Massachusetts Sandbags Rail Electrification

In the last year, Massachusetts has been studying something called the Rail Vision, listing several alternatives for commuter rail modernization. This has been independent of the North-South Rail Link study, and one of the options that the Rail Vision considered was full electrification. Unfortunately, the report released yesterday severely sandbags electrification, positing absurdly high costs. The state may well understand how bad its report is – at least as of the time of this writing, it’s been scrubbed from the public Internet, forcing me to rely on screencaps.

In short: the alternative that recommends full system electrification was sandbagged so as to cost $23 billion. This is for electrification, systems, and new equipment; the NSRL tunnel is not included. All itemized costs cost a large multiple of their international cost. The Americans in my feed are even starting to make concessions to extremely expensive projects like the Caltrain electrification, since the proposed MBTA electrification is even costlier than that.

But the telltale sign is not the cost of the wires, but rolling stock. The report asserts that running electrified service requires 1,450 cars’ worth of electric multiple units (“EMUs”), to be procured at a cost of $10 billion. More reasonable figures are 800 and $2 billion respectively.

Why 1,450 cars?

The all-electric option assumes that every line in the system will get a train every 15 minutes, peak and off-peak. What counts as a line is not clear, since some of the MBTA’s commuter lines have branches – for example, the Providence and Stoughton Lines share a trunk for 24 km, up to Canton Junction. However, we can make reasonable assumptions about which branches are far enough out; overall rolling stock needs are not too sensitive to these assumptions, as most lines are more straightforward.

The MBTA is capable of turning trains in 10 minutes today. In making schedules, I’ve mostly stuck to this assumption rather than trying to go for 5-minute turnarounds, which happen in Germany all the time (and on some non-mainline American subways); occasionally trains steal 1-2 minutes’ worth of turnaround time, if there’s a longer turn at the other end. Thus, if the one-way trip time is up to 50 minutes, then 8 trainsets provide 15-minute service.

To me, high-frequency regional rail for Boston means the following peak frequencies:

Providence/Stoughton: a train every 15 minutes on each branch. Service south of Providence is spun off to a Rhode Island state service, making more stops and running shorter trains as demand is weaker than commuter volumes to Boston. With this assumption, the Providence Line requires 7-8 trainsets. The Stoughton Line, with the South Coast Rail expansion to New Bedford and Fall River, each served every half hour, requires around 9-10. Say 18 sets total.

Worcester: the big question is whether to exploit the fast acceleration of EMUs to run all-local service or mix local and express trains on tracks in Newton that will never be quadrupled unless cars are banned. The all-local option has trains doing Boston-Worcester in just under an hour, so 9-10 trainsets are required. The mixed option, with a train every 15 minutes in each pattern, and local trains only going as far as Framingham, requires 14 sets, 8 express and 6 local.

Franklin/Fairmount: a train every 15 minutes on the Franklin Line, entering city center via the Fairmount Line, would do the trip in around 50 minutes. It may be prudent to run another train every 15 minutes on the Fairmount Line to Readville, a roughly 17-minute trip by EMU (current scheduled time with diesel locomotives: 30 minutes). Overall this is around 12 trainsets.

Old Colony Lines: there are three lines, serving very low-density suburbs. The only destinations that are interesting for more than tidal commuter rail are Plymouth, Brockton, Bridgewater State, and maybe an extension to Cape Cod. Each branch should get a train every 30 minutes, interlining to a train every 10 from Quincy Center to the north. About 10-12 trainsets are needed (2 more if there’s an hourly train out to Cape Cod); this is inefficient because with three branches, it’s not possible to have all of them depart South Station at :05 and :35 and arrive :25 and :55, so even if there’s a train every 15 minutes per branch, the requirement doesn’t double.

Fitchburg Line: a local train to Wachusett every 15 minutes would require around 12 sets (75 minutes one-way). The number may change a little if there’s an overlay providing service every 7.5 minutes to Brandeis, or if trains beyond South Acton only run every half hour.

Lowell Line: an EMU to Lowell would take about 27 minutes, depending on the stop pattern; 5 trainsets provide 15-minute frequency.

Haverhill Line: an EMU to Haverhill running the current route (not via the Wildcat Branch) would take about 40 minutes, so 7 trainsets provide a train every 15 minutes.

Eastern Lines: like the Old Colony Lines, this system has very low-density outer branches, with only one semi-reasonable outer anchor in Newburyport. Trains should run to Beverly every 10 minutes, and then one third should turn, one third should go to Rockport, and one third should go to Newburyport. With the same inherent inefficiency in running this service on a symmetric schedule as the Old Colony, around 10-12 sets are needed.

This is about 90 sets total. At eight cars per set, and with a spare ratio of 11%, the actual requirement is 800 cars, and not 1,450. The difference with the state’s assumption is likely that I’m assuming trains can run at the acceleration rates of modern EMUs; perhaps the state thinks that EMUs are as slow and unreliable as diesel locomotives, so a larger fleet is necessary to provide the same service.

Rolling stock costs

Reducing the cost of infrastructure is complicated, because it depends on local factors. But reducing the cost of industrial equipment is easy, since there are international vendors that make modular products. Factories all over Europe, Japan, and South Korea make this kind of equipment, and the European factories barely require any modifications to produce for the American market under current federal regulations.

It is not hard to go to Railway Gazette and search for recent orders for EMUs; names of trainsets include Talent, FLIRT, Mireo (cost information here) and Coradia. The linked Coradia order is for €96,500 per meter of train length, the other three orders are for about €70,000. A US-length (that is, 25 meters) car would cost around $2.5 million at this rate. 800 cars times $2.5 million equals $2 billion, not the $10 billion the MBTA claims.

Railway Gazette also discusses a maintenance contract: “Vy has awarded Stadler a contract worth nearly SFr100m for the maintenance in 2020-24 of more than 100 five-car Flirt EMUs.” These trains are 105 meters long; scaled to US car length, this means the annual maintenance cost of an EMU car is around $50,000, or $40 million for the entire fleet necessary for electrified service.

The actual net cost is even lower, since the MBTA needs to replace its rolling stock very soon anyway. If the choice is between 800 EMUs and a larger diesel fleet, the EMUs are cheaper; in effect, the rolling stock cost of electrification is then negative.

Why are they like this?

I struggle to find a problem with Boston’s transportation network that would not be alleviated if Massachusetts’ secretary of transportation Stephanie Pollack and her coterie of hacks, apparatchiks, and political appointees were all simultaneously fired.

There is a chain of command in the executive branch of the Massachusetts state government. Governor Charlie Baker decides that he does not want to embark on any big project, such as NSRL or rail electrification, perhaps because he is too incompetent to manage it successfully. He then intimates that such a project is unaffordable. Secretary Pollack responds by looking for reasons why the project is indeed unaffordable. Under pressure to deliver the required results, the planners make up outrageously high figures: they include fleet replacement in the electrified alternative but not in the unelectrified one (“incremental cost”), and then they lie about the costs by a factor of five.

Good transit activists can pressure the state, but the state has no interest in building good transit. The do-nothing governor enjoys no-build options and multi-billion dollar tweaks – anything that isn’t transformative is good to him. The do-nothing state legislature enjoys this situation, since it is no more capable of managing such a project, and having a governor who says no to everything enables it to avoid taking responsibility.


  1. Max Wyss

    Taking the “number of cars” is not very smart in any case, because an element in an articulated train (such as a FLIRT) counts as “car”, whereas a bi-level car (such as in a KISS) counts as “car” as well.

    Did they anywhere specify what they mean with “car”??

    Did they do any capacity considerations??

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, that’s why I gave up on measuring costs by car and am measuring them by train length. But Americans have very standard car lengths, so translating to a 25-meter car is useful.

      MassDOT does capacity calculations, but they’re incorrect; the project it’s trying to justify is South Station Expansion, on the theory that South Station’s 13 platform tracks are not enough for future service (current service is 21 inbound trains per hour at the peak). Much of the problem there is self-inflicted: the diesels are unreliable, so trains may need to spot for other trains that broke down, so track assignments aren’t fixed; train speed through the throat is 10 mph and not (say) 50 km/h for no good reason (the turnouts are bad but they’re still good for 20 mph); there’s not much reverse-peak service, so trains go out of service at South Station and then head out to a near-city center railyard, where they cross opposing traffic at-grade.

      • Max Wyss

        Train length may be a better measuring unit; the only differenciation to make would be single-level or bi-level.

        Turning around 21 trains per hour is really not such a big deal, with 13 platform tracks. It may be somewhat tricky if the access is just a simple double-track line, but it is still manageable.

        • Alon Levy

          The access is four distinct double-track lines, with a six-track pinchpoint in the throat for all of them (but IIRC it can go back to nine tracks at low cost if need be).

        • yuuka

          In Japan and Korea for example some inner-city area trainsets have quite a few trailer units. Korail’s Class 1000 and some JR E233 types are 6M4T, for example, and the Thameslink Class 700 is 4M4T/6M6T.

          Without propulsion equipment on every car it’s possible to save a fair bit of money, but you need at least one vehicle in the entire trainset that can propel the train.

  2. adirondacker12800

    Factories all over Europe, Japan, and South Korea make this kind of equipment, and the European factories barely require any modifications to produce for the American market under current federal regulations.

    Roll on-roll off ships are expensive, why would they do that when the usual suspects have North American assembly plants?

    A US-length (that is, 25 meters) car would cost around $2.5 million at this rate. 800 cars times $2.5 million equals $2 billion, not the $10 billion the MBTA claims.

    886 for 3.6 billon.

      • adirondacker12800

        3.6 billion or whatever it works out to includes development costs, documentation, training, spare parts etc.
        Which European standard? Shinkansen are much closer to the North American standard platforms than European ones.
        Altering all the platforms in the Northeast and along Metra electric would cost a lot of money. And reduce capacity. You want something that is nominally 10’6″ wide and 85 feet long. And goes to 48″ inch platforms.
        I smell “M10”. Probably not “M9” or “M11” because it would melt third rail. Six an hour on the New Haven Line and four an hour on the Hudson line would be moderately large fleets scattered between Richmond and Portland. Sputyen Duvil to Croton would have to be wired up. And then to Albany and beyond. Hmmm if it fits through the North River Tunnels it will fit in Grand Central. Hmmm.

        • Alon Levy

          Raising floor height is easy. The $100,000/m trainsets here are often low-floor, with weight and cost penalties; it’s much easier to build high-floor equipment like the Berlin S-Bahn stock. (Modifications for the British market run the gamut – raising the floors is easy, but narrowing the loading gauge can be hard at times.) The Caltrain bilevels are incredibly expensive, but that’s Buy America – the cost of fitting them with high-floor doors was not high.

          And the point is that if Boston buys commercial off-the-shelf technology, it doesn’t need to budget extra for development costs, because Siemens, Alstom, and Bombardier have already done the required development.

          • adirondacker12800

            The Caltrain bilevels are incredibly expensive, but that’s Buy America – the cost of fitting them with high-floor doors was not high.

            And your citation for that is?
            There is something in the water in California. I dunno why they didn’t buy or lease some used Comets to go with their used AEM-7s Or order up some Bombardier Multilevels like MARC did. … there’s something in the water.

          • adirondacker12800

            Don’t answer the question again. I don’t see anything there about how much more Buy American or Buy America costs.

          • Max Wyss

            Actually, one component of the high price of the Caltrain KISSes is that the carbodies are built in (rather expensive) Switzerland (but for good reasons; I would not trust an US-built carbody for a KISS…).

            OTOH, it was possible to adapt the FLIRT design to the British high-level platform AND the restricted loading gauge.

          • Max Wyss

            I may be wrong, but I think Pankow is also building KISS carbodies. Finishing can happen at other plants, as just a few days ago, the first MAV KISS had its rollout ceremony at the Hungarian plant.

    • Nilo

      Weren’t these cars a custom design job? And aren’t they designed pre FRA rule reform? Seems like both those things probably unnecessarily drive up the cost.

      • Max Wyss

        It looks to me as either, NJTransit were blind and not looking at then current developments, OR that order had to go to Bombardier…

        Considering Bombardier’s current troubles… good luck to NJTransit… 🙂

        • Nilo

          What American transit agency cares about any innovation going on in Europe or Japan? Caltrain maybe?

          • Max Wyss

            Obviously, you seem to ignore that just about when NJTransit placed the order, the FRA-compliance über Alles rule got terminated, and non-obsolete designs concerning crashworthiness became legal. This was a purely USAn development.

            So, if NJTransit cared about money, they would not have placed their order at that moment, but done a quick RFP for modern design vehicles.

          • adirondacker12800

            NJTransit needs more capacity. So passengers can go into Manhattan to good jobs that allow them to pay taxes so NJTransit can do things like buy new trains and buses. As soon as possible not some indefinite time in the future.

          • Alon Levy

            FRA reform had been telegraphed years in advance, and the full content had been known for about a year and a half (there was a delay for reasons that can be summarized as “the Republican Party is run by idiots”).

          • adirondacker12800

            Now that the regulations are approved I’m sure the wondrous manufacturers in Europe, seeing a market of thousands of cars, will just jump to their CAD workstations and spit out proposals lickety split. And Japan, Korea and China too. That they can assemble in plants they already have in North America.
            They needed trains as soon as possible not when regulations were approved, if ever. NJTransit, SEPTA and the MTA can have a discussion with Bombardier about a redesign. While they are delivering the first batch or two or three. That will increase capacity they needed years ago.

          • Max Wyss

            It takes as long to build crap as to build something better; the difference is that to make crap useful will take much more time.

            Renegotiation is an illusion, and very costly. And cancelling an ongoing contract would require that the vendor seriously messed up, and still be costly.

          • Max Wyss

            Yeah, if you are already in the “options” range of the order. And then, it is a completely new project.

          • adirondacker12800

            I don’t know what you want or how to achieve whatever it is. They need capacity now. They are solving that problem.

      • adirondacker12800

        The NJTransit version is an evolution of cars that began being manufactured in 1976. Wikipedia says there are “more than 700” of them in service and 636 of the versions NJTransit, MARC in Maryland and Exo in Montreal use. More than 1,300 plus the new version NJTransit and SEPTA are ordering. WIkipedia says there have been 1,145 Stadler KISS cars made.
        NJTransit trains can and do go to Washington D.C. or New Haven and MARC cars can and do go to New York. Probably wouldn’t want to send Canadian cars to the U.S. or vice versa, they use different HEP voltages but North American cars can generally go anywhere in North America. Where they fit. The evolution for NJTransit was to fit through the tunnels under the Hudson River to Manhattan.

        • Nilo

          Sounds like its probably still a strictly inferior product to what they could order now given they probably meet old FRA crash requirements and not the new European standards.

  3. Benjamin Turon

    My state of NY just past the ‘Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act’ which similar to the mandate in Britain aims for “net zero emissions” by mid-century with the phasing out of fossil fuels. I can only imagine that Massachusetts will follow suit some time in the near future. Such a mandate requires electrification for passenger rail — yes hydrogen fuel cells might find a place, especially for freight — because currently electrification is by far the best, and currently the only proven alternative for high speed and high frequency service. Thus such “sandbagging” will run counter to legal mandates to reduce carbon emissions. If we are to reach such lofty goals as laid out in such climate acts, the time to start is now.

  4. Patrice

    Which lavishly-compensated global consultancy wrote this report? Can they be shamed for it?

  5. samw

    Do you assume Franklin trains will stop at Fairmount stops? Or do you have them running express thru to SS

    • Alon Levy

      I’m assuming they make all the stops, yeah. If they run express, might as well run them express on the Southwest Corridor to hit Back Bay.

      • samw

        hell yeah. used to live by Morton Street, pissed me off when Franklin trains would express past the station

      • Pokemon Black Card

        How in hades is the electric O&M cost 2.5x the same service pattern on diesel? (alternative 3 vs 2, page 24.) Sandbagged capital costs are at least marginally plausible. Surely no one can possibly think EMUs are more expensive to operate *once the wires have already been hung*.

    • Alon Levy

      He is popular precisely because he does nothing. If he did something, it would piss some faction or other off. He announces tiny projects, or tiny-looking projects that are in fact obscenely expensive (SSX!), and avoids anything that looks big. The “reform before revenue” line was especially bad – the MBTA ended up having to freeze hiring while its dispatching department remains understaffed, and if it could hire a handful of extra dispatchers it could run buses on time and both attract more riders and avoid extensive bus driver overtime.

    • JJJJJ

      Trumps approval rating goes up when he doesnt do anything for a few days.

      Americans like their politicians out of sight and out of mind.

      Potholes get filled and snow plowed? 95% approval.

      Thats why the country has stagnated. Anything that rocks the boat is scary and time to vote them out.

      Remember, when Obama tried to implement Romneycare, people started talking about death panels.

      When GW Bush signed a law phasing out bad lightbulbs, it was framed as the end of freedom.

  6. electricangel

    Thanks for observing this, Alon. The fact that electrification carries NEGATIVE car equipment costs over maintaining diesel needs to be trumpeted. What do you suggest we do?

    Btw, I doubt that you can run too many trains up to Rockport and Newburyport. The track layout at Salem requires trains to traverse a 1-track tunnel that cannot be easily or cheaply expanded. My guess is 12 trains per hour, total, in both directions, is the closest safe operating number. A northbound train every 10 minutes to Beverly would be great, of course, and 20 minutes to Rockport also.

  7. michael

    It’s really disappointing about MBTA. Those lines service a lot of neighborhood centers that would really benefit from having frequent & reliable service. Then, Boston & Cambridge are both significantly restricted in their growth because of neighborhood concerns around parking, which is in large part caused by the fact that anything outside of about a 5 mile radius of Boston City Hall is a pain to access without a car.

    If metro Boston had functional regional rail, that integrated into a bus routes with time transfers at the rail stations, it would be revolutionary for mobility in that region.

  8. Tom Connors

    You and others have put so much work into designing a good modernization for Boston. Surely you have shared your work with the MBTA and consultants and Mass DOT. Why don’t they just embrace this work and build on it? What do they think they are gaining by keeping volunteers such as yourself at a distance and not collaborating with you? It is their loss because everything you produce is just basic upgrades using modern analysis. So weird their attitude. Also – thru-running makes sense, having dead-ends at North and South Station is simply dumb. If North and South lines had thru running to the other side, how would that affect the number of train sets needed?

    • Alon Levy

      MassDOT and the MBTA know we exist, yeah. It’s not that they don’t know modernization is possible; it’s that they lie about how much it would cost, because lying so openly is still less awkward than admitting that everyone there from the governor down is too incompetent to implement it.

      • adirondacker12800

        Unless someone makes comments at the appropriate time in the appropriate way it doesn’t exist.

        • Alon Levy

          TransitMatters does make comments in the appropriate way. The governor and his people just prefer not to listen. Baker is Christie without the personality.

          • adirondacker12800

            They choose not to respond the way you desire. Democracy tends to do that occasionally.

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  10. Nathanael

    The MBTA Fiscal Control Board just endorsed full electrification, implicitly rejecting the sandbagged cost report,

    So, good work TransitMatters.

    (November 2019)

    • Alon Levy

      (Not full electrification, but close to it. My understanding is that the plan is to keep the Old Colony Lines diesel? Then again, the budget is $25 billion, which could electrify everything, with new rolling stock and high platforms and such, around 6 times over.)

      • Nilo

        Just mystified at this cost. Even if you assume Caltrain electrification costs, it’s still absurdly expensive.

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