Pioneer Valley Should Consider its Rail Options Carefully

Frequent passenger service is coming back to the  Pioneer Valley. Amtrak, and its contractors MBTA (which, though the Pioneer Valley is outside of its service area, provided engineering services) and Pan Am Southern (the freight railroad from which the Commonwealth has bought the tracks) are wrapping up work on the Knowledge Corridor project, renovating the decrepit rails along the Connecticut River in order to shift Amtrak’s Vermonter back to the line through Holyoke, Northampton, and Greenfield from its 20-year diversion to the tracks through Amherst. With the end of that long slog in sight–Amtrak service is supposed to return in early 2015–Valley political leaders have begun calling for commuter trains on the line to complement the restoration of the once-daily long-distance Vermonter. These trains would run several times daily between the cities of the Valley and Springfield, connecting to commuter trains to Hartford and New Haven (a project scheduled to open in 2016), and hopefully eventually MBTA service east to Worcester and Boston.  Sounds great, right? Let’s take a closer look.

The Knowledge Corridor project represents a huge opportunity for the area–the Valley is essentially being gifted a high-quality, 79-mph railroad at no local cost (other than the local share of the state dollars that went into the renovation, of course).  Using that high-quality railroad for more than the one train a day in each direction represented by the Vermonter (plus a couple of freight trains a day) seems like a no-brainer, but in order to maximize the usefulness of this resource, Valley leaders should think carefully about what kind of local rail service they want to introduce. The current plan (explained in the MassLive article linked above) seems to be to purchase old, excess commuter-rail equipment from the MBTA and run a few trains in each direction every day, primarily serving 9-t0-5 commuters.  This is certainly a start–and preferable to not using the Connecticut River Line’s new capacity at all–but for me it hardly seems to represent an ideal use of the resource.

For one thing, commuter rail is very expensive.  American commuter trains–built to withstand collisions with the heavier freight trains with which they often share tracks–guzzle fuel at very high rates.  Commuter trains are required to have two or more (usually more) crewmembers on board at any time, regardless of the number of riders. With labor expenses making up the vast majority of public transit operating costs–a fact little appreciated by the public–running a commuter train with multiple employees is vastly more expensive than running a bus with only one driver. Meanwhile, commuter trains tend to attract riders only during the peak commute hours since they run very infrequently or not at all in between, eschewing a broader vision of what public transit can be and do for a community. Five or six trains a day between Springfield and Greenfield is a start, but the ridership that could be attracted will likely not move the needle much in terms of the landscape of transportation in the Valley.

Meanwhile, alternatives that would make better use of the Valley’s new transportation resource do exist. Most current public transit service in the Valley seems to wander through rural or sparsely populated areas, focusing on bringing people from the country and suburban areas into the nearest town. Frequent rail service along the Connecticut River line, though,  has the potential to directly connect most of the Valley’s densest core cities–the areas most likely to generate serious ridership. The only major population center whose core the line does not serve directly is Amherst (which, indeed, will lose trains service entirely once the Vermonter is re-routed), but that area would be directly linked to downtown Northampton and the new train service by the a planned “Bus Rapid Transit” route. Currently, and rather astonishingly, no direct service of any kind ties together the downtowns of Greenfield, Northampton, Holyoke, and Springfield.  The Connecticut River Line rebuild offers the opportunity to do exactly that.

Given the gift of an upgraded rail service, and the lack of current options to connect its densest cores, the Valley should consider an enhanced rail service that will function more like an express bus service between the downtowns of the Valley’s several leading cities. Rather than a commuter rail mentality, which stresses attracting 9-to-5 workers and only operates a few times a day, the line should be used as if it were a regular PVTA bus route–indeed, it could probably be treated as that agency’s most important route, the spine that ties together each city’s local buses. Instead of concentrating service in rush hours, such an operation would run frequently–every 20 minutes or half an hour–throughout the day, making it easy to get from one city to another. A model for such a service can be seen in the Google Map embedded below (zoom in for more detail):


Running such frequent service would be best done with different equipment than the commuter rail currently under consideration as well. In Europe, many rural rail services use railcars called Diesel Multiple Units, or DMUs, that are, at their simplest, essentially buses on rails. DMUs accelerate and brake faster than the secondhand commuter rail equipment Valley leaders are currently considering, and because they are lighter they use considerably less fuel. The trade-off is less capacity on each train, and often a lower top speed, but when trains come more frequently and spend less time accelerating and braking with frequent stops, those become less important concerns.

There remain several constrains on the ability to implement DMU service in the Valley, or anywhere else in the US for that matter. First, and most importantly, Federal Railway Administration regulations currently prohibit lightweight, European-style DMUs from sharing tracks with freight trains. This is actually not as insurmountable a barrier as it might seem, however; many indications are that the FRA is likely to revise their regulations to allow such operations within the next couple of years, and several operations have already been given a waiver to operate lightweight DMU service on tracks shared with freights, so long as a temporal separation is maintained between passenger and freight service (generally, passenger runs during the day, and freight at night). Such operations include MetroRail in Austin, TX; the A-Train in Denton County, also in Texas; the River Line between Camden and Trenton, NJ; and the Sprinter between Escondido and Oceanside, California.Maintaining a temporal separation between freight and passenger traffic, should the proposed FRA reforms not occur, should not be too much of a challenge on the Connecticut River line, where freight traffic is sparse, consisting of at most two trains a day, and can definitely be run at night (in addition to which, one of the major on-line freight customers, the Mt. Tom coal-fired power plant, is closing this year). Another crucial aspect of FRA reform (or a waiver in its place) is the prospect of reduced labor costs relative to commuter train service. While many of the DMU services mentioned above do run with an engineer and conductor on each train, it appears that the FRA waivers allow for them to operate with only one crewmember, with ticket checking being conducted by roving inspectors, an approach known as proof-of-payment. Perhaps most relevant to the Valley, though, are the MBTA’s ambitious plans to convert the inner segments of many of their Boston-area commuter rail lines to frequent DMU operation. A potential Valley DMU operation could piggyback on the MBTA’s DMU order, reducing initial costs for buying new equipment.

The kind of semi-rural DMU service I am proposing here is unprecedented in the US, but it is commonplace in Europe, and has become a crucial part of the British approach to rural rail service, which stresses local partnerships and community ownership of operations. Running frequent DMU service as the trunk line of public transit in the Pioneer Valley would be a unique concept in the US, but what does the Valley stand for if not progressive ideas and publicly-minded innovation?

(Updated 6/2/14 with typo corrections and a new link to story about the Mt. Tom power plant closing)