Boston has been on a commuter rail infill binge lately; it has opened four stations on the Fairmount Line this decade, with general success, and is now eying the Worcester Line, where the MBTA has already opened a single in-city station called Boston Landing. The next station to be opened is called West Station, serving Allston, a middle-class urban neighborhood home to Boston University. Unfortunately, the West Station project has suffered from budget and schedule overruns: the current projection is $90 million, where past stations in the area have opened for about $15-25 million each, and construction will start next decade and only wrap up by 2040.
The cause of the extreme cost is poor design. The station as currently proposed is an overbuilt mess. It is development-oriented transit, sited next to an area that Harvard wishes to redevelop as a new campus, and the compromises made between good rail service, intermodal bus-rail connections, and encouraging development make the project fail at all of its objectives. The idea of an infill station in Allston is solid and the MBTA should keep working on the project, but it should do it right – that is, maximize passenger utility while also slashing the budget by a factor of about 4.
I encourage readers to look at a presentation about the status of the project from May, and at another presentation from June, which was sent to members of the media and neighborhood.
Intermodal integration done wrong
The West Station site is roughly in the center of the new development. Unfortunately, it is poorly-located relative to the street network. With its hierarchy of major and minor streets, Boston is not forgiving to wrong station siting: buses would have to meander to reach the site.
The busiest bus in the area, and among the busiest in the region, is the 66. See image below:
The Red and Green Lines of the subway are in their respective colors (and the Green Line’s branches are surface light rail), the Worcester Line is in purple with its existing stations marked alongside the proposed West Station site, and the 66 bus is in black. The dashed purple line is the disused Grand Junction Railroad – see below for more explanation.
North of the West Station site, the bus could still reach the platforms relatively easily, as the plan includes mapping new streets over the entire site. But to the south, the streets are narrow and practically unusable. All north-south through-traffic is funneled through Harvard Avenue – anything else would meander at speeds not much higher than that of walking.
What’s more, the zigzag in the image above comes from a detour to the center of Allston, called Union Square. The West Station site would move service farther away from Union Square, forcing it to either abandon its single busiest stop or have a more circuitous route. Serving both West Station and Union Square requires running two separate north-south bus routes sharing much of their southern legs, which is bad for frequency. Already the 66 runs every 10 minutes off-peak in one direction and every 14 in the other; this is worse than the minimum acceptable on such a key route, and any further reduction in frequency through route splitting is unacceptable.
Finally, the station design as shown in the presentations includes ample room for bus bays, so that buses can terminate at the station. Such a layout may be appropriate at the center of a small town with timed bus-rail transfers; in the middle of the city, it is pointless. The 66 crosses the rail tracks and has no use for terminal berths. Nor is there any need for terminating buses running parallel to the tracks – passengers could walk to another train station on the Worcester Line or on the Green Line.
The MBTA has never released any public plan for a bus redesign around West Station. It talks about intermodal transfers but refuses to give any details, and it’s likely these details don’t even exist yet. There are occasional excuses, such as intercity buses (why would they terminate there instead of continuing to South Station?), buses to Kendall Square (they don’t need bus bays either), and buses to Longwood (Longwood is south of the Worcester Line and would be better-served by a commuter rail-to-Green Line transfer near Fenway Park).
Track design for maximum conflict
The latest option for West Station is called the flip option. The diagrams below are from the June presentation, pp. 8-10, going west to east:
There are to be two bypass tracks (“WML Express”), located where the current mainline is. There are also to be three tracks with station access, both on the other side of the railyard. The tracks serving the platforms cross the bypass tracks in a flat junction, forcing dependency between the inbound and outbound schedule. The flat junction is not especially quick, either – it is a long ladder track, requiring inbound local trains to South Station to make two slow diverging moves in succession.
The MBTA is planning to spend tens of millions of dollars on station platforms in Newton turning the line into full double-track all the way from Boston to Worcester, freeing the schedule from such dependency, but at the same time it’s planning to add new conflicts.
While the diagrams label two tracks as freight tracks, there is little to no freight on that portion of the line. A freight rail spur in the area, serving Houghton Chemical, was just removed in preparation for the project. The line can and should be designed exclusively around the needs of regional passenger trains, for which the most important thing is continuous operation of double track, preferably with no flat junctions with oncoming traffic, and not any ancillary frills.
The Grand Junction tangential
The MBTA has grandiose plans to use the Grand Junction Railroad to allow trains from Allston and points west to avoid South Station entirely. The Grand Junction provides a bypass to the west of Downtown Boston, which currently sees no passenger service but is used for non-revenue moves between the South Station and North Station networks. There are periodic plans to reactive service so as to enable trains from the west to serve Cambridge and North Station instead. In the flip option, all local trains are required to go to the Grand Junction or switch back to the mainline using the ladder track.
Consult the following table, sourced to OnTheMap, for the number of jobs accessible within walking distance of the various station sites:
|South Station||Essex, Tremont, State, the harbor||119,191|
|Back Bay||Hereford, Belvidere, Columbus, Arlington, Storrow||62,513|
|Kendall||Binney, Third, Wadsworth, Memorial, Mass Ave, Windsor, Bristol||29,248|
|North Station||Blossom, Cambridge, State, Prince, the river||33,232|
Jobs accessible on the existing mainline outnumber ones accessible via the Grand Junction by a factor of about three. It is not technically sound to avoid city center on an urban rail line, much less a suburban one. Only if the line is a consistent circumferential line is there a good reason to go around the center.
A far-future subway duplicating the 66 route may succeed. The same may be true of a shuttle using the Grand Junction, but such shuttle may well need extensive new track – West Station is not necessarily the best south-of-Charles footprint (turning east toward BU to form a loop with a future North-South Rail Link is better). In contrast, the current plan for diversion of Newton trains toward a secondary job center and away from Downtown Boston has no chance of getting substantial ridership.
The railyard as an obstacle
For a project so focused on redevelopment, West Station does not do a good job encouraging construction in the area. It plans to keep the railyard in the middle, and even forces local and express trains to go on opposite sides of it. But the railyard is an obstacle not only to sound railway operations but also to redevelopment.
Building anything over rail tracks is complicated. New York supplies a few such examples: the link mentions the difficulties of Atlantic Yards, and to that I will add that the construction of the Hudson Yards towers cost around $12,000/m^2, compared with $3,000-6,000 for Manhattan supertall office towers on firma. Hudson Yards has managed to be financially successful, albeit with tax breaks, but it’s located right outside Midtown Manhattan. Allston’s location is not so favored. The cost penalty of building over railyards is likely to make air rights unviable.
There is still an extensive portion of the site that’s on firma. However, if the point is to maximize redevelopment potential, the city and the state must discard any plans for air rights. The railyard should go in order to increase the buildable area.
In lieu of parking at a railyard in a desirable near-center location, trains should circulate back and forth between Boston and Worcester. The MBTA keeps saddling itself with capital costs because it likes running trains one-way to Downtown Boston in the morning and then back to the suburbs in the afternoon, parking them near South Station midday. This is bad practice – trains are not just for suburban salarymen’s commutes. Urban infill stations in particular benefit from high all-day frequency and symmetric service. If the MBTA needs space for train parking, it should sell the railyard in Allston and charge Allston land prices, and instead buy space in Framingham and Worcester for Framingham and Worcester land prices.
West Station, done right
Thanks to delays and cost overruns, West Station is still in preliminary design. There is plenty of time to discard the flip option as well as the original plan in favor of a route that maximizes intermodal connections at minimum cost. A better West Station should have all of the following features:
- A simple four-track design, either with two stopping tracks and two bypass tracks or four stopping tracks and two island platforms, depending on long-term plans for train timetables
- High design speed, as high as the rest of the line for nonstop trains, as the tracks are straight and do not require any speed restriction
- Retention of double-track rail service throughout construction, even at the cost of more disruption to the Massachusetts Turnpike
- No at-grade conflicts in opposing directions: tracks should go slow-fast-fast-slow or fast-slow-slow-fast rather than slow-slow-fast-fast
- No bus bays: crosstown buses (that is, the 66) should stop on the street crossing the station right above the tracks, with vertical circulation directly from the bus stop to the platform in order to minimize transferring time
- Subject to site availability, platforms reaching Cambridge Street for a connection to the present-day 66 and a shorter walk to Union Square
- Elimination of the railyard to make more room for development, and if the line needs more yard space, then the state should find cheaper land for it in Framingham and Worcester
There is no reason for such a project to cost more than past infill stations built in Boston, which have cost around $15-25 million, about the same range as Berlin. By removing unnecessary scope, the MBTA can make West Station not only cheaper and easier to build but also more useful for passengers. The idea of an infill commuter rail station in Allston is good and I commend the MBTA for it, but the current plan is overbuilt and interferes with good rail and bus operations and needs to be changed immediately, in advance of engineering and construction.