Quick Note: Regional Rail and the Massachusetts State Legislature

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?

Yes!

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.

21 comments

  1. Brownsberger constituent

    Interesting and timely post–Brownsberger is actually my state senator and I emailed him about supporting Crighton’s amendment recently. He replied: “Yes. I am hopeful on this one”. Not sure if that is a cryptic non-answer but at the very least it sounds like he isn’t in opposition.

    • Henry Miller

      Or a staffer just responded without checking. Share to be sure, though state legislators are a little more likely to pay attention to their own people.

    • James A. Aloisi

      Sorry that the Senator didn’t see fit to co-sponsor the regional rail electrification amendment to the climate bill. I think he is also modest about his influence on others in the Senate. Overall in my judgment, he hasn’t been on the right path when it comes to thinking about critical investments in transit or rail, despite what I’m sure are his good intentions. This blog post addresses legitimate concerns.

  2. Alex Cat3

    I think you got the reasoning he uses in the post wrong (though its still pretty bad). His main reason for not supporting electrification is that according to him, MBTA studies showed that the higher speed afforded by EMUs would not produce a significant amount of additional ridership compared to using DMUs. The studies assumed that every line ran express trains, and that express stations had an UNLIMITED number of parking spots (not accounting for the cost of adding these parking spots). Therefore, the bulk of the stupidity may lie with whoever conducted those studies, rather than with him.

    • Henry Miller

      If you want to kill a project the most important thing you can do is ensure bad studies are run on it. If you can’t make the study parameters such that the result you want is achieved, at least make sure they put a “more study is needed” line in someplace – this is easy as there are plenty of things that could be studied even if not worth it.

  3. Matthew Hutton

    It’s worth noting that the Scot’s are planning to electrify the entire passenger network that gets more than half a dozen trains a day.

    Even north of Inverness they plan to electrify the Inverness commutery bits of railway that get roughly an hourly service.

  4. adirondacker12800

    2019, saying that diesel engines are more reliable than electric trains because what if there’s a power outage
    The signal system stops working when there is a power outage. At best the diesels would be able to creep around at very low speeds.

    • The Economist

      Last time I checked, mainline signaling power is different than traction power and often has meaningful battery back-up. Power loss in the US is not as frequent as it is made to be. The bigger scrooge of electric lines is fallen trees on catenary wires even after the trees get removed the wires need to be restored before trains can run. Unfortunately preventive tree trimming in the US is non-existent due to cost and NIMBYs.

      • Matthew Hutton

        Aren’t the railways free to do pretty much whatever they like on railway land?

        That’s the situation here.

      • adirondacker12800

        The signals have separate circuits from the traction power. It all eventually works it’s way back to central source. The stations aren’t going to have power and will be evacuated. That the diesel engines can hypothetically run during a widespread power outage… doesn’t understand widespread power outages.

        • Henry Miller

          When I look at freight railroads I see propane tanks next to every signal and switch. I assume to power a backup generator, though it could be something else. So sure if there is a widespread power outage the train has a problem that DMUs don’t. The solution to that is stationary diesel generators – they will be much cheaper because they typically will only run for the 15 minute self-test every week. Stationary means they are a lot easier to maintain (stationary diesel generators are common enough that every city as mechanics who drive around maintaining them, I would guess it is a more competitive market than DMUs as well so cheaper prices).

          You still need to fix the power lines before trains can run again, so I guess a DMU is can get running a little faster. Still after a major storm everyone expects a few hours of downtime. The right answer here is train most of your staff on emergency clearing the line (the union will hate this though – desk jockeys doing manual labor. Many unions won’t even plug something in because electric is a different union) so you can get the trains back up and running.

    • plaws0

      It’s like the damn weekend riders, i.e., not regular Metra commuters, who are terrified when they see the (obsolete) open flame switch heaters at A-2 in Chicago (where the UP West line is crossed by a Metra’s MILW Districts and North Central Service). Been like that for probably a century (or maybe only dates back to elimination of hundreds of track workers …).

      WUSA is DC, right? Well, they are all slow news days now since everyone tries so hard to ignore that the planet itself is on fire and our democracy is almost over … maybe this was intended as a secret message …

      • adirondacker12800

        Maybe it’s to cut down on the frantic calls from viewers reporting Metro is on fire? Or MARC/Amtrak? They have switch heaters that blow propane exhaust/hot air at stuff, they look expensive. Or even more expensive, electric ones.

  5. Will Brownsberger

    I’m kind of honored to be portrayed as a power on this issue, but I am not sure I really am. In any event, I’d be happy to have a conversation with whomever wrote this blog post. I don’t feel that it fully reflects my views.

  6. Mark N.

    …today’s frontier of commuter rail electrification is sub-million metro areas like Trondheim, Aarhus, and Cardiff.

    Possibly expanding that frontier downwards is the tram-train project currently being built here in southwest Germany, whose electrified lines — some of which will be built entirely new in addition to the electrification of existing diesel lines — will in a few years serve a fairly sparsely populated region (by German standards) with the largest city, Reutlingen, only having around 116,000 residents. It’s particularly remarkable that so much investment like this is happening considering that several of these old lines, including the one that passes through my small town, had been decommissioned a half century or so ago before being reactivated in the 90s, the decision of which was rapidly proven correct by the the large and ever-growing ridership that has greatly outpaced projections several times over since then. At least here it seems like the Volk is pretty convinced that rail is the future.

    • adirondacker12800

      How hard is it to park in Reutlingen and what does a liter of fuel cost?

      • Mark N.

        Reutlingen has a pretty large amount of parking available downtown. Tübingen, another one of the main hubs of the system but about 20k smaller in population, is a good deal more inhospitable to car drivers (by design). When the decision was made to go forward with this project, gas was much cheaper than it is now, and I think in general gas prices in Germany are roughly comparable to most other European countries and certainly to those places already mentioned (Norway, Denmark, GB).

  7. plaws0

    The could look in their own backyard. The Boston, Revere Beach, and Lynn RR electrified in 1928. Wasn’t enough to save them, but at least the RoW was (mostly) preserved and the T’s Blue Line runs over part of the route today (as far as Revere, but there are on again/off again plans to put it back to Lynn). The non-tunnel portion of the route uses overhead wire.

    The Boston & Albany RR had a 19th C line from near Kenmore Square out to Riverside near where Rte 128 is now. Combined with another branch, the RR offered a commuter loop through several western suburbs. In the late 50s, the company sold the line to T predecessor MTA who threw up wires and ran trains of PCC cars from Riverside into a new connection to the subway near Kenmore Square. Today it’s the Green Line’s D-Riverside branch and, sadly, the PCCs are gone.

    The New York, New Haven, & Hartford RR electrified their line in Nantasket in the late 19th C. They had plans to electrify many of their suburban branches including the use of an underground loop track and South Station … financial problems ended that dream and that loop was never used (other than for employee parking) though the electrified line at Nantasket ran a couple decades.

    Another NY,NH,&H line in Dorchester was sold to the Boston Elevated (later MTA, now MBTA) and used as an extension of the company’s Cambridge-Dorchester line (now the Red Line’s Dorchester branch) albeit with 3rd rail. The outer end of the same line was converted to streetcar service (with overhead wire) I assume because the company didn’t expect to do much better than the New Haven did. The Mattapan High Speed Line is still running like that, though with newly rebuilt PCCs. I think the max speed is in the neighborhood of 30 mph, so don’t read too much into the name. Come to think of it, the Braintree branch of the Red Line is also a former New Haven line, though converted to 3rd rail much more recently.

    And then there is the Southwest Corridor, designed to be electrified when it was first specced out in the 1970s, though it took ~15 years after the corridor opened for Amtrak to electrify it (the entire line to the RI border is owned by the Commonwealth but is managed by the NRPC).

    And yes, it’s criminal that the T has insisted on running Diesels under wire between Boston and past Providence for the last 20+ years. Criminal.

    Maybe ask the senator if he has set up a trust fund for his grandchildren to be able to afford clean air when they are adults.

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