Metropolitan Boston has two transit systems. One system, primarily served by buses and
subways, runs with frequent service to many destinations within the inner urban core.
The other system, the Commuter Rail network, serves suburban commuters, with service
largely at rush hour, and one- or two-hour service gaps between trains at other times.
MBTA Commuter Rail operates as a mid-20th century service and reflects all of that
era’s biases about where people and jobs are located, and about individual mobility
preferences. It assumes everyone works 9 to 5 on weekdays, and that travelers must be
lured from their cars with ample parking. As a result, it does not adequately serve people
in 21st-century Metro Boston who work weekends or non-traditional hours, many of
whom are low-income service workers. The current approach to Commuter Rail service
contributes to the region’s chronic and worsening traffic congestion. It also exacerbates
income inequality, since the inadequate service for lower-income workers forces them
to drive; for many lower-income households, vehicle expenses are a large fraction of
household spending, requiring difficult cutbacks elsewhere.
To make matters worse, the Commuter Rail system is not functioning at a high level
even during peak travel times. During rush hour, office workers commute to Downtown
Boston on crowded trains that too often provide unreliable and uncomfortable service.
Expanding peak Commuter Rail capacity has run into significant construction and
operating costs. And the current system itself is expensive to run, with fully loaded annual
operating costs of ~$400 million. We agree with the concern recently expressed by the
Chairman of the MBTA’s Fiscal Management and Control Board (FMCB): the current
Commuter Rail paradigm costs “way too much money for way too little ridership.” In the
spirit of problem solving, TransitMatters offers this vision—both a planning vision and a
business model vision—for making smart investments that will reduce costs over time
and increase ridership.
Regional Rail is a reliable and more cost-effective intercity rail system based on a 21st
century business model. Rail offers unparalleled capacity: ten times as much as a single
freeway lane. Making Regional Rail a reality means reimagining the existing Commuter
Rail system as a more subway-like service, with frequent service all day.
Transitioning to and investing in a fully functional Regional Rail system will dramatically
increase reliability and capacity, and offer substantial cost and service benefits and
savings over time. This investment would dramatically increase reliability and capacity.
It would generate significant operating cost savings, since electric trains cost half as
much as diesel trains on a lifecycle basis, and off-peak trains have lower marginal costs
than peak trains. Moreover, this investment would eliminate the need for South Station
Expansion, a proposed $2 billion project doubling down on the outdated 19th and 20th
century stub-terminal inter-city rail model that would further ossify Commuter Rail as a
peak-only service. The money intended for South Station expansion should be diverted to
regional rail modernization.
A highly functioning Regional Rail system includes
five critical components:
Systemwide electrification and the purchase of highperformance
High platforms, providing universal access and speeding up
boarding for everyone.
Strategic Infrastructure investments to relieve bottlenecks.
Frequent service all day: every 30 minutes in the suburbs and
every 15 minutes in denser neighborhoods.
Free transfers between regional trains, subways, and buses,
and fare equalization with the subway in the subway’s
And one useful component that will complete cross-region mobility
While not critical to implementing a Regional Rail system, the North-South Rail Link (NSRL) between North and South Stations, allowing service between any two stations with either a direct trip or a single, seamless transfer, would be a highly useful enhancement providing the flexibility and connectivity to which many riders and potential riders would be drawn.
1: Transcript at 1:58 p.m., FMCB Meeting, November 20, 2017; see also https://www.mbta.com/events/1158 , 2:00:10 on video