Boston’s Best Bet for Better Transit: Modernizing Commuter Rail

Map:  MBTA

Boston commuter rail has the pieces for an expansive modern system. What it needs isn’t a big extension, but a fresh approach to service.

That’s according to a new report from local advocacy group Transit Matters.

The 398-mile MTBA Commuter Rail system carries an unremarkable 130,000 passengers a day. But that’s not surprising given its slow and limited service.

Transit Matters has proposed a $2-3 billion “Regional Rail” overhaul that would make it much more useful.

Here is what the group proposes:

1. Increase service

Boston commuter rail provides patchy, irregular service. Transit Matters staffer Jarred Johnson says some lines have mid-day service gaps as long as three or four hours. Or a line might offer service only once every two hours after 7 p.m. Some trains don’t run at all on weekends. As a result the network is of limited usefulness.

“Our current Commuter Rail system is a vestige of mid-20th century thinking, based on an antiquated assumptions about the kind of mobility choices people expect to have,” said Transit Matters president and co-founder Marc Ebuña in a statement. “Many people today do not have 9 to 5 jobs; they require more flexibility from their transit system.”

Transit Matters proposes more regular service between 6 a.m. and midnight. To be useful, Regional Rail should operate at least every 30 minutes in the suburbs and at least every 15 minutes in the city.

2. Electrify the system

The current system needs a technical revamp as well. With an operating cost of $400 million a year, MBTA fiscal management chair Joe Aiello recently said the current system “costs way too much for too little ridership.”

Level boarding, combined with electrification, could speed rail trips by 40 percent, Transit Matters estimates. Photo: Transit Matters
Level boarding, combined with electrification, could speed rail trips by 40 percent, Transit Matters estimates. Photo: Transit Matters

Transit Matters says the system should be converted from diesel to electric power. It costs MBTA $544 per hour to operate each car it runs on commuter rail — much higher than $311 per hour for Philadelphia regional rail, which is electrified.

Transit Matters says the system should be electrified line by line. One route — the Providence Line — is already partly electrified already for Amtrak service. The region could begin the process by completing its electrification.

Many Boston rail cars are in need of replacement. When they are finally aged out, says Transit Matters, they should be replaced with electric ones.

Transit Matters also calls for station revamps that would offer level boarding. The group estimates that electrification combined with level boarding would cut travel times on most lines by 40 percent.

3. Free Transfers

The regional rail system should be seamlessly integrated into the larger transit system to better serve riders, especially those with lower incomes. Without fare integration, transferring from Commuter Rail to the subway could cost one rider as much as $9.50. With free transfers, the price would come down to $2.75.

Local experience shows fare integration can be a powerful tool to encourage ridership. MBTA’s Fairmount Line, for example, saw ridership triple since 2012, when it was moved into “Zone A,” which allows riders to pay the same fare as they would for the subway.

4. North-south rail link

Finally, a modern “Regional Rail” system shouldn’t be a hub and spoke model. A subway-style system would broaden access to the city. That would require the construction of a north-south rail link connecting North Station and South Station, an idea that has been bandied about in Boston for a long time.

This feature would take 10 to 20 years to construct, and is not included in Transit Matters’ $2-3 billion estimates. But it would be an important final step to making the Regional Rail system rider-friendly. It would allow, for example, riders to commute from the northern suburbs to the Back Bay and Financial District.

But the North-South rail link might not be worth it without other steps to boost ridership, said Johnson.

Federal funding for city transit projects is uncertain at this point. Transit Matters says Massachusetts should fund the proposal, if necessary. It could bond against future cost savings to generate some of the funding.

Ultimately, this kind of investment could help “draw the region closer together,” Transit Matters says, expanding job access for people in working class suburbs and relieving pressure on the highway system.

26 thoughts on Boston’s Best Bet for Better Transit: Modernizing Commuter Rail

  1. Boston is having a tough enough time extending the GTX which is over budget.
    In terms of a hub/spoke approach, this is has historically been the norm in transit planning as the goal has been to shuttle people from the burbs to jobs in the city core. Even non-commuter rail systems, like the DC Metro, use it. I know people who live in Rockville and work in Silver Spring. Rather than ride the entire length of the Red Line through the District they simply drive.
    Connecting the North and South Stations isn’t a new idea. However, if you look at Union Station in DC, both MARC and VRE terminate there. But, why not integrate the lines so that an inbound MARC train then becomes an outbound VRE train?
    Boston could revamp its regional rail so that it acts like both an interurban railway, with more frequent runs on shorter segments closer to the city, and a traditional commuter rail. Also encourage commercial development within walking distance to more outlying stations.

  2. That’s pretty much what this is — using regional rail to form express subway lines on the urban core (e.g., Chelsea, Waltham, Hyde Park) connecting to other subway lines. It greatly expands the grid and increases capacity while also increasing operating efficiencies. It’s similar to RER, Crossrail, S-Bahn, etc.

    One thing Angie left out are infill stations on the urban core. This helps make the system more of an express subway line on the outer parts of the urban core than a regional Bahn or something similar to what Philadelphia has.

  3. If I remember correctly, in France, the RER is a commuter train, then enters a tunnel, and stops several times under the city before if emerges from the tunnel and becomes a commuter train on the other side of the city.

  4. Boston’s commuter rail infrastructure seems very clunky. There are diesel engines idling in tunnels in the underground Back Bay station which does wonders for air quality. They often use switching engines, which idle at high RPM and are extremely loud, for passenger service, making for an unpleasant run. They run the full trainset all day, even off hours, so you have six car trains with only one car open.

    Electric locomotives seem more appropriate on many lines. Even some sort of DMU would work better on less used lines, or during off peak hours.

    As for the north south rail link, that is a great idea. The big dig highway tunnel project of the nineties would have been a great time to implement it.

    But it runs pretty well. They don’t handle snow well, but the trains are usually on time.

  5. I don’t disagree with much in the paper, but we have plenty of papers and if logic dictated what gets done we’d be in a much better place. But it doesn’t.

    A few people lecturing you are easy to ignore (“MassDOT / MBTA SHOULD do X” is the most common phrase in the report). Much more interesting and useful would be a plan for actually organizing the public to fight for these things and elect leaders who will.

  6. Hey, more power to Boston if it can pull this off. At least a lot of the infrastructure is in place, unlike in the Bay Area where it takes generations to put in a couple 1-car light rail stations in a subway to nowhere. We’re still waiting for Caltrain electrification after 3 decades of discussion, not to mention the 1-mile extension of Caltrain to the new $2B+ bus station (aka, transit center) that keeps getting deferred.

  7. The report is somewhat schizophrenic, advocating for more off-hours and weekend service while pointing out roadway capacity shortages during typical commuting/work hours. The big problem is rail and road capacity shortage during peak hours, so focus the cure there. Off-peak travel is much cheaper by car and isn’t a problem either. Focus funding on better peak hour service.

  8. The same group proposes the same thing every year in Boston. They make a “statement report” and the “statement report” is thrown out that same day. Boston is flooded with transit fantasy groups. Transit Matters, Transit X, Gondola Boston. Its just a few people with lots of time on their hands and no sense of money.

  9. The primary cost driver on rail is peak frequency – it drives the amount of train cars, size of station platforms, staffing size, etc. So a system like the MBTA which runs service approximately 3 trains per hour on many lines at peak, while 1 per hour off peak costs MUCH more than a simple clockface system that runs 2 trains per hour all day. I would advocate for clockface scheduling with pricing differences between peak & off-peak to deal with capacity. The advantage to a clockface 2/hr system – beyond cost efficiencies – is that it’s memorable to riders (for example, trains at :05, :35), but more importantly it can have timed transfers with surface transit – something that’s entirely dysfunctional other than at the Back Bay, South Station, & North Station, where transit has show up & go frequencies.

    The gateway cities (Worcester, Lowell, Providence, etc.) have dense job & residence areas that should integrate coherently into the commuter rail network with time transfers. Inside of the gateway cities, there’s a lot of opportunity for TOD-style development where there currently is just surface parking. If the MBTA was enabled, it could develop these areas and use the proceeds to fund the needed capital improvements – primarily the north-south rail link.

  10. What Boston public transit needs most is CONGESTION PRICING. At peak service times, it has a clear capacity shortage, so increase fares for rides during those time, just like Uber etc. Maybe also increase road tolls during peak times too, for fairness. Lower off-peak times to keep it revenue neutral.

  11. A lot of good ideas here and the Providence line, already mostly under the electric wire that Amtrak uses should be a prime candidate for electrification. That, plus high level platforms to speed boarding can speed trip times and help use equipment and labor more efficiently.
    To get even this relatively easy job done is terribly hard, besides funding, obstacles seem to be MBTA inertia, the difficulty of coordinating two different states (e.g. it seems both the MBTA and Rhode Island’s statewide bus system RIPTA are both purchasing new fare equipment systems without concern for compatibility even though they both serve TF Green-Providence and Wickford Jct to Providence markets) and the failure of the greater environment community to care about the commuter rail and its electrification – they seem mostly hung up on electrifying only the cars.

  12. Why do the people of Boston love fining other people in Boston for using services? Rails help communities, we should support them, not try to turn people away from them. If congestion is a problem, add more cars/trains.

  13. I mean, sure, TransitMatters aren’t the ones who would choose where the money comes from, but they’re the first ones to say that they’re providing a model they hope will be seriously considered to render cost-effective, 21st century rail service. Let’s be real––MBTA isn’t exactly a shining organizational model for having a “sense of money” either. They run massive, heavy, overstaffed trains, regardless of demand. Someone had to tell them it was a horrible idea to build a single-platform station with two switches instead of just spending the money on double platforms, for Pete’s sake. Granted, some of their money problems aren’t their fault, like all the Big Dig mitigation they were expected to do, but this document is WAY better at articulating how MBTA can be more cost-effective and provide better service than anything MBTA has ever seriously suggested.

  14. We should’ve done the tunnel and Caltrain station as Phase 1. The existing developer and other entities salivating at redeveloping the temporary transbay terminal would make sure Phase 2 (bus station) would stay on track and remains funded.

  15. Um, no.

    If there is a shortage of transit capacity during peak hours, let’s add more transit capacity — not encourage more people to take Uber, etc., which is very logistically inefficient, and creates congestion, causing buses and emergency vehicles not to be able to move.

  16. “What’s good for the goose, is good for the gander.” The response by anti-car people to roadway shortage is congestion pricing, and yet their answer to public transit peak shortage is adding capacity! So, I merely suggest the same policy for both. Fair, no?
    We need more road capacity to match the building expansion of the last 50 years without matching expansion of transportation. It only makes sense, yet some people think it unreasonable for road expansion to match building expansion.

  17. No. If you expand roads and transit/bike paths equally, then people will take roads over transit/walking/biking. That’s not fair to residents on the urban core, who have their buses slowed so they can’t get to work on time and emergency vehicles that can’t put out the fire, take the injured to the hospital, etc. Nor is it fair to the environment. …

    We don’t need to add anymore capacity to roads (or at most very, very, very, very little). Just repair them. What we need is transit.

  18. Yeah, democracy, capitalism, and consumerism is awful for giving people what they want instead of the Central Planning Committee deciding for them! FYI, buses and emergency vehicles travel on roads, so adding road capacity benefits them too.

  19. I suggest you look at how other big cities manage:
    London, Paris, Manchester, Berlin & stop making stupid right-wing political comments

  20. The lack of off peak frequency pushs ridership into peak hours. The most affordable way to reduce crush hours is to improve off peak versus expanding overall system capacity by adding peak hour capacity. Many people can work 11 to 7, but chose to work 9 to 5 only because the transit is well served then.

  21. It’s called negative externalities. When you and others voluntarily choose to drive your private vehicles through our neighborhoods on everyone’s public roads, those of us living in that ‘hood involuntary bear the noise, pollution, inability for our buses to get us places on time, and for emergency vehicles to get where we need to go on time.

    That is why if our roads are to be expanded, they should be for dedicated lanes for higher capacity buses and emergency vehicles — not for more cars, parking to comply with mandatory minimums, etc. We need to create a sustainable, livable city for all.

  22. Studies support road expansion for privileged use by buses and high-occupancy vehicles. Exclusive uses only enhance transportation when they are ADDITIONS to existing roadways.

    I am amused that the people who demand net neutrality often also demand congestion pricing and exclusive, bus-only, bicycle-only etc. lanes!

  23. Bus-only lanes support *more* people than mixed-traffic lanes. The point of capacity expansion is supposed to be *expansion*, so you want the most people per unit space. That means keeping private cars out (at least at peak hours, when congestion is an issue).

  24. I’m amused how you complain about car noise and pollution, then advocate for even louder and more polluting buses and emergency vehicles!

  25. It seems like “forever” I have read of “studies & reports” by the typical antiquated thinking Massachusetts/Boston narrow minded pols. Wasted time & money on what we – and ‘they’ already know! Electrification AND the ‘North-South Rail Link’ are a “MUST”. Common sense dictates these things SHOULD HAVE been done decades ago! JUST DO IT!

  26. I come from the LA area in California. That’s exactly what they did, and guess what? IT DID NOT WORK! Every freeway filled to capacity the minute it was completed. Now they are frantically putting in light rail!

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