Service, Not Storage

One of the many issues with the Allston project that I have been way too involved with is that the State maintains that they need a midday layover yard for Commuter Rail equipment. Why? Because they plan to add capacity to South Station and, since they can’t stack out-of-service trains in the terminal, need somewhere to store them when they’re not in use in the middle of the day. (Off-topic but relevant: the need for and cost of which could be obviated completely simply by building the North-South Rail Link; thru-running is so much more efficient that in Philadelphia SEPTA runs 44 trains per hour through its four track tunnel at rush hour while the MBTA peaks at 32 trains combined on 22 tracks at North and South stations.)

The relevant issue, however, is how silly it is to build large rail yards on prime real estate in order to not run service!

The supposed “need” for this whole facility could be obviated simply by running more trains in service in the midday. (Some layover space could be built between Cambridge and Everett streets in Allston without impacting transit operations and development of the Beacon Park Yards.) If you have more trains in service, you don’t need storage for them. Considering that 75% of the costs of running Commuter Rail in Massachusetts are fixed, much of the marginal cost of providing increased service would be made up for by the opportunity cost of not building such an unnecessary facility. Most every other major Commuter Rail line runs more frequent midday service than the MBTA, even on lines to major anchor cities like Worcester, Providence and Brockton. In English: you have the trains, and the track, and the stations. Just run more darned trains already!

With that said, you still need to figure out where to run these darned trains. Obviously, increasing service on current lines to large cities and “Gateway Cities” makes sense. But there’s actually a way to increase service to Western Massachusetts without any major investment in track, stations or additional equipment. Right now, several train sets begin and end their day in Worcester. These trains could, instead, begin their trips further west, providing service to Springfield the Pioneer Valley.

The Commonwealth and Feds recently spent $83 million to upgrade the Connecticut River Line for passenger service, and the Boston and Albany main line already hosts Amtrak trains (albeit at a pitiful top speed of 59 mph). So you might as well get some use out of it! There is a vague plan to provide commuter service in the Pioneer Valley soon linking Greenfield, Northampton, Holyoke and Springfield, and connecting with upgraded Springfield-Hartford-New Haven “Knowledge Corridor” service. Service couldn’t start overnight, steps would include working out a track use agreement with CSX and qualifying crews west of Worcester. But the track (with the exception of layover facilities in Greenfield; I assume trains could be stored overnight on tracks in Springfield’s station), stations (with the exception of Palmer where you might want to build a new station) and trains are in place. It’s not a big leap to running service.

Here’s what a schedule would look like for the trips serving Boston, Springfield and Greenfield. Train numbers are shown for current Amtrak or MBTA Commuter Rail service, and use current travel times, although the Boston and Albany ran two-hour Springfield-to-Boston schedules in 1950 with stops in Palmer, Worcester, Framingham and Newtonville. (Amtrak 448/449 is the Lake Shore Limited to and from Chicago via Albany, 55/56 is the Vermonter from Saint Albans to Washington D.C.)

       Train # →          MBTA 508     MBTA 552       NEW       AMTK 56     AMTK 449  
Dep Greenfield 5:45 13:36
Dep Springfield 5:45 6:45 13:00 14:35 17:33
Arr Boston 8:20 9:07 15:20 20:01
       Train # →            NEW       AMTK 448     AMTK 55     MBTA 521     MBTA 551  
Dep Boston 9:38 12:50 17:05 19:35
Arr Springfield 12:00 15:18 15:15 19:35 22:00
Arr Greenfield 16:15 23:00

Rightly or not, Western Mass often feels like it gets the short end of the bargain when it comes to transportation funding. There has been hundreds of millions of dollars spent on infrastructure (most notably the Knowledge Corridor and Springfield Union Station), yet very little service to show for it. This mistake would be compounded by overbuilding layover facilities in Boston and siloing operations in Eastern and Western Massachusetts. Any passenger movements would need to accommodate CSX freight traffic between Worcester and Springfield, and in the long term, much more increased service may require a larger investment to re-double track the B&A line to Springfield (and to increase line speed where possible as well).

In any case, rail service in Massachusetts has long been focused on Boston, with a minimal statewide transportation plan (well, beyond taking donations from Peter Pan, buying them buses and having them get stuck in traffic on the Pike). The state has taken hundreds of millions of Federal dollars (and local match) to upgrade the line in the Pioneer Valley, but it barely runs any service. It would be a politically wise move to better serve Western Mass and, given traffic and tolls, would probably attract significant ridership, too.

7 thoughts on “Service, Not Storage

  1. You are right, but of course the T doesn't think of this. In the eyes of commuter rail operators, the purpose of it is to get rich people from parking lot to central business district and back. Pricey parking lots for trains are a feature, just like gold plated garages for the park and rides.

    I wish I was only kidding, but I suspect this is really how they think in American commuter rail.

  2. This is not accurate. The layover is needed for many reasons other than simplistic "midday storage". The T has almost no flexibility at South Station to match trainset lengths to per-line demand, and it kills their ops efficiency.

    — For example, Providence and Worcester sets are longer than all other lines most hours, with long sets rationed to those two often as possible. They end up chewing up space with extra-long platform layovers so the longest sets stay grouped with those lines. If those sets were simply sent back out on next available any-line schedule the seat-hungry schedules end up constantly shorted and the others end up with constantly wasted over-capacity. Holding PVD/WOR sets on-platform then forces Amtrak to fan out and bogart Franklin’s and Needham’s platforms.

    — Because Franklin/Needham/Fairmount get their platforms bumped around, assigned equipment is skewed to “any-train” that plays the averages on length. FRK/NDM get disproportionately shorted for cars at rush and glutted off-peak; FMT always runs way too long for that line’s cost recovery.

    — Crapshoot platform assignments make setting up dedicated Fairmount prepayment faregates impractical.

    They’re left dancing around shortages where cars are most needed, and oversupply where least needed. It’s especially bad in the hours bookending a peak/off-peak shift change.

    — Too many non-revenue moves of shift-change trainsets 10 mi. to Readville or 30+ mi. to the outer layovers; these are the only yards with enough maneuvering room to break/combine sets and change length. These long runs have to be generously padded on the clock around the shift change, creating annoying gaps where schedules are AWOL at immediate start of off-peak or at the nearest “near-peak” slots right before the evening crush.

    Problems don’t go away if off-peak service is simply increased; they get worse by putting more strain on already vulnerable shift changes. Forces them more often to play the averages on sets all-day/all-lines, worsening the divide between too-long/empty loss leaders and too-short sardine cans. It harms South Station pedestrian flow because assignments get more randomized the more hastily an on-platform layover gets converted into an “any-train”…making the rider ritual of staring at the Solari board for arrivals then stampeding to the platform ever more chaotic.

    Northside doesn’t deal with this to nearly same degree because Boston Engine Terminal is right there. Neither do the NYC-area RR’s with mega-layovers at/next to their terminals. Lack of terminal layover is a real-world problem that can’t be waved off by saying “first-world scheduling blah blah. . .” If every single ops bolt were tightened on every one of those systems, one of these–MBTA southside–would still be unlike the others and show a pronounced limp of inflexibility under load that the others won’t.

    South Station Expansion solves a lot of problems by eliminating tons of cross-movements where one train fouls another’s path and helping keeping platform assignments more consistent to control the stampedes. But station expansion alone only does so much as a perma-fix unless they can get the Phase II layover space nearby to:

    — …take stress off those shift changes by breaking/combining sets faster, closer to home.

    — …have enough space so a switcher can quickly break/recombine sets on different storage tracks without fouling other traffic. (e.g. break the monster eight-pack PVD rush sets in half, grab a locomotive + cab car off the next track, send two 4-car sets back out with only 20-30 mis. of downtime instead of 1-2 hrs).

    — …use "midday storage" for just jettisoned extra rush hour cars, while keeping majority of locomotives in shorter-set midday circulation to normalize headways

    — …reduce stress on Boston Engine Terminal so northside has equally nimble flexibility. BET is configured correctly for it, but it’s so overstuffed with southside equipment on shop rotation the north switchers have little maneuvering room to tend to their own sets.

  3. RE: “build large rail yards on prime real estate”. . .

    MassDOT’s hands could be untied on this quite nicely if it had any cooperation whatsoever from local stakeholders. See the Widett Circle layover option on p.19 of the recent MassDOT board presentation:

    This was the much-hyped “Midtown” site for Boston 2024 that ultimately collapsed the entire Olympic bid by biting off more than they could chew. B24, the BRA, and City Hall had–clumsily–figured out that the Boston Food Market tenants could be equitably relocated to superior environs next to the seafood warehouses at Marine Terminal. But they were deaf/dumb/blind about logistics at Widett, insisting that a single “Master Developer” take on 100% of the cost risk of decking over that bowl-shaped wasteland before being able to erect a single structure. Not a single potential developer would bite on that.

    The dead-obvious synergy that never went explored was phoning up MassDOT and talking about combining the train yard with the Midtown decking. T gets granted a permanent ground-level easement for all the storage shown on p.19, tracks get spaced out so air rights pilings can slot between them (like at South Station for the tower, and like Red Line Cabot Yard on the Traveler and W. 4th blocks). The transpo interests underwrite the cost of the decking so the Master Developer doesn’t get scared away, and we get our own Hudson Yards via shotgun marriage: century-level fix for commuter rail capacity that no one has to lay eyes on, and prime real estate created out of thin air.

    Nobody made the phone call despite MassDOT always preferring this site. This is why the terrible Beacon Park easement is their fallback option. It’s the only site with a guaranteed easement they 100% control without needing to engage the City. It’s an operationally inferior site because of the constant deadhead moves required through Yawkey and Back Bay, it’s crap-awful land use…and MassDOT fully agrees with that and wishes it weren’t so. But if City Hall and the BRA continue to be as impotent as they were during B24, the state can’t herd the cats that need to be herded to make Widett a potential best-of-all-worlds.

    If the advocacy for a better Beacon Park wants to try knocking some heads together, it should try to draw a “teachable moment” link between the p.19 preferred alternative @ Widett, Boston 2024’s failure to close the deal @ Widett because of their impotence at getting enough stakeholders together, and the efficiencies of transpo easement @ Widett jump-starting viable private development with the decking promise. Seize on the fact that the state knows damn well which site is vastly preferable, and work on the finding-arse-from-elbow communication with the city-level institutions to get their synergies and coalition-building in gear. We pass up a potentially very elegant solution AND consign BP to a permanently sprawled-out wasteland if our fearless leaders don’t freaking talk to each other.

  4. I realize this is a shoot-the-moon proposal, but here goes:

    What happens if you spend real money to enable 120+ mi/hr service on the B&A line between Boston and Springfield?

    Express service (with one stop in Worcester, and possibly a new station at Route 128–I can dream, can't I?) would then be 45-50 min end to end.

    That would turn Springfield (and, similarly, Worcester) into a residential suburb of Boston. Imagine what would happen to property values in that city, which has large neighborhoods of high quality Victorian and early 20th-century houses. (Example:,-72.556533,42.071731,-72.579342_rect/15_zm/.) Now imagine that houses like this, currently on the market (and languishing) for $230K, were to be in demand by people who can't afford the same house in Boston metro area for $1M. Would it double?

    If 10,000 houses in Springfield increase in value by $200K, you've got an $2G increase in property values. The same thing could happen in Worcester. How long before the expense of upgrading the rail service pays for itself?

    The access goes two ways, too. How long before companies start setting up shop close to these stations, because people can now get there from any of the large cities in Massachusetts?

    Now back to reality…

    • The ongoing Inland Route study is evaluating 3 service Alternatives for the Boston-Springfield segment: All of them have stops at South Station, Framingham, Worcester, Palmer, and Springfield (no Route 128 stop because the mainline misses Riverside and the actual interchange is in the middle of nowhere). And then either continue down the Springfield Line to New Haven as a regular Amtrak Shuttle or up the Conn River Line as a regular Amtrak Vermonter/Montrealer.

      Alt 1 (minimum build) – 51-59 MPH, Boston-Springfield; 25 MPH for certain hilly stretches between Charlton-Warren. No improvements to MBTA territory.

      Alt 2 (RECOMMENDED build) – 60-79 MPH, Boston-Worcester, Palmer-Springfield; 51-59 MPH Worcester-Palmer; 25 MPH certain spots Charlton-Warren. 2-hour travel time BOS-SPR.

      Alt 3 (max build) – 60-79 MPH, Boston-Worcester, Warren-Palmer; 80-90 MPH Palmer-Springfield; 25 MPH certain spots Charlton-Warren. >$1B, but cost includes tilting trainsets…red herring, because tilt nets zero speed gains on this track vs. generic Amtrak stock. Someone clearly inserted that to poison-pill this Alt's price tag.

      As you can see the Worcester Hills are what they are so unlimited money doesn't zap those 25 MPH razor curves. Nor can you easily electrify SPR-WOR because of 35 overhead bridges currently cleared for 20'6" double-stack freight cars that would all have to be raised +2½ ft. to 23' for wire clearance (Worcester Line is A-OK for electrics as there's only 6 bridges in double-stack territory, and Amtrak could pick up some time by using dual-mode locomotives that switch to electric mode south of Springfield and east of Worcester). So the only practical means to conquer the geography is to run up the score inside MBTA territory and on the straight/flat stretch of track between Palmer and Springfield, then grin-and-bear-it in the hills. Alt 2 works the areas where it matters most: MBTA territory, by fixing the utterly crippled east-of-Framingham segment that's currently signal-limited to under 60 MPH. Going whole-hog 90 MPH out west is something they can shoot for as a later tack-on when the schedule is fatter; it's easier to go back and upgrade the FRA track class from Class 4 (79 MPH max) to Class 5 (90 MPH max) than it is from Class 3 (59 MPH max) to Class 4.

      2 hours might thrill the imagination, but it's 40 minutes faster than today's Lake Shore Limited, within +/- 20 minutes of a Peter Pan BOS-SPR bus (ranges 1:40-2:20 depending on time-of-day Pike traffic), and is only 30 minutes more than some of the most excruciating 90-minute Worcester Line locals on today's MBTA rush hour schedule. Give horrible Pike traffic another few years of further deterioration and Alt 2 will be the fastest way to Springfield, period. Then apply some of those Alt 3 speed upgrades a few years later when demand's higher and more money's available to tighten the bolts further.

  5. The current line wouldn't support anything better than 90 minutes. And that would take a lot of work. The line is far too curvy for more than 79 mph except in a few stretches, and even to get to 90 minutes you'd need some bits of 110 mph. For instance, there are about 15 miles west of Worcester which can't support much more than 45-50 mph. More here and here.

    However, that doesn't mean you couldn't improve the current Commuter Lines so that Attleboro, Providence, Worcester, Brockton, Lowell and Lawrence were all within 30-35 minutes of Boston. Do that and you get a ton of housing. That's much closer to reality, but requires some critical thinking on behalf of MassDOT.

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