Achieving Regional Rail
A Path to Achieve a 21st Century System
Transitioning to Regional Rail will take time and investment, but it can be planned and introduced incrementally and affordably in parallel with other important regional and statewide mobility initiatives. Achieving this vision and moving toward a new business model will require the coordination of decisions related to equipment procurement, schedule setting, and infrastructure improvement. These decisions must be connected by a clear vision and business model and cannot be considered in a vacuum. In other words, the Regional Rail vision should inform every action the MBTA and its partners take with regard to the current Commuter Rail network. Every design should be future-proof and accommodate the necessary elements of a Regional Rail plan. This is the only effective way to put an end to the current outdated system that costs “way too much for way too little ridership.”
A Guiding Principle
The overall design and framework for a Regional Rail system will follow a number of best practice approaches to service delivery. The guiding principle, borrowed from Switzerland, is: organization before electronics before concrete. In other words, before adding expensive tunnels and viaducts, the MBTA should first invest in electrification and system improvements. And before investing in anything, the MBTA should immediately improve schedule and fare coordination by moving all Commuter Rail stations within subway-range to Zone 1A and implementing free transfers with subways, MBTA buses, and other regional buses (such as in Worcester and Lowell).
Following this guiding principle, Regional Rail illuminates not only which capital investment projects are priorities, but which ones are not. Anything that Regional Rail makes redundant should be canceled. A prime example of this point: the MBTA should never again buy diesel-powered trains or unpowered cars; all future procurement should be EMUs. This one initiative will improve service and reduce costs over time. Similarly, the T should not build stations in unwalkable areas, but instead keep them in walkable neighborhoods, and build new urban stations where appropriate. These strategies are geared toward improving ridership and service in a cost-prudent fashion.
The overall design and framework for the Regional Rail system should follow a number of best practices informed by the guiding principle of organization before electronics before concrete.
The International Best Practices outlined in Appendix A also illustrate components of a successful Regional Rail strategy: it’s important to treat Commuter Rail as longer-range rapid transit, with the frequency, electrification, stop spacing, and connections to match, and it’s worthwhile to build city center tunnels to unlock regionwide mobility. While none of these examples provide perfect analogues to Metro Boston, there are sufficient similarities to warrant a closer look to understand what other systems have done and are doing, and what can be gleaned from those experiences to the benefit of Metro Boston riders. For example, Paris didn’t build its regional rail network (the “RER”) for faster travel within the city—that was just a nice byproduct. It built it for faster travel between the suburbs and city neighborhoods and between the suburbs and other suburbs.
Targeted, Strategic Infrastructure Investments
Improved Regional Rail schedules should aim for timed meets to reduce infrastructure requirements, but some additional construction is unavoidable (for example, double-tracking certain single-track segments that would be problematic in the future). All infrastructure investments must be limited, targeted, and strategically based on a future high-frequency timetable. For example, official plans to increase service on the Old Colony Lines (via South Coast Rail) include a tunnel, but they don’t need to: the Red Line has four tracks in that area that can be reduced to two to make room for more Commuter Rail tracks.19
Providence Line: Affordable Electrification in the Short Term
The electrification of the Providence Line, which is entirely electrified except for a small number of yard tracks and sidings, will provide an early and affordable way to significantly improve service from the rider perspective and air quality in adjacent communities. Electrification of the remaining components of this line should be completed as a priority. Installation of high platforms at all Providence Line stations will transform the Line into service that responds more effectively to all users.20
For more detail see Appendix C1.
Municipalities in the region should be encouraged to lay the foundation for transit-oriented development around existing and future Regional Rail stations. They should be encouraged to add housing, retail, and office space around train stations. Such an approach would support ridership on the future network and provide the maximum utility to future users of the system.
Infrastructure modifications to enhance accessibility and speed the boarding process are essential to fulfilling this vision and improving service for all riders. The wide doors on modern trains cannot serve low platforms, thus requiring high level platforms at all stations. Most MBTA stations do not have such platforms and because of a recent rules change, any modification to a current station requires a full-length, high-level platform. Based on several recent projects procured by the MBTA, an 800-foot, high-level platform costs between $1.5 and $2 million, with additional spending for associated costs. These costs vary: at stations where vertical circulation is already in place (along the Providence Line, for instance) there would be minimal costs beyond the platforms themselves. In these cases, the total cost to build the high level station would be in the $4 to $5 million range.21 At other stations, ramps and elevators would be required, increasing costs while providing full accessibility for passengers. In still other locations, freight railroad clearances require track and platform modifications, resulting in higher costs. A rough estimate would put the average cost of high-level platforms at stations that do not currently have them in the $8 to $10 million range. The cost of designing and building high-level platforms can be contained by utilizing standardized designs for these platforms. Each station does not require an expensive bespoke design. Use of standard design specifications (which may require modest modification in appropriate circumstances) and creative use of materials can make a meaningful difference in keeping the cost of this important equity and service improvement in reasonable and affordable territory.
Replace the Needham Line
TransitMatters’ Regional Rail plan recommends that the Needham Line be integrated into the Inner Core subway and light rail systems by offering riders a combination of Orange Line and Green Line service. There are two reasons for this. First, the Needham Line has a flat junction with the Providence Line trunk at Forest Hills, and grade-separating the junction to prevent a bottleneck would be difficult and costly. Second, running so many trains (the Providence, Stoughton, Franklin, and Needham Lines) on one trunk line causes significant scheduling difficulties. As a better alternative for Needham Line riders, we recommend that along with preparing the other Commuter Rail lines for Regional Rail, the MBTA should replace the Needham Line with a combination of Orange Line and Green Line service. An extension of the Orange Line to West Roxbury would require little new infrastructure, and the same is true of a Green Line route branching off the D Line to Needham, which the city of Newton has already proposed.22
Cancel South Station Expansion
Most importantly, the state should cancel the plans for South Station Expansion, a $2 billion project of practically no transportation value that will cement, perhaps irretrievably, outdated approaches to providing intercity rail service in the Commonwealth. Our opposition to the current South Station expansion proposal has nothing to do with our support for NSRL; it is based on what we consider an imprudent expenditure of scarce resources that solidifies the outdated status quo approach to providing intercity rail service. South Station expansion doesn’t pave the way for a better rail future; it enables continuation of the failing status quo business model.In the short run, the MBTA can create new capacity at South Station by simply turning the trains around faster, so they don’t occupy station platforms for as long as they currently do. Today, most outbound trains terminating at Framingham and Worcester turn around and run inbound in 13 to 20 minutes. 23 The current average platform occupancy time at South Station is 35 minutes. We know of no barrier (particularly given South Station’s high level platforms) that would prevent the MBTA or its contractor from achieving 20-minute turn around times at South Station. Doing this would nearly double current capacity at South Station. This is exactly the kind of high-impact, low-cost approach to managing the system that TransitMatters advocates, and that is consistent with the approach to governance being taken by the FMCB. Since this can be done now, at virtually no net new cost to the T, why would the Commonwealth spend $2 billion to expand South Station?