MBTA weighing more frequent commuter rail service

A conductor is shown on the platform of Morton Street station on the Fairmount Line in May 2017. Chris Lovett photo

Several options to improve the efficiency and reliability of the commuter rail were recapped during a transit meeting on Monday amid renewed calls from Boston elected officials to prioritize improvements to the Fairmount Line.

MBTA and MassDOT are in the midst of a rail vision planning process that would retool the commuter rail to bring in more ridership.

Seven possible alternatives to the existing service are being considered, with the three discussed on Monday potentially running the T anywhere between $2.2 billion and $23.6 billion in 2020 dollars.

The most modest of the latter options, a higher frequency commuter rail, would “optimize things we’re already doing,” said project manager Scott Hamwey. Trains would run every half hour during peak times and every hour during off peak across the system. The plan also includes the first phase of the South Coast Rail project.

This move would regularize the flow of train traffic in and out of all stations, “which would make a bigger difference in some stations than others,” Hamwey said. 

Two “regional rail” alternatives – one diesel, one fully electric – would speed arrival times between trains considerably. Both would include high-level boarding platforms, while the modest higher frequency option would leave stations as they are on platform height.

The diesel option would include line electrification between Boston and Providence and should bring key station arrival and departures to every 15 minutes on the north side of the system and every 30 minutes on the south side. The same half-hour on peak and hour off-peak times would be standard for other stations.

Including the South Coast Rail phase one and the Foxboro expansion, the diesel regional rail option would likely cost about $5.3 billion in 2020 dollars.

State Sen. Nick Collins had offered a budget amendment this year calling for an electrification study of the Fairmount and Providence Lines, which was not included in the budget version that made it through the conference committee.

The priciest ticket option recapped Monday is full electrification regional rail, which would use electric, multiple unit trains and bring all arrivals and departures to key stations down to every 15 minutes. Including the South Station Expansion, Foxboro expansion, South Coast Rail Full Build, and the Grand Junction shuttle, this project is ballparked at $23.6 billion in 2020 dollars.

Most of the cost burden in each case comes from fleet expansion, though the structural expansions up the price with each more ambitious alternative.

Normal maintenance of the system is costly as well over that term, Fiscal and Management Control Board chair Joe Aiello noted. 

“I think it’s important for us to understand what are we buying if we do nothing, and then increment above that,” he said, “because my sense is there’s a substantial investment that needs to happen as a baseline.”

Outside of the investments already in the Capital Investment Plan for the next five years, Hamwey said, “there’s a recognition that beyond 2024, investments have to continue in the system going forward over the life of whatever it would take to implement this vision.”

Rail vision outreach included peer reviews, at least six meetings of the advisory committee, a public meeting and open house, two State House and legislative briefings, and 40 briefings of meetings around the region. A non-rider survey “focused on trade-offs” brought in almost nearly 3,000 responses, Hamwey said.

The goal is to drive up ridership. Higher frequency would be expected to up ridership by 13 percent compared to the 2040 control state where they do not build out the system regional rail (diesel). That could lead to a 24 percent boost in ridership, but mostly on the north side of the system, especially on the Fitchburg and Haverhill/Lowell Lines. Full electrification would see more south side growth, projecting a total 35 percent increase by 2040.

Ridership on the Fairmount/Franklin Lines would see modest bumps in ridership in each scenario, though ridership is expected to grow by 79 daily riders regardless. The higher frequency service would bring 11 more daily riders than a no-build scenario, the diesel option raises that to 29 extra riders, and the full electrification version that assumes a Foxboro extension would raise the ridership by 65.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said she has doubts that full electrification of the line “justifies its cost as a ridership investment, not as a greenhouse gas reduction investment.” 

The seven alternatives that will be discussed over the next meetings will not necessarily be in competition with each other and the final decision may well include bits from each, Pollack noted. An electrification alternative might also include electrifying parts of the line and using batteries as stopgaps between stations, which in some cases could halve the total costs, she said.

Mayor Martin Walsh last week sent a letter to Pollack asking for service improvements on the Fairmount Line, including eight additional weekday trips.

“The Fairmount Line has seen a noticeable increase in ridership during the last weeks, and the MBTA can increase service and capacity so more residents can utilize this line,” the mayor wrote. “Additionally, riders should be able to use Charlie Cards on the Fairmount Line.”
His team estimates the cost of those changes would be between $830,000 and $1,500,000 annually.

State Rep. Russell Holmes last week noted the essential connections to the Fairmount Line along Blue Hill Avenue, which is undergoing a city-led visioning process.

“The thing that would be most important right now would be to say, how do we get bus lines coordinated with the Fairmount Line?” Holmes told the Reporter, referencing existing connections with other rail and bus options. “Let’s make sure on that corridor that we’re feeding people to Talbot, Morton, so they can get connected and downtown faster.”

Holmes noted the speed and reliability of the Fairmount, but the pitfall is infrequent service with between 40 and 60 minute waits between trains. Holmes, Collins, Rep. Dan Cullinane, and Rep. Liz Miranda are among those supporting a rapid transit pilot for the line that would bring the standard of service closer to normal subway times.