Rolling Out Regional Rail

Realizing a Modern Intercity Rail Network

We estimate 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. This estimate excludes the cost of EMUs for two reasons: the MBTA needs to procure new trains in any case, and a Dutch benchmarking study from 2006 finds that the lifecycle costs of electric trains are half those of diesel, so EMUs will actually save money in the long term.24 EMUs also save money in another way: they can climb steeper grades than heavy locomotives, which means that NSRL tunnel construction can be shorter and therefore cheaper. A shift to EMUs will require appropriate maintenance and layover facilities. Given the age and condition of today’s facilities, we view this as a necessary and inescapable expenditure regardless of the type of equipment purchased, and therefore not a net additional cost to the MBTA. The
NSRL would come with its own costs, which are currently in the process of estimation by the state and third parties.

Every intermediate step should provide immediate benefit to riders, or provide meaningful cost savings to the MBTA.

This cost estimate is based on our understanding of the prevailing costs of designing and building standardized high level platforms (and associated station work) and electrification of the system (design and installation of catenary) and the cost of the NSRL. 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.



Federal funding for this transformative initiative remains elusive at the time of this report, as Congress and the Trump Administration have yet to develop a consensus for a national infrastructure bill. TransitMatters believes there should be federal funding available for mobility benefits like this, particularly if a bipartisan approach to funding takes root. Regardless, the benefits to the Massachusetts economy and quality of life are so high that the Commonwealth should begin with 100% state funding if necessary.
State funding could come, at least in part, from bonding against expected cost savings from lower operating costs. Philadelphia’s SEPTA runs the closest service in the United States to Regional Rail; its operating costs per car-hour are $311.00,25 whereas the MBTA’s are $544.00. The Commonwealth ought to pay the infrastructure costs to implement Regional Rail because this initiative—providing quality, low-carbon mobility to the vast majority of residents of Massachusetts—is and should be a state obligation.


Incremental Approach

Delaying electrification until the NSRL tunnel opens is unlikely to save money—it would delay the purchase of EMUs by a few years, during which the existing diesel-powered fleet would continue to deteriorate. Building the tunnel is likely to take 10 to 20 years. In the meantime, Regional Rail can advance through a number of important intermediate
steps that provide immediate benefit to riders and meaningful cost savings to the MBTA.

The Commonwealth should electrify the MBTA Commuter Rail network. The best way to do this is line by line, so that the MBTA can replace the diesel equipment on each line with new EMUs. The MBTA can thus move diesel trains to the remaining lines and retire the worst-performing rolling stock. Given that Connecticut and other jurisdictions use EMUs today, there may be an opportunity for Massachusetts to “piggy-back” on EMU procurements by others, securing competitive pricing and earlier delivery of equipment. Electrification should be implemented at the same time as high platforms so the MBTA can procure EMUs without the current equipment’s steps, which require manual operation, delay passenger boarding and alighting, and make the schedule less reliable.

The Providence Line is already electrified for the use of Amtrak’s services. Only short MBTA siding and yard segments are unelectrified. Thus the first priority is to complete electrification on this line, as well as on the Stoughton Line, which consists of just four miles of branch route and enters Boston via the inner Providence Line. The bulk of the work on the Providence and Stoughton Lines requires upgrading stations with high level platforms. Improving these lines would reduce the speed difference between the MBTA and Amtrak by about two thirds, simplifying the schedule (where today fast Amtrak trains share track with slower Commuter Rail trains). We anticipate funding participation coming from both Amtrak and Rhode Island as these initiatives benefit riders using Amtrak and living or working in Rhode Island.26 Signal systems do not pose a barrier to electrification of the line, as explained further in the Technical Information Appendix B.

The MBTA Commuter Rail’s operating costs per car-hour are currently out of step with Regional Rail providers

The MBTA Commuter Rail’s operating costs per car-hour are currently out of step with Regional Rail providers

The next priority should be the Fairmount Line. All but two of the line’s stations (Readville and Fairmount) have high platforms, and the line is short, with closely-spaced stations, making the high acceleration rates of EMUs especially useful. Moreover, the line could use the Providence Line’s electrical substations, reducing costs. See Appendix C2 for more detail on the Fairmount Line.

The MBTA should lease DMUs, if possible, to immediately improve service on the Fairmount Line until electrification can be completed; this is appropriate given the long history of social justice issues tied to the corridor, whose residents have not received equitable and reliable mobility. The use of leased DMUs might also serve as mitigation on the Worcester line during the anticipated temporary track constraints related to construction activities associated with West Station and the larger Allston Landing development. Use of leased DMUs as a short term measure in these special circumstances should not obscure the reality that the facts and data point to the procurement of EMUs as the best approach to improving intercity rail service. Any short-term adoption of DMU technology for these limited duration purposes should be paired with an unambiguous promise and clear timeline for the switchover to EMUs.

Electrification of the Providence, Stoughton, and Fairmount Lines should begin as soon as possible, ideally in this decade. The other lines should follow. We encourage the MBTA to select metrics that reflect the importance and efficiency of electrifying each line and follow a data-driven process in selecting the subsequent order of electrification.

As each line is electrified, the MBTA must commit to running frequent local service on it. Trains should come at least every 15 minutes at rush hour and every 30 minutes offpeak on each branch. Urban lines, such as Fairmount, and the inner ends of some other lines could provide supplemental service, such as every 10 minutes at peak and every 15 minutes off-peak. The terminals at North and South Stations are set up in a way that permits lines to enter and depart the stations without interfering with the other lines. Thus, frequent EMU service on the Providence, Stoughton, and Fairmount can coexist with less frequent diesel service on other lines.


Implementing Regional Rail best practices has a transformative effect as seen in the comparison below:

Wellsey Hills, MA MBTA Commuter Rail

Wellsey Hills, MA
MBTA Commuter Rail

Stamford, CT Metro North

Stamford, CT
Metro North

Whatever the order, within about ten years, the entire system should be electrified. There are plans for further extensions of the MBTA network, to Fall River and New Bedford (South Coast Rail), Hyannis, Nashua and Manchester, Springfield, and Kingston and Westerly. The states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire can pursue these extensions before, during, or after Regional Rail is installed. The Regional Rail timetables can accommodate all of these extensions easily.

A few more minor expansions would work especially well with Regional Rail. These are short and add branches to lines just outside a major station, where the frequency boost would be especially useful. They include restorations of the Peabody Branch and the Woburn Branch. These have little value without Regional Rail, but would become more useful if trains ran more frequently and served the entire region.