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MBTA, Keolis make moves toward a commuter-rail system with more frequent service

Governing takes a look at recent scheduling changes by the T that begin to move commuter rail toward a more European-style "regional rail" system that assumes people might want to get somewhere other than downtown Boston at times other than just rush hour.

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Not everyone works Mon to Fri 9 to 5 and the trains are needed for all kinds of reasons besides getting to work.

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With lower, subway-level fares at stations where there are currently cheaper transit alternatives. If transit is supposed to be a public good, then there's no reason for economic segregation, where the poor are unable/unwilling to pay the price premium for the faster CR service and instead choose to take slower buses.

The southwest Boston stations (Roslindale to West Roxbury, Hyde Park, and Readville) are the most obvious examples, but stations like Brockton (BAT to Ashmont), Braintree (Red Line), and Lynn (441/442 to Wonderland) also deserve consideration. Of course, to be successful, these lower fares need to be combined with CharlieCard usage and free transfers to bus/subway (like the Fairmount Line), because people still need to make connections once they get into North/South Station.

This issue of a price premium is something that won't be addressed by two of the most popular proposals for reforming the T's fare structure. For instance, reduced fares for low-income riders will still result in a substantial gap between CR fares and bus-subway fares, so poor people will still self-segregate onto the slower/cheaper bus-subway options. Meanwhile, most versions of "free the T" only apply to bus/subway and not CR (which would benefit "rich suburbanites"), so low-income folks are still excluded.

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They have tried charging the subway fare at Lynn and found about only 8 people per day shifted from bus/Blue Line to commuter rail with the lower fare. They plan to drop the Lynn low-fare pilot on June 30th.


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Although nothing that most people who take the train even occasionally would know.

The current (previous?) MBTA thinking is akin to opening an Ice Cream shop that only sold expensive mud flavored Iced Cream and blaming slow sales on general lack of interest in Ice Cream.

The trains needs to run like the subways. People shouldn't never need to consult a schedule, they should just know you won't wait too long for a train.

In Europe they seem to have no problem with small DMU trolley-like trains sharing the same tracks with high speed regional trains and freight. They don't have a problem with rail accidents so this is a problem which can be solved.

My hope is that the Biden administration pushes for changes that get rid of the freight-first mentality when it comes to rails but I have no reason to be optimistic.

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We must stop acceding to the train car demand that every moving train take on at least eight cars, even if six of them are idle for the entire journey.

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There's no such demand. Nowadays, trains regularly run with 5-car consists.

However, there is a constraint on the coupling/decoupling of cars. Federal railroad regulations require a complex, time-consuming procedure for adding/removing train cars from consists, making it difficult to justify the hassle when compared to the cost of running cars empty. So if you have an issue, bring it to the feds (and call for less government intervention)...

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It's a management decision that goes back to the late 1970s when they decided to abandon DMUs (the old Buddliners (B&M), ShoreLiners (New Haven), and Beeliners (New York Central) in favor of push-pull trains.

And yes, DMUs (and eventually EMUs) are the way to go. But again, that's not up to the unions, that's a management call.

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After all, you need people to assemble, disassemble, and reassemble the trains as you propose. That’s why you will never see a Red or Orange Line train with less than 6 cars, regardless of day or time of day. The labor costs are higher than the fuel costs.

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The system is designed for the needs of an packed trainset during rush hour even through almost no one wants that and it's almost the least efficient method of utilizing equipment.

Trains with a smaller capacity running every 10-15 minutes during rush hour, 25 minutes non-peak would make 90% of commuters better off.

But they won't switch to that model because the T has invested so much in the current way of doing things and the feds make it almost impossible to run E/DMUs unless 100% of heavy rail was removed from the tracks which is a non-starter in New England.

From prior discussions it seems as if nothing is going to change without serious changes in Washington. But the FRA is mostly run by lobbyists for freight who are eager to see passenger trains die off entirely.

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I thought that the main impediment to DMU/EMU use was signal systems weren't configured for something that small. Those are still "heavy" rail components, whether it's a1-2 car consist, 5 cars, 9, or 12.
Where I've heard of the need to exclude heavy rail is the context of LRVs and heavy rail being prohibited from being on connected track at the same time. I've never heard that mentioned for DMUs and multiple "heavy" unit consists sharing the same track.

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The T is soliciting proposals for EMUs for future electrification. But I would guess that even with EMUs it's unlikely they'll run shorter trains during low-demand periods, because doing so doesn't actually save enough money to make it worthwhile.

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The commuter rail schedules are nuts.

Take the Lowell Line: Pre-pandemic the MBTA changed the schedule such that it was impossible to get in by 9am from West Medford if someone walked the kids to one of the adjacent parochial or nearby public schools first. The latest run was 8:20. Before that change I could walk my kids to school by 8:30, then walk to the station in time to catch an inbound train

On the other end? Getting in a full day and then getting to school pickup by 6pm was impossible with no trains for nearly an hour at peak rush between 4:50 and 5:40 or so. And those trains were inevitably sardine city.

This is clearly one reason people start driving to work.

It would only take small adjustments to fix this, but it seems as if T workers can only think in 1970 workday mode and assume June Cleaver would be around to pick up the slack.

I often found that if I were working past six the schedule frequency got more ridiculous. Never mind that a lot of people put in 9-10 hour days.

One would think they could put out a survey and find out quickly why this shit don't work. But that would violate the Pioneer Institute Ethos of "make government not work ever".

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The schedules went from:

2016: 8:27, 8:45, 8:58

2017: 8:34, 8:53

2018: 8:25, 8:48 (so yea, that's kind of annoying)

2021: 8:34, 9:19

So the 8:34 train has been as early as 8:25, which, yeah, could make a difference. In theory, a train every 15 minutes would be great. The 8:48 train got in at 9:01.

(Archives here)

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The commuter rail network serves a lot of low density locations like Rowley, Concord, Cohasset, Franklin, etc. where it is hard to imagine that the expense of providing walk-up "subway like " frequencies could ever be justified by the amount of ridership it would generate.

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On most of the CR, it's single rail anyway, which would make equal service in both directions a real pain. To even have a chance to have service that is anyway near compariable to a subway, they'd have to build a second track everywhere on the system that only has one track. There is enough debt already so that isn't going to happen.

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Not to mention NIMBYs who didn't want the first track in the first place making a stink about such a second track if it were possible.

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On pretty much all of the lines.

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so there is room to put them back, if needed. There really need to be two tracks at Waltham Center.

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I believe most of the Old Colony lines were once double tracked. So the right-of-way should already provide for restoration, shouldn’t it? Just thinking out loud here. Have no idea about what laws might apply. However, it would seem to me that once a single track was approved, that would preclude any possibility of blocking the restoration of the 2nd rail.

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I'm just picturing the Franklin and Needham lines and it seems at the top of my head that there are all single lane bridges and tracks on most of the routes.

I could be wrong.

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There's a mix of legitimate cases, bad decisions, and B.S.
"Legitimate cases" is a guess on my part, but I figure ADA-compliant platforms might take up more of the width of right-of-way at some locations than some older designs.
To me, "bad" (or inexplicable) is stuff like Roslindale/West Roxbury where a former two-track was taken up back in the day and one track laid (looks like) in the middle of the previous layout, so you'd have to take it up to lay two again.
B.S. is stuff like the bad or inexplicable but being done TODAY when we should all know better, such as the restored branch to Scituate (might also be termed NIMBY sabotage). Besides the B.S. of no late service and the B.S. of no train horns at grade crossings... I don't mind that they single-tracked it for newly restored service (especially since there are some double-track segments for passing in opposite directions) as long as they build it with the capacity to expand, but the crowning B.S. is when they constructed brand-new stuff only narrow enough to permit one track. It was somewhere along there, maybe rebuilding the Route 3A overpass, that they built the pass-through so tight - so if ridership/frequency on the branch ever got high enough that two-track was critical, you'd have to tear down a brand-new overpass (that should last 75 years) and build it again!

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Most of the Commuter Rail network is double-tracked, and nearly the entirety of the network was once double-tracked except for the Old Colony.

Old Colony: mostly single-track, with portions of double. Major bottleneck issues along the Red Line where there is more frequency.

Fairmount: fully doubled except at the terminus at Readville (originally double)

Stoughton: mostly single on the branch line

Providence: fully double, three tracks to Readville, four-track ROW Forest Hills-Readville

Franklin: Mostly double, full line except Forge Park spur originally double, project in place to increase double track.

Needham: Mostly single, but originally double to West Rox

Worcester: Fully double, four-track ROW 128 to Framingham

Fitchburg: Fully double except the pesky Waltham single track (originally double)

Lowell: Fully double

Haverhill: Originally fully double. South of Oak Grove the Orange Line uses the right-of-way and doubling would be tricky (but not impossible, since the Orange Line mostly has an unused third track which could be converted). Full line originally double-tracked.

Eastern Route: Doubled to Beverly with the exception of the never-double Salem Tunnel, each branch was originally double with the exception of the outer bit of the Rockport branch.

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I didnt realize Europeans didnt go out after 8pm

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on those lines where the service was cut.

I know they will get to it "sometime" this summer, but it would have been nice to have it in place for Mother's Day.

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The T may be taking advantage of these weekend closures (and, in the case of Fitchburg, weekday closures too) to expedite construction on the Green Line Extension.

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for GLX and PTC/signal work, but it offered an alternative bus.

Right now there is no shuttle. The only way to get to/from Lowell on weekends now is by taxi/Uber/Lyft, or limited BostonExpress bus service to Tyngsboro, with no stop in Lowell -- the Commonwealth's fifth most populated city.

Eventually there will also be a better bike infrastructure, but the Minuteman/Bruce Freeman trails currently have no direct connection between the two.

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