Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Common sense MBTA Commuter Rail improvements

With the MBTA dead set on spending 2.4 billion dollars to bring choo-choos to Fall River and New Bedford, I thought I'd give the a few suggestions for what to blow their next pile of money on. The difference is, my improvements bring riders, not suburban votes.
Electrification: Worcester, Fairmount and Providence
This is key for both its relatively good effects and its extreme low cost.  The primary cost is strining up the wires on the Worcester and Fairmount lines, done on the NEC recently for 5 million per mile, plus the cost of ordering electric locomotives to pull the trains, recently ordered by Amtrak for roughly 5 million per unit. In exchange, we get much better trip times for both Worcester and Providence, and due to the frequency expansion possible on the Fairmount (see previous post), amazing ridership increases. On the Providence line, it also allows the T's trains to "get out of the way" of Amtrak's services, possibly increasing capacity.
DMUs and frequency: Everywhere
Frequency is key, and I cannot stress enough how much of a game changer higher frequency can be. With European style Diesel Multiple Units, like the ones currently being considered for the Fairmount line (EMUs would be better, but more expensive), higher frequencies are achievable with fewer cars and, more importantly, fewer operators. Therefore, the costs of this improvement are, if handled correctly, offset by its savings. The sole cost will be the few tens of million to order the DMUs, which is a bargain compared to any sort of rapid transit expansion.
Take the Worcester line into the 20th century: Worcester
The Worcester line currently takes 90 minutes go to 45 miles, on an express train. The local takes a painful two hours, and runs with a frequency that makes your average commuter rail line look like rapid transit. For a few hundred million dollars in additional track, plus several million for a new signal system, the lines performance could significantly improve, probably down to a 70 minute express. When combines with electric service from suggestion one, this would result in drastically improved ridership. Thanks to the almost-intercity characteristics of the line (large cities at both ends), frequency is less important than speed, so hour or half-hour frequencies all day should be acceptable.
Any suggestions? Post them below!


  1. These are great, and obviously the priorities. But what else would be on the list? Anything like, for instance, electrifying the Fitchburg Line?

    Overall I think the goal also needs to be to rationalize timetables much more. Baseline should be hourly service on every commuter rail line. Higher ridership can get half-hourly service (as often as possible but at least during rush hour). Anything electrified needs at LEAST half-hourly service, if not 15-20 minutes.

    And are there any prospects for more robust grade separation on all lines? And/or high-level boarding?

    1. High level boarding would be included in the "fix the Worchester line" line item, but that's also a good idea. I totally agree on timetable rationalization, and I specifically like your 15 minute frequency on electrified lines. For grade separation, beyond closures on Worcester the lines are fairly set, and any rail-on-rail separation is too far future to bother with.
      With that said, I'm not sure about Fitchburg electrification. it would require creating electric service facilities on the North side, and would create an isolated electric segment. Wires work best when they branch out and form a network, so I'd prefer e.g. Middleborough before anything northside.