Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Something is very wrong with MBTA project procurement

When the news broke about the escalating costs of the MBTA's Green Line extension to Medford and Somerville, I can't say I was surprised, but the cost numbers have now escalated in to absurdity. I'm not an expert in the bizarre project procurement, but the costs are now to the point where the project really should be reviewed and rebid, even if there is a delay. It is far beyond what similar projects cost in other cities, and the project procurement team at the T should be removed to allow someone from the outside to bid the project.

How ridiculous are the T's numbers? Let's take a look at them, and compare them with some other projects:

Minneapolis-Saint Paul Green Line
Distance: 11 miles
Cost: $957 million
Cost per mile: $87 million
Completion date: 2014
Engineering difficulties: rebuilding bridge over Mississippi River for light rail, rebuilding the entirety of University Ave lot line-to-lot line, junction and flyover with existing Blue Line in Minneapolis. Likely cheaper than the Green Line extension. But not 9 times cheaper.

Los Angeles Expo Line Phase II
Distance: 6.6 miles
Cost: $1.5 billion
Cost per mile: $227 million
Completion date: 2016
Engineering difficulties: Several grade separations, parallel bike/walk facility. Still four times cheaper than the GLX.

San Francisco Central Subway
Distance: 1.7 miles
Cost: $1.6 billion
Cost per mile: $941 million
Completion date: 2019
Engineering difficulties: full deep bore tunnel in a seismically active area with three underground stations. In a rather expensive city to work in. And barely more than the GLX, which is being constructed in a grade-separated right of way!

Seattle University Link
Distance: 3.1 miles
Cost: $1.9 billion
Cost per mile: $613 million
Completion date: 2016
Engineering difficulties: full deep bore tunnel below the water table in a seismically active area with two underground stations. And quite a bit cheaper per mile than GLX.

Now, here are two MBTA projects:

Red-Blue Connector
Distance: 1500 feet
Cost: $750 million
Cost per mile: $2.6 billion
Completion date: ???
Engineering difficulties: Cut and cover tunneling below the water table in a constrained corridor. Certainly no greater than building the Central Subway in San Francisco, yet somehow three times more expensive. This should probably be in the lower end of the $100 to $200 million range, not three quarters of a billion.

Green Line Extension
Distance: 4.3 miles
Cost: $3 billion
Cost per mile $700 million
Completion date: 2019?
Engineering difficulties: Relocating existing parallel commuter rail line, building a flying junction, parallel bike/walk facility.

Here's the thing: none of the engineering challenges faced by the GLX and RBC are unique (flying junction in Minneapolis, parallel path in LA) or insurmountable, yet the costs are an order of magnitude greater than in other cities. The Green Line Extension is between three and nine (!) times more expensive than similar light rail lines, and more expensive than new light rail lines which are being built using deep bore tunneling techniques, which are not cheap. High construction costs? Seattle and San Francisco have pretty high construction costs and labor wages too. The remaining GLX construction should be rebid mimicking the processes used in these cities with a new team at MassDOT, and if costs aren't cleaved significantly, there should be a full investigation as to why.

The for the Red-Blue connector, which everyone agrees is a very important link, somehow costs three to four times what much more complex projects cost in Seattle and Los Angeles (while the Blue Line uses heavy rail equipment, it is the same diameter as light rail trains). The project is only 1500 feet long, doesn't require a deep bored tunnel, and has only one station at Charles, and the headhouse there already exists with provisions to connect it to the Blue Line. The fact that it costs $2.6 billion dollars per mile is laughable. For the cost of one mile of construction in Boston, Minneapolis could build 30 (!) miles of light rail, and Seattle four miles of deep bore tunnel (about what you'd need for the North South Rail Link) and at a cheaper rate per mile than the Green Line Extension. It's not even in the ballpark of reality, and whoever at MassDOT comes up with these numbers needs to be sent out to pasture.

There is no logical reason why a project in Boston should cost triple—or more—what a similar project costs in another city. $2 billion was suspiciously high. $3 billion means that a lot of people are on the take, or that money is being pissed away. I'm all for transit expansion, but not at these prices. An outside manager is a good start. But this has been a problem for a long time, and the T's project procurement staff has shown no ability to do their jobs. Get rid of them.

This is correctable. It needs to be corrected.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Quick thoughts on the ½ block Mass Ave bike lane

I took the liberty to bike home this morning from running across the Harvard Bridge to check out the new bike lane there (sans phone, however, so no sexy pictures). Here are some quick observations:

  • It needs flexi-posts. Too many drivers are used to using it as a right turn lane. Once installed, they should preclude that, which is where the real safety improvements come (that and No Turn on Red markings, which are long overdue; perhaps DCR and MassDOT will match with NTOR on the Cambridge side of the bridge). Whatever system is put in place needs to be kept year-round, with a snow-clearance plan (which includes the bridge, which MassDOT did not clear this past winter).
  • Flexi-posts would be nice on to the bridge, which is always a bit harrowing with catch basins on the right and traffic on the left, but that would mean it would be hard to pass slower cyclists, a relatively frequent occurrence. Perhaps intermittent (every 30 meters/Smoots) posts that would still allow cyclists to change lanes would work. It's also MassDOT territory and interagency cooperation is not a thing in Massachusetts.
  • Once in place, there will no longer be the merge/bus stop/right turn hell that has been the situation there for years. (Or as vehicular cyclists would call it: paradise. To be dead serious for a moment: the previous situation at Mass and Beacon was exactly what vehicular cyclists advocate for: a free-for-all with bikes acting as cars. People died because of it. It is high time for the vehicular cyclists to be banished to the dustbin of history.)
  • The bike lane westbound/northbound on Mass Ave (on the other side) has been striped quite wide—at least 8 feet—coming in to Beacon, where it shares a bus stop. This means that both travel lanes are just nine feet wide. If nine foot lanes are okay (and they should be) you could dramatically improve Mass Ave.
  • The current lane off the bridge is probably the most important single block for a bicycle facility in the City of Boston, and perhaps the Commonwealth. It is heavily used, with high conflict rates and a steep downhill off the bridge which sent cyclists flying in to a sea of cars and bad pavement. So it's the right place to start. But it's just a start. The lane really needs to be extended all the way down Mass Ave (as has been proposed here and elsewhere). 
  • By moving the bus stop to Marlborough, a few parking spaces will be lost. And the M2 will have to find a new stop (I'm not sure where). In fact, it might make sense for both bus stops to be moved to either side of the Marlborough intersection, which would make my previous plan even more feasible (expect a redraft of that in the next couple of days).
  • Still, I think that this is a huge change, because the city eliminated a lane of traffic without a months-long, drawn-out "traffic study" which would claim a reduction in LOS and that therefore a bicycle facility couldn't be accommodated. Is it reactive instead of proactive? Yes. And that needs to change. But it sets a precedent: we can remove traffic lanes in the name of safety. And it's now time to act for a safer Mass Ave, a safer Beacon Street, and safer streets all around.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Poor transit planning: an example that proves the rule

One of the most infuriating things about transit planning is when an agency does something which is designed to cause delays and for which there is an obvious solution. Customers have some understanding about things that are beyond the railroad's direct control: trespassing, downed trees, even (to an extent) equipment, track or signal failures (although these are more preventable). But when your bus or train takes longer than necessary because of a stupid decision by the transit operator, it is far more maddening. These would include things like fare policy (the front-door boarding on the Green Line, which causes completely unnecessary delays for passengers). But that comes in relatively small doses, and it's hard to compute.

A far more concrete example is what happens late every morning on the Haverhill Line. Starting this week, all midday service between Haverhill and Boston has been sent via the Lowell Line to allow for track work on the southern section of the line. What the T did is to take all of the scheduled Haverhill trains and run them express via the Wildcat between Ballardvale and North Station. They maintain their original arrival times, but by running express via faster trackage should arrive at North Station 15 minutes early, so the arrival time is schedule padding. Except in the case of one train, 210, which will arrive late every day, because of a scheduled conflicting move.

210 leaves Haverhill at 9:05 and is scheduled in to Ballardvale at 9:29 before its express trip to Boston. Amtrak's first northbound Downeaster leaves Boston at 9:05, Woburn at 9:23 and Haverhill at 9:53. During normal operations, this works fine: 210 clears Wilmington Junction staying on the Western Route (the track towards North Wilmington) around 9:30, and Amtrak approaches northbound on the Wildcat a few minutes later. With the schedule change, however, Amtrak takes precedence on the extended single track, from Wilmington all the way past Andover, a distance of 8 miles (there is a double-track project in the area which will mitigate this issue; it is proceeding at a decidedly glacial pace). So the commuter train has to sit there for 15 to 20 minutes waiting for Amtrak to pass. Every single day.

But there's an easy fix to this: the commuter train could leave Haverhill 15 minutes later. There are no schedule conflicts, no track conflicts: the train runs 15 minutes later, approaches the single track at Andover just as the northbound Downeaster gets on to the double track, and proceeds in to Boston. Everyone on the train has a ride that's 15 minutes shorter. Everyone is happy.

I'm sure the argument against this would be something like "people are used to the train showing up at a certain time and we don't want to change the schedule on them." This is why you have a schedule change. The train would be moved later. A few people who don't pay any attention will wind up waiting 15 minutes at their station the first day. Some of them might consult a schedule posted there and realize that the schedule was changed, and not come 15 minutes later the next day. No one will miss the train, only a few people would have a longer wait. Which they are going to have anyway, because nine days out of ten the train is going to be held for conflicting traffic (unless the Downeaster is delayed significantly, and it's been running on schedule more frequently recently).

Plus, the current delays will lull passengers at Andover and Ballardvale in to thinking the train will always be 15 to 20 minutes late, so they'll start showing up then anyway (Pavlov's dog, etc). Then, on the one day that the track is open and the train operates on schedule, people will be left behind (at least 212 operates rather shortly thereafter). So by not changing the schedule to reflect reality, the following occurs:
  • All passengers from Lawrence north have a 15 to 20 minute on-train delay every day north of Andover.
  • All passengers at Andover and Ballardvale have a 15 to 20 minute on-platform delay.
  • On the occasion that the train operates on schedule, any passengers who decide to come at the actual usual arrival time at Andover and Ballardvale run the risk of missing the train, although they may decide that the 15 minutes saved most days make up for the 40 minute delay once a week.
Pushing the departures back 15 minutes would solve all of these problems, and give passengers a very fast trip in to Boston express from Ballardvale. So why doesn't this happen? Perhaps institutional inertia. Perhaps incompetence. Maybe the T doesn't even want people to get used to a faster trip when the trains are shifted back to the local schedule in a few months. But it's a sad state of affairs when the T and Keolis decide that a 20 minute delay is acceptable—every day—and the passengers are the ones who pay. 

And then they wonder why the passengers lose all faith in the transit providers. This is why.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Burying the lede: Caltrain saves money vs driving, not Uber

There's an article about a woman who replaced her car (well, SUV) with Uber and how much money she saved. A lot of the variable costs were from her commute "from home to KP in Menlo Park was 70 miles round trip and I’d go down to the office 2–3 times a week." That's quite the commute to do by Uber.

She spent $4700 on Uber last year.

The cost of an Uber from Sand Hill to San Francisco is $51 to $68, without any surge. An average roundtrip would cost $120. So if you did this two to three times per week for a year it would cost $15,000. It's pretty clear that she's not replacing Uber trips with car trips, or she wouldn't have made it to May. So without a car, how does she get to Menlo Park?

By train, of course. Caltrain runs a nice service south from the City, with frequent trains, many of them express. She uses Uber on either end (you know, there are these bike things, and buses, but those are hard). So there's probably an $8 Uber ride on either end, and the other $104 are on Caltrain (40 minutes, generally faster than traffic). Except it costs $13.50. So the whole commute costs $30, or ¼ of the cost of riding Uber both ways, all of the savings from transit.

Taking Uber both ways would cost 50% more than driving. So that doesn't work. What she really means to be saying is "I started taking transit for the majority of my commuting miles and saved a ton of money." The Uber use helps the transit work in this case, but it's Caltrain that is the main reason this works, not just Uber.

Monday, August 24, 2015

A quick look at the T's privatization bus list

If you follow this page, you'll know that I've gone on in the past about hyperbole about MBTA privatization. And today, with the list of routes out that are up for bid, a few comments. The idea, apparently, is to reallocate the resources from these routes to core services, so that there will be an increase in service by covering these few routes with other vehicles (the T can't buy any more vehicles because it is out of room to store and maintain buses), except for late night. The T breaks it down in to three groups—low ridership local routes, express buses (most but not all) and late night routes—but I'd split the first group further in to routes under 200 (core MBTA service routes originally run by the MTA) and routes numbered above 200 (peripheral or suburban routes run by other providers).

If this is as far as privatization goes, it seems to make sense, especially reallocating the service hours and vehicles of large buses being used on low volume routes to other routes and times of day. The T shouldn't spend time and money to maintain smaller vehicles, and for the few routes where smaller vehicles would work, as long as this expands service rather than replacing it (i.e., the buses are put to better use on other routes) it will help service and ridership. The fear, of course, is that in the long run the number of Carmen-operated 40-foot buses goes down, with, perhaps, a deterioration of service. I'm less sure about the express buses, where I think the idea might be to use coach-style buses for these trips, see below.

A couple of resources:
The 2014 MBTA Blue Book
Changes to transit service since 1964
Miles on the MBTA (a kid—a rising sophomore now?—who had ridden nearly every route the T operates, which is impressive)

Note: service hours are estimated, as are riders per hour and riders per trip. Ridership is from the Blue Book, cost is net cost from a separate spreadsheet from the T.

Core Routes

5. The 5 s a social service route; it completely duplicates the 10 except for the stretch along the McCormack Housing Project which would not have service during the midday. It operates with few passengers, most of whom could probably take the 10. (It's not as bad as the 48, but similar.) It could be operated with smaller buses, easily, which would probably yield cost savings.
6.5 service hours per day
161 riders, 25 riders per service hour, or 12 per trip.
$0.91/passenger mile

18. The 18 is a local route that runs on Dot Ave from Andrew to Ashmont. Because it runs roughly parallel to the Red Line on 30 to 60 minute headways, most people would opt for the Red Line. So it is likely used for short hops by people unable to walk as far. It is likely similar to the 5 in that is is more a social service route than anything else, and could also be operated with smaller vehicles.
17 service hours per day
619 riders, 36 riders per service hour, 18 riders per trip
$0.65/passenger mile

68. The 68 is a lot like the 18: it parallels the Red Line, has few passengers and rarely-if-ever a full bus (except when the Red Line has a fault, but it is doubtful that enough people know about it to use it) and has the main purpose of getting people between Kendall, Harvard, Cambridge city offices and the library. Nearly all of its functions are duplicated elsewhere, and it didn't even run between 1981 and 1998. It, too, could be operated with smaller buses to carry the passengers necessary, and the bus used for the 68 could be pressed in to service on Mass Ave where it would carry far more passengers.
12 service hours per day
468 riders, 39 riders per hour, 20 riders per trip
$1.00/passenger mile

99.  This one is harder to explain. The 99 is a subway feeder trip, and at rush hour runs every 20 minutes, which leads me to believe that if it has two or three heavy Orange Line trains empty on to it, it will need a full-sized bus. It's not a route like the 5, 18, or 68: it has a purpose other than shortening a walk slightly for a few people. It has more than the ridership of those three routes combined. Could it be better integrated with the 106 to provide even headways where they share a route? Certainly. But other than cheaper operators, I don't see how you get away with operating this with smaller buses.
30 service hours per day
1555 riders, 52 riders per service hour, 26 riders per trip
$0.49/passenger mile

201/202. These are two variations of what was Route 20 from Neponset to Fields Corner. The two trips now combine to run every 15 minutes (or so) on a variety of routes. The route is short and it seems that it has relatively low ridership per bus but high frequency; and most people who would take it instead walk to the Red Line (a station at Neponset on the Braintree Branch would obviate much of the need for the route). Depending on rush hour loads, smaller buses may suffice.
72 (?) service hours per day
1339 riders, 19 riders per hour, 9 riders per trip
$n/a

Suburban routes

52. The 52 is an old M&B Route through Newton on Centre Street in Newton and through to the Dedham Mall. It has minimal rush hour feeder ridership since it traverses a not-so-dense part of Newton and most people can walk to the 57 or Green Line or Express bus instead. Whether its ridership merits a smaller bus depends on the loading at different times of day.
17 service hours per day
766 riders per day, 30 riders per hour, 23 riders per trip
$0.49/passenger mile

70A. This is really interesting. The 70 is not listed, because it's a busy trunk route which could never have smaller buses. However, it is one of the most dysfunctional routes the T runs because … of the 70A! I've advocated in the past for splitting the 70A off as a feeder or transfer route to the 70. So in theory this would accomplish exactly that; I would assume that the privatized portion of the route (the 70A) will not run all the way in to Cambridge; otherwise you'll have even less coordination between the two mostly-parallel routes with different operators. (If the T does do this, they should all be sacked.) I still think interlining the route with the 556 makes as much, or more, sense, but splitting the 70A off of the 70 could be very beneficial.

I have no idea what the 70A portion of the ridership is as it is not broken out in the Blue Book. But if the current two buses were allocated to the 70, it could provide 8 to 10 minute headways at rush hour and 15 minute headways midday, allowing it to provide a Key Route level of service, with even headways (something it does not do right now) and alleviating chronic crowding along the route. This could be a major bright spot in this privatization scheme, if implemented properly.

210 and 212 are two local routes in Quincy and Dorchester that parallel the Red Line, although they provide frequent feeder service at rush hour. The 212 is a slight variant and only runs a few trips at rush hour, and has far higher ridership per bus/trip than the 210, which has ridership spread more across the day. Since 212 is a feeder, it may require larger vehicles to cope with rush hour crowding, although 210 is more a Red Line parallel route (although it does provide direct service from Quincy to Dorchester that would otherwise require a transfer).
26 service hours per day (21: 210; 5: 212)
210: 736 riders per day, 35 riders per hour, 18 riders per trip, $0.31/pax/mi
212: 293 riders per day, 59 riders per hour, 30 riders per trip, $0.89/pax/mi

439. This is a great candidate for a smaller bus. It carries 97 riders all day, but is the only service to Nahant; it is one of few cases in the area where a town has transit service at rush hour and not at any other time of the day. Even assuming that all riders go inbound on two trips and outbound on the others, (a fair assumption) this is little more than a feeder to the Lynn Commuter Rail station (and a couple of trips to Wonderland) with 20 riders per trip, which could be handled by a smaller vehicle, and this bus could be put to better use.
6 service hours per day
97 riders, 16 riders per hour, 8 riders per trip.
$1.83/pax/mi

451. Way out in the suburbs, this is a bus that is a Commuter Rail feeder to Salem, running at rush hours to and from Beverly. It also provides last-mile service between the Commuter Rail station and the Cummings Center. It could probably be operated with smaller vehicles.
9 service hours per day
163 riders, 18 riders per hour, 10 riders per trip
$0.89/pax/mi

465. Most of the time, this bus runs between Salem and the North Shore and Liberty Tree malls (and you know how I feel about buses to malls; maybe the mall should pay for it). At rush hour, however, it operates like the 451, with more direct service to and from the train station. In fact, during the PM rush hour, passengers to the mall ride the commuter trip first, and can then stay on for the inbound which loops back to the mall. Which actually makes sense. Still, it has relatively low ridership, and a smaller bus may suffice. For a time, the 451 and 465 were through-routed, allowing one-seat rider from Beverly to the malls.
20 service hours per day
414 riders, 21 riders per hour, 16 riders per trip.
$0.65/pax/mi

Express bus routes

I'm a bit more perplexed about the express routes shown. The 500-series routes to Newton, for example, are heavily used (often standing room only on 40' transit buses) and operate frequently: the type of service transit buses excel at. The same goes for the Medford buses (320 series). The 505, for example, operates 20 inbound trips with 556 inbound riders, meaning that the average load is 28 riders per bus, but this includes a few trips in the 6 and 9 o'clock hours, so at peak times—when the bus runs every 9 minutes—the buses are full. And the bus runs like a city bus from Waltham to West Newton, so a low-floor transit bus is far superior to a high-floor commuter coach. (Many transit agencies do operate coach-style bus service, but it is usually from a park and ride to downtown, which Commuter Rail provides in Boston.) The 502 and 504 provide similar service and frequencies. So in this case you'd need a 40-foot bus, so I'm not sure what the savings would be, unless the successful bidder ran a feeder system to frequent rail service on the Worcester Line that could bypass traffic.

The costs per passenger mile for these express buses ranges from $0.17 to $0.32, with higher fares and longer distances.

The 351 makes a lot more sense, in theory. It is an outbound express bus from Alewife to Burlington and carries about 20 passengers on each of its four trips, some of which may serve as pull-outs for other routes. It also serves an area akin to those served by several of the 128 Business Council's shuttles, which serve similar office parks with similar schedules, in areas which otherwise have little if any transit service. It is a good example of a private service that leverages the existing transit network (rather than competing with it) in an area which would likely be hard for the T to justify serving. (Full disclosure, I work for another TMA which operates last-mile shuttles.)

But the issue with the 351 is that it might not operate in a vacuum: some of its trips may be a pullout which then turns as a 350 or a 352. The 352 is also on the list, and I would assume that these would be sold as a package deal. Similarly, it's not surprising to not see the 170 bus because it serves basically as a revenue pull-out trip for 70 buses. (Although a later trip for the 170 during each rush hour would dramatically help that service; perhaps some of the 70A's resources could go towards that.) This is the issue with trying to privatize parts of a network: you often wind up pulling on a string and unraveling the whole sweater. These seem to be surgical enough that they won't dramatically affect it, but—to mix metaphors—it could be a slippery slope.

It will be interesting to see what kind of response the T gets. The union doesn't seem keen on letting anything out of their grasp, and there would be some perceived risk in operating a trip privately and not running afoul of the Carmen. Unlike the lead-up to Pacheco, there are no proposals to privatize an entire garage, but rather a few small routes. It's less likely to ruffle a lot of feathers, but the slippery slope argument holds. First they came for the 68, and I said nothing, because I did not drive the 68. Will they then come for the 28 or the 66?

It will be interesting.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

How the North South Rail Link could work

North South Rail Link schematic showing current train volumes for Commuter Rail
lines, potential future RER-style connections and new and existing stations.
Discussion about the North South Rail Link has bubbled up again, with Mike Dukakis and Bill Weld writing in the Globe about how it should be a priority, Commonwealth magazine calling them out on where the money would come from, and Dukakis replying that if you wanted to find the money, you certainly could. A thread started on Universal Hub with a lot of people wondering how the rail link would function. Here are my thoughts/explanations.

Efficiency. The crux of the issue is that MassDOT wants/needs more space at South Station (and eventually North Station) and is limited by the number of tracks. Turning trains around is time-consuming: you have to unboard (deboard?) the train, board the train (even at rush hour, 50-100 or more reverse commuters may be waiting), have the crew change ends, and then thread out the same slow trackage you came in. Even with the best of practices, a terminal station track can only accommodate a train every 15 minutes or so. But if trains run through, boarding and alighting is faster and easier, there's no need for the crew to change ends, and with more destinations,  fewer passengers get off at each stop. You could route 20 trains per hour per track, meaning that four tracks in the rail link could do the work of 20 at South Station (currently there are 13; the expansion would add about a half dozen more.)

Electrification. You need to electrify the whole system (and maybe Amtrak to Portland). Maybe you could get away with dual mode engines, but that's lipstick on a pig. Electrification of the Commuter Rail network would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 to $2 billion dollars. Not cheap. But huge operational efficiencies: electric trains are cheaper to run, cheaper to maintain, and have faster acceleration meaning that trip times (and staff costs) are shorter, while ridership is higher (faster trains = higher ridership).

North/South imbalance and the Grand Junction. The idea behind the North South Rail Link is that trains coming in to South Station run through the tunnel and out one of the North Side lines. This is the Philadelphia model. This works well in theory (some passengers would get a one-seat ride; others would have to change), but in practice more trains run in to South Station than North Station (although this was not always the case; in 1972 there were twice as many passengers at North Station). Several pair off relatively well:
Needham-Haverhill
Providence/Stoughton-Lowell
Franklin-Fitchburg
Old Colony Lines-Eastern Route
But falls apart when you realize that all the North Side routes are taken and you haven't accounted for the Worcester or Fairmount Lines. You could route them through to other terminals, say, to Anderson Woburn, but this seems wasteful; you don't need a train every 8 minutes inbound fro Woburn. This is where the Grand Junction comes in. If it were grade-separated in Cambridge, Worcester Trains could split off at West Station (hopefully) and make a loop (much like lines in Melbourne, where a similar imbalance existed), serving Yawkey, Back Bay, Downtown and Kendall. As for the Fairmount Line …

Potential for RER-style service. Having the rail link in place with the Grand Junction connection would not only allow you to route trains through the city, but it would also allow you to implement RER-type service filling much of the urban ring and providing more frequent service than Commuter Rail (although Commuter Rail could run more frequently as well). If all the paired lines shared one set of tunnels, the Worcester Line could share the other with the following RER-type services:
Allston to Assembly via Cambridge and Sullivan
Readville to Allston via Downtown and Cambridge
Allston to Chelsea via Downtown and Sullivan
These would operate frequently all day, every 10 to 15 minutes, allowing transfers between subway and Commuter Rail. This leverages the capacity of the rail link to create a complementary urban rail network to provide new connections and take some pressure off the existing hub-and-spoke network.

Get rid of North Station. Most ideas about the Rail Link include three downtown stations. But you only need two. Where North Station is today is convenient to very little, and the half mile to its north is taken up by highway ramps and water. A better idea would be a station between Aquarium and Haymarket. It still allows for transfers to all subway lines, and there is very little that is less than a 10 minute walk from North Station but more than a 10 minute walk from Haymarket. It would save money, too. (Obviously, the existing Green/Orange line station would remain.)

Open new land to development. Much of the land near North and South Stations is taken up by trackage, and the Rail Link, obviating the need for these stations (a couple of tracks to use in emergencies and for trains like the Lake Shore Limited might make sense, at South Station especially), and this would be very valuable land. In addition, it would render Boston Engine Terminal obsolete as maintenance would be for electric vehicles, and if maintenance facilities were rebuilt on less valuable land (say, in Billerica or next to the Anderson/Woburn station). Based on what Northpoint just sold for, it would be worth maybe half a billion dollars in development rights. A lot of this money could be captured to help pay for the rail link itself.

Will the North South Rail Link happen any time soon? Probably not. But hopefully this will help people understand its potential (which is huge!) and what we're talking about when we talk about the NSRL.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Allston: Let's look for a win-win

This is a straight quote from Fred Salvucci about the Allston viaduct: instead of talking about shared pain, we should talk about a win-win. He also referred to my plan as "genius" (or maybe me as a genius, I am too verklempt). Anyway, talk amongst yourselves; I'll give you a topic: here are a couple of updates regarding some technical-ish aspects of the Allston project, to address a couple of concerns I've heard from some people.

1. There won't be a direct yard lead from the Worcester Line trackage east in to the train stabling yard. The answer is … yes, probably, let's talk about it further. In the previous iteration, I had the Grand Junction viaduct descending from to West Station at the same time as the Worcester Line ascends. The issue is that for a Worcester yard lead to leave the Worcester alignment, it needs to stay fully at the base grade until the end of the "throat" section before crossing under the Grand Junction.

So, how do we do this? Well, first, the Grand Junction viaduct needs to continue at its grade (24' above grade) for about 50 more feet to allow the railroad track to pass under it, feasible with no more than a 1% grade. And the Worcester Line would need to proceed at its grade (0') to the end of the viaduct, before ascending to the station and assume a low grade beyond since it will be made for low-speed yard moves (let's assume 0.5%). This all works (although the yard may have to be dug out a bit lower, which will be better for eventual air rights). I discussed crossing one of the Worcester Line tracks under the Grand Junction recently, to allow for island platforms and easy transfers.

The issue is that then the Worcester Line would have to ascend to West Station, and it would have to do so at a higher grade, in this case, 1.5%. However, I think this is feasible. There is currently no freight east of the Beacon Park area on the Worcester Line. 1.5% is steep for passenger trains, but there is a mitigating factor: it would be traversed uphill by trains decelerating westbound to West Station, and downhill by trains accelerating eastbound from the station. So the gravity would actually aid the trains in and out of the station.

Here's a drawing:


2. There is a question of the support structure for the Grand Junction viaduct. I am not a structural engineer (as I've said before), and it's certainly a possibility that the single center posts would not be sufficient to support freight rail. This could be mitigated with supports on both sides of the eastbound Turnpike. While not as elegant as the single post design, it's quite possible that it would be required for 150-ton freight railcars and heavy rail passenger trains. This is obviously something that needs further study.