Ten years ago, Amtrak began putting out its outrageously expensive proposals for high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor. Already then, when it asked for $10 billion to barely speed up trains, there was a glaring problem with coordination: Amtrak wanted hundreds of millions of dollars to three-track the Providence Line so that its trains could overtake the MBTA’s commuter trains between Providence and Boston, even though the same benefit could be obtained for cheaper by building strategic overtakes and electrifying the MBTA so that its trains would run faster. Unfortunately, Amtrak has not only displayed no interest in coordinating better service with the MBTA this way, but has just actively blocked the MBTA.
The issue at hand is MBTA electrification: the MBTA runs an exclusively diesel fleet. These trains are slow, polluting, and unreliable. Lately they have had breakdowns every few thousand kilometers, whereas electric trains routinely last multiple hundreds of thousands of kilometers between breakdowns. The current scheduled trip time between Boston and Providence is about 1:10 on the MBTA with a total of nine stops, whereas Amtrak’s southbound trains do the same trip in 35 minutes with three stops, leading to a large schedule difference between the trains, requiring overtaking. Fortunately, modern electric multiple units, or EMUs, could make the same stops as the MBTA in about 45 minutes, close enough to Amtrak that Amtrak could speed up its trains without conflict.
The MBTA would benefit from electrification without any reference to Amtrak. Connecting Boston and Providence in 45 minutes rather than 70 has large benefits for suburban and regional travelers, and the improved reliability means trains can follow the schedule with fewer unexpected surprises. The line is already wired thanks to Amtrak’s investment in the 1990s, and all that is required is wiring a few siding and yard tracks that Amtrak did not electrify as it does not itself use them. With the diesel locomotives falling apart, the MBTA has begun to seriously consider electrifying.
Unfortunately, the MBTA has made some questionable decisions, chief of which is its attempt to procure electric locomotives rather than self-propelled EMUs. The MBTA’s reasoning is that EMUs require high platforms, which cost about $10 million per station, which is a small but nonzero amount of money on the Providence Line. As a result, it neglected any solution involving buying new EMUs or even leasing them from other railroads for a pilot project. It’s only looking at electric locomotives, whose travel time benefits are about half as large as those of EMUs.
And yet, Amtrak is blocking even the half-measures. The MBTA sought to lease electric locomotives from Amtrak, which uses them on its own trains; Amtrak quoted an unreasonably high monthly price designed to get the MBTA to lose interest. As of last week, the MBTA put the plan to lease electric locomotives for its electrification pilot on hold. No plans for purchase of rolling stock are currently active, as the MBTA is worried about lead time (read: having to actually write down and execute a contract) and does not know how to buy lightly-modified European products on the open market.
As far as Amtrak is concerned, speeding up the MBTA is not really relevant. Yes, such a speedup would improve Amtrak’s own scheduling, removing a few minutes from the Northeast Corridor’s travel time that would otherwise cost hundreds of millions of dollars. But Amtrak has time and time again displayed little interest in running fast trains. All it wants is money, and if it can ask for money without having to show anything for it, then all the better. Coordinating schedules with other railroads is hard, and only improves the experience of the passengers and not Amtrak’s managers.
The MBTA’s decisionmaking is understandable, in contrast, but still questionable. It was worth asking; the MBTA is no worse for having received an unreasonable offer. However, it is imperative that the MBTA understand that it must be more proactive and less hesitant. It must electrify, and commit a real budget to it rather than a pilot. This means immediately raising the platforms on the stations of the Providence Line that do not yet have level boarding and buying (not leasing) modern EMUs, capable of running fast schedules.
Even with some infill, there are only seven low-platform stations on the mainline and two on the branch to Stoughton, none in a constrained location where construction is difficult. This is at most a $100 million project, excluding the trains themselves. The MBTA could operate the Providence Line with seven to eight trainsets providing service every 15 minutes and the Stoughton Line with another four providing the same. Procuring trains for such service would cost another $250 million or so, but the MBTA needs to buy new rolling stock anyway as its diesel locomotives are past the end of their useful lives, and buying EMUs would pay for itself through higher ridership and lower operating expenses coming from much faster trips.
The MBTA is fortunately salvageable. It has a serious problem in that the state leadership is indecisive and noncommittal and prefers a solution that can be aborted cheaply to one that provides the best long-term financial and social return on investment. However, it is seriously looking in the right direction, consisting of better equipment providing higher-quality service to all passengers.
Amtrak is unfortunately not salvageable. An intercity railroad whose reaction to a commuter railroad’s attempt to improve service for both systems is to overcharge it on rolling stock proves that it is ignorant of, indifferent to, and incurious about modern rail operations. A chain of managers from the person who made the decision to offer the MBTA bad lease terms upward must be removed from their positions if there is any hope for improved intercity rail in the Northeastern United States.