Friday, June 14, 2019

Don't double down on the mistakes of the past: Cabot Yard edition

The Red Line derailment didn't look too bad at first. The train stayed upright, there were no major injuries, and it appeared that the train would just have to be rerailed, the track repaired, and normal service would resume. The T did an excellent job setting up what skeleton service they could to bypass the site, providing rail service to Braintree and Ashmont without resorting to trying to put ten thousand people per hour on buses which would tie up half of the bus fleet (which is otherwise occupied at rush hour). It seemed the incident had happened in a relatively good location, one of the few where there was some redundancy, as passengers could just transfer from one side of the station to the other.

On Wednesday we found out just how bad it was. With the railcar finally removed (it is rumored that the reason the crane wasn't placed on the Columbia Road bridge as originally proposed was because DCR didn't know the maintenance level weight limit of the bridge and dropping the bridge on the Red Line would have been even worse) we saw what it hit. The little building next to the tracks housed the signal equipment for not only Columbia Junction—often dubbed Malfunction Junction, and that's when the signal system works!—but several miles of track in either direction. Now the 14 trains per hour normally scheduled across the line—which are barely enough to handle rush hour traffic—are reduced to four to six, for the foreseeable future. It turns out that this derailment didn't happen in a good location, but a bad one.

Signal systems are complex and bespoke, so a full replacement may take months or years to procure, if not longer. In 1996, when the Muddy River flooded into the Green Line, normal operations didn't resume for months, and fixes for the system itself took years, and $40 million in repairs. The T now closes the Fenway portal during heavy rain events every few years to prevent a repeat of that situation. However, the proximate cause—flooding from the Muddy River—was a bigger issue: a century ago, the river was relocated in to culverts below Park Drive, and with only so much space in the culverts, it would back up along the Riverway during heavy rains, overtop the levee, and, once the D Line was built in 1959, pour in to Kenmore (which had happened in 1962 as well). This was eventually fixed as part of a 20-year project spearheaded by the Army Corps of Engineers and multiple other agencies, and with the new drainage in place, future flooding of the MBTA is less likely. Instead of continuing with the same reactionary system—where floodgates and sandbags were required every few years, and if they didn't work, as occurred in 1996, the results would be catastrophic—we changed the larger ecosystem to one which would prevent the problem in the first place.

The Red Line derailment should serve as a similar wake-up call. Despite Governor Baker's repeated calls for no new revenue, simply fixing the system we have won't work. We—and I'm putting this in italics—can not continue to double down on the same system we have and expect different results. In the short term, this is going to require we invest in the system to make it more efficient and more resilient. In the long term, addressing wider problems will create the sort of system that will pay dividends when things like this week's derailment occur less frequently and, when they occur, have less impact.

A short history of Cabot Yard and Columbia (a.k.a. Malfunction) Junction

The Red Line was the last of Boston's subways to be built. The original segment operated between Harvard and Park and it was eventually extended, as the "Cambridge-Dorchester tunnel", to Ashmont. At first, the only yard facility was on the north end of the line at the Eliot Shops, a complex of yards and shops tucked between Harvard Square and the Charles River, which is home to the Kennedy School today. When the line was extended in the 1920s, it added another yard—Codman Yard—past Ashmont station. For the next 50 years, the line would operate quite simply: trains would pull out of a yard beyond the terminal, service the line, and then pull into the yard at the terminal. This is optimal: the line requires no mid-line switches, and every train coming in or out of service simply pulls in to the first stop.

The 1970s and 1980s changed that. In 1965, the T purchased the Old Colony right-of-way to build an extension to Quincy and Braintree. This was originally planned to be an independent, express line (which is why there is no Braintree station at Savin Hill or Neponset) which would terminate at South Station. Eventually, it was aligned to be part of the Red Line, which required a new junction where the lines split at Columbia Road.

More importantly, it needed somewhere to store and service the cars. The Eliot Shops were small, cramped, and sat on valuable land eyed by Harvard for years. The T gave the land to Harvard in 1966 but needed to find a new location for its yards. The Ashmont Branch was out: Codman Yard was surrounded by housing. Braintree didn't want a rail yard at the end of the line and blocked efforts for a yard there, so the T finally paid the Penn Central for the freight yards in South Boston to store Red Line cars. This was by no means their first choice: in order to access the line, trains would have to traverse nearly two miles of non-revenue track to get to JFK-UMass, and would then have to run the rest of the way back to Braintree to begin their inbound trips. (A small yard—called Caddigan, in keeping with an apparent rule that all Red Line facilities must begin with a hard C—exists past Braintree, but it can only store a few cars.)

This issue was exacerbated in the 1980s when the Red Line was lengthened once again. The line was extended from Harvard to Alewife, but was originally slated to go beyond. As late as 1977, the line was planned to Arlington Center (with an eventual extension) and the decision was made to curve the line past the Alewife station to aim towards Arlington, forgoing the ability to build a yard on then-vacant land just west of Alewife. The next year, the town decided it didn't want rail service, but the deed was done, and no terminal was available at the north end of the line, either. (This was related to me by Fred Salvucci, who had some choice words for Arlington and Cambridge about this. I've written about an idea to build a yard below Thorndike Field beyond Route 2 to mitigate the terminal issues at Alewife.)

So Cabot is it. It serves most of the trips for the Red Line and is the only maintenance facility. It sits less than a mile from Downtown and the Seaport on what is undoubtedly valuable land. (The nearby MacAllen Building and its neighbor have 279 condos; the two northernmost portions of Cabot are about three times as big.) And Cabot is the main reason that the location where the train derailed—Malfunction Junction—is as complex as it is. In fact, the switch where the train derailed has nothing to do with splitting apart the branches of the Red Line, but rather a switch for a "yard lead" allowing trains to return to Cabot. The entire complex is conceptually designed quite well: it creates a series of "flying junctions"—not just between the two branches, but also for trains between the Braintree line and Cabot (most Ashmont trains operate out of Codman so therefore don't require as frequent movement). This requires a series of complex switches and flyovers, but means that operationally no train ever has to cross another line.

Columbia Junction. North (towards Downtown Boston) is at the left. A snippet of a full MBTA track map (the best MBTA track map!) which can be found here.
But Columbia Junction, as built, is a known problem spot and frequent cause of delays, and this doesn't change the fact that Cabot is in the wrong geographic location for a rail yard. In Chicago, nearly every yard is at the end of the line, or close by (the last mid-route yard—Wilson—was decommissioned in the '90s in favor of a yard at Howard). New York, DC and San Francisco rely on yards mostly built on the outlying portions of the line. The T specializes in mid-route yards for the Orange and Blue lines (Wellington and Orient Heights), but both are located adjacent to the line, not miles away.

Thus, Cabot Yard has four major problems:
  • It connects to the wrong part of the line for a rail yard
  • It is not even close to said line
  • Where it connects to the line it requires a series of complex switches
  • It sits on otherwise valuable land, probably the most valuable land of any heavy rail yard (setting aside Commuter Rail yards downtown which, while in sensible locations operations-wise, sit on huge parcels of valuable land and which could be freed up with a North-South Rail Link, but that's the topic of another post entirely).
The T's plan? Rebuild Cabot Yard and Columbia Junction. The cost? At least $200 million for Cabot, and another $50 million or more for Malfunction Junction. The benefits? Negligible. Fixing the switches will help, but Cabot would still requires long non-revenue movements to get trains to the wrong part of the line to provide service and uses high-value land to store rail cars. It's cheaper in the short run than building a new facility, but doubles down on the same issues which require extraneous operations and needless complexity. Yet this is the Charle Baker "no new revenue" vision: keep investment minimal now, continue with the same system we have even when it clearly doesn't work, and somehow expect a different result. 

The solution, of course, would be to build a new yard facility somewhere further south along the Braintree branch of the Red Line. The question is: where?

The Braintree Split

I wrote last year about how the optimal location for bus garages is probably on state-owned land adjacent to highways, rather than next to transit stations as the T is proposing at Wellington and Riverside. No one wants a bus yard in their backyard, and building bus lots next to train stations instead of transit-oriented development is doubly wrongheaded. While rail yards are more location-constrained than bus yards (since they have to physically connect to the railroad) there is some potential to leverage the same sort of arrangement of land in Braintree for the Red Line.

If the Braintree branch were being built today, a logical location for a yard would be at what is currently the Marketplace at Braintree development. When the line was built, this was an active rail yard (a small portion still is a freight yard), and the Red Line was built on the "wrong side" of the tracks to access this parcel. Using it today would require not only nearly $100 million to buy the land and businesses, but nearly-impossible negotiations to somehow reimburse Braintree for that commercial tax base. The site south of the Braintree garage has less value (about $25 million) but is also on the "wrong side" (the Red Line is east of the Commuter Rail to allow access to what is now the Greenbush Line) and would require some sort of flyover or duck-under to gain access, while being slightly smaller than Cabot. Further south, there are some potential sites, but these would require longer lead tracks and have potential wetland impacts and NIMBY implications.

A map showing the locations of the sites mentioned above.
There is a site near Braintree, however, which would have no acquisition cost, since the state already owns it. It would have no impact on the tax base, since it has no assessed value. It will never be suitable for residential or commercial development, since it sits inside a highway interchange. It is, of course, the land within the Braintree Split. The land in the "infield" of the Braintree Split amounts to about 70 acres, which is nearly four times the size of Cabot Yard. The interchange is a "Directional-T" interchange, and designed so that at its center, three roads cross each other at the same point. The are, from lowest to highest, the mainline route from 93 north to 93 north, from Route 3 north to 93 south, and from 93 south to Route 3 south. This is important, because it would impact how a potential rail yard could be linked together.

None of the parcels bounded by the Braintree Split is as large as the entirety of the Cabot Yard (about 18 acres), although Cabot itself is split roughly evenly by the 4th Street bridge between the maintenance facility and the storage yard. Four of the sectors are roughly the same size, two are significantly smaller. Given the topographical constraints, it would be easiest to link together the 16 and 12 acre parcels. The map below shows the parcels within the Split, the size of each in acres, and, superimposed with dashed lines on the 16- and 12-acre parcels, the outlines of the Cabot shops facility and storage yard, respectively, with dashed lines.

Braintree Split parcels, with the Cabot shops and yard superimposed on the 16- and 12-acre parcels.
The Braintree Split is not as optimally located as, say, the site south of the Braintree station. It's a bit further from the Red Line, and not at the end of the line, so some deadhead movement would be required to reach the terminal. But it's considerably closer to both the end of the line in Braintree and to the line itself. The closest portion of the 12-acre parcel is only about 0.25 miles from the Red Line tracks, although there are some roadway ramps in between. (There are plenty of examples of rail yards interacting with highways, like the WMATA West Falls Church yard in Virginia, 98th, Rosemont and Des Plaines yards in Chicago,  and South Yard in Atlanta.

It is worth noting that Braintree Split isn't exactly flat. If you drive from 93 south to Route 3 south, you descend from an elevation of 180 feet down to 40 feet. Rail yards have to be flat (so, you know, unmanned trains don't roll away if their brakes fail), and rail grades, even for a rapid transit line, should be at most two or three percent. Given that the 12-acre parcel is lower than the 16-acre parcel, the two would have to be used for separate facilities, but there is no reason that the 12-acre parcel couldn't host a storage yard with shop facilities at the 16-acre parcel. In fact, the 12-acre site is better suited for a storage facility (since it is long and narrow) while the 16-acre site would have plenty of room for a maintenance facility and potentially additional storage tracks, which might be necessary if the Red Line were one day improved to offer service every three minutes.


This would require about 1400 feet of lead tracks from the Red Line to the storage yard, and no new land acquisition as all would be built on land already owned by the state. The yard lead would extend flat over the first set of ramps and Route 3 north (the Red Line climbs at about a 3% grade out of Quincy Adams to cross over the Old Colony Commuter Rail), and would then descend down to the level of Route 3 to pass over the northbound Burgin Parkway ramp and under the southbound one. There it would split in to two, with one set of tracks leading to a level storage facility and the other extending up to the maintenance facility further north. Access to the maintenance yard would be available from near the zipper lane facility just north of the split, although parking might be better provided on the side of the highway with a pedestrian bridge for workers to access the yard. If funds were available from nearby developers, these walkways could even allow a station to provide better access to nearby office buildings to provide a shuttle service from Quincy Adams or Braintree.

Simplifying Columbia Junction and Savin Hill

There are other knock-on effects to simplifying Columbia Junction and relocating Cabot Yard.

In addition to the Old Colony Commuter Rail line running through a single-track bottleneck south of JFK-UMass (which is part of the reason only a few extra trains can be run at rush hour), there is a bottleneck on I-93 there as well. In 2012, CTPS developed a concept to add HOV lanes to I-93 and a track to the Old Colony lines (thereby removing a single-track bottleneck) near Savin Hill by burying both the Old Colony and the Red Line for the better part of a mile. Yet this concept would likely rival the Allston I-90 project in complexity and cost.

With South Coast rail now being (wrongly, in my opinion) pushed down the Old Colony Line, the FMCB has considered a similar plan. Yet this is based on the false premise that four tracks need to be provided to JFK/UMass, which is mostly required to allow access in and out of Cabot Yard from the Braintree Branch. Without the need to access Cabot Yard via a flying junction, there is no need for four tracks through Savin Hill: by combining the two Red Line branches south of Savin Hill, one of the existing Red Line tracks could be used for Commuter Rail through the Savin Hill bottleneck with only some minor modifications, at least relative to the state's incoherent plan. In addition, by replacing Cabot Yard with a facility in Braintree, the entirety of "Malfunction Junction" could be replaced by two switches, one to split the southbound main line in to two branches, and another to combine the two northbound tracks together.

The sketches below show the current configuration of the railroads adjacent to Savin Hill, and a proposed concept. The proposed concept would have outbound trains stop at Savin Hill, but inbound trains on the Braintree Branch (which has less capacity) would bypass Savin Hill and merge in past the station (as they do today), although it could certainly be realigned to allow all trains to serve Savin Hill. North of this junction, the Red Line would operate as a simple, two-track railroad through to Andrew and on to Downtown and Alewife. Inbound passengers at JFK/UMass would no longer have to play platform roulette, or stand on the overpass and wait for the next train, as all service would take place on a single platform.

Current track layout.

Proposed track layout showing the combination of the Red Line branches moved further south.
The Cabot Yard leads and Track 61

The tracks from JFK/UMass to Cabot would not have to go unused, however. I pointed out several years ago that Track 61 could reasonably be connected to Andrew Station to provide a shuttle from JFK/UMass to the BCEC and Seaport. With the Cabot yard leads freed up, such a shuttle could instead run from JFK/UMass to the BCEC, providing a connection from Dorchester and the South Shore to the Seaport without relying on the overburdened Silver Line. There should be enough room for two light rail tracks from JFK/UMass to the Seaport (with a single-track terminal at JFK, much like the Braintree branch of the Red Line is being operated after the derailment) with the other Red Line track given over to the Commuter Rail. This would provide a useful link using the otherwise-excess right-of-way.

Cabot Yard as midday layover for Commuter Rail

While Cabot Yard is poorly-located as a Red Line facility, it is in the right place for midday Commuter Rail storage. This page is on the record saying that the best way to reduce the need for midday storage is to just run more trains, but peaks will be peaks, and having somewhere near a terminal to store trains will be important until we build the North South Rail Link (in which case trains will be able to run through the tunnel to outlying yards, freeing up land near the terminals). Today, the Commuter Rail system uses yards at Southampton (near Cabot) and Readville (at the end of the Fairmount Line, so not near Cabot, or really anything) for midday train storage.

Yet to run more trains, the agency needs more storage, so it is looking at sites in Allston and Widett Circle, despite the expense of building in these locations and their desirability as development sites. (As a participant in the planning process for Allston, the supposed need for storage drives many undesirable and expensive portions of that project.) If Cabot Yard was vacated by the Red Line, it would make a fine facility for midday storage: it's very close to South Station and, with a rail yard on one side and bus yard on the other, a less-desirable development site. The portion of the facility between the Haul Road and 4th Street is more than double the size of Readville, and could thus replace Readville entirely while providing enough additional capacity to obviate the need for new construction in Allston or at Widett Circle.

Conclusion

As usual, actions taken in one location decades in the past cascade through the entire transportation network. NIMBYs in the 1960s pushed the T to build Cabot Yard, even if it was nowhere near the Red Line itself. A changing economy means that the land it occupies, which was little more than a post-industrial wasteland in the 1970s, is now worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The Braintree Split, built in the 1950s, provides enough room for a rail yard in its median. Malfunction—er, Columbia—Junction has always been a solution looking for a problem. By thinking pretty far outside the box, we could correct many of the mistakes of the 1970s. But it involves making an investment in infrastructure beyond just fixing what we have.

The current administration, it seems, is willing to double down on the mistakes which got us in to this mess. When the Muddy River flooded in to the Green Line, we didn't just build a storm barrier and hope that it would work. We looked upstream for the cause, and rebuilt the Muddy River to keep it from overflowing in the first place. While the reactive solution might seem cheaper today, in the long run, unless we take proactive, decisive action, we'll pay for the mistakes again and again.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Charlie Chieppo, call your office

The vaunted Pioneer Institute, that of free marketry and good government, has a contest out which solicits plans to "move people and goods forward." (Your fearless blogger is preparing an entry.) They encourage many people to apply, and say
If you are a rider, driver, transit employee, or simply an observer, we invite you to share how you would improve your commute, from immediate issues around parking, communication, safety, and station repair and design, to big ideas that will reduce congestion, advance bus rapid transit, and double the number of commuter rail riders.
So imagine my surprise when a Pioneer acolyte, Charlie Chieppo (along with a professor at D'Amore-McKim … which I'll abbreviate as "Dim" because that's my impression of the intellect of anyone associated with this article), goes into the pages of the Globe to argue that, no, we don't need Commuter Rail, because it will be replaced by self-driving cars in no time. Also, come on, Boston Globe, you're above this. (Oh, wait, except for Jeff Jacoby, he of amazing Twitter ratios. The man has no shame, so that's something.)

As for the article: where to start? This basically hits every trope of the "cars are going to save us" argument that people make without even the faintest clue of how self driving cars are (or aren't) working, and thinking about, you know, what you do with cars when people get out of them. But this is so chock-full of nonsense it makes sense to critique it line-by-line. Grab a beverage and hang on, because here we go. (Original in plain text indented, my comments in italics)

*****

Self-driving cars could make commuter rail obsolete
The could. Anything could. Unicorns and puppies could. Let's see if you can make a cogent argument. I'm ready to put on my surprised hat.
The rise of shared electric self-driving cars and the transition from a world of ownership to one of consumers purchasing transportation as a service holds the promise of significant economic, environmental, and quality-of-life benefits.
Wait, this is being written in present tense? Because outside of a few very few minor prototypes, there are literally no self-driving electric cars. Certainly not operating on roads. Maybe they mean Teslas, which are electric, but are pretty far from self-driving, although they do have a tendency to self-drive their drivers in to stationary objects. Waymo, which is way ahead of Tesla on the tech front, has a CEO pointing out that not only are self-driving cars decades away, they may never be able to fully drive themselves. So let's not pretend that this is something that is a couple of years away. Because it's been a couple of years away for a few years now. So, maybe, use the future tense here.
But it will also pose an existential threat to public transportation in general and to commuter rail in particular.
Because … let's see. Commuter Rail has been the least-affected by Uber and Lyft, which are basically self-driving cars with drivers. They have the same utility, and Commuter Rail ridership has gone up in the past few years (more on this in a moment). But, sure, go on.
The first recommendation in the December report from Governor Baker’s Commission on the Future of Transportation is “Prioritize investment in public transit as the foundation for a robust, reliable, clean, and efficient transportation system.” In broad terms, the commission is right. But maximizing potential benefits from the unprecedented disruption of surface transportation that lies ahead will also require fundamental change at the MBTA and a hard look at which transit modes are positioned to compete in a brave new world.
Do we have any idea of what this brave new world holds? No, we do not. And why not? Because fifteen years ago Segways were the future. Three years ago we were all going to be riding hover boards. No one knows the future. Sure, we should probably think about contingencies. But we should also invest in what we have now that, you know, exists.
The commission’s charge was to look at the Commonwealth’s needs and challenges over the next 20 years. But if that horizon is extended to 40 years,
But it's not. It's 20 years. Why? Maybe because no one can predict the future in 40 years. In 1890, would anyone have predicted the coming of the car by 1930? In 1930—when biplanes ruled the day—would anyone have foreseen the 747 in 1970? In 1970, when gas cost a quarter a gallon, would anyone have seen $4 gas and global warming, but no flying cars or Jetsons highways? The only constant from 1970 is that cars cause traffic and traffic sucks. And you're proposing more cars. Go on.
station-to-station service to the suburbs is unlikely to be very attractive in a world where shared electric self-driving cars will offer much faster door-to-door service at a price that won’t be much higher.
Where to begin with this word-salad. Station-to-station works because it's a nice straight line from the city to the suburbs. Door-to-door sounds good, especially if it's much faster, but this relies on the completely fallible assumption that somehow cars are going to solve traffic. In a region which now has the worst traffic in the country. Self-driving cars are likely to increase vehicle miles traveled (just as Uber and Lyft have), and thus congestion. The reason people take the train is that it is faster than driving (as well as cheaper than parking). And don't show me some perfect model, because the Occam's Razor is "you put a lot more cars on the road and you'll get more congestion."
Drivers are normally the largest expense for any transportation business. It currently costs about 55 cents a mile to operate a vehicle with a single occupant. But it’s estimated that the cost could fall to 15 cents a mile for autonomous vehicles carrying two or three passengers, which would significantly reduce public transit’s price advantage.
Again, the cost of driving is generally not the only reason people take Commuter Rail. The time also is. And, yes, maybe the cars will make this faster. But the jury is long out on that. Also, should we not invest in Commuter Rail, which is much more efficient at moving people than cars, for 40 years with the hope that maybe cars will somewhat get more efficient even though they haven't—space-wise—uh, ever? That doesn't sound like planning for the future. Also, according to this, most of the efficiency of a car comes from sharing, since 45¢ split three ways is 15¢, so not much off of 55¢. And, hey, slugging works … in a couple of dense markets with very specific conditions, most notably carpool lanes which can bypass traffic (again, time ≥ money). Those aren't a bad idea, but can't really replace Commuter Rail. Also, many people want to be matched with three people, not two, for safety in numbers. This is a feature of slugging, but makes the matching harder and the trips take longer. Also, if you have door-to-door service, you necessarily have a portion of the trip with two people. This isn't terribly easy to do.
Connected vehicles will also dramatically reduce human error, resulting in big increases in throughput thanks to variables like higher travel speeds, less space between vehicles and less frequent braking in response to accidents and other travel events.
Oh, here's the second BINGO square they're checking off. This is nonsense. First of all, connected vehicles will leave more space between cars than people do today, because drivers today generally follow too close. Second, they may deal with some of human reaction time, which is solvable. The problem is that at highway speeds, this accounts for about 15% of braking time. The other 85% is physics. That's a little harder to solve.
In the future, agencies like the MBTA will probably subsidize trips that are currently taken on commuter rail rather than operate them. Even with the transportation transformation in its infancy, Florida’s Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, which serves the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area, eliminated some bus routes further from the urban core, after it experienced an 11 percent overall drop in ridership, and replaced them with subsidies for Uber and Lyft rides. Since then, over 25 US communities have established similar partnerships — and the disruption caused by ride-hailing services is minuscule compared with what is to come.
Ah, yes, the transit mecca of … Tampa-St. Petersburg? Which has 57% the population of Boston and 3% of the transit ridership? (NTD data here and here) That seems like a great comparison. We should aspire to be the same Tampa-St. Pete which is well known as the strip club capital of the world? World class city, indeed! 
MBTA commuter rail ridership has declined.
No. It hasn't. This is based off a Pioneer Institute study which selectively chooses a start and end to argue that Commuter Rail ridership is down. But this is based on data which basically useless, the T has all but admitted that outside of a ridership report in 2012, they really have no idea how many people are taking Commuter Rail. So the authors could have pled ignorance last month. Except that a couple of weeks ago, a new report came out, an actual rider count, and the numbers are pretty clear: Commuter Rail ridership is up. Way up. Up on every line. Up 20% in six years. Up nearly 50% on the Worcester Line. So this is just false. I can't wait until Pioneer comes out a report that argues that the sky is green, the Pope is most decidedly not Catholic, bears defecate anywhere but the woods, and Commuter Rail ridership is down.
Nonetheless, it will remain with us for the next couple of decades. It still needs to be improved, but massive investments in new lines like South Coast Rail or, even worse, Springfield, would be a fool’s errand.
It's been with us since 1834, so yes, that's probably true. And we can debate the intelligence of extensions to Commonwealth's 3rd, 6th and 10th largest cities (and I'd suggest there are certainly better ways to do so for South Coast Rail and that service to Springfield is probably more of a political issue than anything else). But let's not pretend that people going to Springfield are going to want to get in to a car with two or three strangers for a two hour ride to Springfield. If you sit next to a smelly UberPool passenger on your way across town, you can hold your nose. If you sit next to a smelly person on the train, you can switch seats. If you're on your way to Springfield, once you're on the Pike, you're on the Pike. Whoops.
The biggest challenge for the future will be making transit work in congested downtown areas. One Boston traffic simulation model showed that while shared autonomous vehicles would reduce travel times and the number of vehicles on the road even as total miles traveled rose by 16 percent overall, downtown travel times would be 5.5 percent longer because the vehicles would substitute for transit use.
Correct. Although actually this is usually the type of relationship where congestion goes up faster than vehicle miles traveled. But, correct. Something about stopped clocks and blind squirrels.
Rising to this challenge will require focusing more investment in the urban core. But success will require something more: changing the MBTA’s top priority from providing jobs and pensions to serving its riders.

During a three-year exemption from the Commonwealth’s costly anti-privatization law, the T dramatically improved performance in areas such as cash collection and reconciliation and warehousing and logistics, and saved millions. Despite this success, there was nary a peep about extending the exemption or making it permanent.
Can't be from Pioneer if you don't have a non-sequitur about privatization. What that has to do with focusing on the urban core is beyond me. Also, where do you think the destination of most Commuter Rail ridership is? Also, isn't Commuter Rail privatized? My head is spinning.
Few would argue that the MBTA is skilled at putting customers first.
Well, a stopped clock is right twice a day.
The question is whether — in the face of an existential threat to public transit and with far less margin of error — political leaders, bureaucrats, and unions can change the authority’s culture and begin to lay the groundwork that will allow the T to perform the way we’ll desperately need it to in the future.
We're back to Commuter Rail. Is this about privatization or Commuter Rail? Was the first two thirds of the article about Commuter Rail so we could segue to an argument for privatizing something which is already privatized? I'm really confused. Also: does the Globe have editors?
Part of that culture change will be recognizing that commuter rail is poorly positioned to compete over the long-term.
This article has offered exactly zero evidence to support this claim. None.
When the Patriots win the 2060 Super Bowl, stories about a suburban rail network overwhelmed with riders are likely to generate the same reaction as when we tell our kids about having to get up and walk to the television to change the channel.
First of all, Tom Brady will be 82 when the 2060 Super Bowl takes place. Also, football may not be a sport we recognize. And the Patriots, without Brady or Belichick, will be like any of the other 32 teams, giving them a 3.1% chance of winning Super Bowl XCIV. So there's a 3.1% chance that the Patriots win the 2060 Super Bowl. And, I'd say, a 3.1% chance we don't have a Commuter Rail network then, either.
 *****

Here's the rub: Commuter Rail (and transit in general) is really quite good at moving many people in to a small space. Cars are singularly bad at this. A lane of cars carries about 1600 people per hour, even with two or three people in each, it may be able to handle 4000. Commuter Rail, as it runs today, carries more than this, but Commuter Rail, as it's run today, is woefully inefficient. Electrified rail service with level boarding platforms (relatively small investments, compared to the cost of building the rights-of-way which already exist) can increase this five-fold. A well-functioning Commuter Rail line should be able to carry 10,000 passengers per hour, more than a roadway can, no matter who's driving (unless there's a bus lane with a bus terminal at the end).

As Jarrett Walker likes to point out: transit is a question of geometry. You can make all the taxi-summoning apps you want, but cars still take up a lot of space. (Remember, at rush hour, Commuter Rail brings in about as many people to Boston as highways do.) Get rid of Commuter Rail, even if everyone carpools (and people who don't take Commuter Rail already probably won't want to) and you'll increase cars coming in to the city by a lot. And then where do those cars go? In to garages? Not enough garages. (No, they won't go back out to the suburbs to fetch more people; rush hour is over by then.) They'll probably do what Ubers and Lyfts do: drive more miles without passengers. Congratulations, you've traded parking in the city for parking outside the city and more vehicle miles traveled.

But, yes, Commuter Rail is going away.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The case to extend the Orange Line to Wyoming Hill

This page wrote about how extending the E Line just a few blocks would have benefits which would compound across the system. It's not the only portion of the T where this would be the case. While long-range extensions of the subway system are probably suboptimal from a cost-benefit analysis (and would be better served by Regional Rail improvements), it's important to think strategically about what improvements could be made. Sky Rose's Red Line conversion of the Mattapan Line is one such idea, the E to Hyde Square another, and the eventual rapid transit conversion of the Needham Line (the topic of a different post) a third.

Here's another. In this case, as in the others mentioned, the extension of the line in question not only improves service for the short extension, but helps build in redundancy and resilience in to the whole line to improve service across the board. Building a new terminal also helps, allowing the T to better manage headways across the line, rather than relying on the current substandard terminal at Oak Grove.

Why run past Oak Grove?

When the new Orange Line routes—built as the Southwest Corridor to Forest Hills in 1987 and Haymarket-North to Oak Grove route in 1975—were first proposed, the current termini were not planned to be the ends of the line. On the south end, the route was proposed to extend south to West Roxbury and then to Dedham (the right-of-way to Dedham has been sold off and developed, so this is no longer feasible), and on the north side, it was proposed to extend along the Western Route (the Haverhill Line) to 128 and Reading.

Neither of these came to fruition. The extension to West Roxbury would require a full-scale conversion of the Needham Line. It can’t be done in sections (with the possible extension of a segment to Roslindale), but would require severing the Needham Line entirely, extending the Green Line from Newton Highlands to Needham, and building the Orange Line out to West Roxbury or Needham. The right-of-way could easily accommodate this, but it would require entirely new stations and at least two new bridges built on existing abutments. It’s a worthy, logical project (especially since it would take some of the pressure off of South Station, reducing the need to build the $5 billion South Station Expansion project) and would dramatically improve service to the area, but it would be relatively expensive and politically difficult.

The northern extension, to Reading, would be harder still. While the Needham Line is grade separated to Needham Junction, the Western Route has more than a dozen grade crossings between Oak Grove and Reading, including several in Melrose starting a mile to the north. It would require trains with pantographs and full crossing rebuilding, or full grade separation, and service levels which would exacerbate congestion in the corridor at the many grade crossings. Extending the Orange Line would require running all commuter and freight rail service across the Wildcat Branch to the Lowell Line, putting more strain on that main line. It would be technically feasible, but practically and financially (and probably politically), it is not about to happen.

The first mile going north is a different story. Oak Grove is not particularly well-sited for a terminal station, which work best when they serve dense nodes of ridership generation. It has park-and-ride lot which is accessible by local streets—but not from any highway—and mostly serves a local population. While there is some good transit-oriented development near the station, beyond that is parkland: to the east is Pine Banks reservation, and to the west, the Middlesex Fells. Much of the ridership at Oak Grove comes from Melrose, a relatively-dense town with a border just north of the station, where many residents have to choose between walking to the infrequent-and-costly Commuter Rail, playing roulette with the bus schedule, or driving to Oak Grove. Many choose the latter, and with the small size of the parking lot, it is frequently full before 8 a.m.

If you calculate a catchment area for Oak Grove based on Census block data, there are about 5000 people who live within half a mile of the station (and don’t also live within half a mile of Malden Center, with the assumption that passengers closer to Malden would walk there rather than Oak Grove). Oak Grove is situated in between Pine Banks park to the east and the Middlesex Fells to the west; while parks are beneficial urban amenities, they do little to attract ridership to the Orange Line. One mile north, however, there are many more people. Instead of Pine Banks and the Fells, there’s a mixture of single-family and multi-family housing and a population density of more than 10,000 per square mile, one of the densest areas in the Boston suburbs. (It's also one of the suburbs which has at least been talking about increasing density near transit stations, which might be one of the most important single goals for the housing-starved region.) So, if you draw the same circle around Wyoming Hill that you did around Oak Grove, 9000 people are within an easy walk.


How a new terminal can improve high-frequency service

In addition, since Oak Grove was never designed to act as a terminal, it doesn’t work particularly well as a terminal. This is similar to the issues this page has previously discussed at Alewife. A Wyoming Hill terminal, especially one built with three tracks, would allow more resilient operations. The Oak Grove terminal is currently dependent on a single crossover to the south of the terminal, and can become congested at peak hours, impacting the rest of the line; providing an extension to Wyoming Hill could provide a terminal with more capacity and a better operational design. Tail tracks extend past the station, but are unused and overgrown before terminating about 3500 feet south of Wyoming Avenue. The right-of-way is wide enough for rapid transit and Commuter Rail service to coexist (it's at least as wide as the right-of-way to the south in Malden) although to extend the Orange Line, the Haverhill track would have to be shifted east (with the potential benefit of eliminating what is now a 45 mph speed restriction on a reverse curve) and the double track switch may have to be relocated, which would have minor impact on operations. (A fully two-track Western Route would require major bridge work and earthwork between Oak Grove and Malden.)

It would also allow the Orange Line to operate with a double set of terminals on the north end, where the line ends with neither a loop nor a yard. There are few rail lines in the US which have three-minute headways and manage to turn trains at a station like Oak Grove (the Orange Line isn't currently programmed for such headways, but if it one day ran from Oak Grove to West Roxbury, it might need them). Three minute headways depend on the ability to minimize dwell times at stations, and the ability to turn trains at the end of the line.

In the US, New York and Chicago have several lines with three minute headways, but few (if any) of these operate these headways to a stub-ended terminal at the end of the line. In New York, except for two lines which terminate in Manhattan (the L and the 7), this is achieved through branching. For instance, the 4 and 5 trains on the Upper East Side in New York run 28 trains per hour (a 2:09 headway) in Manhattan, but the trains originate at three terminals on the north end (Nereid Av, Eastchester/Dyre Av and Woodlawn) and two on the south (Crown Heights and Flatbush, with some additional service from other locations). In other cases, interlined lines do not run all trains to the end of the line, but have some turn back shy of the terminal (the 6, for example) at peak hour. (Alon has written a lot about branching in NYC; it used to have even more.)

The CTA Blue Line schedule showing how many rush-hour trips
begin or end their runs at mid-line terminals to provide more
service on the core of the system.
In Chicago, several single lines (Red, Blue, Brown) run three minute headways (the Blue Line runs 2:40 headways at peak hour) but all terminate at yards, loops, or more-than-two-track terminals (in the case of the Brown Line, where the three-track terminal at Kimball has a capacity of 21 trains per hour). The Blue Line, which is operating 23 trains per hour, doesn't operate all trains to end-of-line terminals, but basically runs two services overlaid at rush hour: O'Hare to UIC-Halsted and Rosemont to Forest Park. If the Orange Line (in Boston) one day ran from West Roxbury (or Needham) to Wyoming Hill, the most frequent service might only run from Oak Grove (or even Wellington, which with its third track is well-suited for a short-turn terminal) to Forest Hills. So at peak hour, there would be a train every six minutes between Oak Grove and Westie/Needham, and every three minutes from Wellington to Forest Hills, but no terminal would have to turn a train more frequently than every six minutes (which wouldn't require a three-track terminal at Wyoming Hill).

Track layout at Wyoming. Commuter Rail tracks shifted east over existing platform. Orange Line shown with a two track
terminal, with an optional third track and second platform shown to the west.
How extending the Orange Line improves service beyond the Orange Line

Beyond benefitting the Orange Line, this plan would improve service for Commuter Rail riders. Today, most Haverhill line trains make all local stops, including three in Melrose. The stretch from Cedar Park to Wyoming Hill is just half a mile, which doesn't give any time to accelerate, so it adds several minutes of travel time. A full-speed trip from Cedar Park to Malden this would result in a faster trip for most commuters on the Haverhill Line. (It's also possible that the two stations could be consolidated with a new station near the high school—with the assumption that many current Cedar Park customers would walk to Wyoming Hill for the more-frequent Orange Line—although this would require further study.)

Having a station a closer walk to many in Melrose would also benefit parking availability at Oak Grove. Consensus is that the Oak Grove lot is full by 7:30 a.m., if not earlier, despite charging $9 per day for parking. Shifting some parkers to walkers by proving a closer Orange Line option would provide more availability at Oak Grove, meaning that some later commuters who today drive to Wellington (or maybe all the way in to the city) would be able to leave their car earlier and get on the train, reducing congestion.

Building this extension wouldn't be perfectly simple, but it could be done within the existing right-of-way and a portion of an existing parking lot at Wyoming Hill. The right-of-way is 80 feet wide, with at least 65 feet usable (given nearby wetlands), wide enough for two 31-foot rights-of-way. Power is already provided from a substation north of Oak Grove, and another would not likely be required since it is only 0.8 miles from the substation to Wyoming Avenue. At Wyoming Hill, some of the parking lot would be eliminated to build a terminal, and reaccommodating this parking would have to be studied. However, no physical buildings would be impacted, and a two-track station would impact only a small portion of the parking lot.

This extension would not be possible today, because the number of cars serving the Orange Line is stretched too thin as it is. With the new fleet in testing and promised to come online later this year or early next, however, this extra service could be provided, without stretching headways and pushing the line further over capacity. (New signals, in the long run, will also help increase capacity.) Beyond Wyoming Avenue, the cost to extend the Orange Line likely exceeds the benefits. But between Oak Grove and Wyoming Hill, the benefits are high for operations, existing riders, new riders, and parallel Commuter Rail riders, and the costs relatively low.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Kudos, MBTA, on a job well done.

It's not particularly frequent that I write (or anyone else writes) a blog post praising the MBTA (although it's probably less frequent than it should be; the agency does a lot of good work with an old system and all-too-often inadequate funding and support) but today that is exactly what I am going to do regarding the Harvard-to-Alewife shuttle.

Some background: in 2016 I wrote a blog post about how the Harvard-Alewife shuttles could be improved. I noticed it mostly because I was on a training run for Boston (two weeks before my brush with death/fame, but I digress) and ran along Alewife Brook Parkway before taking a bus back to Harvard from Alewife. That was also for the floating slab project which has been with us since, well, at least 2011, and it sounds like the infrastructure will require continued maintenance forever, or at least until the MBTA installs a signal system which allows single-track operation (a regular occurrence for maintenance in Chicago and Washington, D.C.).

My advice went unheeded at the time. When the project came up again this fall, we (TransitMatters; if you haven't already, become a TM member or apply for our first ever staff position) went all in. We contacted the T, city officials in Somerville and Cambridge, and wrote about it in Commonwealth. The idea is mostly sound. The pushback from the T—which we heard through intermediaries—was twofold, although any problems seemed easily solved:

  • First, they argued that it would adversely affect Alewife-Davis passengers (a valid concern, although I had someone who works with the MBTA looking at how shutdowns affect ridership look at some numbers, and these passengers account for a very small number of overall ridership, as would be expected), which could be mitigated by a single shuttle from Alewife to Davis. 
  • Second, that having buses going to multiple destinations would confuse passengers. Less valid, in my opinion. Apparently a train stopping three stops short of is normal terminal isn't confusing, but buses with different destinations is? Or as a friend put it: "people can figure out the difference between Alewife and Braintree, right?"

In any case, on Saturday, December 1, the last day of the floating slab project, I got a message from a TransitMatters member: the T was sending buses out to different termini. Some were going to Davis. Some all the way to Alewife. I had been out of Cambridge, but once home I jumped at the opportunity to Hubway (or BlueBike) over to the Harvard Station to check it out. I wanted to see for myself. I wanted the rumor to be true. Alas, when I got there, the buses were operating "normally."

But I noticed a peculiar difference: rather than being signed for Alewife Sta one of the buses was signed for Alewife Sta via Porter and Davis. If nothing else, this was an improvement in customer information: rather than just the terminal, it showed all of the bypassed stations. By the time I arrived, ridership was relatively low: only about 100 passengers per train, which were handled by two buses, which would be called in to the busway by inspectors as trains arrived. I was somewhat disappointed: I wouldn't get to see the new system in practice, and that it would only live on as a rumor from a busier time of day. Nor would I be able to commend the T on trying something new. Again, just a rumor on the Internet.

So I walked down the ramp towards the pit, when I noticed a stack of papers sitting on the edge of a trash can (it was above the rim, and, no, I didn't eat it). My curiosity piqued, I picked one up and read it. What had I'd stumbled upon?
Operator Guide: Harvard – Alewife
Saturday, December 1: 12 PM to 3 PM
We are testing a new Harvard – Alewife shuttle to use buses more efficiently and to provide a better service to our customers. There are a total of 3 different shuttle routes during this time period. A station official will let you know which route to begin when you are arrive at Harvard or Alewife.
The document went on to describe the three routes in detail, the head signs to use (this described the signage I'd seen earlier) and the fact that it had been observed earlier, but not when I was there. The details are that the T rather ingeniously came up with three routes to provide customers routes without sending all of the buses to Alewife. One route ran express from Harvard to Alewife. A second ran from Harvard to Alewife making all stops. A third ran to Davis Square only. While not as efficient as what I had proposed, it was a good balance of customer service and efficiency. I was very impressed, and I hope the test went well.

The skeptic will say "so why didn't they try this earlier?" I'll cut the T a lot of slack here. Transit agencies are large bureaucracies, and like ocean liners, they take some time to change course. In this case, they not only had to create this document, they had to vet the route, change the buses sign codes, and communicate with the various officials involved. Could it have happened faster? Maybe. Could it have not happened at all? Most certainly: that's the easiest thing to do.

Maintenance shutdowns happen. They're a necessary evil, but they're an opportunity to experiment. ( (* see below for some brief suggestions) Unfortunately, experimentation is often something anathema to organizations like the MBTA. It takes extra effort for an often overworked staff, and even if the potential payoff is high, the willingness to fail is often low. But in this case, the MBTA tried. I would hope that it was successful, and that it will be the basis for better shuttle services for future floating Slab work, and elsewhere on the system going forwards.

So o everyone involved in the planning and operations staff at the MBTA: kudos and thank you. It's always a risk to try something new. And to listen to some guy ranting on the Internet. You did both. I hope it worked. I hope that it will work in the future, and that the T use these sorts of situations to try new things to continue to provide the best possible service to its customers.

* Some suggestions for future experiments …
  • When the D Line is shut down from Kenmore to Reservoir, run a local shuttle bus along the route, but encourage through passengers to use the C Line from Cleveland Circle and allow fares (easiest would be to collect no fares west of Reservoir).
  • When the Orange Line is shut down past Ruggles, run every bus terminating at Forest Hills through to the start of Orange Line service, reducing the number of bus-shuttle-subway transfers by allowing passengers on buses to Forest Hills a one-seat ride to the Orange Line trains.
  • When the Green Line is shut next summer from Newton Highlands to Riverside, run alternating buses to Woodland and Riverside, instead of making every Riverside passenger make the tedious loop in and out of the Woodland station.) 
  • If the Lowell Line is shut down on weekends in the future, immediately fire anyone who proposes whatever the bus route used this fall was. Instead run buses from Lowell to Anderson/Woburn and then express to Boston, and serve the rest of the line with the adjacent 134 bus, with a couple of trips added as necessary to supplement service.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The case for extending the E Line to Hyde Square

This post was conceived of and co-written by an author who wishes to remain anonymous (I know who he/she is and fully support the content in the post).

The proposed design for the new MBTA vehicles.
With the news that the MBTA Fiscal Management and Control Board is considering a massive revamp and modernization of the Green Line, including modern rolling stock, comes the necessity to consider the future of the E Branch. Additionally, the MBTA's Focus40 plan for the next 20 years of the MBTA makes several recommendations for the E line, in particular, which we think could be implemented relatively easily and inexpensively, and would allow the T to provide better, more efficient service in the corridor.

However, the E branch, with its street-running segments in heavy traffic and simple loop terminal, poses a problem. Should the FMCB choose to modernize the system and acquire 100-foot-long cars, two-car trains of the new rolling stock will be unable to fit into the existing Heath Street Loop, one of the smallest on the system once the Lechmere Yard is decommissioned with the coming completion of the Green Line Extension project. This would limit the capacity of any trains serving the E Line, including in the Central Subway and the GLX.

In part as a result of the MBTA’s past lack of transparency about the Arborway line, the future of the E Branch is a touchy subject and a source of frustration for many. There are some in Jamaica Plain would obviously like to see the line extended back to the Arborway, but this is unlikely. This is due to the existing reliability issues on the mixed-traffic segment and the unlikelihood of gaining high-quality dedicated right-of-way on Centre Street (where the 39 bus suffers reliability issues) and which has a narrow cross-section which is, in certain points, just 40 feet wide (narrower than any existing streetcar line in the country with the exception of two blocks of the J-Church on 30th Street in San Francisco, where, it's worth point out, it doesn't snow), so a full-scale restoration still seems unlikely. Indeed, the E branch is the first line to be cut when the T runs short of vehicles; recently it has been relatively frequently terminated at Brigham Circle during the evening rush on some days, apparently due to a shortage of operable trolleys (or as the T's Twitter called it: "disabled trains"). The T has been less than transparent about this, raising bad memories of the Arborway Line’s “temporarily suspended” days, which began in 1985 and lasted for decades (unlike the final 1985 shutdown, service has generally been restored in the evening).

Despite the state of the E Branch beyond Brigham Circle, and the challenges facing it in a modernized future, ideas for its improvement continue to pop up. The line is mostly constrained by a short section of street running near Brigham Circle, where the E Line shares right-of-way not only with the congested Huntington Avenue leading from Route 9 to the Longwood Medical area, but also the frequent 39 and 66 buses. Northeastern transportation professor Peter Furth and then-student Charlie Guo put together a proposal to create a dedicated transitway through this section, a corridor—and major bottleneck—identified by CTPS analysis as one where transit riders represent a high percentage of road users at peak hour. Meanwhile, the Go Boston 2030 plan suggests extending the branch, not all the way back to the Arborway, but to Hyde Square in the northern part of JP.

The Furth-Guo proposal on Huntington Ave.
Between the recent rush-hour cutbacks and the challenges that any proposed Green Line modernization would pose to Heath Loop, it is likely that if the E Branch is to survive beyond Brigham Circle, it is in need of a plan for modernization and improvement itself. Such a plan must satisfy several elements. It should:
  • Preserve reliability for the entire E service. Unreliablity west of Brigham Circle can cause cascading delays down the line, which will become more problematic as the line is extended to West Medford.
  • Be compatible with modern rolling stock
  • Adequately serve, or even improve, the needs of current riders on the E Branch and the parallel 39 bus
  • Increase overall capacity to meet the needs of the considerable development on the Huntington Avenue corridor
This post seeks to to combine the Furth-Guo proposal with additional dedicated right-of-way on South Huntington Avenue and follow the City of Boston’s proposal to extend the E to Hyde Square. Such an extension would likely involve some rearranging and consolidation of stations, not only in the section between Tremont and Riverway as in the Furth-Guo proposal, but additionally on South Huntington.

This Huntington Transitway would have several beneficial features. It would be designed to serve both trolleys and buses; since the E will likely never be restored beyond Hyde Square, there will always be a necessity for a frequent bus serving the Centre Street corridor. As such, while a center-running configuration is clearly preferable on the Tremont-Riverway section, a side-running configuration might be preferable on portions of South Huntington. This is particularly the case on South Huntington approaching the right turn on to Riverway, where the left lane, which is used by left-turning traffic and streetcars, is often congested, while the right lane flows freely. It would also allow an accessible, level-boarding station for trolleys and buses to be built integrated into the sidewalk.

While the right lane need not necessarily be an exclusive transit lane, moving the trolley cars from the left lane to the right—if geometry allows them to then swing into a center right-of-way on the leg of Huntington leading to Brigham Circle—would allow them to bypass this congestion. In the other direction, the right lane of Huntington Avenue westbound—the one which leads to the Jamaicway and Route 9—features far longer queues than the lane leading to a left turn onto South Huntington, so dedicating that left lane to transit should have minimal impact on queuing. Transit signal priority at this intersection would also allow transit vehicles to trigger favorable signals, rather than having to wait in queues.


In the Hyde Square area, finding an adequate terminal proves somewhat challenging. South Huntington is not quite wide enough for a multi-track terminal to be easily built (although it would probably be possible) and the most obvious off-street possibility, the parking lots on the Angell MSPCA property, are too far north of the main ridership generators further south in JP. One possibility would be to acquire the properties on the south side of Barbara Street, the acquisition of which would likely cost in the $2-$3 million (given their current assessment, and which could be partially recouped by allow development on part of the parcel or as air rights); these are currently single-story buildings housing small businesses, which could be offered assistance in relocation. This would allow for three tracks and two island platforms for the future 200-foot trains, which is similar to the Expo Line’s Santa Monica terminus in the Los Angeles area. Given the capacity constraints on the central subway, more-frequent service necessitating a larger terminal would likely not be necessary (and two tracks may be sufficient). This terminal would be well-located adjacent to a library and supermarket.

A sketch of a terminal at Hyde Square south of Barbara St. The track shown as dashed may not be necessary.
This extension would also allow a significant recalibration of bus service in the corridor, making the overall system more efficient. The current E Branch is the only branch of the Green Line which has peak demand in the reverse direction, with the dominant flow toward the Longwood Medical Area in the morning and away from it toward downtown in the evening. The  parallel 39 bus has an opposite profile, inbound in the morning and outbound in the evening. This leads to inefficiency: there are often full 39 buses running parallel to empty E trains in one direction and empty buses passing by full E cars in the other. There are, in fact, four overlapping markets served along the Huntington Avenue-Centre Street corridor.

  • JP Center/Forest Hills to Back Bay. While this is served by the 39 bus, most residents of this portion of JP are within an easy walk of the Orange Line, which is significantly faster.
  • JP Center/Forest Hills to Longwood. This corridor not well-served by the Orange Line, but is served by the trunk of the 39 bus.
  • Hyde Square to Longwood. This short trip is currently only served by the 39 bus, but if the E line were extended, it would provide redundant service along this corridor.
  • Hyde Square to Back Bay. Hyde Square is the furthest point on the 39 bus from the Orange Line which is not also served by the Green Line. Thus, it is often faster to take the 39 bus downtown than to walk to the Orange Line, despite the congestion encountered by the 39 on South Huntington.

The Hyde Square E Line extension would allow simplification of this route structure. The 39 bus would still be required for the JP Center to Forest Hills trip. However, the two Hyde Square trips, which currently cause most of the crowding on the 39 bus, would instead be replaced by the E Line, which has plenty of room in this "reverse-peak" (as far as ridership is concerned) direction. Thus, the 39 bus could conceivably be truncated to the Longwood Medical Area, since the E Line would provide the necessary service from Hyde Square to Downtown and Back Bay (with service from JP Center to Downtown provided by the Orange Line, or by transferring). The current markets would be preserved, and the half-mile extension of the E Line would be balanced by truncating the 39 bus by three times that distance.

Stations would also be consolidated, to provide accessibility without too-close stop spacing. A single bus/rail station would take the place of Mission Park and Fenwood Road on Huntington Ave, serving the 39, 66 and E Line. The Riverway Station would remain, with the potential to build a level-boarding island for buses and trolley cars. The Back of the Hill and Heath Street stations would be consolidated up the hill and closer to the entrance to the VA. This would provide better access to the VA, the new apartments across the street, and place the station on a less-steep hill. A final station would be just south of Bynner Street (on a straight, flat area) before the terminal at Hyde Square. VA and Bynner could be designed as center platform stations for the E Line, and buses could stop in the travel lanes adjacent to them. This would minimize the need to remove parking spaces.
South Huntington, typical profile. Note that while a curb-lane buffered bike lane would be preferable, this setup allows
additional room for parked cars if the street is narrowed due to snow accumulation without fouling the trolley right-of-way.

South Huntington station profile, with Green Line in mixed-traffic and center platforms for trolleys, side stops for buses. Given the narrow width of the Green Line vehicles (104", or 8'8") it would be easy for cars and bicyclists to pass stopped trolleys in a shared lane. When trolleys aren't present, cars could pass bicyclists.
Truncating the Back Bay portion of the 39 bus would have additional benefits, since it would not necessarily have to end its route in Longwood, but could instead provide through service. One intriguing idea would be to merge the 39 and the western half of the 47 bus. The 47 is an amalgam of bus routes: the original Cambridgeport bus (one of the first streetcars converted to a bus, in the 1920s) was extended across the Cottage Farm Bridge and lengthened over time so that it now runs from Central Square to Broadway, with a running time generally in the neighborhood of an hour. Does anyone ride the entire route? Unlikely, given that the Red Line makes the same trip in under 20 minutes. So the 47 could be broken in to two more manageable sections. The northern/western portion, from Cambridge to the LMA, could be interlined with the 39, allowing a direct trip from Cambridge to Jamaica Plain, a new travel pattern to the growing Cambridge market. City of Boston data show that there are 1500 Jamaica Plain residents who work in Cambridge (7.5% of the population; only the Downtown market is larger, yet there is no direct bus from JP to Cambridge), and this would likely be a popular route, utilizing the "backhaul" portion of the 47 with lower peak demand. The eastern/southern portion of the 47, now a more manageable route, could be extended from Broadway to City Point, allowing a one-seat crosstown ride from South Boston to the LMA. 

A mock-up of an MBTA map showing the E Line to Hyde Square, the 39 Forest Hills-Central and the 47 LMA-City Point.
Between Hyde Square and Heath Street, South Huntington Avenue is wide enough to allow a streetcar, some of the original trolley poles may be salvageable and could be reused, and most importantly, there is an active power feed under the street. Constructing this extension, and the transit priority between Heath Street and Brigham Circle, would be relatively inexpensive, and serve tens of thousands of passengers daily and improve the bus network as well. The half acre of land used for the new terminal at Hyde Square would be balanced by the opportunity to develop a similarly-sized parcel at the current location of the Heath Street Loop (and which would probably allow higher-density development). 

Extending the Green Line to Hyde Square, and improving the line south of Brigham Circle, should be seriously considered by Boston and the MBTA. Such a project would likely be eligible for federal funding, as well, as part of the FTA's core capacity program. This program provides federal funding to projects which increase the capacity of heavily-used transit infrastructure. The stipulations for eligibility are:
  • Be located in a corridor that is at or over capacity or will be in five years
  • Increase capacity by 10% 
  • "not include project elements designated to maintain a state of good repair"
The E Line to Hyde Square appears to check all of those boxes. Is the line over capacity? Have you ever been on the Green Line at rush hour? The ability to run larger 200-foot trains, which would require a new terminal on the E Line, would definitely increase capacity by 10% (in fact, there might be other portions of the Green Line which could included in a core capacity grant package). And since this would be adding new service, it wouldn't be a state of good repair project, even if part of it was to move some of the track on Huntington and South Huntington avenues to allow more efficient service. With the added benefit of the potential for federal funding, this project becomes an even easier sell. 


Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Bus yards vs TOD: where is the best place to store buses?

Boston has a bus problem. Beyond narrow, congested roads and routes which traverse several jurisdictions—in some cases half a dozen in the span of a single mile—there are simply not enough buses to go around. At rush hour, some MBTA bus routes only have service every 20 to 30 minutes, despite crush-capacity loads on the vehicles serving them. To add significantly more service would require the MBTA to add additional buses to the fleet, but procurement of new vehicles is not the rate-limiting factor. The larger issue is that the MBTA’s bus storage facilities are undersized and oversubscribed, so adding new buses would require adding additional storage capacity to the system, a high marginal capital cost for any increase in service.

Before doing this, the MBTA may be able to squeeze some marginal efficiency from the system. All-door boarding would reduce dwell times, speeding buses along the routes. Cities and towns are working with the agency to add queue jumps, bus lanes and signal priority, steps which will allow the current fleet to make more trips over the course of the day. Running more overnight service would mean that some number of buses would be on the road at all times of the day and night, reducing the need to store those buses during those times (although they might need to be serviced during peak hours, and may not be available for peak service). Still, all of this amounts to nibbling around the edges. Improving bus service may result in increased patronage, and any additional capacity wrung out of the system could easily be overrun by new passengers. The MBTA’s bus system is, in essence, a zero-sum game: to add any significant capacity, the system has to move resources from one route to another: to rob Peter to pay Paul.

Furthermore, Boston’s bus garages are antiquated. In the Twin Cities—a cold-weather city where a similarly-sized bus fleet provides half as many trips as Boston (although about the same number of passenger miles)—nearly every bus garage is fully-enclosed, so buses don’t sit outside during cold snaps and blizzards as they do in Boston. Every facility there has been built since 1980, while several of the MBTA’s bus yards date to the 1930s; some were originally built for streetcars. Boston desperately needs expanded bus facilities, but it also needs new bus garages: the facilities in Lynn, Fellsway and Quincy are in poor condition, and the Arborway yard is a temporary facility with very little enclosed area.

However, what Boston’s bus yards lack in size or youth they make up for in location. The MBTA bus system is unique in the country in that there is no bus service through downtown: nearly every trip to the city requires a transfer from a surface line to a rapid transit line. In the past, elaborate transfer stations were built to facilitate these transfers, with streetcar and bus ramps above and below street level (a few vestiges of this system are still in use, most notably the bus tunnel at Harvard), with bus routes radiating out from these transfer stations. When the Boston Elevated Railway, the predecessor to the MBTA, needed to build a streetcar yard, they generally built it adjacent to a transfer station, and thus adjacent to as many bus routes as possible. Many of these have become today’s bus yards, and the MBTA has some of the lowest deadhead (out of revenue service) mileage to and from the starts of its routes.

From a purely operational standpoint, this makes sense: the buses are stored close to where they are needed. But from an economic standpoint, it means that the T’s buses occupy prime real estate. Unlike rail yards, which need to be located adjacent to the lines they serve, bus yards can be located further away. While this introduces increased deadhead costs to get the buses from the yard to the route, it frees up valuable land for different uses. In recent decades, the T has sold off some of its bus garages, most notably the Bartlett Yard near Dudley and the Bennett Yard near Harvard Square, which now houses the Kennedy School. The downside is that the T currently has no spare capacity at its current yards, and needs to rebuild or replace its oldest facilities.

While the agency has no concrete plans, current ideas circulate around using park-and-ride lots adjacent to rail stations for bus storage, including at sites adjacent to the Riverside and Wellington stations. The agency owns these parcels, and the parking can easily be accommodated in a nearby garage. The issue: these parcels are prime real estate for transit oriented development, and putting bus garages next to transit stations is not the best use of the land. Riverside has plans in place, and Wellington’s parking lot sits across Station Landing, which has hundreds of transit-accessible apartments.

In addition to what is, in a sense, a housing problem for buses, the Boston area has an acute housing problem for people. The region’s largest bus yards are adjacent to Forest Hills, Broadway and Sullivan Square: three transit stations with easy downtown connections. These issues are not unrelated: there are few large parcels available for housing or transit storage (or, really, for any other use). If the region devotes land to housing, it may not have the ability to accommodate the transit vehicles needed to serve the housing (without devolving the region in to further gridlock). If it uses transit-accessible land for storing buses, it gives up land which could be used for dense, transit-accessible housing. What the transit agency needs are sites suitable for building bus depots, on publicly-owned land, and which would not otherwise have a high-level use for housing.

Consider a bus maintenance facility: it is really something no one wants in their back yard. And unlike normal NIMBYism, there actually some good reasons for this: bus yards are noisy, have light pollution, and operate at all times of day, but are especially busy for early morning operations. An optimal site for a bus yard would be away from residences, near highways (so the buses can quickly get to their routes), preferably near the outer ends of many routes, and not on land which could otherwise be used for transit-oriented development. It would also avoid greenfield sites, and preferably avoid sites which are very near sea level, although if necessary buses can be stored elsewhere during predicted seawater flood events.

The MBTA is in luck. An accident of history may provide Boston with several locations desirable for bus garages, and little else. While most sites near highways don’t have enough space for bus yards, when the regional highway system was canceled in the early 1970s, several interchanges had been partially constructed, but were no longer needed. While portions of the neighborhoods cleared for highways have been, or could be, repurposed in to developable land, the “infields” of highway ramps is not generally ripe for development. Yet they’re owned by the state, currently unused, convenient to highways and unlikely to be used for any other purpose. For many bus routes, moving to these locations would have a minimal effect on operation costs—deadhead pull-in and pull-out time—and the land will otherwise go unused. Land near transit stations is valuable. Land near highways is not.



Building bus yards in these locations would allow the T to add vehicles to the fleet while potentially closing some of its oldest, least-efficient bus yards, replacing them with modern facilities. They wouldn't serve all routes, since many routes would still be optimally served by closer-in yards with shorter deadhead movements to get the buses to the start of the route. (To take this to an extreme: it would be very cheap to build a bus yard at, say, the former Fort Devens site, but any savings would be gobbled up by increased overhead getting the buses 35 miles to Boston.) Highway ramps are optimal because it allows buses to quickly access the start and end of routes, many of which, by history and happenstance, are near the highways anyway.

Most importantly: moving buses to these locations would enhance opportunities for additional housing, not preclude it. Building thousands of new housing units adjacent to transit stations pays dividends several times over. It increases local tax revenues and also creates new, fare-paying transit riders without the need to build any new transit infrastructure. Finally, by allowing more people to use transit for their commutes, it reduces the growth of congestion, allowing people driving—and people riding transit—to move more efficiently.

Specifically, there are five highway sites in the region which could be repurposed for bus fleet facilities:

  • Quincy, in between the legs of the Braintree Split
  • Canton, on the aborted ramps of the Southwest Expressway
  • Weston, where the new all-electric tolling has allowed for streamlined land use
  • Burlington, in the land originally planned for the Route 3 cloverleaf
  • Revere, in the circle where the Northeast Expressway was originally planned to branch off of Route 1 through the Rumney Marshes.

In more detail, with buses counts from the MBTA’s 2014 Blue Book. These are in-service buses required, so the total number of buses at each location, accounting for spares, would be 15 to 20 percent higher. The system currently maintains approximately 1000 buses.

Quincy (67 buses)

All 200-series Quincy Routes

The current Quincy garage serves the 200-series routes, with a peak demand for 67 vehicles. The current garage is in need of replacement. The current yard takes up 120,000 square feet on Hancock Street, half a mile from Quincy Center station. This could easily be accommodated within or adjacent to the Braintree Split, with minimal changes to pull-out routes. Serving additional routes would be difficult, since the nearest routes run out of Ashmont, and pull-out buses would encounter rush hour traffic, creating a longer trip than from the current Cabot yard.

Canton (35 buses)

Routes 24, 32, 33, 34, 34E, 35, 36, 37, 40

This would be a smaller yard and would probably only operate during weekdays with minimal heavy maintenance facilities, but would reduce the overall number of buses requiring storage elsewhere.

Weston (71 buses)

Routes 52, 57, 59, 60, 64, 70/70A, all 500-series express bus routes.

With the recent conversion to all-electronic tolling on the Turnpike and different ramp layout, the land is newly-freed, plentiful, and many buses serving this area have long pull-out routes from Boston. The portion between the two branches of the Turnpike and east of the 128-to-Turnpike ramp is 500,000 square feet, the same size as the Arborway Yard, and there's additional room within the rest of the interchange. Without a bus yard west of Boston, any route extending west or northwest would benefit from this yard.

Burlington (50 buses)

Routes 62, 67, 76, 77, 78, 79, 134, 350, 351, 352, 354

These routes utilize serve the northwest suburbs, but most are served by the Charleston and Bennett divisions in Somerville. Most routes would have significantly shorter pull-outs.

Revere (157 buses)

The two oldest bus garages north of Boston are Lynn and Fellsway, which account for a total of 125 buses and about 200,000 square feet. They are both centrally-located to the bus network, so moving buses to the 128 corridor would result in longer pull-outs, except for a few routes noted above. However, the circle where Route 1 turns northeast and the Northeast Expressway was originally planned and graded towards Lynn across Rumney Marshes has 750,000 square feet, and the extension towards the marshes more. The fill is far enough above sea level to not worry about flooding, and grade separation allows easy exit and entry on to Route 1. Some buses may make sense to base at the Route 3 site, particularly the 130-series buses. In addition to the Lynn and Fellsway buses, this site could take over for many routes currently operating out of the Charlestown yard, freeing up capacity there for other uses.

Other routes served by the Charlestown yards would face somewhat longer pull-out times from Revere, but given the development potential in Sullivan Square, the T could consider downsizing the yard facility there and moving operations to a less valuable site. This site, at more than one million square feet, could likely replace the Charlestown bus facility entirely.