Ironies of Highest and Best Use

I went to the Roslindale Square/Village RMV to convert my NY license to a MA one yesterday. While I successfully converted the license, the trip was a pain because a) I was available to do it because I was home sick from work and b) the RMV has clearly not learned the lesson I keep tweeting at transit agencies, that inaccurate real-time estimates are worse than none at all (I was given an estimate of zero wait and ended up being there for 45 minutes, standing the whole time in a room that was incredibly hot and smelled strongly of pot and people). It did, however, give me a chance to check out the area some, and in particular (the exterior of) a building I had wanted to see, the former Boston Elevated Railway Company substation at the corner of Washington Street and Cummins Highway.

A substation, you might think, would be a boring and utilitarian building. Not so! Remnants of traction systems past–and there are many, since the power systems (as opposed to the tracks) tended to be heavily built–were in fact often elaborate in design and construction.


The Roslindale Substation, from Adams Park across the street.

The Roslindale substation features beautiful brick construction and high, arching windows; while it’s clearly a building with an industrial history, it’s the furthest thing from today’s functional but ugly boxes. Most interestingly, perhaps, the substation occupies a place of honor and importance in Roslindale, at the intersection of two busy streets (and transit corridors) and in the absolute center of the neighborhood.


On the one hand, this makes sense, since several trolley routes historically converged at this corner, as seen in a 1936 map:

ros square substation 36

On the other hand, it seems like placing a substation–as opposed to, say, storefronts–on such an important corner would have been a terrible violation of the zoning/real estate principle of highest and best use, although it should be said that the substation was built in 1911, before zoning swept America. To a certain extent, surely, the substation’s location was the product of a disconnect between transportation and land use; from their own perspective, it made perfect sense for BERy to place it there in 1911. And for much of the building’s history, demand for land in Roslindale Square was relatively low; it was, after all, vacant for 45 years, until just this year. But–and here’s the irony the title of this piece refers to–the area is now somewhat up-and-coming, and the substation is now in the process of being converted to commercial use (an already-open craft beer store and a restaurant to be called the Third Rail), with the remainder of the lot taken up by new apartments. As the planner’s proverb that I just made up goes, every lot finds its highest and best use, sometimes it just takes 106 years.

Interestingly, much the same story unfolds just a few miles down Washington Street toward downtown Boston, with BERy’s former Egleston Square substation.

Egleston substation walgreens

Like Roslindale Square, Egleston Square historically represented the convergence of several transit lines, and was thus a logical place to put a substation. Unlike the Roslindale substation, this one served both streetcars and the Elevated, and thus remained in service until the closure of the latter in 1987. Like its more southerly counterpart, though, it fell into abandonment and ruin thereafter, until being resuscitated in 2008 to serve as the studios of Boston Neighborhood Network Television. As you can see from the Streetview capture above, the building is a remarkable contrast to the low-slung, suburban-style Walgreens next door–the high-quality architecture of a century ago continuing to pay dividends. While Egleston Square as a whole is not the world’s most urban-feeling built environment, the substation should–after nearly a century of life as an industrial building–be able to help anchor its rebirth in its new role.

If there’s a point to this post, other than that people do interesting things with old trolley substations, it’s that good architecture endures and tends to lend itself to a positive use in the long run. Like life, land-use dynamics are unpredictable and changeable, which is (part of) why locking uses and styles forever, as American zoning slanted toward single-family uses typically does, is a bad idea. Did the architects who designed the Egleston and Roslindale substations in 1909 and 1911 ever imagine the buildings being adaptively reused for another purposes? Unlikely, although they were clearly built to last. This is not to say that every abandoned building can or should be reused, but it’s a useful reminder of the way demand for land can change over the course of a century. And who knows? The Go Boston 2030 transportation plan, released just today, calls for rapid bus lines to pass both substations. Though they’ll most likely never power trolleys again, both substations could again serve an important transit-oriented use (as they do relative to local bus service today), as attractions drawing people to their neighborhoods along the transit corridors of the 21st century.


An Announcement

I’m aware this blog has been too damn quiet lately, and while I know there’s no excuse for my failure to provide quality content, I’m here now to offer, at least, an explanation: I’ve been spending a lot of time applying and interviewing for jobs, most of which have required travel somewhere, well, other than Albany. It’s been a wild ride and while I’ve had both fizzles and opportunities along the way, it’s taken a while to find the right fit.

Anyhow, now that phase is over.

The Itinerant Urbanist (I keep telling you, the name of the blog isn’t for nothing!) is back on the road—and, what a shock, once again to someplace new to me. Effective January 15th, home base for this blog will be Boston, where I’ve accepted a position as a Transportation Planner and Unified Planning Work Program manager with the Central Transportation Planning Staff, the staff to the Boston Region Metropolitan Planning Organization. I’m excited about both the professional challenge ahead of me and the opportunity to move back to a somewhat larger city—while I do wax poetic about the virtues of midsize city living, there are real advantages to being someplace larger.

I’ve had the luck to count on professional and social contacts among Boston’s large and talkative transit/urbanism Internet community, and I look forward to getting to know more of you in real life. You probably won’t see me commenting on Boston-region stuff too much here or on Twitter—because, you know, professionalism—but know I value the perspective on the region you’ve given me and will continue to help me develop immensely. And I will, presumably, get back to writing on other topics in this space more regularly when my life calms down.

A few weeks ago someone asked a series of questions about where people would like to live, among other things, on Twitter and Urbanist Twitter had a lot of fun with it. My answer to the question of my favorite American cities, ironically, did not include Boston:

but rest assured that I am super excited to have found a decently priced apartment a two-minute walk from the Orange Line (Green Street in JP, to be exact), which will be the closest I’ve ever lived to rail transit, or any transit that frequent. My partner’s from Boston and I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the area, so in that way it’s a return home of sorts, but there’s enough mystery left that I’m looking forward to discovering yet another place afresh.

That being said, since it became clear that I’m moving to Boston it has felt, in some ways, fated. While home cleaning out my bedroom in Chicago over Thanksgiving, I found a memento that I had not remembered owning—a laminated poster with a 1915 map of the Boston Elevated Railway transit network on one side and a 1912 map of all the street railways in Massachusetts on the other. Bringing it back to Albany reunited it with my copy of this book on a similar topic. The poster will, I think, be going on my cubicle wall. A sign? Perhaps.


The Boston side of said poster.

There’s also this:

While I have not (yet) traveled all 3,365 miles of U.S. 20, it does feel to a large extent like that road is the axis along which my life unfolds. My grandmother until recently lived only miles from its Pacific Coast terminus in Newport, which is a beautiful little town that I recommend visiting if you ever get the chance. I spent my high school years in Chicago, and the last 3 ½ in Albany; Route 20 runs through both cities. Our Albany apartment, in fact, is a block and a half from Madison Avenue, which hosts 20. So is it such a surprise that I would end up near the East Coast origin of U.S. 20? Perhaps not.

Because this is a serious blog, I’ll wind up here with some serious analysis. There’s been a long-term on-and-off discussion in the econ/planning/urbanist Internet community—starting even before the 2016 election made it a much-talked-about national issue—about what policymakers can do to help rural and disinvested communities and the people in them. It’s not uncommon to hear (and I’ve been guilty of thinking it myself sometimes) “well, why don’t they just move?” And sure, relocation is one potentially workable strategy. But more than anything else, preparations to make this move have brought home to me just how high the barriers can be to relocation in a high-cost area. We’re lucky that in moving from Albany—certainly not the worst off of Upstate’s major cities—to Boston our rent is ONLY approximately doubling, not tripling. And the amount of cash necessary to put down to secure an apartment is incredibly intimidating, even though Gabriella and I are both white-collar professionals with limited student loan debt and decent savings socked away. I don’t have a magical solution (and I might suggest that we shouldn’t necessarily be looking for such silver bullets) but we should have a policy of easy mobility, and we should think about how to make that happen.

SPEAKING OF WHICH, if you care enough about my ramblings to have read this far—my loyal, brilliant, and thoroughly professional partner Gabriella, who I followed to Albany and who is now following me to Boston—is looking for a job. Gabriella’s spent the last several years developing and managing a multimillion-dollar climate resiliency program for farmers in New York State and is open to any kind of environmental work. You know where to find me with suggestions, contacts, etc.

I’ve enjoyed meeting people through this blog for the last several years, and I hope to continue to do so going forward. Thanks for the company, and onwards.

Don’t Talk About the North-South Rail Link without Context

Boston’s North-South Rail Link is in the news again. And while blog readers know I think the project should have been finished a century ago, and anyone who follows me on Twitter knows I’m a big fan of the idea, I’m a little frustrated with the way dialogue about it seems to be going.

The current round of NSRL discussion was set off by former Massachusetts governors Michael Dukakis and William Weld, who penned an op/ed in the Boston Globe arguing against the Baker administration’s plans for expanding North and South Stations and for building NSRL instead. Perhaps Dukakis and Weld are working through some of their own culpability for not getting the project built as part of the Big Dig, as originally planned; regardless, I certainly agree with them that expanding the dead-end terminal stations is utterly foolish and wasteful.

I also, however, agree with some of Gabrielle Gurley’s rejoinder in Commonwealth Magazine, which argues that Dukakis and Weld’s piece failed to factor in the realistic politics of taxation and spending in Massachusetts, or present a realistic plan for building the very expensive tunnel. Gurley’s piece is far from perfect–she lumps NSRL, a project that would massively increase system efficiency, with South Coast Rail, a boondoggle that continues in the T’s long tradition of overengineered, efficiency-sucking outward expansions–but she does have a point that the politics of spending on large infrastructure projects are tricky at best. Boston has had some traumatic experiences with massive infrastructure projects, and the T’s problems with project management are both well-known and ongoing.

Dukakis is nothing if not determined, though, and he wrote back to Commonwealth, arguing the Gurley’s math had failed to take operational savings and new ridership into account:

And third – a point your piece totally misses – because the thousands of new passengers will produce approximately $120 million dollars a year in new passenger revenue and $80 million in maintenance savings. And that doesn’t even factor in the “value added” that will come from private leasing and development along the route, some portion of which can be captured as additional revenue.

Those combined funds will support a 20-year bond issue that can pay for the project. That is why it will be far easier to win public support for the project and why your column today totally misses this key point.

Dukakis’ numbers (he seems to assume a project cost of $4.4 billion) may or may not be accurate; it seems to me that he states them with far too much certainty for a project that hasn’t been extensively studied in at least 10 years. What bothers me is that both he and Gurley treat NSRL as if it’s a a standalone project. It’s not, and it can’t be.

Currently, the entire MBTA commuter network–even the Providence line that runs under Amtrak-owned catenary–runs traditional (for America) commuter rail trains consisting of a diesel locomotive and towed coaches. Diesels won’t work in a long tunnel, for obvious ventilation reasons, so any NSRL will of course be electrified. Some past studies have assumed that the MBTA and Amtrak would switch to using dual-mode locomotives on some or all lines once a tunnel is built, but that’s kind of nuts; while New Jersey Transit uses dual-modes in regular service, they’re heavy, slow to accelerate, and inefficient. Realistically (and desirably in terms of service efficiency, quality, and reliability), large-scale or complete electrification of the MBTA network must accompany NSRL.

And that’s a good thing! Electric trains are faster, quieter, and more reliable. Electrifying the whole network and treating it like a regional rapid transit system would be a huge boost to mobility for the Boston area. But it also adds considerable expense to the NSRL project. Alon ballparked a figure of $1.5 billion for complete electrification in his post on the topic. Amtrak’s New Haven-Boston electrification was contracted at $2.3 million per double-track route-mile, though Paul (and others) think the final number was higher. $3 million per route-mile seems reasonable; you might save some on single-track sections (although the underlying infrastructure is the expensive part), and save in other places. Using the $3m/mile number, and excluding the already-electrified Providence Line (though that line, as F-Line points out, would need upgrades to the electrical infrastructure because of Amtrak’s cheapness), I come up with a number lower than Alon’s, just under $1 billion: (information from here)

Line Route-Miles Cost @ $3 m/route-mile
Newburyport/Rockport 34.9 104.7
Gloucester Branch 16.8 50.4
Haverhill 32.1 96.3
Lowell 24.5 73.5
Wildcat Branch 3 9
Fitchburg 48.8 146.4
Worcester 44.3 132.9
Needham 9.3 27.9
Franklin 27.4 82.2
Stoughton 4.6 13.8
Fairmount 9.2 27.6
Middleboro 35 105
Greenbush 17.3 51.9
Kingston/Plymouth 24.2 72.6
Total 331.4 $994.2

At a minimum, we can say that complete electrification will add $1 billion to the cost of NSRL, and quite likely more. There are ways to reduce that number; most transit pundits think the Needham Branch should be converted to an extension of the Orange Line, and you might not bother electrifying Kingston and Greenbush because of low ridership. On the other hand, Amtrak might want to electrify the all the way to Portland and convert the Downeasters into Regional extensions.

Lest anyone accusing me of scaremongering, I will clarify that electrification of the MBTA system is something that should happen regardless. This is especially true of the South Side network, which persists in the bizarre situation of running aging, slow, unreliable diesels under catenary on the Providence line. It’s about bringing an aging system into the last century. But it needs to be part of the conversation on NSRL–both because of the additional costs and because making the case for NSRL should be only part of making a comprehensive case for modernizing the whole MBTA system. 

Electrification, of course, comes with additional costs. The biggest is rolling stock. By my count, based on Wikipedia, the current MBTA commuter rail fleet has almost 67,000 seats split among 457 or so coaches. Depending on configuration, Metro-North’s M8 EMUs seat about 110 people, meaning you’d need over 600 equivalent units to replicate existing MBTA fleet capacity. At $2.54 million per unit for the initial M8 order, that’s over $1.5 billion to buy EMUs. Things could get a little cheaper; Metro-North is clearance-limited by the Park Avenue Tunnel, whereas MBTA uses a large number of bilevel coaches and NSRL would presumably be built to clear them. The newest (only?) US bilevel EMUs, Metra’s Highliners, cost $3.6 million per unit, and seat 128 (not that great a capacity improvement over single-level coaches, because Metra’s gallery-car setup sucks–MBTA bilevels seat up to 185). MBTA could also choose to buy electric locomotives to haul the existing coach stock.

The final major expense that might accompany NSRL is the cost of building high-level platforms at all, or almost all, MBTA stations. Many already have them; it’s just good practice. Most of the MBTA network sees little or no freight traffic, so clearances really should not be considered an issue. Having level boarding is especially important at outlying stations when all trains are running through a constrained central segment such as a tunnel, and thus must keep to exacting slots. I count 132 stations on MBTA lines that might need high-level platforms; I’m too lazy to look up how many already have them like I did for the Morris & Essex Lines, and how many stations have 1 as opposed to 2 platforms. Cost estimates for high-levels vary; somewhere in the ballpark of $5 million per platform seems reasonable, while MBTA’s fairly simple new Fairmount Line stations cost $6.9-$9.4 million each. If each of the 132 stations costs $5 million for a high-level platform, the total cost would be $660 million; if it’s more like $9.4 as on Fairmount, it would be $1.2 billion. The actual number would likely be somewhere in the middle. 

For the record, Dukakis’ estimate of $4.4 billion in tunnel construction costs seems reasonable if (a HUGE if) the project is managed correctly. Though he and Weld failed to get the tunnel included in the Big Dig, despite it being included in the initial plans at various points, the construction did leave “slurry walls’ underneath the freeway tunnel that make future tunneling easy. The real complication is the need to construct portals for various lines, winding them between many layers of infrastructure. Including my estimates here, the costs of a modernized MBTA rail system would be:

$4.4 billion for the NSRL tunnel


$1 billion for electrification


$1.5 billion for new rolling stock


$900 million (roughly splitting the difference) for high-level platforms


a total of $7.8 billion for complete modernization. 

That might be optimistic; one cannot count on the T to manage projects well, and the projected electrification costs may well be low. But it should be fairly comprehensive.

I’ve just spent 1,300 words talking about how expensive it would be to build NSRL and the other improvements it requires. The final number is truly massive, almost twice what Dukakis seems to assume in his recent writing. And yet, I’m doing this as a fan of the NSRL project. Why? Because not acknowledging the true price of the project also risks obscuring its true benefits. Seeking to win over opponents by minimizing the projected cost of NSRL isn’t going to work; Americans are too paranoid about government spending for that.

It’s very easy for skeptics to point to a multibillion dollar price tag and compare the NSRL project to disasters like the Big Dig. But there’s a key difference: the Big Dig represented a choice for path dependence, for continuing Boston’s dependence on highways at massive cost. It was the natural next step for the highway network, representing a relatively minor improvement in functionality–and a major improvement in aesthetics. But it didn’t provide a new function the road network had never provided before. By contrast, NSRL would be revolutionary, not evolutionary. It’s not “just a tunnel,” and if you’re having the discussion on the grounds that it is, you’ve already lost. Proponents of NSRL need to talk about it in terms of its potential to truly transform the entire system, and that means detailing all of the additional functionality that NSRL can provide–and acknowledging its cost.

Notes on Boston-Springfield Service

Readers of this blog know I have a particular interest in intercity rail in New England stemming from growing up in New Haven. So when Eitan Kensky sent me a February presentation I hadn’t previously seen from the Northern New England Intercity Rail Initiative (NNEIRI, not to be confused with the Northern New England Regional Rail Association, or NNEPRA, which runs the Downeaster), I was seriously intrigued. There have been numerous efforts over the years to revive the Inland Regional service that Amtrak and predecessors once ran between Boston, Worcester, Springfield, Hartford, and New Haven, and this document presents the general outline of the group’s current vision for the return of such service. Much of the research seems to have been done by contractors HDR, and the predominant vision is clearly that of MassDOT, with secondary input from Vermont and other stakeholders.

NNEIRI study area map

NNEIRI study area map

Massachusetts has, of late, been focused on two major goals for non-Northeast Corridor intercity rail: a link to Montreal and restoration of Inland Regional service. The current study (logically) links these two together. Tough previous service to Montreal has run along the Central Vermont line, turning off the Boston & Albany at Palmer to serve Amherst before heading north through Vermont, the current vision has Boston-Montreal service using the recently rehabbed Connecticut River Line from Springfield to Greenfield before continuing north. It’s a little bit longer, but serves Springfield, Holyoke, Northampton, and Greenfield instead of just Amherst, and takes advantage of the state-owned Conn River trackage.

The predominant challenge to intercity rail in New England is that the trackage is in most places exceptionally curvy. The build alternatives envisioned for the NNEIRI service thus focused on regular-speed trains, with no ambitious plans for even moderate-speed (110 mph) options. It’s important to remember that “maximum speed” here means Maximum Authorized Speed, or MAS, rather than average speed. On curvy legacy tracks the trains are unlikely to obtain the maximum speeds for very long stretches, given FRA restrictions on tilt for conventional equipment (although the 90 mph MAS alternative does make brief mention of the possibility of acquiring tilt equipment).

Table of service alternatives

Table of service alternatives

A Boston-to-Springfield time of right around 2 hours would be extremely competitive with driving, which is about an hour and a half without traffic (yeah, right) and realistically usually at least a half-hour longer. It’s also about the same time as Peter Pan’s bus offerings, but a train would presumably offer a much higher level of comfort and reliability.

Costs would fall in the billion to billion and a half range for the bottom two alternatives, which seems on the high end for relatively simple double-tracking work within an existing right-of-way; I assume most of the capital expenses would be on the Vermont sections, since the B&A right of way is built to accommodate at least two tracks.

nneiri costs

Overall, the conclusion seems to have been that bumping MAS from 79 to 90 mph would result in considerable extra expense with little time saved or gain in ridership. The study team’s Draft Build Alternative is a modified Alt 2, with 79 mph MAS and slightly fewer trains:

draft build alternative

Eight trains per day would run through from New Haven to Boston, a kind of mini-Inland Regional service. These trains would function as extensions of the current New Haven-Springfield shuttle service. There would be one round-trip per day from Boston to Montreal, and another from New Haven to Montreal, while the Vermonter would continue as it currently operates, with an extension to Montreal. Springfield would get 9 round trips per day to Boston, and presumably the New Haven-Montreal train would have a timed connection with a westbound Boston-New Haven train at Springfield, giving Boston in effect two daily round trips to Montreal.

All trains are envisioned to make all local stops, which is interesting to me; I would have run the Inland Regional/shuttles as expresses in Connecticut, stopping only at Hartford. As it is, the additional 9 corridor trips will provided important added frequency to the NHHS/Hartford Line service that should be beginning in 2016. A 2011 NHHS document envisions full cross-ticketing between NHHS and shuttle/Regional trains, and the boost from NHHS’ 25-32 trains per day at launch to 34-41 including the corridor services is nothing to sniff at. However, that many trains would clearly require Connecticut to finish double-tracking the Hartford Line between Hartford and Springfield. That task isn’t itself all that complex but has been deferred to Phase II of the NHHS project (though it is included in Governor Malloy’s 5-year transportation ramp-up plan) because of the  considerable expense of rehabbing the Union Station viaduct in Hartford–which is, somewhat amazingly, believed to no longer be able to hold two trains at once–and the bridge over the Connecticut River.

Interestingly, study staff clearly believe that Springfield-Boston service alone would be a poor use of resources, labeling it “Low Ridership” and “Ineffective and Costly.” As Alex Marshall pointed out on Twitter, much of the envisioned ridership to New Haven is surely people from Worcester or the Metro West region who want a two-seat ride into New York City without doubling back into Boston to catch an NEC train.

Likewise, the study labeled plain Boston-Montreal service “Low Ridership,” while noting the potential for higher ridership in the New Haven-Montreal corridor. Despite decades of pleading for Montreal service, planners still seem to believe that Boston doesn’t quite deserve it. That’s not particularly surprising to me given how slow such service would be and how sparse population is along the corridors between the two cities. So for now, there will likely be just the one round trip per day, plus the possibility of a two-seat ride via transfer in Springfield, and that situation seems likely to stay the same for quite a while.

Other notes

Finish the Cross

As currently planned, the NNEIRI system looks like a sideways T, with the long axis pointing to Boston. I’m on record as a (self-interested) proponent of Albany-Boston service, and I think some of the improvements proposed here strengthen the case for finishing off a cross-shaped network with trains from Boston to Pittsfield and Albany. Double-tracking the Boston Line from Worcester to Springfield would leave less than 100 miles of single track from Springfield to Albany (it’s 102 track-miles, but there are existing sidings and stretches of multiple track). If trains can do Boston-Springfield in 2 hours, a time of 4 hours to Albany should be eminently achievable even without much in the way of speed improvements. With significant speed improvements (most of the line west of Springfield is limited to 40-50 mph, even though the trackage west of Pittsfield isn’t all that curvy or steep) a time in the 3:30 range–which my previous post identified as the time necessary to be competitive–should be achievable. That would open up the possibility of Boston-Toronto service via the Erie Canal corridor cities–a potential market for an overnight train?

Boston Line Capacity

One of the major ongoing dramas in New England intercity rail has been CSX’ reluctance to share the ex-B&A right-of-way with passenger service. Given current constraints, it is somewhat understandable; it’s a steep, curvy line that has suffered from decades of deferred maintenance (yes, part of that is CSX’ fault, but the neglect predates CSX ownership). CSX runs 25-30 trains per day on the line, which approaches the capacity of a mixed-use single-track line, even one equipped with advanced (by freight rail standards) CTC signaling:

From NCHRP Report 773

From NCHRP Report 773, “Capacity Modeling Guidebook for Shared-Use Passenger and Freight Rail Operations”

Double-tracking the line, however, offers enormous potential, jumping the capacity from an estimated 30 trains per day to 75. In other words, CSX could double current traffic–a situation no one sees as being around the corner in New England–and there would still be 15 slots per day for passenger traffic. More realistically, a fully double-tracked B&A could easily accommodate 40 freights, the 8 proposed Inland Regional trips, 6-8 trips to Albany, and the Lake Shore Limited–a total of under 60 trains per day west of Worcester.  Of course, fully double-tracking the line requires the states of Massachusetts and New York to cooperate, and the Cuomo administration has shown little interest in efficient passenger rail.

Pessimistic SPG-NHV times

The table of travel times above envisions a trip time of 1:40 from Springfield to New Haven given all local stops. This seems somewhat pessimistic to me, as the current shuttles and Vermonter are scheduled for 1:20 to 1:30 over the same route; perhaps the longer time takes into account that a few stops will be added under the NHHS scheme, but those should be counterbalanced by improved track speeds; it’s not a big deal, but I’m somewhat confused.

Who’s going to operate it?

Most commentary I’ve seen has assumed that any extension of rail service from Boston to Springfield would be operated by the MBTA. Running the trains through to New Haven would seem to preclude that possibility. Amtrak would seem the most logical choice, but the northeast state haven’t been thrilled with it of late; Connecticut, for example has opened the NHHS service to a bid competition. The NNEIRI network is an extremely complex system, involving at least three states, plus the province of Quebec and federal authorities regulating border crossings, the private railroads owning the tracks, and various other stakeholders. So perhaps now is the time to revive my call for a unified Northeastern passenger rail authority.



That Time Boston Could Have Had a North-South Rail Link for $8 Million

As part of my research project, I’ve been doing some looking into Boston’s North-South Rail Link concept–the idea of a tunnel linking, finally, North Station and South Station. NSRL is a complicated project whose merits are certainly up for debate (though I tend towards thinking it’s a good idea), but that doesn’t appear to be on the horizon anytime soon. But did you know that there was a point at which Boston could have had the tunnel built at minimal cost to taxpayers?

A March 8th, 1910 headline in the Boston Globe blares :


The gist of the accompanying article was that Timothy E. Byrnes, Vice President of the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad, had conveyed to the state’s legislative committee on metropolitan affairs that the New Haven and the Boston & Maine–then united under the ownership of J.P. Morgan protege Charles Mellen–would be perfectly willing to pay most of the costs of a tunnel between Boston’s two stub-end stations, if the city would let them. The catch? They wanted the city to create a “boulevard” between the two stations, presumably cutting a broad swath through downtown Boston to enable cheap cut-and-cover tunneling.  The railroads estimated the costs to the city at $10 million–approximately $240 million today–of which they were offering to cover one-fifth, plus the costs of the tunnel itself, and of electrification of the Boston suburban rail network. Byrnes claimed the tunnel–and accompanying electrification–could be finished within three years, hauling both passengers and freight between northern and southern New England.

Surely, $8 million was a lot of money in 1910. But with the railroads offering to cover 2/3 of the cost of a tunnel, how did a project that would have proved so advantageous to the city that the idea is still being brought up a century later die?

Just four days after Byrnes–who had been on his way out of the hearing chamber at the end of the day when asked to speak–dropped his bombshell on the committee, the city responded. The Globe headline on March 12th read:

city rejects

Babson was the city’s Corporation Counsel, who made sure to tell the committee that “under present conditions the tunnel would not be worth to the city anything like an outlay of $8,000,000” and that “the city should not own the tunnel because it does not own the railroads at each end.” A legislator suggested that the railroads might lease the tunnel from the city, paying 5.5-6% interest and with ownership reverting to the city after 40 years, but neither Babson nor the railroads were amenable to that suggestion.

The tunnel idea did not die immediately–according to one article I have found, it was still kicking around two years later, as part of contentious negotiations between Mellen and the Massachusetts legislature over the fact that his control of both the B&M and the NYNH&H gave him a near-monopoly on rail traffic in New England. The idea of joint government-railroad control of the tunnel, based on a lease with relatively steep interest, had resurfaced, and government investment in the tunnel was on the table in return for Massachusetts allowing Mellen to exercise full control of the B&M (which the legislature had previously intervened to stop). But the Mellen monopoly was, by 1912, in its last days; besieged by legislative action, lawsuits, and public pressure, the New Haven would soon divest itself of the B&M, though not before 21 of its directors (though not Mellen) were indicted for conspiracy to monopoly. I haven’t delved deep enough to know exactly when the tunnel idea last saw the light, but it seems to have died a quiet death.

From a public policy perspective, it’s hard to look back at this episode and resist the impulse to punch a wall. The short-sightedness of the public officials who could have allowed the tunnel to be built–and to high standards, with four tracks and electrification of the Boston suburban network!–is remarkable. But 1910-12 was a very different time in America, a time when railroads were very much still an immediate enemy in public life and a chief target of progressive reformers. And indeed, the 1910 tunnel proposal was very much a product of monopoly–it was integral to Mellen’s vision of a unified NYNH&H and B&M (which, according to the 1912 article, would have been re-branded as “New England Lines”), and the public benefits, while substantial, were entirely secondary. And as quick as we are to condemn brutal transportation-oriented urban renewal in Boston and other cities, can we really look back and say that the idea of clearing a boulevard between North and South Stations was moral?

A later vision of a transportation conduit through downtown Boston.

Land clearance for a later transportation conduit through downtown Boston.

Though we know that constructing the tunnel would have had horrible outcomes for the residents in its way, and it might have strengthened the Mellen monopoly, it’s hard to feel any other way than that Boston’s objection to the project was short-sighted. A full century later, the proposal to build a similar project is still percolating, and it’s hard not to wonder–if there is still an argument to be made for a tunnel, now that the region has sprawled and developed away from the rail-oriented suburban mini-cores that predominated then, how different might the suburban development of the Boston region have looked if city officials had been more willing to work with the railroads 105 years ago?

Ridership and Parking Utilization on the Providence/Stoughton Line

Inspired by a vocal discussion on Twitter last night

Park-and-Rides are one of the most controversial topics in planning and transit circles. Some contend that such facilities encourage unnecessary car use, while others believe that in the right circumstances they can reduce car usage. One example of a notoriously unsuccessful Park-and-Ride facility that came up on Twitter last night is the massive garage at the extreme southern end of MBTA’s Providence/Stoughton line, Wickford Junction, Rhode Island. Opened in 2012 at a cost of $44 million, the station includes a massive, 1100-space garage that is supposedly aesthetically modeled (on the outside, presumably) on the historic Lafayette Mills building nearby. Suburban American kitsch is the best kitsch.

Via RIDOT on Flickr, here’s the garage as completed….

03 19 12-Wickford Station 042

And under construction in 2011.

Wickford Junction Station 4

The payoff for all of that investment? A massive, staggering number of riders–a full 159 inbound boardings per day in 2013, as you can see in the handy-dandy ridership map provided by the MBTA in their 2014 Blue Book.

There are few words for the amount of fail that the Wickford Junction project represents. To (perhaps) justify the investment, the station would need to attract nearly seven times the number of boardings it currently sees every day. And that’s to say nothing of the in track, trains, and crew costs that were necessary to extend commuter rail operations that far south in the first place. The overly rosy projections for Wickford Junction ridership date back as far as the 2003 Environmental Impact Study RIDOT conducted for the commuter rail extension, which contains the following helpful predictions:

2003 EIS

2003 EIS

Given the dire situation in Wickford Junction, then, I was intrigued by the situation along the rest of the Providence/Stoughton Line (and by the system as a whole, but hey, let’s start with one line, that’s easier to get a handle on). Here’s a spreadsheet with ridership numbers and parking capacities at all of the stations between Wickford Junction and Hyde Park (I decided it would be silly to look at Forest Hills and Ruggles, where things are complicated by the presence of the Orange Line). Ridership data is from the map above, parking data is from the MBTA website.

Since the sheet doesn’t display well on WordPress, full link is here. In graphic format, the patterns look like this:

Thanks to my partner G for Excel help!

Thanks to my partner G for Excel help!

A few things jump out.

1. The Rhode Island stations south of Providence are obviously a hot mess. If money had to be spent on extending MBTA service down there, the way to do it wasn’t to build fancy stations and then only run a few trains per day. Frequency matters. That should have been obvious from the beginning, but it’s exceptionally clear now.

2. Providence is a nice example of an urban station that doesn’t feel the need to provide huge amounts of parking to attract riders. New Haven could learn a lesson.

3. At the highest-ridership suburban stations on the line (South Attleboro, Attleboro, Mansfield, and Sharon) parking capacity is only about half of boardings, suggesting that many people do indeed walk or get dropped off (these station don’t have much in the way of feeder bus service–Sharon I know for sure has zero).

4. Stoughton and the Canton stations are an interesting case. Parking capacity doesn’t come close to matching the number of boardings–but according to the MBTA’s data, each station has 40% or more of its spaces available on a given day. Stoughton and Canton are relatively walkable despite a dearth of feeder bus service; presumably, many people walk or are dropped off at these stations, and others park for free on town streets to avoid MBTA parking charges.

5. Despite its entirely car-dependent location, Route 128’s parking remains underutilized by several hundred spaces, even taking combined MBTA and Amtrak ridership into account.


A few lessons seem apparent. First, MBTA and the agencies it works with have a problem with overestimation of parking demand–and in that, they’re certainly not alone among American commuter rail operators. Not every lot along the Providence/Stoughton line is underused, but the more monumental ones (Wickford Junction, T.F. Green, Route 128) certainly are. Operators and planners should let the demand for parking come to them, rather than trying to anticipate how it will develop. By all means, reserve space for a garage if necessary, but don’t built it until demand makes itself known. And for god’s sake, tell the locals to charge for parking too, or they’ll take away all of your paying parkers! And remember, even at the best-utilized park-and-ride stations on this line, it certainly appears that around half of riders don’t park to ride the train.

Second (and this may seem obvious, but MBTA and friends don’t seem to have grasped it) the quality of the built environment around the station matters. One of the CityLab articles I linked to at the top argued that distance from the city center should be the determining factor in the decision to build a Park and Ride facility; I’d substitute characteristics of the local built environment. Providence/Stoughton stations that are embedded in relatively walkable areas–Providence, Stoughton, Canton Center, Canton Junction, Hyde Park–exhibit very weak parking demand. Old New England towns don’t exhibit a linear progression from urban to suburban, and planners should pay attention to that. I don’t have much of a problem with Park and Rides in very suburbanized areas, but we shouldn’t be expecting people to drive half a mile from home to the station if they can walk it.

Boston to Albany–How Fast Can A Slow Trip Be?

Personal note: it’s been quite a while since I’ve posted here. Beginning of the semester sucks. But hopefully 2600+ words makes up for it 😉

Expansion of east-west passenger rail service in Massachusetts has been a topic of discussion for quite a long time. Politicians from decaying industrial cities like Worcester, Springfield, and Pittsfield want a reliable connection to Boston’s vibrant economy; travelers want an alternative to the fast-if-there’s-no-traffic-but-there’s-always-traffic Mass Pike, and the state’s liberal voters tend to be more supportive than average of infrastructure projects. There’s also a good bit of nostalgia for Massachusetts’ days as the technological and political haven of American railroading.

Today, there seems to be a good bit of momentum for extension of passenger service west of its current terminus at Worcester. All of the Democratic candidates for governor agree on the necessity of such service, and it given the state’s recent spree of line acquisitions for passenger service, seems likely to happen one of these decades. That seeming momentum got me thinking about the possibilities for a more thorough east-west service along CSX’ Boston Line, the former Boston & Albany division of the New York Central. Service to Springfield is one thing; getting up and over the sparsely inhabited, hilly, and curvy line across the Berkshires to reach Pittsfield and Albany is another entirely.

Of course, I have a personal stake in exploring this possibility; I live in Albany, many of my friends are in Boston, and I would love to have convenient rail service. But is it feasible? The situation I face as a consumer is thus:

  • Google Maps estimates a driving time of 2:39 from my apartment in Albany to South Station. Realistically, you have to leave 3-3.5 hours, because while the Mass Pike is fast and free-flowing from Albany well past Springfield, once you hit the interchange with 84 in Sturbridge, all bets are off.
  • Greyhound offers direct schedules in the 3:30 range, with a stop in Worcester, but there are only a few buses per day in each direction. There are also local Greyhound buses that stop in the Berkshires towns, but they require a transfer in Springfield to get to Boston, and the trip is over 4 hours. All Greyhound buses are subject to Mass Pike delays.
  •  The less said about Amtrak’s lone train on the route, the Boston section of the Lake Shore Limited, the better; this post is about the future. But: it’s currently scheduled for 5:45 eastbound and 5:40 westbound. So there’s that.

My hypothesis is that if a train could get between Boston and Albany in 3:30, it would attract high enough levels of ridership to keep it going; I’d probably ride at that time point. And of course anything faster would be a bonus. But can we get the trains going that fast? Albany to South Station is exactly 200 track miles (compared to 170 on the freeway, a major reason trains have had trouble competing in the corridor), so a 3:30 trip time corresponds to an average speed of 57 mph. On the one hand, 57 mph isn’t a particularly ambitious speed goal. On the other hand, Amtrak’s Lincoln Service, which uses predominantly flat, straight lines with stretches of 110 mph running, is scheduled for a 53 mph average speed between Chicago and St. Louis (over 284 miles), and Empire Service trains between New York and Albany are around 60 mph on average. So to achieve competitive travel times, Boston-Albany passenger trains must achieve average speeds comparable to, or even higher than, those on many of Amtrak’s higher-speed corridor services, many of which face fewer geographic obstacles. Is that doable? Let’s delve in.

As mentioned above, the Boston & Albany corridor is notoriously difficult for high (ish)-speed trains. The route opened in 1841 as one of America’s first long-distance railroads; its climb over the Berkshires also claimed the title of the world’s highest railroad at the time. The routing is tortuous and twisting, following river valleys to find an acceptable grade. That being said, unlike most American railroads (at that time and for about 50 years thereafter) the line was designed to an extremely high standard. Supervising engineer George Washington Whistler (the less-famous parent of the painter) insisted on curves as gentle as possible under the circumstances and clearance of the right-of-way for double-tracking from the very beginning.  In essence, Whistler and the owners of the B&A traded more severe grades for gentler curves–the rival Fitchburg Railroad/Hoosac Tunnel route 40 miles to the north made essentially the opposite choice,  with sharper curves but less severe grades. Those choices have made the B&A an operating nightmare for freight over the years, but they make it not totally hostile to passenger service, unlike the Hoosac Tunnel route.

For our purposes, though, the Hoosac Tunnel isn’t the competitor; the Mass Pike is. And as I already noted, the freeway’s route, built with the advantage of mid 2oth-century technology, is 30 miles shorter than the B&A. Here, too, though, the B&A has at least one advantage. Unlike the Mass Pike, the railroad serves the downtowns of the three major Massachusetts cities along the route–Worcester, Springfield, and Pittsfield–directly. In Worcester and Springfield, freeway spurs lead to downtown, so the distance of the Pike isn’t a big deal, but Pittsfield has no direct freeway access and is a good 20-minute drive off the Pike. The lack of  immediate freeway access also means that buses cannot serve the Boston-Albany corridor in a linear manner. That’s why Greyhound doesn’t run buses between Boston and Albany with stops in Worcester, Springfield, and Pittsfield: the repeated backtracking to the Pike would make it an unacceptably long trip. Additionally, these cities are essentially the only feasible stops on a Boston-Albany service, and they fall nicely into an every-50-miles pattern: Pittsfield is 49 track-miles from Albany, Pittsfield-Springfield is 53 miles, Springfield-Worcester 54, and Worcester-South Station 44. The Lake Shore Limited makes an additional stop at Framingham, halfway between Worcester and Boston; that stop could probably eliminated with a timed transfer to/from a local commuter rail train at Worcester.  The only other possible stops that I can imagine are Palmer, MA and Chatham, NY, but neither really warrants a stop on an intercity train. This is abnormally few intermediate stops for an Amtrak corridor service, which typically stop every 20-30 miles. The less-frequent stops might–might–help trains maintain a higher average speed, even if top speeds aren’t all that great.

But just how fast can we get the trains going? I know I promised not to speak much of the Boston section of the Lake Shore Limited, but its current schedule is the place to start.

LSL Boston Schedule

One thing is immediately clear: this schedule is massively padded in both directions. If, following my division of the line into four segments (Albany-Pittsfield, Pittsfield-Springfield, Springfield-Worcester, and Worcester-South Station), we look at the two terminal segments, we can see the insertion of the padding. Boston–Worcester is scheduled for 1:03 outbound (westbound)–and 2:13 inbound (eastbound). Likewise, Albany-Pittsfield is scheduled for 1:04 eastbound, but 1:59 westbound. If we eliminate the massive padding, we can immediately cut a little over an hour off of the Lake Shore‘s scheduled time, cutting it to a still-uninspiring (and non-competitive) 4:45 or so in each direction. Of course, the padding in the current schedule exists for a reason; the Lake Shore‘s on-time performance is notoriously horrific, earning it the nickname Late Shore Limited. Any scenario that envisions increased passenger traffic will certainly involve re-installing double track along the entire B&A corridor (not a problem in terms of ROW), with the state paying in return for absolute passenger dispatching priority. Planned track improvements now that the state owns the Worcester Line between South Station and Worcester should cut another 15 minutes or so off of travel time, leaving us with a nice, round time of 4:30–still an hour slower than might be considered competitive.

One way to improve travel times is by increasing track maintenance to levels that will allow higher speeds. Currently, MBTA is struggling to boost its portion of the Worcester Line from FRA Class III (6o mph for passenger) to Class IV (80 mph for passenger) standards; but more can certainly be done. Most of the rest of the line seems to be maintained to Class III standards, but the ingredients exist for converting it to allow for higher passenger speeds: the entire line west of Framingham is signalled with (antiquated, but upgradeable) cab signals, and there are relatively few grade crossings due to the age of the line. That being said, upgrading absolute train speeds will have relatively little effect because of the line’s severe curvature; with the exception of the more-or-less tangent 20-mile Palmer-Springfield segment, the limiting factor on train speeds is generally curvature, not track or ballast structure. Certainly, building the theorized second track to Class IV or V (V requires cab signals, but luckily the Boston Line has them) would help, but is there a better way to boost average, rather than absolute, top train speeds?

For the answer to that question, we can turn to the opposite coast, where for the last decade and a half Amtrak has been happily operating tilting Talgo trainsets on behalf of the states of Washington and Oregon on the Cascades. These Spanish-designed trainsets are lightweight (though not as lightweight as they could be, thanks to FRA regulations) and their tilt mechanism allows them to navigate curves faster than conventional trains. Various factors–expense, Talgo’s insistence on doing maintenance itself, mechanical discontinuity with other fleets, lower capacity–have kept the Talgos from being adopted more widely in this country, but they’re a very, very strong fit for a curvy, hilly route like the Boston & Albany. The criteria for their ability to save time are complex, but as this Trains Magazine explainer puts it: “Tilting reduces trip time only when the route has a reasonable concentration of curves with curve speeds between 50 and 80 mph. In this speed range, a Talgo-type train will be able to negotiate a curve at speeds 5-10 mph faster than conventional cars. Generally, tilting does not generate significant time savings unless the curve density on a route is 30 percent or higher.” This description could be written for the B&A. There are virtually no tangents of any significant length, but relatively few of the curves are so sharp that they necessarily drop the speed of the train below 50 mph. Equipping corridor trains on a Boston-Albany route with Talgo trainsets could do a lot to boost average speeds–but how much?

The current Cascades schedule shows Talgo-equipped trains saving only about 10 minutes over the Superliner-equipped Pacific Starlight, but that’s a product of ongoing summer trackwork. Historically, Talgo schedules have saved 35 to 45 minutes, or about 15%, on the 187-mile Seattle–Portland segment, which is actually less curvy than the B&A (Talgos save little to no time on the very straight segments between Portland and Eugene, and only some north of Seattle). Knocking 15% off of the theorized 4:30 unpadded  Lake Shore Limited time would give us a time of 3:50 or so, getting closer to our goal but not quite there yet, and still over an hour longer than a direct Boston-Albany bus. However, as mentioned the Portland-Seattle segment isn’t actually that comparable to the B&A, being less curvy and with lower potential maximum speeds because of the lack of cab signals. And sure, there is no other modern experience with Talgo operations in the US. A theoretical application of Talgo equipment, though, is perhaps the next-best thing, and that’s what we find in Pennsylvania. Found via this Sic Transit Philadelphia post, Samuel Walker of Test Plant managed to get a Talgo engineer’s estimate of time savings from using their equipment on the old Pennsylvania Railroad mainline between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, a route that in age and alignment is very comparable to the B&A. By the engineer’s calculation, Talgo equipment could cut the 254-mile Harrisburg-Pittsburgh run from 5:30 to 4:10, or from 4:56 to 3:36 if the 34-minute schedule pad is eliminated. That’s a savings of 25% before padding and 28% after. If we cut 25% off of the paddingless 4:30 Boston-Albany running time…we get a time of 202.5 minutes, or 3:22.5–just below the magical (to me!) 3:30 time cutoff. Again, that’s with nothing assumed as to track quality other than the already planned upgrades inside Worcester and the installation of a second track built to Class IV speeds west of Worcester.

Of course, those upgrades are far from nothing–probably on the order of hundreds of millions, if not multiple billions, of dollars. But if Massachusetts can find the money for a second track and signal upgrades along the B&A and if state politicians are willing to negotiate hard with CSX over dispatching priority and if  Amtrak or the state are willing to take a risk on Talgo equipment and if the Talgos prove able to do for the B&A what they could do for Pennsylvania…I see no particular reason that a functional Boston-Albany service couldn’t be established in relatively short order. A time of 3:22 end-to-end isn’t magical, but given that a train would be able to hit Pittsfield, Springfield, and Worcester within that time frame. And while a full 3:22 might be at the high end of the time savings that Talgo can offer, even if the time savings are more in the Cascades range of 15% a combination of new equipment and more extensive track upgrades should be able to get travel times down into the 3:30 range. That’s certainly better than any bus can do while stop at all three intermediate cities.

So I do think a renewed, relatively fast Boston-Albany service is possible. It would require significant investment, but it seems to be doable. The main advantage of a train over buses is that one service will be able to stop at all of the major cities in the corridor. Potentially, such a service could become the backbone of a frequent intercity rail network serving the entire state, with the Boston-Albany trains making connections at Springfield and Pittsfield to DMU services in the Pioneer Valley and Berkshires. That’s far, far in the future, but it would be an enormous mobility “win” for the entire state.

A couple of notes: 

1. One particular challenge for the introduction of Talgo equipment to the line might be the presence of high-level platforms. There’s no question that the next-generation trains on the line will be built for high-levels; South Station, Back Bay, Worcester, and Albany have full high-level platforms and Springfield is getting them as part of the NHHS project, not to mention that Amtrak is going to an all-high-levels policy in the Northeast. Of current intermediate stops, that leaves only Framingham and Pittsfield. In Pittsfield, building a side track for a high-level platform so as to maintain freight clearances shouldn’t be too hard. Framingham is a little more of a challenge; it currently has mini-highs and will still be on a freight clearance route, which perhaps further militates for not stopping there. That being said, Talgos are low-slung and there are no examples of high-level-platform-equipped ones operating in the US, so that might increase costs some.

2. One of the problems with the current setup on the Worcester Line is that, while there are three tracks in segments, much of the ROW was cut down to two tracks from Newton in to accommodate the Mass Pike. There are, further, very few sets of crossovers. One of these things can be remedied; the other realistically cannot. More crossovers it is (this will help MBTA trains more than intercity service!).

3. CSX may not love the idea of ceding half of their ROW for a second track to be committed mostly to passenger trains, but it’s not like Massachusetts doesn’t have leverage. The state has already paid for full double-stack clearance, and along with that carrot can hold out the stick of capital investment in helping the Pan Am Southern Alliance clear the Hoosac Tunnel route for higher speeds and double-stacks. CSX doesn’t want to lose its huge advantage in the Boston market; the state shouldn’t be afraid to play hardball, perhaps even asking CSX to pick up some of the tab for the second track.