suspects, like KPMG, EY etc, where the report will be what those commissioning it and paying for it, want it to be. In this case the public servants must be particularly intimidated, and perhaps their appointment is very political, ie. like the astounding 4,000 members of the executive federal government that are changed with a change of president.
        For those reasons I might be a little bit more sympathetic or less harsh than you were, re public servants. Our wrath really should lie with the politicians.

        If there’s an Anglospheric element to it, it’s the aversion to public spending.

        That is certainly part of it. Since Reagan & Thatcher it has been a goal to so deplete government income (taxes, borrowing) that it would be very difficult for government to do anything of any ambition, least of all plan properly for the future.

        But it is more than that. When I say it is cultural, it is that there are a lot of people with that FU attitude and where purely self-interest almost has legitimacy, and to speak of the national interest marks one out as a sucker (or snowflake). And we’re into the third generation who have been brought up entirely on this neoliberal dog-eat-dog world, in their academic careers, their working careers etc. Managerialism rules, and let’s face it, the average worker bee has zero power and must comply; if they see an escape they aim to grab their (unfair) share and are convinced they rose above the crowd via their intrinsic talent and work. In some ways the FB culture and reality-tv culture reinforces it. Your performance and KPIs are on constant public display and judgement.

        The slightly weird thing is that this is most severe, indeed it is becoming crippling, in the more extreme “free market” countries. One might have predicted it to be worse in Japan (with its deep state-industry links in keiretsu), likewise Korea (chaebol) and the PRC where the state controls everything including having interests in the construction companies etc; and perhaps in France which is kinda similar (same elite from the grand ecoles who run government and run the companies). But it really stands out to me that it is the Anglosphere that has lost sight of what national interest means anymore, while these countries, for whatever other faults they may have, haven’t. (And I don’t mean dumb Trumpism.) We can’t even build a bloody city metro system or rail network (well, London CrossRail is a miracle but HS2 isn’t and looks very British!). At the same time as our Anglosphere underperformance is more and more obvious and undeniable, our responses to it is disastrous (Trump, Brexit, Abbott). (It’s why I advocate and long for the day we, Australia, are a truly Eurasian country. It’s happening but probably not fast enough and Anglosphere culture seems quite powerfully undermining and subjugating of others. It’s depressing.)

        Like I say, I can’t see any easy solution (or even a difficult one). There’s very little goodwill left in the Anglosphere world. It is reaping the results of far too much “personal empowerment” b.s. etc.

        • Alon Levy

          It was outsourced (to Arup), although the public-sector overseers are defending it and its assumptions and it has obvious political footprints.

          • Michael James

            Here’s some germane comment, from Sydney’s unending culture-wars over transport and urban policy. This is about the entirely predictable blow-out in costs ($1.2bn and counting), and squabble over who is responsible, in Sydney’s new George Street Light Rail project. It is a PPP involving a complex set of major and minor contractors in a legal morass that always ends with the public paying extra.
            (Emphasis is mine.)

            Making heavy work of the light rail task
            Jacob Saulwick, 30 June 2018.

            One theory about what went wrong relates to the way in which the project was contracted. Faruqi, (Greens MP) who has a doctorate in engineering, has argued extensively there has been a hollowing out of technical know-how in the public service. The end result is more time and money trying to fix design changes. “I am hugely concerned about the deliberate de-engineering and politicisation of the public sector and the immense over-reliance on outsourcing,” says Faruqi. “This has led to a diminished capability to establish accurate scope and cost in the first place, followed by a lack of capacity to properly scrutinise design, procurement and delivery from private contractors and consultants.”

            Naturally the government has started a review process but as usual it is a “a Clayton’s review – “the review you have when you’re not having a review”. It is said to be “internal” but as with Arup writing that review for Boston, my guess is the same will happen here (and of course the review will go well beyond the next election (next year) before it delivers its bromides.

            BTW, this is the same project for which the government stepped in at the last minute and switched which side of the major south-east radial route it would use; and this was done to protect the elite Sydney Cricket Ground’s future development interests in its (public) parkland (which it is in the process of over-developing, chewing up valuable greenspace)–the SCG is run like a private fiefdom by a board of appointed “great and good” on behalf of the public (hah!). So, despite a huge and involved “public consultation” it was all of zero use because it was switched to the other side without any public consultation and this involved removing about hundreds of hundred-year old glorious Moreton Bay fig trees. Utter vandalism.
            Trams take their toll on trees, parking and walking
            Jacob Saulwick Sept. 7, 2013

            In some ways all this endless fuss may have been distraction from the more important issue: can surface light-rail really solve the congestion on this most busy CBD street in Australia (which turned into a 2km bus gridlock at peak hours), or should it have been a Metro in a tunnel?

    • Eric Talbot

      Beautifully stated – and on-the-mark – summary of the situation confronting ANYONE who wishes the Commonwealth of Massachusetts could get its act together and, 1) ELECTRIFY all the T’s commuter rail lines and, 2) buy appropriate rolling stock for these line – (rid ourselves of all the design-antiquated present-day T Commuter Rail rolling stock). You are so on-target in saying that these attitudinal and political problems are CULTURALLY-BASED, and DEEPLY ENTRENCHED in Massachusetts’ psyche, to boot!

  2. Peak VT

    Well, that will leave a mark (hopefully!)

    Don’t vote for Republicans, pro-transit people, even supposed “moderates”. They don’t want you to have nice things.

  3. JJJJ

    I agree the costs are inflated, but I don’t think even $5bn would be worth it. This is a system that runs 3 hour off-peak headways, where the last trains out of the city depart at 11pm, where the first providence train into Boston arrives at noon on weekends, and where entire lines have their weekend service eliminated every decade.

    • Eric

      With electrification and through-running, service would presumably be much increased. Not only would there be more demand, but it would be cheaper to provide the service due to electrification.

    • Eric Talbot

      Where do the Koch Brothers factor into the outcome of this study? The anti-rail bias (and lack of any understanding whatsoever of how to build good public transit) in these United States is nothing less than STUPENDOUS. I personally have, honest-to-God, TOTALLY GIVEN UP ALTOGETHER any hope that this country of ours can ever manage to do public transportation correctly and appropriately for the conditions surrounding and influencing it. As for Massachusetts’ citizens EASILY re-electing Governor Baker, given his complete hostility to all things sensible and pragmatic about public transportation – THERE IT IS IN A NUT-SHELL – an uninformed and totally clueless citizenry re-electing the worst gubernatorial candidate imaginable to exert constructive and positive leadership on the N-SRL proposal! ENOUGH SAID. Our transportation goose has been cooked for a VERY long time now.

        • F-Line to Dudley

          Baker used to work for the Pioneer Institute, whose astroturfing fingerprints are all over the creation of the FCMB and all of the privatization nonsense that’s been floated around all things transpo in MA the last 4 years. He and his closest hangers-on are mainly creatures of thinktank land, not private sector. And Pioneer wasn’t the sort of ‘tank that ran in the same circles as most of the billionaire GOP donor class’ front organizations, so the dashed-line connections to the usual suspects are weak to nonexistent in his case.

          Despite his popularity for reelection he’s a square-peg prospect even amongst fellow GOP governors because of that background. Nevermind that he’s such a staunch “Never Trump-er” the only use the national party would ever have for him is greasing skids for a high-paying/low-responsibility ambassadorship to Bora Bora.

  4. F-Line to Dudley

    RE: auto door opening. . .

    — The ancient Bombardier single-level coaches are the only vehicles in the fleet not equipped with auto doors. Acute fleet shortages from the ongoing Kawasaki bi-level rebuild program and complete internal belly-flop on keeping up with inspections has had the Bombers creeping onto Old Colony trains they’re normally banned from. The way the door circuitry is designed, if one single car in the consist lacks auto door installations none of the other auto doors in the consist will function, so they all have to be turned off. This will hopefully be a temporary condition as more of the rebuilt K cars return and they tame the inspection backlog, but they really really screwed the pooch ordering such lemons with the Rotem bi-levels that they were unable to tap the option order for +75 extra Rotem cars that would allow them to start retiring the sorriest-condition Bombers. Right now it’s so dire it wouldn’t even matter if another line (Fairmount, for instance) got its last low platforms raised to become auto-door capable, because there’d be no way to segregate the Bombers away from there when the fleet is this strapped. As a frequent Old Colony rider who’s drawn way too many consists this spring with doors KO’ed by a random Bombardier car…yes, this sucks donkey balls.

    The fact that the FCMB is completely kerfuzzled at the urgency to get a new coach order going ASAP is scandalous. I don’t know if it’s because the Administration is so far in the tank for CRRC that they’re waiting to see if the new Springfield plant can successfully do SEPTA’s push-pull coach order without screwing up the company’s first-ever attempt at FRA-compliant cars. A sane procurement would just call for 100 direct clones, no-filler, of the successful Kawasaki 900-series coaches and see if Kawasaki-Yonkers bats an eye at a shoo-in bid. They need replacement coaches that bad and that fast from someone who can prove they know what they’re doing.

    — There’s no “ban” on auto doors per se on other lines, so much as there are too-few unbroken strings of high-platform stops existing on any one line to utilize the auto doors. When conductors have to flip door traps every stop or two because there’s no more than 1-2 full-high stops sandwiched between unmodified lows it’s not going to be possible to activate them for the trip because of the extra safety double-check required to ensure every trap is set in the correct position before a door is allowed to open. That means staff-assisted openings when there’s never enough consecutive stops of the same platform height to set-it-and-forget-it. You practically need like a half-dozen or more full-highs in a row coming out of the terminal to be able to run the auto doors long enough before trap-flipping procedure starts getting in the way. Fairmount only has 2 outliers–Fairmount and Readville stations–left to go before it’s completely full-high like the Old Colony. But as an example of partial compliance that would enable the auto doors, if Swampscott station on the Newburyport/Rockport line were raised all platforms out to Salem (excluding the private River Works flag stop, which opens one door only for GE employees) would be full-high and you would be able to run with auto-doors on from North Station to Salem until the first door trap flip. By that point most of the overcrowding has abated and dwell times aren’t nearly as punitive. The backlog of low platforms on other lines is much more daunting, but if they can front-load a blitz of raisings/ADA’ings of those first 6-8 stations from the terminal on as many lines as they can they’ll get far more comprehensive auto door action across the schedule. And get it in places where crowding is the worst and it has the most benefit. Right now the platform heights are still uselessly choppy station-to-station.

    There is a study ongoing about closing up the ADA/lows gap that’s due to be presented to the FCMB sometime end-’18 or early-’19. MA’s very strict accessibility laws somewhat bind them to tackling the backlog of platforms with absolute-zero ADA compliance before going back and modding the compliant ADA mini-highs to full-on level boarding. So they may not have a realistic choice in the matter when it comes to deciding “Providence is our busiest line buy far, so let’s focus on level boarding there first!”. All of Providence’s stops are presently ADA-compliant with at least an accessible mini-high, while Fitchburg and Haverhill are still littered with scores of stops with bupkis accessibility that the Mass. Architectural Board may end up decreeing have priority. However, if that accessibility study draws a stronger link to the FCMB between auto doors and sequences of full-highs rather than just plucking off individual stops at random to dodge ADA legal pressure there might be a little more cohesion going forward to how they step things out. Or at least some semblance of an overarching plan whereas today each individual station on the whole map seems to live in its own isolated planning bubble.

    • Alon Levy

      My understanding is that ADA compliance today is held to mean full highs. Or is that meant to be above and beyond minimum compliance, so that all new stations have full highs but the top priorities for accessibility are lows?

      • F-Line to Dudley

        Massachusetts passed a major “above-and-beyond” accessibility law in 2005 that decreed that any new construction or “major renovations” to a station trigger mandatory construction of a full-high. That includes renos outside of the platform area, such as reconstruction to egresses and driveways as the trigger gets applied to the *whole* facility stemming from any major changes to a part of the facility. All existing mini-highs, however, are 100% compliant with current federal law and with Mass. laws pre-dating 2005…so as long as they remain in the same configuration with no trigger-inducing changes to the facilities they’ll remain accessibility-compliant forever. Therefore, construction urgency is going to vary a lot by needs list for an individual station…including cases of pressing needs away from the platform.

        Mass Architectural Board, which rules on all matters of transit accessibility, has taken a very hard line on this and indeed put high platforms under-the-gun because of seemingly moderate non-platform renos. They’re pretty much the strictest state-level accessibility ruling Authority in the whole country when it comes to this. Mini-high exemptions can be applied for, but the MAB has only granted 2 exemptions to-date:

        1) Sharon station on the Providence Line. That was Providence’s last non-ADA stop, and was given a deadline to become ADA-compliant or else it would be forced to close. But because the T was a co-signator on the NEC Infrastructure Improvements Master Plan with Amtrak they can’t independently redo the station as a full-high without Amtrak help. The NECIIMP specs for a passing track installation at an upgraded station, and since Amtrak is the track maintainer they’d have to administer that piece of the project…something they’re not ready for yet. A mini-high exemption was granted as a stopgap. Note that all 6 Providence Line lows have some NECIIMP joint-party coattails because of track work (even 4-tracker Attleboro, because Amtrak has to install a single crossover at Attleboro Jct.). While that doesn’t excuse the complete lack of progress by either party, T and AMTK do have to hold hands because of the NECIIMP and planning is slightly more involved than “Let’s git ‘r dun”. The MAB, however, ain’t going to this well twice. If any station needs work, it’s going to get slapped with an immediate full-high mandate and the T will have to get Amtrak cued up.

        2) Andover on the Haverhill Line. This is for the coming addition of a dedicated northbound platform, now that the line is finally double-tracked here and Town of Andover has agreed to move its adjacent DPW yard for a northbound-side egress. Existing (now southbound) platform has long had an ADA mini-high. Andover sits on the Haverhill Line’s overlap with the Pan Am freight main, where the retractable edges of the mini-highs get dropped to allow passage of wide turning-radius Plate F cars like 60-footer boxcars. The ROW is constrained enough through the downtown street grid that a full-high + passing track is physically impossible, and the platform-adjacent grade crossing makes a gauntlet track impractical (far too high a derailment risk on the gauntlet flange of a grade crossing) so they can’t do full-high + gauntlet like Winchester Center on the Lowell Line is getting by MAB fiat. The MAB gave them a hardship exemption because the technical blockers were major and had major safety implications.

        Ballardvale immediately south of Andover is eventually going to get granted the same exemption when the town comes up with the land for that eventual northbound platform install, because the same tight squeeze abutting a grade crossing is in-play there as it is with Andover station making passers or gauntlets a nonstarter.

        This is in contrast to New Hampshire, which has no “above-and-beyond” law, and has proposed that its downtown Manchester stop on the Capitol Corridor out of Lowell be mini-high from Day 1 because of a tight squeeze at the proposed multimodal transpo center abutting (presently empty land) at the Granite St. grade crossing. NH can call that build 100% compliant out-of-box because it follows the fed law and they don’t ask for anything leaps-and-bounds more like MA does. MA will never greenlight an extension or infill station that’s born into the world exempted; that’s a hard no-go (which thankfully does not factor in any known expansion proposal, be it official or fantasy).

        The T hasn’t delved nearly deep enough into the backlog to hit its tough platform-mod cases where they have to take the MAB’s temperature on granting more exemptions. It definitely will never happen again in non- freight clearance territory, as it’s high time they get moving there. These are the low-platform stops that are directly passed by Plate F freights and will need some sort of solve:

        LOWELL LINE — non-ADA: West Medford; mini-high ADA: Wedgemere, Mishawum, Wilmington, North Billerica
        HAVERHILL LINE — mini-high ADA: Ballardvale (exempted), Andover (exempted), Bradford, Haverhill
        FITCHBURG LINE — non-ADA: Ayer, Shirley; mini-high ADA: North Leominster
        FRANKLIN LINE — non-ADA: Endicott, Islington, Windsor Gardens, Walpole; mini-high ADA: Dedham Corporate Ctr., Norwood Depot, Norwood Central
        WORCESTER LINE — mini-high ADA: Ashland, Southborough, Westborough, Grafton

        The 2000-02 construction Worcester ones were all pre-designed to be modded into tri-track stations by moving the platforms back, so those are no problem (and also no priority until they tame east-of-Framingham). West Medford, Wilmington, N. Billerica, Bradford, Ayer, Shirley all have plausible passing track options supportable with traffic (freight or passenger) that would actually make good regular use of the passers for amortizing the investment. Walpole is pricey/invasive but doable, and will need to be done if full-time Foxboro service has to split there. N. Leominster kinda invasive around private abutters, but doable and worth it for the traffic.

        My guess is these three are going to be physically impossible: Haverhill, Wedgemere, Mishawum. Though the latter two can easily be dropped due to extreme closeness to adjacent stops and compensated with better bus service to the adjacents…meaning you could achieve full level boarding on the Lowell Line with that tradeoff. Haverhill Station’s position on a viaduct connected to a major river crossing makes it one where exemption may be as technically non-optional as Ballardvale & Andover (plus it’s on the same schedule as those two, so already moot point for auto-doors). The Franklin Line ones–other than maybe Dedham Corporate and Norwood Central–are all yucky propositions for close-abutting NIMBY’s, less-than-generous ROW slack space, and low traffic utilization on the would-be passing tracks for their cost (but gotta do it anyway because fed interstate commerce protects CSX’s last active clearance route into Boston). They’ll probably hold their noses until the MAB orders them to settle up the non-ADA backlog, then listen to the locals vomit all over their station designs for a few years before anything gets done. It’s a tough corridor to engage, unfortunately, because of the innate passive-aggressiveness in towns of Dedham, Westwood, and Walpole in spite of their high reliance on the train.

        • anonymouse

          “but if they can front-load a blitz of raisings/ADA’ings of those first 6-8 stations from the terminal on as many lines as they can they’ll get far more comprehensive auto door action across the schedule.”

          They really need to start with the first stations out from the terminal, namely Back Bay tracks 5/7 and Porter Square, both of which can have dwell times of over 3 minutes when boarding a rush hour train. The travel time savings alone make it worth it.

  5. Jeff

    Can you convert the orange line to commuter rail and use it as a ready-made thru running tunnel? It isn’t close to a perfect solution but maybe it can at least be cheap?
    This doesn’t connect north and south station but with fairly little work it would connect north station with back bay station. It also is only 2 tracks rather than the preferred 4.
    But it could be done relatively quickly (whatever that means) and wouldn’t prevent you from doing NSRL later.

    • Alon Levy

      No, the clearances are too tight. The Orange Line is designed for smaller trains, and a mainline train wouldn’t fit in its tunnels.

      But I think they should extend the Orange Line in both directions to take over short-range commuter rail lines (to West Roxbury and Reading, moving the Haverhill Line to run over the Wildcat Branch and inner Lowell Line and having the Green Line take over the outer half of the Needham Line).

      • Jeff

        Don’t they need to buy new trains? Buy narrower ones. And don’t they need to upgrade most of their platforms anyway? Just saying it’s easier to sell the costs of electrification and raised platforms if you’re saving a ton of money by not boring new tunnels and not building new downtown stations. It’s an imperfect solution but much better then what they have now.

        • F-Line to Dudley

          Can’t buy narrower because it’ll open up a platform gap on every extant full-high on the system. Amtrak shares Back Bay, Route 128, Providence, Framingham, Worcester, and Anderson RTC stations with the T. If RIDOT (likely) taps the T to be the contracted operator for Pawtucket-Westerly intrastate service, it’ll also be sharing Kingston and Westerly with Amtrak, and Westerly with ConnDOT when Shore Line East gets extended from New London to meet up with it. Coming up with ham-fisted automatic bridge plates to span the gaps induced by their oh-so-special narrow cars is going to end up murdering the very dwell times that level boarding was supposed to help. Building platform extensions too narrow for any other North American passenger or freight car to pass ends up even worse, and likely illegal to boot since it screws over all other common carriers’ right to use a large chunk of the national network. The FRA would have an obligation–correctly–as a national administrator to put the kibbosh on that scheme and mandate adherence to baseline compatibility with the Northeast region’s loading gauge.

      • newtonmarunner

        OL to W. Roxbury will be awfully tough to do with commuter rail single-tracked past Forest Hills, and having to reconstruct bridges and use eminent domain.

        • F-Line to Dudley

          No, it wouldn’t. The ROW is triple-track width to Roslindale Square and double-track width to W. Rox. It is seemingly very tight under the overpasses by Highland Station, but there was indeed double-iron running under those same spans because until 1958 the line carried 3 simultaneous commuter services: SS-Needham Jct.-Newton Highlands-SS ‘circuit’ service that bent back on the pre- Green Line Riverside Branch; SS-Dedham Center-Readville-SS ‘circuit’ service via a pair of 1960’s- and 1990’s- abandoned connecting branches to Dedham; and thru service to West Medway. The bridge decks that are single-tracked were all 1986 replacements done during an extended line shutdown, where the two-track bridge abutments were all refurbished but only one track’s worth of decking steel was reinstalled to save money. Those are all very easy to double back up. It’s only the part of the line crossing the empty expanse of Cutler Park that was always single-tracked from Day 1, and you’re probably not ever extending Orange through the lonely swamp when the Green Line half of the rapid transit trade-in would plunk its Route 128 stop one exit up at Highland Ave. where all the density clusters.

          No eminent domain should be necessary unless they shift the location of W. Rox station a few hundred feet west to behind the Star Market where it would be closer to the buses and thoroughfares. The current station is located on a side street because the Star + Catholic Memorial School parcel used to be a rail yard and junction with the abandoned branch to Dedham Center…so the station was placed before the junction and remained there long after the Dedham line went away. The other 3 stations all have an overdose of parking capacity relative to their neighborhoods because the station parcels occupy empty space that formerly hosted grand mixed-use NYNH&H station buildings (all of which decades ago burned down or were razed due to blight). They have all the land they need at Rozzie (most egregiously), Highland (next-most), and Bellevue for Orange Line station structures and busways simply by putting them on much-needed parking diets.

      • newtonmarunner

        Also, my fantasy maps have the Orange Line to the north returned to commuter rail @ 12 tph to Reading, and the Orange Line veers from Sullivan Sq. to Malden Center via Casino, Everett Sq., Glendale Sq., and Malden Sq.

        • F-Line to Dudley

          Uhh…you realize Malden Center is an extremely major bus hub, right??? You can’t relocate Orange away from there without destroying the rapid-transit connection to 15 different Yellow Line routes at Malden Ctr. and 10 different Yellow Line routes at Wellington. There is no equivalent whatsoever to that connectivity on a relocated Everett fork. Even an Orange branch to Everett that ends up diluting frequencies to Wellington and Malden would end up doing more harm than good with 25 bus routes seeing their frequencies halved at a terminal station.

          Just build the northeast quadrant of the Urban Ring as Green Line-connected light rail if you want Everett served. Link the Green Line Extension junction + carhouse at Brickbottom up to Sullivan Sq., cross the river on a new bridge by Assembly Sq., bootstrap alongside the Eastern Route by the new casino, take up or share the Silver Line busway starting at Chelsea, cross the Chelsea St. bridge in a very short street-running segment, then either widen the haul road for a trolley reservation or run with mixed truck traffic to Logan Blue Line station. Work the transfer stops at Santilli Circle and Chelsea to supercharge the bus routes to the nearby squares at frequencies even the new Silver Line service can’t feed. Seriously…you aren’t getting this done plowing through the bad-angle grade crossing hell of the landbanked Saugus Branch and aren’t digging 1.5 miles of fresh-minted subway under Broadway when there’s a Top 10 list of more urgent transit megaprojects to tackle.

          • newtonmarunner

            Malden Center is getting 12 tph from RR and 30+ tph from Orange Line.

            And much of the buses from the Orange Line come from Everett, who will now have the OL.

            If more capacity is necessary, then return the GLX to Regional Rail (Lowell and Fitchburg each getting 12 tph on the urban core), and send the GL from Lechmere to Medford Sq. so the Medford Side of OL has Rail.

          • F-Line to Dudley

            Orange will be increasing frequencies with the new 152-car order that’s in-testing and scheduled for deployment in 2019. Right now they simply do not have enough trainsets with the 120-car existing fleet to do service densities up to the level that the signal system is configured for. Don’t have a linky off the top of my head, but there’s numerous PowerPoints from regular FCMB presentations giving updates on the new order which spec what the new, more Red Line-like TPH targets are going to be. It’s an expansion of 6 additional six-car trainsets (+ a spare pair for fleet attrition), along with superior acceleration/braking performance on the new design to increase start/stop speeds for slight additional schedule savings.

            Since frequencies are slated to increase a lot, that’s going to make it doubleplusbad to entertain any notions of slashing those frequencies back by branching Orange 20 years down the line. If you want rapid transit to Everett, use the tool in the toolbox that the planners left open for that purpose: light rail on the Urban Ring LechmereSullivanEverettChelsea routing connected to the under-capacity north end of the Green Line via the Green Line Extension carhouse leads at Brickbottom. No one’s going to be sold on a scheme predicated on frequency reductions on a heavy-rail trunkline. Local-on-local Mass. politics probably wouldn’t even allow that if there were real net gains in it for someone somewhere. But as a largely lateral move???….Phbbbt!!! Don’t even bother. Just work from the Green+Urban Ring template for fashioning a solution for Everett. There’s plenty of upside to work with there tinkering with that Urban Ring LRT map, and it doesn’t require vulturing a single frequency from someone else to make it happen.

            Regional Rail frequencies can’t increase much to Reading either because of the on-line capacity limiters. 1) Reading Jct. (split w/ Eastern Route north of Sullivan Sq.) as frequencies on the Eastern simultaneously balloon at a faster pace than the Western under Regional Rail. 2) The Medford-Malden single track (Malden will oppose widening the densely-abutted 3-track embankment + cut north of Wellington to 4 tracks. 3) Invasive work to convert the Charlestown-Medford Orange Line express track to Purple Line and modify 3 stations accordingly (sounds trivial on-spec, but there’s a lot of Orange signaling and station dependencies that have to be disentangled). 4) The grade crossing clusters in Melrose and Wakefield.

            You can return the outer half of the Haverhill Line to its pre-1979 routing via the Lowell Line + Wildcat Branch to clear the decks for Reading short-turn frequencies that meet “Indigo Line” standards with some work like rehabbing the Wellington passing track and re-grading Reading Jct. to be a 2 x 2 track split. But without hugely expensive capacity enhancement and grade crossing elimination that’s the only schedule you can practically run on that routing; there just isn’t enough bandwidth to juggle dense inside-Route 128 service with a full schedule of increased thru service to I-495 and NH. The inner Western Route is always going to be the northside’s mainline capacity gimp in an NSRL universe. So any notion that it can sufficiently replace/enhance full future Orange Line frequencies doesn’t hold much water. And the whole reason Alon (and others) suggest moving forward with completing the Orange-Reading extension rather than tarting up for Regional Rail is that the capital construction costs for doing the crossing eliminations and extra tracks *right* for achieving proper Regional Rail capacity start to converge with the costs for doing the straight-on Orange extension off Oak Grove to Reading. Especially since they don’t have to touch anything inbound of Oak Grove except for extending the express track from Wellington to Oak Grove to eat the single commuter rail track…saving a huge chunk of expense and community opposition. HRT can also climb much steeper grades up/down for the crossing eliminations at much lower clearance, saving great cost and impact (visual and otherwise) on all the Melrose-Wakefield crossing eliminations and probably faring far better with those towns on community input. If the capacity enhancement needs list starts heading towards that Purple vs. Orange cost convergence here, it starts making more sense to just take it off the Purple Line map and use the branchless/freightless Fitchburg Line out to Littleton–the single most under-capacity main on the whole system–as the dumping ground for all NSRL tunnel slots that don’t map to the NH Main or Eastern Route.

            BTW…there is no physical ROW to Medford Sq. anymore. The Medford Branch was abandoned west of the current 1/4 mile industrial spur in 1970 and was completely obliterated by new construction. Physically impossible to bring rail there. But you probably won’t need to, because a circumferential express bus from Alewife to GLX-Route 16 to Wellington with stops at the crisscrossing bus routes + Med Sq. is a viable option to implement once the Green Line Extension is complete. All it needs, really, is for the T to proceed with the Alewife-to-Mass Ave. busways it’s been teasing for years. That’s pretty much the only option for serving Med Sq. quickly, and it’s not a bad one once the extra rapid transit finger reaches the would-be routing along the MA 16 parkway.

  6. The Economist

    What is dead might never die …

    While the Baker administration might not be interested in the North-South Tunnel, likely because of the risks that it will bring to the inspirations for higher offices that some have, this is not going to kill the project forever as long as the reserved right-of-way for the tunnels remains intact. In 8 to 10 years if the growth in the Boston area continues at the same pace the Tunnel will come back to the forefront. The same happened to the tunnel between NY and NJ: Christie killed it, but it came back even before he was out of office. The delay is sad and unfortunate, but it is not the death of the Tunnel.

    A more interesting question is whether the South Station Expansion and the Tunnel are both necessary. While I am not opposing the South Station Expansion, with through-running Tunnel the demand on the South Station itself will be greatly reduced. On the other side, abandoning the South Station Expansion because of the off-chance that the Tunnel will eventually get built is not a great idea either. This is complicated …

    • F-Line to Dudley

      It grinds my gears that SSX and NSRL somehow got pitted against each other in an idiotic zero-sum deathmatch where the object seems not to be getting anything built, but having one side “win” by having the other “lose”. Seth Moulton has been especially bad about running his mouth this way. Dukakis too, but he’s had a bug up his ass ever since the GOP Gov. tried to re-name South Station after him against his will as if he were already deceased…so he can probably be forgiven for the seeming personal animus fueling his barbs. But SSX is similarly confused to all hell by the lard and political turfing gumming up that project, so I guess it isn’t surprising that it’s succumbing to the same fate.

      At its barest essentials, SSX solves one major problem: the imbalanced layout of South Station’s track switches. Two major masses of tracks merge at Tower 1 interlocking into the station platforms: Cove (NEC + Worcester Line) and Broad (storage yards + Old Colony + Fairmount Line). At the original station, the mash-up was nearly symmetrical and designed to minimize traffic conflicts at saturation-level capacity…but the 1960’s demolition of the Dorchester Ave. half of the terminal squished the switch layout significantly. That was no big deal when train traffic was at its nadir, but now that it’s spiked back up again they’re feeling the limitations of that squishing in the form of more conflicting movements in/out of platforms. The SSX project would un-squish the switch layout, with the extra platforms working in-tandem with the revamped interlockings to minimize conflicts (i.e. switch revamp alone wouldn’t fix the glitch without having the extra Dot Ave. platforms).

      Why does that matter? Traffic today is very heavily weighted in the Cove direction, so NEC trains are the ones that cross the most switches to fan out across the middle platforms. That wouldn’t be a problem if these were all 100% T trains running push-pull and those switches could just stay set in the Cove direction most of the time as trains reversed. But it’s increased Amtrak traffic that’s proved to be the wrinkle, because any intercity train of any kind makes a pitstop at Southampton Yard between-runs to re-crew, restock food service, loop the unidirectional NE Regional consists back for the southbound direction, and (every few trips) empty the toilets. Southampton is on the Broad side of the terminal, meaning every AMTK revenue movement to/from the Cove side has a reciprocal non-revenue movement to/from Broad forcing a bunch of switch throws. Unfortunately this is an ops necessity for running intercity service, there is no plausible or non-disruptive place on the Cove side to put their yard instead, and Amtrak needs the dispatch priority for these yard moves because their scheduled turnaround time depends on it.

      That forces the T into laying over more and more often on-platform as they get squeezed by AMTK priority for fewer and fewer yard slots to exchange sets. For example, a short 5-car Needham mixed set of mostly single-levels may be arriving inbound…but when the next outbound slot is a 7-car, all bi-level Providence crowd-swallower they can’t just re-badge the Needham set for Providence when the seating capacity would be such highly inappropriate mismatch. So the Providence set gets brought in way early…and awaits its slot by bogarting a platform dark for half an hour preventing anything else active from using that platform. Then the Needham set comes in…and bogarts a whole different platform dark for half an hour waiting for the next slot that’s a match for a 5-car shortie. And they each have to do that because in that same timeframe there’s an arriving Acela that has to get off the platform and into Southampton immediately after alighting, a NE Regional awaiting departure in Southampton that has to back into a platform to start boarding, and a Fairmount slot floating around somewhere in the middle.

      Yes, a whole lot of ops inefficiency is in-play here that could/should be cleaned up. Most certainly they need to move forward on new car purchases, since if they weren’t so disastrously short on coaches they could apply some across-board planning smarts to the day’s target consist lengths to minimize some of those mismatch extremes that have to lay over instead of rotating back out. But in the end, throw enough constant Amtrak growth into the mix and enough T service growth in the Broad direction in the form of following through on their Fairmount service promises….and they will hit the capacity ceiling all the same. The TransitMatters recs, while waving the bloody shirt at cleaning up all manner of slop-ops inefficiency…also immediately re-load with major across-board service increases. YMMV on where that threshold is in imperfect real-world execution vs. data-driven TransitMatters prediction…but even full Regional Rail-ification will tap out South Station capacity as one of its own existential goals.


      This wouldn’t be controversial if SSX only were the track fixes, concrete pour for 6 more island platforms, 6 sets of corrugated metal canopies over said platforms, relocation of the USPS facility to South Boston, and physical disposition of the remaining Dot Ave.-facing parcels from the demolished USPS building for redevelopment. Maybe with those platforms laid out with air rights anchor pegs just like the main station was when it was rebuilt for full-high platforms in 1989. Instead SSX is shooting for “Gateway to the Seaport” uber-landmark status encompassing the complete Dot Ave. redev, a big headhouse, possible accelerated development of the air rights, and crap like community boat landings lining the Channel. While shotgunning the acquisition of a central storage yard at Widett Circle AND Beacon Park that also assumes redevelopment control around or on air rights above those WC and BP facilities instead of setting limits around the straightest-line relationship to terminal capacity. With every pol and consultant stirring the pot. Now the borg has swallowed so much extraneous mission creep in its path that it’s a boondoggle in its own right. But the pols who are sounding the alarm on boondoggle have been goaded into a zero-sum fight of “My pet project wins if yours loses” that ends up crushing all forward momentum to nothingness.

      Put it this way:
      — NSRL can’t be built in under 20 years, and South Station is nearly tapped out now. The track work portion of the SSX cost is eminently justifiable today if it could be de-coupled from the rest of the toxic pork.

      — Regional Rail-ification doesn’t necessarily change that picture, because all efficiency gains will be backfilled near-immediately with major service increases. But unfortunately SSX has been poison-pilled with so much extracurricular that TransitMatters has been stymied at empirically picking apart the good/relevant from bad/irrelevant in it.

      — Every +1 Amtrak slots tax the terminal’s congestion more than every +1 T slots because of the extra movements needed for between-run chores, and Amtrak growth projects very substantial. The major problem SSX fixes is the squished traffic distribution that puts fanning-out NEC trains in conflict with yard moves. The ‘squish’ will remain an ops factor in an NSRL future where Amtrak is the dominant hand on the surface and the T is the dominant hand underground. Left unfixed it simply won’t be as ops-clean a track layout as it ideally could be. NEC FUTURE and Amtrak’s 2040 vision throw up plenty of food for thought here with their higher-bound traffic predictions.

      — We aren’t anywhere near agreement on ‘flavor’ of NSRL, and thus can’t predict “underutilization” share of the SSX track infrastructure based on anything NSRL-related today. All we know is that in no way is NSRL outright retiring either surface terminal, as that was NEVER one of the project goals. The technical confines of the tunnel (steep, slow, sharp-angled approaches and very challenged ‘vertical’ passenger transportation from ground level to platforms >150 ft. below ground) and heterogeneity of the Purple Line system map mean that it isn’t a SEPTA Center City analogue and some percentage of T service will continue using the SS surface terminal any which way. While vast majority of Amtrak service (despite any NE Regionals that may get thru-routed) will still be using the surface. Shares of the surface usage pie may change depending on “maxi-buid” or “mini-build” NSRL options, but attaining a setup that allows for fileting service upstairs/downstairs at-will is the only way BOTH local and national service levels can increase to the full density supportable by Greater Boston’s demand. Yes, you could absolutely draw up NSRL build scenarios where the entirety of SSX is still necessary if the ratios of T surface vs. tunnel utilization still are feeling heat from Amtrak 2040 service levels. And the middle-range of upstairs vs. downstairs traffic scenarios will show a significant overlap where SSX rates in a range from ‘preferred’ to ‘good to have’. On pure transpo-only elements it’s still too early for anyone to be talking in absolutes about these projects.

      — There is nothing requiring SSX to be a primary-share real estate project in order to proceed. Existing South Station installed pegs for a vaporware air rights tower 28 years ago when it was renovated; that (still unbuilt) tower was just greenlit only18 months ago. Every track structure can be built with future cover-over in mind. If a ‘maxi’-build NSRL leaves a half-dozen tracks unused/underutilized, do something else with the space. Someday those Dot Ave. platforms will be in the basement of another air rights skyscraper.

      De-couple all that crap that has nothing to do with bare transpo capacity. You’re going to find SOME substantial refocussed value in SSX, and at least some plausible vectors where it’s a set-up or complement to NSRL…even if you’re still not totally sold on it enough to bite in the end. “Not sold on…” is still infinitely more productive a planning exercise than impotent “NO U!” shouting at all the rolled-up politics from 10 different unrelated realms. Empirical chances are that the need for interim capacity for the decades it’ll take to get NSRL done and future fungibility options after the TBD (i.e. “maxi-” / “medium” / “mini-“) tunnel build make the bare SSX track and platform work plenty worth its real (not real-estate) cost. So let the transpo planners take a gander at hashing that one out while same geniuses that haven’t been able to move golden Mass Pike air rights skyscraper parcels for 50 years fight themselves to the death over the real estate.

      • anonymouse

        > but unfortunately SSX has been poison-pilled with so much extracurricular that TransitMatters has been stymied at empirically picking apart the good/relevant from bad/irrelevant in it.

        I’ve been meaning to work out a minimal variant of SSX (maybe just relocating the Amtrak baggage office and extending the Old Colony tracks, possibly adding a Track 14, plus interlocking changes) and seeing what kind of capacity benefits that would bring. It wouldn’t even require demolishing the post office.

        On that note, wouldn’t the Beacon Park layover significantly reduce conflicts on the Cove side, since Worcester and NEC trains heading to that layover wouldn’t have to cross the plant and could just go back out the Worcester Line? Also, I suspect that there is some benefit to increasing speeds through Tower 1 and/or shortening the length of the interlocking, because at 10 mph, it takes something like 3 minutes for a train to pass through the interlocking, which ends up actually limiting overall capacity.

        • F-Line to Dudley

          Here’s some FCMB slides about the Layover Analysis:

          Beacon Park layover was always too small to be of any use for Amtrak. It started out with 14 trainsets and has now been reduced to 8 trainsets after years of haggling with Harvard over the land. 8 is barely enough to put a dent in Purple Line growth, and would have to be triaged with full buildout of Readville Yard 2 (the current commuter rail facility) to +8 more tracks to serve storage targets. While most of its smallness was the result of land-use politics, there’s also a practical upper limit to how many deadheads you can stage on the 2 miles of 2-track Worcester Line through Back Bay & Yawkey to reach BP before those Cove-side storage moves start getting in the way of revenue service. It would be conflicts galore when the Worcester service layer cake featured “Indigo”-level dense inner frequencies turning at Riverside on all-day 15-minute headways…on top of all the general Framingham/Worcester and Amtrak Inland growth on-tap. There never was going to be a lifetime solve on the Cove side for terminal congestion. It’s merely one option amongst many to look at for triaging the overall problem.


          Latest update to the SSX DEIS ( seems to indicate they’re ready to move on from BP because the land is simply worth that much more redeveloped by Harvard than set aside for only mildly-useful train storage. The BP train yard has been transferred by executive fiat out of the SSX project and onto the MassDOT Mass Pike Realignment highway project, which telegraphs that they don’t expect it to be built in the end. The chasm between the Harvard and BU sides of Allston would be much more attractively narrow with only the realigned Mass Pike, Worcester main, and West Station to cross on the street grid…rather than being twice the width to accommodate a train yard unsuitable for any real estate air rights cover-over. There’s a whole white-hot citizen’s advocacy advising that the Pike realignment design maximize the neighborhood connections and minimize the chasm, so that feeds into the pivot away from BP train storage as well.

          Widett Circle is still the ideal because the trainset storage is so robust at 30 max-size sets, and right next door to the terminal instead of miles out requiring deadheads to excessively mix with revenue traffic…so it’s head-and-shoulders above all other sites on transit utility. Plus, the current bowl shape of the parcel has only one dank, crappy driveway access point to the street level making it near-worthless land use for other redevelopment functions. The Boston 2024 Olympics bid tried to build a bejeweled new “Midtown” neighborhood here around the would-be Olympic Stadium, but it all entailed building up from the ‘bowl’ on air rights pegs so the new development could interface direct with street level all-around. However B24, the City, and the Boston Redevelopment Authority went about it all stupid and tried to recruit one private Master Developer to build the whole thing air rights pegs and all, only dangling parking revenue on the ground level as a wholly inadequate (not to mention regressive-as-f***) incentive for doing all that extra preliminary infrastructure. Every potential big-pocketed developer was scared off by the risk, and that became one of the big cited reasons for the B24 bid’s collapse. They never thought once to contact MassDOT about a permanent ground-floor easement that could substantially underwrite the decking costs for “Midtown” built above. Ugh…same over-balkanized shit, different day when it comes to Masshole local politics.

          The T’s renewed focus on that parcel seems to be a means of correcting that planning oversight while the City is still licking its wounds from the B24 fiasco. Note their slides do provision for all the air rights spacing and anchors necessary to do the build-over on an active train facility…just like they did with renovated South Station in 1989 and are speccing for SSX’s extra tracks right now. They’re also in the SSX DEIS still simultaneously pursuing expansion of Readville Yard 2 through evicting the recycling center on the property easement next door along the river to double that facility in size. Right now the Readville design is for more layup tracks…but if they secured Widett all those needs (excepting end-of-line Fairmount and Stoughton layovers which would continue to live in small quantities at Readville) would be satisfied downtown. Thus, the Readville storage expansion could effortlessly be traded in for a facility expansion that included a badly-needed southside Maintenance of Way yard on the recycling center site…or all necessary southside shop facilities for maintaining an EMU fleet.

          The SSX opponents are attacking the Widett land negotiations with equal zero-sum vigor as the station, which is pointless. The track/platform expansion unbottling the Broad side of the terminal allows for exponential expansion of service in tandem with the yard. And both the expanded station and the yard would be built with air rights peg mounts so when the real estate interests get their act together both can be 100% covered over by new development. Moreover, in an NSRL universe where all 30 downtown-storage trainsets wouldn’t be needed (just *some* of them for what TBD share of Purple Line still terminates on-surface) there are 3 adjacent bus garages in that neighborhood could have all their bus storage consolidated under the Widett deck to free up a couple other sought-after development parcels. Albany Garage on the corner of Albany St. and Randolph St., and Cabot Garage facing Dorchester Ave. just outside the Broadway Red Line stop are two particularly golden parcels. So if you build NSRL and no longer need 30 trainsets of storage set aside @ Widett…just downsize the train storage to a smaller share under the deck and shove 250+ buses under there instead. Then consolidate the non-storage/repair-only parts of Albany & Cabot to an expanded Southampton Garage (on much scuzzier, redev-poorer parcel), sell the high-rent garage parcels for redev, and pocket the money AND a half-century worth’s of bus storage capacity all the same.

          I’d still proceed with Widett with gusto…maybe even moreso than raw SSX…because of all the future fungibility that could be applied to the Yellow Line mode if NSRL changes the storage shares for the Purple Line. But not one critic wanting to throw out baby with bathwater is acknowledging that this scheme succeeds for private-sector real estate where the Olympics/”Midtown” scheme failed on the same parcel, and succeeds as a pure transpo project for its effortlessness at shape-shifting to storage needs for other modes in the event an unpredictable NSRL changes the game.


          For Amtrak’s storage purposes they’re just going to keep expanding Southampton Yard by rearranging the parking/support buildings abutting the I-93 frontage road for more tracks of storage and consolidating their buildings more vertically. That’s adequate for 25 years of their growth. They could even excavate the landfilled soil underneath the Fairmount Line embankment and Southie Bypass Road to direct-connect those west-side expansion tracks to the Widett Circle loop so NE Regional sets stuffed on either side of the main service building can run straight on/off the loop for changing ends. The yard layout around their main service building is probably going to look very different in 2 decades once they finish rearranging their land use.

          Amtrak’s main storage crunch today is that the T is always parking its super-long Providence & Worcester sets at Southampton for lack of adequate-length layup space on its own layup turf, so Amtrak has been barking hard at the T to address their storage crunch and get the hell out of their yard. In an NSRL world you may see Amtrak route some/most NE Regionals through the tunnel to a new yard by Anderson RTC on the ex- Woburn town dump to empty those schedules out of Southampton to make room for all that 2040 Acela and Inland Route frequency growth downtown. But that’s really the only major pivot they’d need to make, and that’s why they’d be completely satisfied with SSX happening in any universe NSRL-or-none to keep their pipeline to the Broad-side unconstricted forever. Southampton-proper scales well enough to serve all of Amtrak’s needs through mid-century so long as the T eats its peas and gets the hell out of their way.

  7. adirondacker12800

    ….. East Side Access was gonna cost 3.5 billion and be completed in 2008…..

    • johndmuller

      There is some sort of obvious resonance between the two projects. It might be better to compare the NSRL to something coming after ESA, much as this version of NSRL is coming after the Big Dig – a political cheap shot waiting to happen. The NYC angst would be based on fear of something happening that would be as bad as ESA was (or even worse). Something like connecting Penn Station to GCT (then one could even add in horror stories about Gateway et al to those of ESA), would bring out that angst, or extending MN &/or LIRR tracks south of GCT to Lower Manhattan and beyond.

      All those projects actually add something useful to the mix, I don’t know if the Big Dig even did more than aesthetically improve the “look” of the Central Artery, or if it just put the gridlock underground or moved it into the suburbs. It would be a shame if fear of repeating that debacle prevented this improvement.

      Did they really dig out a pair of channels for the NSRL only to fill them in and build the roadways above them with no other as-long-as-we’re-working-down-here improvements???

      • adirondacker12800

        The late lamented ARC had vague plans for Son Of East Side Access under Madison Ave as one of options. Should have been finished, to Penn Station anyway, this year. Instead they are going to build Gateway for twice as much. I’m figuring some time in the 2040s.
        LIRR to Wall Street is a piece of cake. Set the tunnel boring machine headed west on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn and let it burrow until it comes up in Hoboken. The deep cavern down in the Financial District will be pricey.

      • F-Line to Dudley

        No, the tunnels were not pre-dug. The way the Big Dig was constructed, the former elevated I-93 viaduct had to be supported while they dug the new tunnels below its entire length. That presented a conflict, because most of the hundreds of metal pegs the viaduct stood on had to be taken down in order to dig below. Therefore, they used some novel engineering by digging ultra-deep slurry walls that could simultaneously frame the new road tunnel and act as temporary load-bearing anchors for the above-ground highway during construction. The old pegs were sawed off, and most of the highway was re-anchored to the tops of the slurry walls which were poured first. Work on the tunnels then continued apace between the slurry walls in a giant hole under the re-anchored elevated highway, and at the very end the elevated highway and its temp anchors were fully dismantled.

        Because the slurry walls were driven so extremely deep for the temporary viaduct supports, they already reach deep enough to frame the entirety of the would-be NSRL level. Fresh backfill around the slurry walls and a few feet below the road tunnel flooring was poured back in, but most of the area of the would-be rail bores was not disturbed and does indeed have to be dug out with a TBM for the first time. However, because of those ultra-deep slurry wall digs the EIS’ing, archeological surveying, and utility mapping for the highway tunnel probed down as far as the NSRL level. It is 99.999% confirmed that there are no major geological obstructions in the un-dug soil between the slurry walls, confirmed that no utilities whatsoever reside down there, and near-certainly confirmed that there is nothing of archaeological interest down there (nothing like the multiple 17th century shipwrecks they pulled out of the highway soil!). With known-known soil properties and very little physically possible in the way of unforeseen obstructions, they can project TBM costs and schedule very accurately on the segment of NSRL that resides between the Big Dig slurry walls (which, of course, is NOT the majority of the project cost…because the approaches into the Big Dig space and stations are significantly more complex). However, it is *very nearly* as convenient as if the whole area were pre-dug and backfilled, which is why status of that soil often gets confused as “pre-dug”. It wasn’t pre-dug…but the way everything else lines up the excavation job between the slurry walls is nearly as easy as if it were.

        Moreover, because the rail bores’ footprint isn’t nearly as wide as the highway bore upstairs, the construction will include an inner-wall seal on the slurry walls to prevent the kind of water leakage that plagues the highway tunnel. The highway had to use the bare slurry walls as the only walls in order to do 6 up-to-spec travel lanes and functional shoulder underground on the same footprint as the elevated highway’s substandard lane widths and zero shoulder. So the unsealed walls lea groundwater like a sieve and requires all kinds of active pumping to keep it dry. And also has required and will continue to require further modifications to the groundwater controls, because it was a first-time ever construction method that could only hazily estimate how much the groundwater penetration would be a problem. The rail tunnel won’t have to deal with that factor at all despite being even closer to the water table than the highway level because there is more-than-ample space for pouring a fully conventional-thickness inner wall liner to keep it water-tight.

        • johndmuller

          So what’s the problem then; seems like a golden opportunity for a politician to score major competence points with little risk. All they have to do is go for an economical plan (i.e. a 2 track plan with only a maybe-to-be-added-later station somewhere in between with a maybe-to-be-added-later extra couple of tracks, etc. – all fitting into the safe footprint as much as possible) and reap the political benefits of this already-in-the-bag slam dunk project. Then they get to say “Look at me! they spent a gazillion dollars on this leaky underground version of the same overcrowded road we had before and I spent only a couple $B and voila! Golden Spike on the North South TransCon Eastport to KeyWest SuperHighSpeed HyperRail. HooRay, (soontobe) President ME!”

          So you say it’s not really that easy afterall, or that much a sure thing, or costs more than that, or it takes longer than one or two terms, or Alon wants to build the station at Park St. or Government Center instead of Fanueil Hall, or we can’t get to EastPort or KeyWest any more, …

          So can Governor ICanSureAsHellDoIt jump onto this quickie ripe-for-the-picking thing, or is it still too dangerous?

          • Eric

            We all know how incompetent US transit projects are. It is reasonable to assume the US process is equally broken when it comes to deciding which projects not to make.

          • F-Line to Dudley

            The most expensive parts of the project are the stations and the approach tunnels from the portals to the I-93 footprint, not under the highway, so unfortunately it’s only a minority slice of the project that turns out “easy” digging. The vast majority of the project’s real-world digging in length and cost is tied up in the segments getting TO the Big Dig slurry wall frame in the first place, not the central segment that goes through it. Particularly on the approaches from the southside portals and between South Station Under and I-93, where the descent has to slot on a very limited trajectory above and below other transit and highway tunnels to get there. Once you’re in there it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference what type of boring or total capacity (2-track or 4-track) you pursue, and the only potential cost-bloater between the slurry walls is whether you bother to build the Central Station (and that’s mainly going to be the super-deep vertical egresses chewing $$$). But those build-scope decisions that don’t make much difference between the slurry walls make ALL the difference in the world on costs for the approach digs and North/South Stations Under, so unfortunately NSRL as a whole can’t functionally be presented as an easy dig.

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  11. Ken Mills

    I say “STOP THE COMPROMISING AND GET BUILDING ALREADY, IS THIS WHAT AMERICA IS ALL ABOUT???; Omigosh, I cannot believe what I am reading here, in spite of the long wordiness which is barely readable and, as usual with so many abanfoned transit projects, misunderstanding! There’s no problem building Condominiums in a single bound unlike Superman; there’s no problems supporting the car culture where the DOT takes advantage and poses more lane and turn restrictions; there’s no problem supporting air travel which also killed the railroad due to speed and timing; there’s no problem sitting back watching the procreationists and gentrificationists war against each other for space and genre; come on now: America Goddamn! Enough is Enough already! We’re not babies and/or kids anymore! 😡😠😤

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