The Benefits of Regional Rail:
From Everywhere to Anywhere, at Any Time
People who live in the inner core neighborhoods of Boston and Cambridge can ride the subway anywhere, 19 hours a day. Regional Rail can bring the same high frequency of service as the subway to the entire region, at a grander scale.
Who benefits from higher frequency?
Many people ride to work, not just in Downtown Boston, but also in other job centers. They ride not just for work, but to meet friends and family, to go to school, to run errands, to travel to healthcare appointments, sports events, museums, and other cultural venues. And they don’t just ride at rush hour, but also fill trains in the off-hours and on weekends, even at midnight. A successful public transportation system will respond to the needs, complexities, and preferences of all riders regardless of time of day, purpose of trip, or destination.
Those who commute outside rush hour would benefit from higher frequency. As would people who reverse-commute, for example from Boston to Providence, and people who commute between two outlying points. All-day frequency will also benefit traditional rush hour commuters. For example, office workers coming to Downtown Boston at 9 a.m. might today choose to drive, fearing they might need to stay late to meet a deadline, or leave early to care for a child or elderly parent. These commuters require a large measure of flexibility in their travel times, and only Regional Rail with its frequent all-day schedules provides that as an alternative to driving. Anyone who has missed an evening rush hour train, resulting in a long wait for the next train, understands this basic tenet of mobility convenience. Transforming intercity rail with Regional Rail’s all-day frequencies should be
one important element of the MBTA’s stated objective to increase ridership.
Regional Rail that includes the NSRL tunnel also enables people to live on one side of the region and work in another. In northern suburbs, people would get easy access to the Financial District, Back Bay and the Longwood Medical Area. In southern suburbs, they would benefit from access to Government Center and MGH. People could work in suburbs on the opposite side of the region they live in, providing the kind of transit connectivity and work/life flexibility that could be powerfully useful for two-income families, and for people choosing more affordable places to live outside the urban core.
Like the subway, Regional Rail is not just about work trips. It would facilitate occasional trips, which are concentrated on weekends and in the off-hours, and which are essential to the economy and to quality of life. Students and academics could visit Brandeis, Wellesley, or UMass Lowell or Worcester for a seminar. Patients could access medical care at the world-class institutions that are clustered in the Longwood Medical Area and at Massachusetts General Hospital. Families could visit museums near stations, including the Aquarium, the Museum of Science, Museum of Fine Arts, and Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum. Sports fans could come from the entire region to the Bruins and Celtics games at the Garden directly over North Station, or watch the Red Sox play at Fenway Park.
The Benefits of Electrification
The better performance specifications of EMUs make them smart investments on their own, as they solve the chronic issue of routine train breakdowns that propagate delays across the system. New EMUs would replace old diesel trains: locomotives that were based on freight locomotive designs. Today’s MBTA commuter rail locomotives fail about once every 5,000 to 6,000 miles, whereas high-quality EMUs are in the 150,000 to 200,000 mile range, and those EMU performance measures are improving. Put simply, EMUs are ~30 times more reliable than the current legacy fleet, and ~6 times more reliable than the newest diesel locomotives. This is why systemwide electrification is such a crucial component of Regional Rail.
Electric trains emit no local pollution, and are much quieter than diesel locomotives. People living near the tracks, who should be the greatest proponents of more convenient train service, would no longer suffer from the noise of diesel engines. There would also be a positive impact on the elevated rates of blood lead levels14 and asthma15 in many urban neighborhoods. Rail electrification would reduce pollution levels first by making trains cleaner, and then by enticing passengers to take the train instead of driving, reducing car pollution. There is, of course, the potential to use DMUs (diesel multiple units) rather than EMUs, but DMUs as a permanent solution fail the test of environmental sustainability, and do not provide the same increased performance as EMUs. Moreover, the world is moving away from diesel in all transportation sectors, as was dramatically demonstrated recently
by Volkswagen’s declaration that German tax incentives for diesel be ended.16
DMUs vs. EMUs
There is an ongoing debate regarding whether EMUs or DMUs make the most sense for the MBTA rail system. For a number of reasons, EMUs are the clear choice. The strongest argument for deployment of DMUs is that it doesn’t require electrification of the system, and therefore can be more quickly implemented. There are benefits that come with a speedier rollout, but they pale in comparison to the downsides of embarking on a DMU strategy. Investments of this importance and scale should be made in the most cost-effective and environmentally friendly manner possible. The performance of DMUs over time is simply not on par with EMUs, and unlike EMUs, DMUs require intensive, costly maintenance. Adoption of DMUs as a permanent strategy takes us in the opposite direction of other developed countries and commits us to more costly, bespoke procurements for the duration of the MBTA’s commitment to DMU technology. Leasing DMUs in the short term as a way to immediately improve service on a few designated lines prior to their electrification (like the Fairmount Line or the Worcester line if and when Allston Landing construction temporarily reduces track capacity) may be worth considering. A lease is the only procurement strategy that makes sense because DMUs can’t easily be sold on the secondary market (we know of no agency outside North America that needs American DMUs, and no agency inside North America is making a large DMU order). Such potential short-term uses aside, the most cost-efficient, durable and sustainable investment will be the procurement of EMUs and the electrification of the system. And as we have pointed out elsewhere in this report, EMUs can be up and running almost immediately on the Providence Line.
EMUs accelerate and decelerate much faster than trains pulled by locomotives, especially diesel locomotives. The difference is more than a minute per station when the top speed is 60 mph. Together with speed benefits coming from higher reliability and level boarding, Regional Rail would offer higher average speeds. Future all-local trains would be faster than today’s express trains, averaging 30 mph on the Fairmount Line, 43 mph on the Worcester and Franklin Lines, and 50-55 mph on the remaining lines.17 Faster trip times allow the same number of trains to run more trips in a day. In addition to the added capacity of additional trips, this leads to greater utilization rates for capital assets and investment. When combined with higher ridership, the cost per passenger savings of regional rail will be substantial.
A significant component of trip time is dwell time, or the time spent sitting at each station. Dwell time is decreased by level boarding from high platforms and by better passenger flow within the train cars. EMUs are designed to maximize passenger ingress and egress (i.e. more and wider doors like a subway car) and as such are almost always specified as single level cars rather than the bi-levels now common on the MBTA Commuter Rail network. Any passenger capacity decreases arising from the use of single level EMUs will be easily offset by the increased frequency made possible by the inherent efficiencies of the modern regional rail network.
Regional Rail is a mode for both central cities and suburbs. It holds the promise of strengthening town centers with improved connections to other parts of the region. Because EMUs enable all-local service to still be fast, improvements to Boston’s mainline rail system can and will benefit both urban and suburban users. Investments made in the Fairmount and Providence Lines, for example, would give residents of Dorchester, Mattapan, and Hyde Park access to jobs in suburban towns like Dedham and Norwood, with trains running through to the Franklin Line.
Regional Rail transforms the underutilized, underinvested, and niche-oriented “commuter” rail network into something of value to a much broader swath of citizens. We don’t think of our highway system as simply available for peak hour commuting travel. Instead, our roads offer vehicular mobility at all times, not just for 9 to 5 commuters. Similarly, a Regional Rail system provides inbound and outbound rail service to people at convenient times throughout the day.
To envision the Regional Rail system at work, think about the transportation system as if it were the human anatomy.18 Your body is constantly circulating blood from your muscles (the region) to your heart and lungs (the urban core) and back. When you exercise (rush hour) it picks up the pace, but it doesn’t bring all your blood into the core and wait until the next time you exercise to send it out again. A healthy body responds appropriately to differing conditions and supports a variety of activities. A healthy transportation system provides the same kind of adaptability, responding to and supporting a variety of mobility needs throughout the day. Regional Rail will be the centerpiece of such a healthy system, a transformational way to extend sustainable, inclusive and egalitarian transit mobility to the entire Metro Boston area.
Regional Rail will draw the region closer together. It will provide better job access for people living in working-class suburbs, such as Lynn, Haverhill, and (once South Coast Rail is constructed) New Bedford and Fall River. And it will do so without burdening the air quality in central neighborhoods such as Roxbury and Dorchester. In short, Regional Rail holds the promise of breaking the longstanding city vs. suburb dichotomy in transportation planning and resource allocation.