The Massachusetts state legislature is shrugging off commuter rail improvements, and in particular ignoring calls to spend some starter money on the Regional Rail plan. The state’s climate bill ignores public transportation, and an amendment proposing to include commuter rail electrification in the plan has been proposed but not yet included in the plan. Much of the dithering appears to be the fault of one politician: Will Brownsberger, who represents Watertown, Belmont, Back Bay, and parts of Brighton.
What is Regional Rail?
Regional Rail is a proposal by TransitMatters to modernize the MBTA commuter rail network to align it with the standards that have emerged in the last 50-60 years. The centerpiece of the plan is electrification of the entire network, starting from the already-wired Providence Line and the short, urban Fairmount Line and inner Eastern Line (Newburyport/Rockport Lines on timetables).
Based on comparable projects in peer countries, full electrification should cost $0.8-1.5 billion, and station upgrades to permit step-free access should cost on the order of $2 billion; rolling stock costs extra upfront but has half the lifecycle costs of diesels. An investment program on the order of high hundreds of millions or very low billions should be sufficient to wire the early-action lines as well as some more, such as the Worcester Line; one in the mid-single digit billions should be enough to wire everything, upgrade all stations, and procure modern trains.
Benefits include much faster trips (see trip planner here), lower operating and maintenance costs, higher reliability, and lower air and noise pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. For a city the size of Boston, benefits exceed costs by such a margin that in the developed world outside North America, it would have been fully wired generations ago, and today’s frontier of commuter rail electrification is sub-million metro areas like Trondheim, Aarhus, and Cardiff.
Who is Will Brownsberger?
Brownsberger is a Massachusetts state senator, currently serving as the Senate’s president pro tempore. His district is a mix of middle-class urban and middle-class inner-suburban; the great majority of his district would benefit from commuter rail modernization.
He has strong opinions on commuter rail, which are what someone unaware of any progress in the industry since roughly 1960 might think are the future. For example, here’s a blog post he wrote in 2019, saying that diesel engines are more reliable than electric trains because what if there’s a power outage (on American commuter rail systems that operate both kinds of vehicles, electric trains are about an order of magnitude more reliable), and ending up saying rail is an outdated 20th century concept and proposing small-scale autonomous vehicles running on the right-of-way instead. More recently, he’s told constituents that rail electrification with overhead wire is impossibly difficult and the only option is battery-electric trains.
Because he’s written about the subject, and because of his position in the State Senate and the party caucus, he’s treated as an authority on the subject. Hence, the legislature’s lack of interest in rail modernization. It’s likely that what he tells constituents is also what he tells other legislators, who follow his lead while focusing on their own personal interest, such as health policy, education policy, taxes, or any other item on the liberal policy menu.
Why is he like this?
I don’t know. It’s not some kind of nefarious interest against modernization, such as the trenchant opposition of New York suburbanites to any policy that would make commuter trains useful for city residents, who they look down on. Brownsberger’s district is fairly urban, and in particular Watertown and Belmont residents would benefit greatly from a system that runs frequently all day at 2020s speeds and not 1920s speeds. Brownsberger’s politics are pretty conventionally liberal and he is interested in sustainability.
More likely, it’s not-invented-here syndrome. American mainline passenger rail is stuck in the 1950s. Every innovation in the field since then has come from outside North America, and many have not been implemented in any country that speaks English as its primary language. Brownsberger lacks this knowledge; a lifetime in politics does not lend itself well to forming a deep web of transnational relationships that one can leverage for the required learning.
Without the benefit of around 60 years of accumulated knowledge of French, German, Swiss, Swedish, Dutch, Japanese, Korean, Austrian, Hungarian, Czech, Turkish, Italian, and Spanish commuter rail planning, any American plan would have to reinvent the wheel. Sometimes it happens to reinvent a wheel that is round and has spokes; more often, it invents a wheel with sharp corners or no place to even attach an axle.
When learning happens, it is so haphazard that it’s very easy to learn wrong or speculative things. Battery-electric trains are a good example of this. Europe is currently experimenting with battery-electric trains on low-traffic lines, where the fact that battery-electrics cost around double what conventional electric multiple units do is less important because traffic is that light. The technology is thus on the vendors’ mind and so when Americans ask, the vendors offer to sell what they’ve made. Boston is region of 8 million people running eight- and nine-car trains every 15 minutes at rush hour, where the places in Europe that experiment with battery tech run an hourly three-car train, but the without enough background in how urban commuter rail works in Europe, it’s easy for an American agency executive or politician to overlook this difference.
Is there a way forward?
Here is a proposed amendment, numbered Amendment 13, by Senator Brendan Crighton. Crighton represents some of the suburbs to the northeast of Boston, including working-class Lynn and very posh Marblehead; with only four years in the State Senate and three in the Assembly, he’s not far up the food chain. But he proposed to require full electrification of the commuter rail network as part of the climate bill, on a loose schedule in which no new diesels may be procured after 2030, and lines would be electrified by 2028 (the above-named early action lines) to 2035 (the rest of the system). There are so far four cosponsors in addition to Crighton, and good transit activists in Massachusetts should push for more sponsorship so that Amendment 13 makes it into the climate package and passes.