A VISION FOR COMMUTER-REGIONAL RAIL: Purpose, Technology, and Strategy

Until the 100-inches-of-snow winter of 2014-15 brought the entire 100-year-old system to its knees, and with it most of the regional economy, years of discussion about our state’s dependency on the misnamed Commuter Rail system had not broken through the public and politician’s unwillingness to raise the large amounts of revenue needed to fix things.  Suddenly, we had to pay attention.

Unfortunately, we’re paying attention to the wrong things – the stoppages, the contract with Keolis, the budget shortfalls.  The real problem is not the malfunctioning locomotives or the Fiscal Management Board’s short-sighted proposal to stop weekend service.  The real problem is that the entire system is based on dysfunctional premises.  Like being stuck in quicksand, the more we flail around the deeper we descend.  Keeping the Titanic from sinking isn’t good enough if you’re living in the airplane era.  What is needed is a new vision of both purpose and technology – and a new strategy for using what we already have as the foundation for a phased advance from today’s mess to that desired future. 



We need our political leadership to redefine the system from a workday commuter focus into a day-and-night, seven-days-a-week mobility facilitator for the entire range of people’s activity   no matter when their jobs start or stop, helping people go shopping or go out as much as go to work, affordable by non-professionals, running frequently and fast enough to provide an attractive alternative to adding another car to our congested roads.  It should really serve the entire region – giving the Gateway Cities a chance to participate in Boston’s economic revival.  We need to demand that the system be transformed from the cacophonous hodge-podge of antiquated technologies to the best of what has already been proven to work in systems around the world – electric powered with flexible digital signals and controls.   And we have to insist that we move forward at a do-able pace and cost, fixing our current problems in ways that build on existing assets and infrastructure while leapfrogging towards the new paradigm.

Massachusetts can continue limping along, throwing money at each of the endless crises that lie ahead.  Or we can accept the necessity of both vision and funding and begin laying the foundation for the next century.   Moving ahead will require series commitment of political capital from politicians, government, and the full range of businesses.  

Success does not require a leap into science fiction technologies or suicidal debt.  Advocates and people in government have already begun sketching out the strategies and steps to take – including some recent brainstorming sessions between the LivableStreets Alliance’s Advocacy Committee and Transit Matters upon which these blog is mostly based.  The good news is that MassDOT is already taking some steps in this direction.  The bad news is that there is a long way to go.


PURPOSE: From Commuting To Life

The deepest hole the Commuter Rail system needs to get out of is the belief that its fundamental purpose is budget-efficient transportation.  Wrong.  The fundamental purpose is to improve the regional population’s quality of life.  Mobility is simply a means to that goal, and its only one component of what ought to be a highly coordinated multi-faceted strategy of achieving that goal.  Until railroad policy and operations is effectively intertwined with other quality-of-life issues -- from energy to housing, from economic development to equity – it will not achieve its purpose no matter how well it is run on a stand-alone basis.  (Every train line should have an interagency coordinating committee as well as a multi-issue stakeholders advisory group.)

The easy first step is to change the system’s name to Regional Rail. Commuter Rail is just the sad niche it has been allowed to decline into.  Moving suburban professionals and white collar workers into and then out of the city during a few hours of the weekday is a necessary function.  But it’s not the only one that the railroad system needs to serve.  At a minimum, the prime-time scheduling doesn’t serve the needs of people whose commutes happen at other times, or on weekends, or goes outward from the city, or that requires circumferential travel around the metro periphery rather than directly into downtown.  In fact, even for currently served commuters, weekday commuting is not their only mobility need.  And it certainly is not the primary need of the rest of their family members, nor of the huge numbers of other people who would like to use the trains for shopping trips, to visit each other, to go out, to get to school. Where the population density, and hence the potential usage, is greatest – perhaps within the Rte. 128 perimeter – the trains should be seen as another form of trolley service with similar frequency, reliability, and cost; essentially giving the region a much-needed additional subway system without have to pay for exorbitant right-of-way and basic start-up costs.  Of course, we don’t need the same density of service at 2am as at 2pm, but we do need something – or else we are consigning those people to cars.  

And a transformed vision of the relationship of rail to cars, as well as to other modes, is another vital need.  This should start with a dose of humility: about five times more people use MBTA trolleys and subways every day; nearly three times more ride a bus.  Still, trains provide a vital alternative to cars and service a very wide area.  Reducing the number of car trips – especially Single Occupancy Vehicle (SOV) trips – is key to reducing road congestion and the transportation sector’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.  (Transportation is now the largest source of that climate-disrupting and life-threatening contamination as well as water, other air, and noise pollution.)  In addition to improving road safety, reducing car travel will also save on our collective gasoline costs – potentially allowing an enormous redirection of cash now flowing out-of-state into local businesses.

At a minimum, train schedules (both “official” and real-time) should be synchronized with the arrival/departure of these complementary modes, and stations reshaped into multi-modal hubs with entry/exit facilitating high platforms, so that transfers can be quick, easy, and pre-paid by a single full-trip purchase.  Stations don’t have to be Taj Mahals or even staffed, however, no one should have to wait in the rain or wind.  It should also be easier to cover the “last mile” to get to or from a station without using a personal car – shuttles, car pools, bicycles.   There should be discounts to encourage off-peak travel:  it should cost less for a family to take a weekend trip into the city by train than to drive and pay to park their car.  Coordination with, and greater payments to, the Regional Transportation Authorities (RTAs) is key.  “Last mile” connections are often what makes a transit trip possible, particularly in the suburbs, and RTAs can play a key role in filling those gaps.


TECHNOLOGY: From Disjointed To Current

We’ve all heard how each of the MBTA’s five lines has unique, incompatible, and often archaic equipment that can require one-off, in-house, hand-production of spare parts. (Which is one reason why privatizing so much of the system’s back-end jobs, thereby loosing so many veteran employees, may end up costing more, not less.)  The rail system is less crazy, but no less antiquated and disconnected.  What is needed is not a leap into the future but simply a gathering and integrating of what is already available today – following ideas that Transit Matters has already begun laying out.

The biggest leap would be the electrification of the rail system and a move to electric motors, perhaps using Electrical Multiple Unit (EMU) trains as is already done in other New England areas – meaning each car would have its own power source allowing faster starts and stops and train size to vary according to demand.  Smaller trains running at shorter intervals (or “headways”) both during the week and on weekends would allow the railroads to become more subway-like, providing frequent service.  Today’s EMUs have wide doors to speed entry/exit and are configured to hold more people as well as baby carriages and bicycles.  Digital signaling and switching would give operations control over the system, adding or dropping cars at short notice.  

Taking full advantage of this increased capacity would also require adding additional platforms so that stations can provide boarding for trains in both directions at all times, preventing the current problem where passengers can only travel in one direction depending on the time of day. Similarly, the entire network would be enormously more cost efficient if the south shore and north shore tracks were connected, meaning that the long-debated North-South Rail Link is built.  Running trains through downtown Boston would mean that South Station and North Station would not need additional tracks to be added in order to increase service.  (It would also allow for the major gap in Amtrak service to be filled, so that travelers from the south heading to destinations north of Boston would no longer have to use the T or some other method of transferring between South Station and North Station, and vice versa.)

Obviously, this would be hugely expensive to set up.  Electrification of all the rail lines, addition of platforms where they are missing, and acquisition of a whole new fleet of electric rail cars is a big ask. However, at this moment the T is preparing to order new commuter rail cars to replace the oldest ones in the fleet, and they are looking at all their options. Secretary of Transportation Secretary Pollack has said that she doesn’t want the T to be the last agency buying diesel trains.  If done right this transformation of commuter to regional rail will pay for itself over the long run through much lower operating costs and increased usage – if done right this could add nearly 1,000 more daily trips to the system.  Riders would probably be willing to pay a bit more for much better service!  And the overpriced rebuilding of South Station wouldn’t be needed.

In addition, better coordination among government programs as well as an aggressive value-capture strategy would allow both a massive amount of Transportation-Oriented-Development around the revitalized stations and the use of the revenue from those projects (as well as, perhaps, in surrounding properties) to help finance even more station improvements.  Where possible, stations should themselves be designed to be destinations with entertainment, shopping, and other attractive services – with the resulting revenue again plowed back into the rail system. 


LARGER CONTEXT: Transit As A Whole

Whether called Commuter or Regional, the rail system is, and needs to be even more, embedded within a multi-modal transit system including not only trolleys, subways, and buses but also shared-use cars (both organized economically as rentals and driven services), and shared-use bicycles (e.g. Hubway).   As we push for more effective integration of these components into a high-value system, we need to keep at least five themes in mind.

- A reliable, even larger, and fully funded transit system is vital for the state's economy, as shown by the economic hit the entire region took when snow closed the system a few years ago, not only for commuters and shoppers but also for the arts, tourism, sports, hospitality, and the integration of suburbs with the city.  This is not just about Boston -- the entire metropolitan region's well-being is at stake.

- The importance of focusing on serving working families, particularly those making the least amount of money and without whose labor the entire regional economy would collapse and without whose employment a huge number of families would fall into poverty. Many car-less families have been priced out of the city, but now find themselves living in areas that are much less served by transit. Providing high quality transit becomes an important equity issue for these folks.

- Improvements in the metro-region's transit system needs to be matched by investment and service improvements in the rest of the state where the current dependence on cars leads to economic stagnation in the Gateway cities, depopulation of rural areas, and less opportunity for jobs and culture for everyone.

- As a coastal area built on landfill, Boston and surrounding areas are extremely vulnerable to rising sea levels and increasingly-intense in-land storm-water events.  We need to reduce the amount of future destruction by rapidly improving our vehicles and systems to reduce their environmentally damaging effects.

- Cities and towns should be encouraged (and possibly even required) to center new development around transit. As we look to create additional housing and to meet the demands of an increasing number people who wish to live car-free or car-light, we need to transform more of our urban suburban neighborhoods into places where this is possible. There is immense opportunity around many of our hundreds of commuter rail stops to create these types of place where people can live, work, and shop without needing a car for most trips. It is also important that moving forward, we locate new regional rail stations in town centers and populated areas, rather than in more isolated areas where the only way to access the station would be by car.


STRATEGY: Getting From Here To There

Even in the “limited” sphere of rail, gaining the political will to make the necessary giant leap into the present will not be easy.  The Republican push to privatize every possible piece of infrastructure will make things even more complicated, but may actually provide an opportunity to set this up as a progressive public-private partnership.  (Similarly, the dangerous rush to deregulate everything may incidentally reduce the pressure on MassDOT to install the expensive Positive Train Control systems which threaten to absorb a huge slice of the capital budget despite providing little actual improvement in safety and absolutely no visible improvement in either service levels or customer convenience.)

The key is utilizing as much of the existing infrastructure and vehicles as possible for as long as possible without chasing the elusive “state of good repair” chimera.   Stuck within its current vision and technology, almost no amount of money will allow Commuter Rail to do anything besides endless run to catch up to its own tail.  Big new investments should only go to things that move the system towards the new vision, purpose, and technologies we need.  One of the first places to focus is the Fairmont-Indigo Line and its surrounding neighborhoods.

Other cities have already begun implementing similar rail and transit improvements.  Philadelphia’s SEPTA system, while still dealing with its other problems, has boldly addressed the need to region-wide connectivity.  The Parisian system, like several other European railroads, has already bit the bullet and spent what was needed to enter the 21st Century.

Japan, for example, has extensive rail service throughout the country, using trains of different technologies and different lengths, depending on the need of each particular area. Most of their rail runs on overhead electric lines, but some of their newer trains utilize battery technology, recharging along one part of a line to store enough energy to run for the remaining part of the line where there is no overhead line. In Japan, millions of people depend on rail for their day to day living, not just for commuting. They also make much use of public-private partnerships to maintain and operate their rail lines, with various private companies operating different rail lines. Japan could serve as an excellent resource for both operating and financing strategies and well as what current rail technology can provide for us.

If Massachusetts wishes to continue growing; if Boston wishes to remain a World Class city – both economically and as a place where people want to live and visit (which may all turn out to be the same issue) – it is going to have to do likewise.

It can be done.  It must be done.  We need to at least begin the conversation about how it will happen.


Thanks to Charlie Denison (as always!) and the discussions with Marc Ebuña, Andy Monat, and Rachel Dias Carlson.


Related previous posts:

> THE PURPOSE OF TRANSIT: Neither Reform Nor Revenue Are The Right Starting Points

> THE FUTURE OF RAILROADS: Why Rail-To-Trail Conversion is the Key to Both Eventual Rail Restoration and Current Off-Road Networks


> SAVING THE “T” – The Business Community Needs to Move






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