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.

 

 

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Why Connecticut’s TOD “Power Grab” is a Big Deal

CT News Junkie reports that the Connecticut legislature is considering a pair of bills that would to some extent transform the paths of governance in the state. Writer Suzanne Bates frames the bills as a centralization of power in the hands of the state, which is a conclusion that’s hard to argue with, though I imagine many of my readers will not consider that a bad thing as she clearly does. The first bill concerns a couple of changes to the way the state administers taxes, but it’s the second one that we’re more concerned with here:

The second bill — House Bill 6851 — is also a power grab by state government. It would give a quasi-public state agency — called the Transit Corridor Development Authority (TCDA) — control over housing and commercial development around transit stops….

The bill has changed significantly since it was first introduced — for the better. Initially, the TCDA would have had the power to use eminent domain to condemn property around planned or current transit sites. As amended, the bill keeps eminent domain authority with municipal and state lawmakers.

The bill also no longer has the language that municipal governments “will” comply with the TCDA. Now local authorities would delineate the land designated for transit-oriented development, then enter into an agreement with the TCDA to turn that property over.

Bates considers the bill a threat to local communities and Connecticut’s tradition of home rule. I want to offer a different perspective that might explain why Governor Malloy and his supporters in the Legislature might be willing to consider what seems to be a drastic step.

Transit-oriented development, or TOD, is a central pillar in Governor Malloy’s statewide transportation plan. And there have certainly been successes; the new CTFastrak busway, connecting Hartford and New Britain, has spurred redevelopment along its route, and the governor’s office has made funds available to further TOD efforts in that corridor and along the soon-to-open New Haven-Hartford-Springfield (NHHS) rail line. Malloy has not just pushed the state’s significant (and expensive) transit projects, but has put considerable capital, both political and fiscal, behind the state’s efforts to build TOD around the new or revamped stations.

The problem is that Connecticut’s municipalities have not always been amenable to the state’s TOD strategy. A 2013 Regional Plan Association Report entitled “Halfway There” revealed that of the stations along the Metro-North New Haven Line, the state’s busiest transit corridor, only around half had (realized or envisioned) plans for mixed-use walkable development in the station area.

From RPA report "Halfway There," http://library.rpa.org/pdf/RPA-Halfway-There.pdf

From RPA report “Halfway There,” http://library.rpa.org/pdf/RPA-Halfway-There.pdf

Last year I wrote about how Meriden, whose Amtrak station will be upgraded for the NHHS service, is wasting the potential for true TOD in its downtown, planning to use a huge lot across the street from the station for a park rather than dense development. Newington, along the CTFastrak corridor, has (over the objections of its well-meaning economic development chief) considered implementing a moratorium on high-density development. Taken together, these developments–or really, lack thereof–reveal an ongoing threat to Governor Malloy’s transit- and TOD-centered agenda: the ability of individual municipalities to sabotage the state’s efforts through uncooperativeness or obstinacy.

Quite simply, the ability of Connecticut’s municipalities to prevent TOD not only undermines principals of progressive development but threatens the the viability of the state’s expensive transit investments themselves. It’s a pattern that has played out repeatedly across the country: some higher level of government, be it federal, state, or regional, invests significant money and energy in building a new transit system, only to see the municipalities along the line reserve the benefits of the investment for existing residents of the area. The rhetoric may be about local control and “the character of the area,” but the realities of the movement are all too often more cynical. Pocketing the benefits of state investments in mobility while denying them to other people who may wish to relocate to the area and refusing to allow growth that will enhance the state’s investment is not only regressive; it is the kind of rent-seeking that has handicapped transit planning all across the country for years. Connecticut must do better, or its aggressive transportation investment program will largely go to waste.

A CTFastrak bus demonstrates the state-municipality disconnect as it approaches the not-yet-complete station at Asylum Street and Union Place in Hartford, 3/29/15. The buses and busway are a state investment; the not-ready-for-opening-day downtown stations are the responsibility of the City of Hartford.

A CTFastrak bus demonstrates the state-municipality disconnect as it approaches the not-yet-complete station at Asylum Street and Union Place in Hartford, 3/29/15. The buses and busway are a state investment; the not-ready-for-opening-day downtown stations are the responsibility of the City of Hartford.

Is the bill that the Malloy administration is currently pushing the right way to correct this imbalance? In truth, the bill, especially in its watered-down form, won’t make the state’s powers that much greater, since it already holds power of eminent domain. The bill would seem to exempt state-owned properties from local zoning–a major step–and would centralize parking rates in the station area in state hands, which is a no-brainer. It would also create a central administration for station areas, which could be good or bad, depending on the leadership and competence of that authority. I wonder, though, if there is a middle way forward where municipalities that are willing to voluntarily follow the principles of TOD could maintain local control so long as they meet a checklist of requirements that would allow the state to maximize its investment. I’m sure many of the larger cities would be thrilled to work with the state on that approach. It’s also worth noting that state priorities aren’t always the most progressive; the state has recently agreed to fund a second massive parking garage for New Haven’s Union Station.

In the meantime, though, the Malloy-backed idea of centralizing land-use authority in station areas might represent a way forward for numerous transit systems across the country. Imagine if instead of building transit and just hoping the local municipality will do the right thing, states and authorities could go about their infrastructure business secure in the knowledge that land use will support, not sabotage, ridership potential. Stephen Smith made the argument on Friday in New York YIMBY that “Community Control is Destroying America’s Cities,” and while he may overstate the case to some extent, similar dynamics have too often played out around new transit investments. Let’s give Dannel Malloy’s efforts at state-driven TOD a shot. After all, it may be a power grab, but it’s not about abusing authority; it’s about protecting an investment from those who would waste it. That’s a principle citizens of any ideological stripe can get behind.

 

Worrying About Commitment to TOD on the NHHS Corridor

I’m a big fan of the NHHS rail project, which promises to connect New Haven, Hartford, and Springfield with (more) frequent commuter rail service beginning in 2016. The project’s promotional materials have heavily promoted the corridor’s transit-oriented development (TOD) potential, promising to concentrate development in areas around stations all along the line. That’s a promising tack in Connecticut, which suffers from sprawl and has significant available urban land for development (with the possible exception of New Haven), but now I’m wondering about the commitment of project managers and state and local governments to true TOD.

This morning, the @NHHSRail account tweeted out the following:

Just so that we’re clear, the tweet juxtaposes the hashtag #TOD with a promise to build a parking lot—a parking lot!—immediately adjacent to the to-be-rebuilt Meriden station. Let’s just be very clear—under no circumstances does placing a parking lot next to the rail station qualify as transit-oriented development. The original article, from the local newspaper, explains that the building currently standing on the site is vacant and was acquired by the state by eminent domain for the sum of $675,000, which does seem excessive for a single-story empty building in a far-from-vital ex-industrial city…but I digress.

As you can see from the pictures accompanying the article, the existing building is no prize, and its demolition is probably nothing to mourn; but seriously, we can’t use a lot immediately adjacent to the station for something other than parking? Maybe folks don’t want to live right next to the tracks, but hey, I’m from Chicago, where watching trains 20 feet away from your window is a pop culture reference. The renderings for the station area give a pretty good idea of how the area will look (the lot in question is at the lower right hand corner):

Meriden station rendering

The lot is certainly big enough for a good-size development, and it’s no closer to the tracks than many of the other buildings in the area. Also, there’s certainly no lack of parking in the immediate area:

Meriden parking

And remember: this is Meriden, which people from New Haven (where I grew up) think of as a sad sack. There’s not exactly much demand for all that surface and street parking. So why, exactly, is the state going to the expense of building a whole new lot, at the expense of mis-using a prime TOD site?

My concern with Meriden’s TOD plans doesn’t, however, end there. For one thing, the new parking lot and station will mean the closing of the Brooks Avenue grade crossing at the northern end of the station site, which can be seen above. Grade-crossing elimination is a good thing, but disconnecting elements of the grid is usually a bad one.

And then there’s the giant hole in the urban fabric across State Street from the station. Reeking of urban renewal, it is indeed a product of that damaging period in Connecticut history; it was once home to the failed Meriden Hub mall. A sequence of aerial photographs from NETR Online tells the story:

1934:

Meriden 1934

1966:

meriden 1966

And of course, you can see contemporary imagery above. The site, of course, did not sit empty for the last 50 years; for most of the intervening time, it looked something like this:

meriden hub mall

And today? Well, the city of Meriden has a grand plan to turn the empty lot into a park. A very pretty park, to be sure, and plans including daylighting the covered-up creek that’s visible in the 1966 photos, but…come on. You have a giant piece of empty land, across the street from a train station, in an area with serious highway congestion and demand for transit access. Meriden is an easy commuter to New Haven, Hartford, or Springfield, and a several-days-a-week commute to New York City is totally feasible. Sure, the downtown has a long way to come, but every unit we don’t build in transit-adjacent areas gets built in sprawling ones. And this is a lot with potential to house hundreds, if not thousands, of people.

A comprehensive, corridor-wide TOD approach recognizes this reality and stresses the crucial nature of using land near transit facilities efficiently. Building consensus among all levels of government so that city governments don’t go off-message like this is a necessity. Meriden has extensive plans for other downtown TOD, but you can’t just throw away your biggest lot like this. Once it’s a park, it’s never going back. And that’s a shame, because actions like the ones showcased here, seemingly innocent decisions made to solve apparently obvious problems, have the potential to totally undermine the entire corridor’s–really the entire state’s–TOD approach.