MBCR

Media Statement - NSRL Feasibility Reassessment

The MBTA’s cost estimate for the North South Rail Link (NSRL), released yesterday, is the most recent in a series of estimates for this project.  Those estimates, from under $4 billion to over $20 billion, run the gamut of construction methods, infrastructure choices, and cost assumptions. These huge disparities underscore that cost estimates for major infrastructure projects have to be assessed based on their underlying assumptions.  TransitMatters believes that there are many reasons yesterday’s cost estimates are as large as they are, not least the assumptions and selective comparisons employed by the MBTA’s consultant. 

In our report on Regional Rail (excluding the NSRL) we estimated the cost range of systemwide electrification, high platforms to enable level boarding, and strategic capacity improvements at bottlenecks to be about $2 to 3 billion. We stand by that estimate and do not believe the electrification and rolling stock costs estimated in yesterday’s MBTA presentation are consistent with the most relevant and appropriate comparative examples of which we are aware.  

We read yesterday’s presentation to the Fiscal Management and Control Board as an affirmation of our view that South Station expansion (SSX) should not move forward – it is, by any measure, too little bang for way too much buck.  The MBTA’s consultant now estimates SSX will cost $4.7 billion, money that simply does not need to be spent in order to improve the functionality of existing tracks at South Station. There are other, much lower cost approaches to improving operations at South Station as we indicated in our Regional Rail report, and we will offer more a more detailed roadmap to doing that in a follow-up report we expect to release in the early fall.

With regard to NSRL itself, we stated in our report, and repeat here: “cost estimates for NSRL, undertaken by MassDOT consultants and independent third parties, significantly vary in range. These variances often are attributable to consultants not comparing like-to-like or using different methodologies. The reality is that actual costs can vary greatly depending on the quality and complexity of project designs, labor costs, and many other factors. Massachusetts has learned valuable lessons in cost containment through its recent Green Line Extension experience, and we would expect the same rigorous approach to providing maximum value for reasonable cost to apply here as well.”

TransitMatters continues to believe that the only route forward for the MBTA is to advance a transition to Regional Rail, an electrified intercity rail system with frequent service during the day. The Regional Rail model is critical. While not critical to implementing a Regional Rail system, the NSRL would be a highly useful enhancement providing the flexibility and connectivity to which many riders and potential riders would be drawn. We hope and expect that a candid and open-minded conversation on both of these initiatives will continue.

Without a commitment to a new Business Model for intercity rail, our region will continue to experience crippling traffic congestion and people will be deprived of the kind of access to jobs and opportunity that is necessary for a thriving economy and decent quality of life.  We look forward to collaborating with the MBTA and all stakeholders as we make Regional Rail a reality.

Podcast 24 - Rich Davey, Former MBTA GM & Secretary of Transportation

Former MBTA General Manager and MassDOT Secretary, Rich Davey joins us to reflect on his experience and share insight into the current challenges and opportunities facing the T.

Why has the service become so unreliable? Will we ever plan for and implement system upgrades? How can we better use our existing services and resources? Are the labor and management needs being met? How can the T communicate more effectively as well as advocate for itself and the needs of riders? Can we do effective regional planning and forge a working relationship with advocates and cities? How do we raise revenue, and should that be a priority? We finally put to rest the argument over the word annual: whether fares are legally allowed to rise by 5 or 10 percent. And much more.

Prior to running the MBTA, Rich Davey was the General Manager of the Commuter Rail operator. We talk about activating the Fairmount Line and some other ways to improve the Commuter Rail. How might more effective regional planning enable the Commuter Rail to address local and regional transportation challenges?

Transit Matters is a non-profit organization working for fast, frequent, reliable and effective transportation in Boston by elevating the conversation on transportation. By offering new perspectives, uniting transit advocates and promoting a level of critical analysis normally absent from other media, we can achieve a useful and effective transportation network because Transit Matters.

Like what you hear? Share it around, tell your friends and colleagues, and subscribe to the blog and podcast (on iTunes) to be notified of new posts and episodes. Support our work by becoming a member, making a donation or signing up to volunteer because we can't do this alone. Let us know what you think: connect with TransitMatters on Facebook or Twitter. Follow Jeremy Mendelson @Critical Transit, Josh Fairchild @hatchback31, Jarred Johnson @jarjoh, Marc Ebuña @DigitalSciGuy, or email us here.

CharlieCards Coming to a Commuter Train Near You

CharlieCards Coming to a Commuter Train Near You

If you have a corporate monthly pass...

Commuter rail passengers rejoice! In addition to having restored 42 more scheduled trains to service, bringing them up to 82% of normally scheduled service, it looks like Keolis and the MBTA will soon be issuing CharlieCards to all customers who receive their monthly passes through the corporate program.

According to an advisory issued to corporate subscribers, customers will be given CharlieCards on a monthly basis, replacing paper CharlieTickets. These will be loaded with a LinkPass that can be used on buses and trains (presumably for all non-Interzone passes). By the sound of it, there will be an indicator of the card's validity and cards will only be visually examined by commuter rail conductors.

More about the program after the break.

LivableStreets hosts a T-riffic night of T Trivia

WP_20130328_001 The turnout for this evening's LivableStreets first (hopefully annual, semi-annual, quarterly, or even monthly) T trivia night was on-par with what programming manager Kara Oberg had expected, but definitely filled the room on the lower level of Lir on Boylston St. On the evening's agenda: drinks, food, networking, and community-building.

'I just met these people an hour ago', said a student among a group that seemed to have known each other for years. The group, itself, a perfect mix of the attendees this evening: students, train enthusiasts, and professionals across every trade.

At the adjacent table, former LivableStreets board member, current Walk Boston board member, and graphic designer Nina Garfinkle sat with David Loutzenheiser, transportation planner of MAPC, and several others. A mix of who's who of transportation advocacy and trivia lovers, the event seemed like it was only missing a visit from MassDOT secretary Richard Davey and newly appointed MBTA GM Dr. Beverly Scott.

The trivia questions ranged from MBTA triviata to political and financial issues. One of the first round of questions included facts about the Boston's Green Line being the most heavily used light rail line in the US and the origin of the T's iconic logo of a 'T' in a circle.

WP_20130328_002Artie, a transportation engineer from HDR Engineering, brought in many of his friends to form his team. A designer of the very streets we walk, drive, and bike on or travel rapidly underneath, he was very 'new school' of those within transportation engineering, many of whom are notorious for taking an auto-throughput-first view of street design. Upon mention of 'sidewalk bumpies', he politely enlightened me of their more correct industry term: detectable warning pads. His consultancy work with the city of Boston and its outlying areas has even brought him into the engineering and design of innovative mid-block crossing notification strips for the visually impaired, a feature often not needed in or overlooked by most walkable American cities because of their lack of mid-block pedestrian crossings.

His most interesting insight was something that many miss when talking about re-urbanisation: I think that many disabled people will start moving into cities because of their ability to provide [the disabled] services and accessibility that suburbs simply can't provide in order to give them independence. In areas outside the T, mobility and independence can be very costly and time-consuming for the disabled, as shown by The Ride's growing costs and hurdles as compared to the rest of the MBTA's operations. Even as the fixed routes of the T have become more accessible, affording the disabled and elderly better independent mobility, other systems have been improving their accessible services, like the MTA in New York and the CTA in Chicago that have started piloting newer, more flexible vehicles designed specifically for accessible door-to-door transit services.

A number of student organisers from Northeastern were also present, including Justin Bensan, Daniel Morrissey, Alexa Torres, Jake Berman. The group is in the process of creating a 'transportation club' at Northeastern as a means of bringing forward mobility issues at their school and building a community around alternative transportation issues. Led by Jake Berman, president of the nascent club, and Justin Bensan, founder of the Northeastern branch of Students Against T Cuts, the group wants to build the club on the momentum from last year's unified protests against severe service cuts and advocacy of more balanced transportation funding.

WP_20130328_003

In the hopes that this might be a more regular event, I asked Kara about the next T trivia night. Of all the planning that had to come together for the evening, she noted the most time-consuming was coming up with all the trivia questions. That said, I challenge the state's decision-makers to come to LivableStreets' next T trivia night to see how much they actually know about the system that drives the economic engine of the Commonwealth.

Not everyone has to be a transportation expert or historian on the T, but without an appreciation for it, we may as well be blind to the T's funding problems as we would a spewing, backed up toilet.

Secretary Davey's Keynote at the MAPC Fall Council Meeting and Envisioning a Path to Better Transit Investment

This Wednesday morning, MassDOT Secretary Rich Davey gave the keynote speech at the MAPC fall council meeting. In it, he outlined the DOT's progress in maintaining the Commonwealth's infrastructure and its role in facilitating community growth within the metropolitan Boston area. Of significant interest is his mention of the DOT's new complete streets training programme to help local DOTs better plan walkable neighbourhoods throughout the Commonwealth. New York State had hit several roadblocks with complete streets legislation, despite support and pressure from many advocacy groups, legislators, and AARP, until the unanimous passage of a complete streets bill this summer.

Secretary Davey also spoke about his push for transparency within the DOT starting with the introduction of quarterly accountability meetings as part of general 'efforts to make reform visible to the public.' The strongest message from his keynote was the issue of fiscal solvency and the DOT's challenge to find new revenue streams and protecting the Commonwealth's transport infrastructure from falling into neglect.

During the question and answer period, I asked him about the possibility of outlining and financing an Accelerated Transit Programme, akin to the $3 billion Accelerated Bridge Program. The ABP is fully funded by the state government and started as part of Governor Patrick's transportation reform, which also consolidated all Commonwealth transport management entities and transportation assets under MassDOT, created in 2009.

Secretary Davey noted that he is looking to work with legislators to allow for MBTA bridges to be included in an upcoming ABP2, though this is a far cry from a transit-specific infrastructure rehabilitation programme.

Potential for an Accelerated Transit Programme

The advantage of a separate ATP from the MBTA's 5-year Capital Investment Programme is the possibility of an ATP to be very targeted on a number of much larger, more visible projects, the latter of which is of particular interest to politicians and public officials for ribbon-cuttings and is an opportunity to bring hundreds of kilometers of track up to a state of good repair or higher.

An ATP would be the perfect programme to introduce a platform raising construction programme, DMU purchase for improved commuter rail service, commuter rail line electrification, or even the actual purchase of new Red and Orange Line cars (and not simply the planning and engineering of them for a wild $200 million, currently the only aspect of the project included in the 2011-2016 MBTA CIP). Might we even envision a proper build-out of the Silver Line as a fully traffic-separated light rail line? After all, Davey is now the chairperson of Massport, overseer of the area's major airports and cruise ports. May he be able to convince the board to contribute to the ATP toward a true airport light rail?

With Davey's position, the possibilities are endless. He has proven his competence as a personable leader who is able to establish and strengthen beneficial relationships, including that with the Commonwealth and its private railroads, CSX, Pan Am Railroads, and Norfolk Southern, a challenge New York State has found difficult in its attempts to build high speed rail between Albany and Buffalo.

Boston could be the first American city to consider modular freight transport utilising rail transit, right on the heels of Amsterdam's and Paris' current plans to utilise existing light rail to supplant commercial trucking within city limits. Service would have to be improved and signal systems upgraded to even entertain the idea of adding freight into an already troubled transit system, the perfect opportunity to turn an ATP into a public-private partnership that would bring in additional revenue to the Commonwealth for further investment in maintenance and expansion of its transport network.

But to what end investment in transit infrastructure? Public officials in the transit arena will name safety and accessibility as their top two priorities while quality of service and reliability are relegated to being tertiary priorities. While these priorities are not at odds, the most critical infrastructure investments to public opinion and use of public transport are weighted to service and reliability. Rarely do bus and train accidents happen, but they are certainly more publicised than a late bus or train, which has become acceptable and expected, even though the latter is more detrimental to the collective image and effectiveness of public transport.

This is the other advantage of a separate ATP. The CIP's smaller safety and accessibility programmes (the latter of which have mostly been completed with the help of accessibility grants from the federal government) can continue unabated while the ATP can focus on literally accelerating transit by raising quality of service and improving the effectiveness of existing infrastructure.

Of course, above all of these necessary calls for improved infrastructure is the essential lesson of transportation management: Organisation vor Electronik vor Beton because transit is on the line.

MBTA Releases Commuter Rail Realtime Data to Developers

Realtime data or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bus and How You Might Also Love the Commuter Rail

The MBTA released realtime bus tracking data for all bus routes at the end of last summer and they haven’t looked back. Realtime tracking of buses has taken most of the worry out of riding the bus; even if it does have its glitches, it’s reliable enough to make riding more accessible for a whole swath of people who had previously been averse to riding buses, including this blogger.

Yesterday, the MBTA opened even more data up to the development community with realtime tracking data for commuter rail. Josh Robin, Director of Special Projects and Innovation at the T, led the announcement, impressing upon developers the fact that the feed is still in beta since there are still gaps in the data. In order to improve the consistency of the data, various backend technologies and practises still need to be improved at the MBCR, the MBTA's contractor for commuter rail services.

Unlike buses and subway service where the greatest factor affecting customer perceptions is frequency, commuter rail is judged on its timeliness based on the published schedule. The feed will deliver not only the timeliness of a train, but also whether or not the train has stopped and it is unknown when the train will start again, as in instances where a train has broken down or there is any other blockage on the line.

The feed takes advantage of data that has already been available to the agency for internal management, as with the previous releases of realtime data for buses and subways. What's new is the formatting of that data into something that can easily be used by developers to make the numerous user-friendly apps that have been published to date.

Developers should be including the new data into their apps soon, making commuter rail just a bit more accessible and taking the guessing out of riders' commutes.

On track for progress

GM Rich Davey stopped by on his way out to thank the developers and answer any questions the crowd had. He reinforced the fact that releasing this data and enabling third parties to develop applications to make it useable for riders is part of his goal to find cost-effective ways of improving the accessibility of transit and the rider experience.

While I laud the MBTA for improving information delivery with a cost-effective solution (they have won numerous open data awards for their work), it only enables riders who own smartphones and is dependent on cellular network access. SMS bus tracking is available through NextBus, but no such service is available to riders for the Blue, Red, and Orange Lines and the recently added commuter rail. Further, cell service isn't available at every underground station (though that's slowly changing).

Ultimately, the MBTA needs to better format information on the many LED signs that are all over the system, including the commuter rail. At the moment, riders without smartphones or with no cell service only know when a train is near the moment an announcement is made - there is no persistent, in-station information about the next train, let alone the one following behind it.

I've spoken with the GM about this and he knows it needs to be done. Part of the problem is cost of labour  to retool the system and the cost of hardware to upgrade some LED signs that don't have the resolution necessary to display some of this information. Meanwhile, the MTA in New York City is well on its way to have LED countdown clocks installed at every station, a system that was ultimately developed in-house at lower cost after many years of delays and budget overruns with outside contractors.

While countdown clocks won't solve the many infrastructure-related delays that happen each day, both here in Boston and in New York, it arms riders with the information they need to make split-second decisions about their commute if they can take alternate routes. This damage control approach to customer service is pretty much the only option to improve perceived quality of transit so long as transit agencies aren't given the money to bring their systems up to a state of good repair (the GM himself passingly lamented the fact that there simply isn't money to get new Red Line cars - because of a $2 billion shortfall in federal, state, and local funding, the current capital investment programme[PDF] for the next 5 years only includes $200 million for engineering and design of new Red and Orange Line cars, not purchase).

GM Davey - Executive Transit Rider

When I asked GM Davey what his favourite app was (in front of a room of app developers), he noted that he regularly used a web site, partly because he had to switch back to his Blackberry from his Android since it was having issues syncing with the MBTA's email services. He also noted that he had recently used the site on a trip via the 39 to dinner at Ten Tables in Jamaica Plain, for which he gave rave reviews. With that, I'm curious if there would be public interest in a (bi-)weekly blurb from the GM in the Metro about his experiences on the T.

Raising Safety, Efficiency, and Platforms

High level platforms on the US' top 3 commuter railroads enable them to safely carry volumes of passengers every day. With this winter's delays on the commuter rail, it's clear that legislators and MBTA and MBCR administrators need to push harder for better infrastructure and the funds with which to furnish it. But let's take a look at an issue that comes up every once in a while. Despite the MBCR's best efforts at preventing boarding and alighting accidents, through policy or physically securing doors, these accidents happen. In the winter, steps that accumulate ice from billowing snow kicked up as the train moves along can be a liability for passenger accidents and hampers boarding and alighting efforts, even increasing boarding times as people take their time to prevent slips and falls.

I'm down on Long Island for a few days and I'm quickly remembering what fast, frequent, and convenient commuter rail service is like. I can take a train from Penn Station to my parents' stop out in Wantagh, over 50km or about the distance from Boston South Station to Worcester, and reliably be there in 1 hour. Trains on my branch run every 30 minutes to every hour, depending on time of day. This is not only because the electric M-7s the LIRR runs have better acceleration rates than diesel trains, but also because of how passengers can get on and off of the train.

When visiting most any other commuter railroad in first world countries or even our neighbouring commuter railroads to the south, the contrast is very clear. Passengers board and exit at any door along the length of the train from automated doorways that sense obstructions and prevent the train from moving if any of them are open. This is how heavy rail transit, like the Red, Orange, or Blue lines, operate (except when rollingstock on rapid transit is also so old that door sensors don't sense when people or objects are caught).

The top two commuter railroads, Metro North and Long Island Railroads, only have high-level platforms like those pictured above. On the MBTA network, very few stations have full high-level platforms and many have portions that exist only to make the stations ADA-compliant, the construction of which has been furnished by MBTA a multi-year, $1+ billion ADA compliance project.

Even if the Legislature and federal grants furnished the money required for the MBTA to raise its platforms, newer passenger cars (rollingstock) would still need to be purchased in order to fully seize the benefits of high-level boarding. The current and on-order bi-level cars have the latent ability to coordinate closing and opening of doors along the length of the train. Almost none of the older single level cars have this ability; conductors would need to go to every door to open and close them, otherwise lock doors in place to prevent the train from moving with open doors.

Newer commuter rail trains also benefit from the flexibility of having doors not located at end vestibules in order to allow passengers to board and alight more quickly since doors are more evenly spaced along the length of the train. New Jersey Transit's bi-level cars have 'quarter-point' doors, which sit over the trucks (the sets of wheels on a train), in addition to the conventional vestibular doors with 'trap doors' that permit low-level boarding. This isn't the most optimal door configuration, even for bi-level cars, but permits greater flexibility for passengers who are boarding or alighting at high-level platforms.

Aside from platform improvements, a capital expense that would likely cost tens of millions to billions to complete, depending on engineering practices and station geometries, there are several changes inside trains that can happen, namely electronic fare payment. The CharlieCard is now three years late in arriving on commuter rail and I quite frequently still see tweets of people thanking the MBTA for not coming to collect their fare on the train.

If you look at the conductor in the lede photo, you'll notice a small grey device on her belt - all Metro North conductors are equipped with one. This is a portable electronic ticketing machine and allows her to process credit and debit cards so passengers can pay for their fare without juggling cash. It is likely these machines can be upgraded to validate fare with RFID cards or future NFC technologies that the MTA is currently exploring with the MBTA and other regional transit operators. With deals and decisions to be made in the coming years, it's likely the MBTA and others are cooling their heels and waiting for a standard to come in before purchasing soon-to-be-outdated portable fare collection equipment. Long Island Railroad was promised these handy devices in about the same time as the MBTA Commuter Rail, but LIRR conductors still don't have them.

When all is said and done, both raising platforms, reconfiguring stations, and procuring portable fare collection devices will cost money, admittedly money no one seems to have, most especially the MBTA. Though, let's remember that these are expenses that fall under the capital budget, which is almost exclusively furnished by MassDOT, state grants, and federal grants from USDOT funding programs and other agencies. Much of these capital expenses can also be covered by investments from the private sector in the form of associated transit improvements to improve the appeal of or as part of transit-oriented developments around commuter rail stations.

These improvements need to happen in order to improve safety and running times of commuter rail trains, which already suffer from conditions not seen anywhere else in the burgeoning metropolitan regions of the Northeast Megaregion.

Note: MBTA Commuter Rail trains do have to make one accommodation that LIRR, Metro North, and most NJ Transit trains don't - MBTA shares many of its tracks with long, slow-moving CSX trains that are also important to Boston's economy. It will take a much greater amount of infrastructure investment to solve that problem, but that isn't to say DMU or EMU operation of MBTA Commuter Rail trains wouldn't improve service.