Wednesday, March 1, 2017

How many people use Commuter Rail? More than you might think.

In case of confusion: this is what
I am calculating here.
There seem to be misperceptions as to how many people Commuter Rail carries in Boston. So I decided to calculate how much of the capacity train lines carry compared to the total number of people traveling in the corridor (by rail and highway), to get a sense of how important the rail lines is to the overall transportation network. 33% would mean twice as many drivers as rail passengers, 50% would mean the same amount on the road versus the train. To put it another way: if everyone on the train drove, would traffic get a little worse (15%), or a whole lot worse (50%)? To put it another: if the trains were faster, more frequent and more time-competitive with driving, how much of a dent would it put in traffic, or, at least, how much increased capacity could it account for?

How did I do this? I took the CTPS train count data and calculated, for each line, the number of passengers arriving during the single peak hour of service (generally 7:30 to 8:30). For each highway or major road leading in to the city, I looked at MassDOT traffic data and calculated the number of cars coming in to the city for the same peak hour. The I grouped these together in to corridors and compared the results. (It turns out that Alon took a quite different methodology, and came up with similar results.)

What are the results? Well, before I took the results, I took a poll on Twitter to see what people think the results would be. The poll is kind of braindead and only allowed for four options, so I put in a range from 10 to 70% in increments of 15% (the answer falls somewhere in this range). If you haven't seen this poll already, go ahead and vote: [note 1]
The correct answer? From my data, and supported by Alon's, it's about 42%. [note 2] So about 80% of people are underestimating it. I can see how this happens. Good infrastructure looks empty. The Providence Line north of Hyde Park may only have a train every nine minutes, yes it carries more people than a jam-packed, four-lane highway. [note 3] If you sit on the Turnpike in traffic for half an hour you may only see one train roll by (never mind the fact that train is carrying several miles worth of traffic [note 4]).

Now, 42% is low. Mode share is much higher in New York and Chicago. [note 5] This means that Boston's lines have room to grow with better investment, which is why we need a long-term vision for the rail network and need to make sure that projects like Auburndale don't go awry and permanently crimp capacity.

Corridor Road Rail Highways CR Lines
Northeast 5956 2936 1, 1A Newburyport, Rockport
North 4647 3937 93 Haverhill, Lowell
Northwest 3966 1792 2 Fitchburg
West 8385 6646 90, 9, VFW Worcester, Needham, Franklin
South 12025 8498 95, 28, 138, 3A, Granite Ave Providence/ Stoughton, Old Colony

Or, graphically:

So, why does this matter?

First, it shows that Commuter Rail passengers account for nearly half of the commuters in some sectors, especially since these data don't account that many of the drivers on these highways aren't headed downtown but nearly all Commuter Rail riders are. (For instance, some drivers on I-93 in Quincy are probably headed to Peabody or Woburn, but few if any Commuter Rail riders are, at least until we build the North-South Rail Link.) Second, it shows that the Commuter Rail system is under-appreciated: 80% of respondents undervalue its need.

Most of all? The Commuter Rail system has room to grow. Highways most certainly do not. Here's what the throughput on I-93 looks like at rush hour (data from a week in May in 2016):

Note the dip after 7 a.m. As traffic increases and speeds decrease, both in this segment and downstream, congestion actually decreases the throughput of the roadway. There's no more room to put cars. And this occurs on most major highways in the region. If we were to drop Commuter Rail passengers on to the highways, it would be cataclysmic. Maybe in 1969—when highway volumes were a third of what they are today—Commuter Rail seemed like an antiquated concept. Even with the old, tired infrastructure the MBTA operates, that's not the case today.

We're not about to build wider highways (it's expensive and doesn't work anyway). But the region is growing: for the first time in a century the population of the Boston area is increasing at a rate faster than the country as a whole:

This chart is actually quite amazing. (no data before 1860 for the Boston MSA)
The highways are full. The subway is close. The railroads have capacity, and they link downtown to many regional centers with more available housing. They're over-utilized compared with our perceptions but under-utilized compared with their potential, and other Commuter Rail lines in other cities. From the lows of the 1970s, the lines were upgraded in the 1980s, and ridership responded. Since then both planning and ridership have stagnated. As the region grows we need a better plan for our rail assets now, and for the future.


General note on data: This is counting only people on highways and other major roads and Commuter Rail. Think of it as anyone coming from outside 128 (or outside the reach of the Rapid Transit system) to the Downtown area. There are certainly some people who take back roads that whole way, but they are probably a relatively small number in comparison. There are about 412,000 jobs based in Downtown Boston plus Seaport, Back Bay and Fenway, and maybe another 50,000 in Cambridge. This is only during peak hour; off-peak travel—when train schedules are limited and roads clearer—are likely much more car-dependent.

Note 1: As of the posting of this blog, the votes broke down as follows and have been stable in this range for several hours:

Note 2: This is a coarse, broad measurement. For certain towns with relatively good rail service and poor road connections—Attleboro/Mansfield/Sharon, Acton and Salem come to mind—the Commuter Rail mode share is likely much higher. 

Note 3: Of course, the Metro-North Park Avenue viaduct carries 47 inbound trains between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m., probably carrying upwards of 40,000 passengers. You'd need half a dozen eight-lane highways to carry that many people. Some New York subway lines carry nearly double that, but over shorter distances.

Note 4: The heaviest train on the Worcester Line, train P508, carried 1179 passengers in 2012; reports are that it's closer to 1500 today. A dense traffic jam may have one car every 30 feet, or 176 cars per lane per mile, or 528 cars on a three-lane highway, so two miles of traffic wouldn't even cover all of P508. A well-patronized train, in other words, carries about as many people than a traffic jam from Newton Corner to Auburndale. Highway capacity is quite finite.

Note 5: In Chicago, for example—perhaps a better comparison since parking is cheaper than in Boston and freeways provide better downtown access than New York—Metra's BNSF line carries 60,000 passengers per day. At rush hour, there are 15 trains carrying upwards of 11,000 passengers per hour, more than the parallel Eisenhower and Stevenson freeways combined (and another 6000 ride the UP-W line in the same catchment area). Metra's busiest station, the gargantuan Route 59 park-and-ride, generates as many as 1000 people per train, and there's a train every 20 minutes at peak rush express to and from the city. Note that unlike the MBTA, the park-and-ride is in addition to, not instead of, downtown stations in nearby Naperville and Aurora.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Auburndale is broken. Here's a way to fix it.

Recently the author of this page attended a public meeting about the Auburndale Commuter Rail station and found the process completely broken. Local advocates and lawmakers had obtained earmarked funds to build an accessible station—a necessary and laudable project—and gone to the MBTA for a design. The MBTA—mostly through the sheer incompetence of its project management team—had returned with an overpriced design which is likely unusable and should not see the light of day.

The design could have the effect of creating a single-track railroad at rush hour at Auburndale in order to maintain peak-hour service to and from Boston (see Dave's blog post for more). This may not even be possible, since before 9 a.m. there are 19 trains passing through Auburndale in both directions, and two tracks are needed. There was no evidence presented at the meeting that MBTA Railroad Operations has modeled the operations, and it's quite possible that if the current design is built, it will result in the elimination of peak-hour service to and from Boston at the Auburndale station (in order to avoid the "single track" operation). If this happens, the Federal Transit Authority could (and may likely, see Cleveland) demand to be repaid for the federal portion of the money since the FTA (rightly) does not like to be in the business of reducing transit service.

The long and short of this discussion is that, as currently designed, it would be a mistake to build the station. At best, it will be a monumental misappropriation of several million dollars, and a shining example of government waste and incompetence. At worst, it will result in reduced transit options for hundreds of commuters—or potentially degrade service for the 16,000 daily riders on the Worcester Line—and the real potential that the FTA would force the MBTA to pay back funds for the project, costing the state even more.

There is, however, a logical way to fix it. In my last post I posited that, for the same price as the Auburndale Station, high-level platforms could be built at all three Newton Stations. This, however, still creates operational issues with trains crossing over between tracks at rush hour, and also sets a poor precedent: no two-track railroad should have a platform built only on one side.

Before the Turnpike, there was a crossing under the railroad
between Auburn Street and Woodland Road.
So in this post, I'll explore how, instead of building a single platform and a crossover for $11.5 million, you could easily build a full, two-platform station for the same price. In addition, I believe that there is the potential to significantly improve accessibility and connectivity in Auburndale for mobility-impaired users as well as pedestrians and students. By leveraging the construction of the station, Auburndale can build a more cohesive walking network between the two sides of the village. (There's some precedent for this: the original pre-Turnpike station had an underpass near Melrose Street.)

Let's remember the numbers. The total cost of the project is $11.5 million, in the same ballpark as South Acton ($9.5 million) and Yawkey ($13.5 million), both of which are recently constructed two-platform stations with an overpass. According to the current Auburndale plan, the cost of the high level platform is $1.7m, the station canopy $810k, station systems $180k, site work $436k and parking modifications $1.6m. The rest—$6.7m—is for the new interlocking that a two-track station would not need. My proposal is as follows (a diagram is included further down this post):

  • Platforms would be built adjacent to both tracks. The track 1 (north side, adjacent to Auburn Street) platform would be built generally as currently designed. The track 2 platform (south side, adjacent to the Turnpike) would be built along the eastern portion of the current station and under Auburn Street. This allows the platform on this side of the tracks to avoid having a platform on the inside of a curve. High level platforms on the inside of a curve require a larger gap between the platform and the door of the train: a more dangerous "mind the gap" distance. The main station canopy would be shifted to track 2 where the bulk of boardings and alightings (inbound during the morning peak, outbound during the evening peak) occur. [See Note 1]
  • Access to track 1 would be much as currently designed, with a ramp accessing the platform from the parking area and another, shorter ramp (and stairs) providing access from near Melrose Street. Access to track 2 would be via a new pedestrian overpass built near Melrose Street. Access to the overpass would use a ramp from near the parking lot (which is already located about 10 feet above the railroad, mitigating the need for a particularly lengthy ramp) and from a set of stairs near Melrose Street. It is important to note that a new overpass over the railroad is required, rather than an accessible ramp or access to the track 2 side from the existing Auburn Street bridge. The Auburn Street bridge is too steep to meet design guidelines for access. [See Note 2]
  • On the track 2 side of the new pedestrian overpass, a stairway and elevators would provide vertical circulation from the overpass to the platform. This would be a bit of a mirror image of the setup at Yawkey Station, except the overpass would span both tracks. Neither track would need to be moved during construction. A separate stairway would provide secondary access and egress at Auburn Street (similar to the existing stairway there).
  • The new pedestrian overpass over the railroad tracks would align with Hancock Street on the south side of the Turnpike, both vertically and horizontally. This would allow a pedestrian bridge to be easily installed across the Turnpike between Hancock Street and the rail overpass. Most of the cost of such bridges is the cost of ramps, landings and abutments (the actual steel for the pedestrian bridge is relatively cheap, although a more attractive bridge—which might pay homage to the original HH Richardson design—may increase costs). By taking advantage of the elevation of Hancock Street and the need for an overpass to cross over the railroad for the station, these elements would be almost entirely in place. This would also obviate the need to build a walkway to Woodland Road as passengers desiring to access the station from Woodland Road could walk along Central Street or Auburn Street to access the station.

It's this last point which, I think, really makes the case for this plan for Auburndale Station because it not only improves conditions for the several hundred passengers who use Auburndale every day, but also provides better conditions for the rest of the neighborhood. It would provide:

  • An accessible pedestrian crossing between the business district to the north and the neighborhood to the south, something which none of the 1960s-era automobile-centric bridges provide.
  • Better access for many commuters since most anyone living south of the Turnpike would have a shorter walk to the station. [Note 3]
  • Much better and safer access to the Williams School from Auburndale Square; anywhere north of Commonwealth Avenue is in the Williams district. Students who currently walk along Auburn and Grove Streets or Auburn Street and Woodland Road—busier roads with dangerous intersections—would instead be able to cross over the Turnpike and walk up the much-quieter Hancock Street to access the school.
  • A more-connected neighborhood. Today, the distance between each crossing of the Turnpike in Auburndale is about 1500 feet. [Note 4] This is not a problem if you're in a car, but makes the neighborhood much less walkable. Adding a pedestrian connection would better connect the neighborhood's business district to nearby residences.

The marginal cost of this bridge would likely be about $300,000 (since most of it would be necessary for the construction of the station), or 3% of the total cost of the project, yet would have dramatic benefits beyond the Commuter Rail station.

The rest of the station could probably be built for the same cost as the now unneeded interlocking in the original/current design. Let's first assume that the need for a separate stand-alone canopy for track 1 would be obviated since the station would be partially covered by the overpass (and most passengers would board on track 2). Let's next assume that a platform on the south side costs the same as one on the north side: $3.2 million including a platform, canopy, station systems and site work. This leaves $4.3 million for the overpass, ramps and elevators (I am basing these estimates partially on the cost estimates for the Winchester Station project):

  • Ramps should cost about what an overpass costs, since a ramp is basically an inclined overpass. There new ramp would need to gain approximately 10 feet and would probably cost about $300k. (This seems to be in line with the costs of the much-more-extensive ramps at Winchester, which rise about 24 feet and cost about double.)
  • Each stairwell probably costs about two-thirds of a ramp (since stairwells are shorter and thus require less roofing and can be easily pre-fabricated). There are three stairways, one at Auburn Street and one on each side of the overpass: $600k, although it's possible the Auburn Street stairs could be reused.
  • The overpass over the railroad would likely cost double the cost of the overpass over the highway, or approximately $500,000.
  • Elevators are expensive, and you need two of them for redundancy. They cost about $1m each (which is why, if you can get away with not-very-long ramps on the north side, it makes both financial sense and accessibility sense to design a solution which doesn't require an elevator).
  • To allow wide freight passage, it might be necessary to install a "gauntlet track" to allow freight to move away from the platform. The cost for this in Winchester is $825k. (Considering how infrequently this would be used—a few times per year, at most—it could be built, like Winchester, with hand-thrown switches, and, when in use and if necessary, could block both tracks without major detriments to the schedule outside of rush hour.)

So the total cost of these elements would be just about $4.2m, leaving $100k for an overpass to Hancock Street (I swear I didn't add these numbers up to try to equal that number, it just happens that that is the case). There'd likely be some contingency, but several MBTA Commuter Rail bids have come in below estimates (Blue Hill Ave, for example), so it's possible it could actually cost less. In any case, the extra $200,000 for, say, a bridge to Hancock Street could be funded by the City, or perhaps even a Safe Routes to School-type grant.

Here's the drawing of how this could be implemented:

It is imperative that we get Auburndale Station "right." In its current configuration, the station woefully underserves the village and the surrounding neighborhood. The new station, as currently proposed, may be worse. We need Auburndale Station to be built with the operation—current and future—of the whole line in mind. If Auburndale Station can be built to provide better connectivity to the neighborhood, that's a large bonus. And if the station here can be upgraded within this budget, it will set a blueprint towards the eventual similar upgrades of West Newton and Newtonville, both of which have the same similar accessibility problems as Auburndale. As such, they need to be future-proofed.


Note 1: The Worcester Line is left-running in the evening both to serve the one-platform Newtons as well as stations in Wellesley and Natick where it helps minimize the number of passengers who have to cross the tracks. Dave has an excellent blog post detailing this here.

Note 2: The bridges were designed in the early 1960s, well before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed. The grade issues are both the overall grade as well as the cross-slope of the corners. If this is confusing, just imagine getting up from Auburndale Square to the top of the Auburn Street bridge in a wheelchair.

Note 3:  At the most extreme, it would shorten the walk to the station for someone living on Hancock Street by a quarter mile, although may residents who live south of the tracks would have a shorter walk to the station and Auburndale Square in general.

Note 4: This is significantly longer than similar distances between bridges in West Newton and Newtonville.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Good intentions, bad plans, and $7 million wasted

The Auburndale Station is a mess. It is planned for a rebuild, which it sorely needs. But thanks to the MBTA's planning process (which ignored little things like rail operations), that's a bloated mess. There have been two public meetings four years apart, and during that time a plan has been put forward which bakes in bad design and pays no mind to any larger-scale issues on the Worcester Line. It's the T's planning process at its worst, which is saying something.

The villages of Newton developed in the mid-1800s along railroad lines; the concept of the commuter—the term, indeed!—began with the Boston and Albany's "commuted" season fares in the early 1840s. If anyone can lay claim to commuters, it's Newton, even if they now enjoy some of the worst Commuter Rail service in the region. In the 1960s, when the Turnpike was planned, Newton fought a losing battle against it (way too much background here). The old stations were replaced with rickety stairs and narrow platforms, and by the early 1970s, there was minimal train service on the line. Since then, however, the number of passengers on the Worcester Line has grown many-fold (from 600 in 1972 to 16,000 today), yet the line infrastructure generally still dates to the 1960s. With dozens of steps to the platform, these rail stations were inaccessible for anyone with mobility needs, and inhospitable to others. And the single platforms were only accessible by these stairs from a bridge, cut off from the portions of the village centers not cut off by the Turnpike.

Several years ago, the local state representative, Kay Khan, worked with then-Congressman Barney Frank to earmark federal money to build an accessible station at Auburndale. While this goal is laudable and the need is clear,  due to a combination of and overall lack of vision for the line and possibly some incompetence, the team retained by the MBTA specified a project which provides few benefits with a high cost. The Worcester Line should not be fixed piecemeal, but needs an overarching vision, which is currently lacking. Still, this should not be an excuse for the lack of understanding which has led to the current state of this project.

The Newton stations are the only ones on the Worcester Line—and on pretty much any Commuter Rail line in Boston—with single platform on one side of double tracks (on the south side, which is Track 2). As such, the stations have no reverse-peak service: there's enough traffic on the line that trains can't run in and out on the same track at rush hour, so, for instance, there's no inbound train leaving Auburndale between 1:12 and 7:31 in the afternoon. The obvious—and best—solution would be to build a new facility with platforms on both sides of the tracks, although such projects—like the recent station in South Acton—cost about $10 million each.

Building a single platform in situ on the south side would not be much cheaper, since it would still require ADA accessibility which, in the case of Auburndale, would require an overpass and redundant vertical circulation, and elevators cost about $1 million each. The actual platform only costs about $2 million, but getting there costs significantly more. It may be possible to build elevators from the current bridges, but the current sidewalks leading to the bridges are too steep to meet ADA requirements, so additional bridge work would be required. In any case, it makes sense to build a platform on both sides. (There's also the question of building a gauntlet track to allow infrequent wide freight trains to bypass the platform.)

A somewhat cheaper option in Auburndale is to build a single platform on the north side of the railroad (adjacent to Track 1); this is what is proposed. This would be significantly less expensive because it is adjacent to the local street and requires minimal vertical circulation: just a couple of small ramps instead of elevators since the platform would lie only about three feet vertically below the sidewalk. It doesn't solve the reverse-peak issue and still only provides one platform for service, but it at least puts that platform in a much more accessible location. If you only have money for one platform, this makes a lot of sense, with one major caveat: you have to rebuild West Newton and Newtonville on that side as well. If you don't, it's nearly impossible to serve platforms on Track 2 at Auburndale and Track 1 at the other Newtons, and even if you can, it requires an expensive interlocking and signal changes to do so. Without an interlocking, Auburndale would lose all peak commuter service, which is used by 325 passengers per day (the busiest of the Newton stations). With an interlocking, the cost of building the station triples.

So what did the MBTA do? They, of course, proposed to rebuild Auburndale on the north side, and to install an interlocking east of the station—just a mile east of the current CP 11 (see Weston Switch at Dave's glossary)—to allow trains to move from one track to another. Setting aside the operational difficulties of having two interlockings a mile apart and switching trains frequently back and forth, the interlocking—and associated signal changes—costs a lot of money. Here's the cost breakdown they presented:

Site Work 436,138
High Platform 1,733,094
Station Canopies $810,000
Parking Lot Modifications $1,685,750
Track and Interlocking $6,685,750
Station Electrical $179,156

Now, let's break this down in to three parts. The station itself (site work, platform and canopies) costs $3.16 million. The parking lot modifications to create ADA accessible spaces costs another $1.69 million. This accounts for 42% of the total cost of the project. The rest, 58%, is for the interlocking and track and signal work associated with it. This work is entirely unnecessary. First of all, there is already a perfectly good (or at least good enough) interlocking one mile west, so this won't have any operational efficiencies for the rest of the line (and will likely cause operational issues; the project team admitted that they have not modeled the schedule impact of this). Second, the line is likely to need new signals within the next decade, so this would likely be good money thrown after bad: the signals would have to be coordinated with that project, or replaced, and the interlocking is in a sub-optimal location so close to the current switch at CP 11.

Now remember: a north side station works if the other two Newton stations also had north side platforms. And the actual cost to build a platform here costs only $3 million (this is about the right ballpark: at stations like South Acton, for instance, each platform costs $3 million and the vertical circulation costs another $4 million). If you build all three stations, you save $6.7 million by not rebuilding the interlocking, and using CP 6 in Brighton and CP 11 in Weston to move trains back and forth as needed. You also have trains on a long-enough section of track that others can pass without encountering suboptimal signal aspects. (In other words: think of passing a tractor on a country road. If there's a long straightaway with good sightlines, you can easily keep up your speed, change lanes, and make the pass. If there's just a short section, you have to slow down, make sure there is enough room, the tractor may pull to the side of the road, and you pass at a lower speed. This is what a mile between interlockings would entail.)

$6.7 million should be enough to build a north-side platform at West Newton and Newtonville. Newtonville is easy: there's actually an old, low-level platform on the north side which would provide a suitable base for a high level platform, which could be connected to the sidewalk by stairs and short ramps. There is 35 feet between the sidewalk and the edge of the track, plenty for a platform and vertical circulation. West Newton is a bit more difficult: it's only about 700 feet between bridge abutments, and the T prefers to build high level platforms 800 feet long (although an eight-car train is only 680 feet long, and Yawkey Station is that length, with tapered platform ends to accommodate the site). In addition, some excavation would be required to remove the granite blocks on the north side (these were the original supports for Washington Street which, before the Turnpike was built, crossed diagonally) although these might provide a suitable base for a high level platform. But the parking lot already has accessible parking, and there is ample room to build ramps and a platform.

The issue is not that we don't have the money, it's that we're going to spend it in about the most wasteful way possible. The question is how to—and whether we can—reallocate this money. The Auburndale Station has about $3 million of federal dollars earmarked for it, so that likely could not be reallocated. Much of the rest of the money is included in the state's five-year Capital Investment Plan (CIP), a document released by the state. That money could, theoretically, be reallocated, although it would be a political process, and there is, apparently, no guarantee that the money would be reallocated to the other Newton stations (which are not in the current CIP). But here's the rub. There are three ways you can spend $11 million on the Auburndale Station:
  1. Spend ~$4 million on the Auburndale Station, and $7 million on an interlocking which has not yet been modeled and may overall degrade service on the Worcester Line and no guarantee you could provide even the current level of service.
  2. Spend ~$4 million on the Auburndale Station, and the remaining $7 million on similar improvements to West Newton and Newtonville. This would actually improve service on the line (local trains serving high-level platforms would have shorter dwell times, improving accessibility, service speed and reliability) and you could certainly provide the current level of service.
  3. Spend $11 million on the Auburndale Station, but instead of building an interlocking, build platforms on both sides with ADA accessibility. 
The first is wasteful. Either of the other two is a good start towards better service and accessibility in Newton.

Making this cahnge would require the cooperation of MassDOT and the politicians in Newton and elsewhere. There would have to be promises made—perhaps even legislation passed—reallocating the $6.7 million from the interlocking specifically to the West Newton and Newtonville stations. If you build Auburndale and build the interlocking, you waste $6.7 million on the interlocking to build a $4 million station. But if you build Auburndale without the interlocking, you waste $4 million on a barely-usable station. Unless you build two platforms, Auburndale, West Newton and Newtonville are joined at the hip. You can spend $11 million and get an attractive, accessible station at Auburndale, or spend the same $11 million and get three stations for the price of one. 

This process should have never gotten to this point, of course. The project management team is mostly to blame: they ran amok with a design which has become far too expensive and provides little, if any, benefit. In addition, the fact that the MBTA lacks any long-term vision for Commuter Rail or the Worcester Line leads to these piecemeal, wasteful approaches like this. The corridor needs a long-term vision, which is something which should be in the wheelhouse of the Worcester Line Working Group.

Coming back to Auburndale, however, there are two preferable solutions: a two-platform station, or improvements to West Newton and Newtonville. The costs are about the same, and the benefits are much higher than an interlocking you don't need. Mistakes were made. We can either double down on the mistakes—and waste $7 million taxpayer dollars—or we can make the best of the situation, spend the same amount of money, and come away with a lot more to show for it: either a two-platform Auburndale or accessible stations throughout Newton.

This has gone from being an engineering issue to a political one: and this is why we elect political officials.  As we say in Patriots Nation: Do Your Job.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Terminating the Fairmount Line in the Seaport makes no sense

Two legislators from Boston make the case—unconvincingly—that the Fairmount Line should be extended to the Seaport, rather than its current terminal at South Station. This makes no sense at all. The point of the Fairmount Line—and especially making the Fairmount Line more like a rapid transit line—is to connect to the rest of the MBTA's system. You can do this at South Station, easily: trains terminating there allow for an easy connection to the Red Line and Silver Line, outbound Commuter Rail to Back Bay, as well as putting passengers right in to the Financial District. While a terminal in the Seaport (but really by the Convention Center, probably, which would be as far from much of the Seaport as the South Station; anything east of A Street is closer to South Station, and a much more pleasant walk) would provide a one-seat ride for anyone working in the Seaport, it would connect to nothing, except for the already oversubscribed #7 bus there.

Add in numbers and they speak for themselves. According to the City of Boston, there are 27,000 workers in the Seaport District. This is a large number, but it compares with 222,000 in Downtown or on the Red Line (i.e. near Charles/MGH) and another 80,000 in Back Bay. While the Seaport district may be "booming" right now, the rest of the City has been "booming" for decades or centuries. There are ten times as many jobs within a 10 minute walk or transit ride of South Station as there are within a 10 minute walk or transit ride of the Convention Center. These data also doesn't include much better access to Cambridge, which amounts to another 100,000 jobs, most of which are an easy ride from South Station on the Red Line.

If you connect the Fairmount Line to the Seaport, you do provide a one-seat ride to these 27,000 jobs (although you wind up further from them than you'd really want), but you lose one-seat access to 180,000, and an easy connection to another 100,000 on top of that. This is just a terrible idea. It decreases access from the Fairmount Corridor to the rest of the system by dropping people in the middle of a concrete wasteland, with very few connections to make. If you work in the Seaport, lucky you. But this is the case for only 2% of Dorchester residents and 1.3% of Mattapan residents. 15%—ten times as may—of people living in these communities work downtown. As for non-work destinations, unless you're going to a convention or the ICA, there's really no reason to use the line. So ridership would be very light. And if you do need to get to the Seaport? From South Station, there's a Silver Line or #7 bus every couple of minutes, plenty of Hubway bikes, and it's not that bad a walk if the weather is nice.

Now, if the line somehow had a great connection to the Red Line at Andrew or Broadway, it might be a bit more feasible. Still, you'd be making passengers headed downtown (the majority of riders) transfer, and you'd be making them transfer to the Red Line at its peak load point, rather than at South Station, where many passengers from the south are getting off. But you don't: these transfers would require a walk of several blocks, which most people are unlikely to make.

What about a split terminal, with some trains going to South Station and others to the Seaport? It would work in theory, but not in practice. There are only two railroads in the country which have split terminals, both of which are in New York. This is partly due to the geographical fact that New York has two main employment centers several miles apart: Midtown and Downtown. The Long Island Railroad runs most service to Penn Station, but some trains to Atlantic Avenue (with an easy subway connection to Downtown) and a few to Long Island City. However, ridership on the LIRR is 338,000 daily, triple the entire MBTA Commuter Rail system, and nearly all trains provide an easy, cross-platform transfer at Jamaica. New Jersey Transit runs most trains to Penn Station, but some to Hoboken, but again, Hoboken provides an easy transfer to Downtown via the PATH Tubes, and transfers can be made easily at Newark. Fairmount, on the other hand, has never had and will never have anywhere near the traffic required for such a system to work, nor is there a logical transfer point. It needs to have one terminal, and the only logical terminal—until and unless the North-South Rail Link is built—is at South Station.

Investment in Fairmount, as has been posited by this page in the past, should focus on two features (in addition to more frequent service, which should be a given). First, it should have all-door boarding and not require conductors to collect fares (this could be solved easily with proof-of-payment fares or by installing fare gates on a platform at South Station). Second, it should be converted to electric operation, to allow for faster travel times and less noise and pollution in the neighborhoods it serves. Either way, it should terminate at South Station. (What to do with Track 61? A connection from the Red Line at Andrew to the Seaport makes more sense.)

The promise of Fairmount is that it could provide a quick, frequent trip from Dorchester and Mattapan to Downtown Boston in half the time—or less—of the current bus-rail transfer along the route. The number of people who desire a trip to the Seaport is small. Even if employment there doubles, it will still be a drop in the bucket compared to Downtown, and all the jobs you can get to with an easy transfer to the rest of the subway system. I think Rep Collins and Sen Dorcena-Forry's hearts are in the right place: they want Fairmount to provide better service to their community. But it should provide service to where there are more jobs and better connectivity: South Station.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Who should pay to plow DCR paths? How about the DCR?

Once again, Twitter has reminded us about the inequities of transportation funding: for the severalth year in a row, New Balance is paying to plow the Charles River esplanade paths along the river in Boston. While there's nothing wrong with this per se—and it may be marketing New Balance is happy to pay for—it shows where our priorities lie. The DCR—which stands for Department of Conservation and Recreation, if you've forgotten—has no problem finding the money to plow the roadways which provide transportation along the Esplanade. But when it comes to the pedestrian and cycling paths, they cry poor and make someone else come up with the money.

This is similar to the reaction over the rebuilding of Greenough Boulevard along the river. Everyone was over the moon that the Solomon Foundation had come up with the money to repurpose the roadway from four lanes to two, and to fix an entirely substandard portion of the path there. Yet no one bothered to ask: why do we need a private foundation to fund work the DCR should be doing anyway? The DCR didn't get a foundation to pay for the guardrail replacement along Storrow Drive, nor did they go looking for a handout from Ford, GM or Toyota. There was a safety issue, and they paid to fix it. They're happy to do that for roadways, but cry poor when it comes to paying for non-motorized use.

This page has also pointed out that the DCR could recoup hundreds of thousands of dollars a year by monetizing the parking along Memorial Drive near Kendall Square, yet this resource sits fallow. Perhaps next year we could take some of this money to clear the sidewalks, and New Balance could make a donation instead to buy running shoes for students in Boston Public Schools. That would be a more appropriate use of their funds.

Otherwise, I'll be heartened when I see a Tweet that the DCR announces that, thanks to donations from Ford Motor Company, they'll be clearing snow off of Storrow and Memorial Drives during the winter, rather than just closing them down whenever snow falls. I expect I'll be waiting a while for that.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The T is sort of fixing East-West (!)

Back in September, some of the #10PeopleOnTwitter pointed out that there was something amiss with the T's end-of-service procedure (called "East-West", because it's when the trains leave Park to the east and the west). What should be a relatively quick process was frequently taking more than half an hour. Looking in to the schedule, I realized it was because a certain train from Heath had a guaranteed connection at Park, and was scheduled 20 minutes after the other trains, every train—and every downstream bus—was delayed.

So I wrote a blog post, with some help from a variety of people on Twitter (with screen grabs, coding and the like), put some numbers to it, and let it rip. Jim Aloisi wrote about it, the T took issue with the numbers, Jim shot back at them, and the issue was left unresolved: for the most part, it seemed like the T was uninterested in something which would both save them money and create a better experience for their passengers. No one reached out to us (other than to yell on the Internet at Jim) and it was left at the T saying "nothing to see here; this isn't a problem."

And yet … this week, the Fiscal Management Control Board announced that, as of the new schedule rating at the end of the month, the 12:47 car from Heath Street will no longer have a guaranteed connection at Park; instead, the 12:32 car will. This should mean that the E train will no longer be guaranteed to hold up the process (other lines still might, of course). While us Twitter folk certainly wouldn't mind the recognition, I think we're all glad that the T is going to make this change. So, this is kind of a big deal. Yes, we will be monitoring it after the first of the year to see how the changes play out.

(My ask: that the T have some sort of petition system for this. If you write a petition, and you get x number of people to sign on, they at least give you a response. There are a lot of things that riders may see that management does not. My other ask: take the savings from this, and run late night service.)

Update 1/21/17: based on preliminary data, the average delay experienced by trains and buses has fallen by an average of 12 minutes over the first 19 days of the new schedule. To put it another way, from April to December of 2016, the last trains left Park Street before 1:10 a.m. 6% of the time; since then, the last trains have left before 1:10 84% of the time. A further data analysis will follow.

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Track 61 High Speed Line (and new trains for Mattapan)

The Mattapan Line deserves new rolling stock, but buses make no sense. It's not that the PCCs which run the line are unreliable—they're plenty reliable—but parts are hard to come by (some are custom made by a museum in Maine) and the fleet is a throwback to the 1940s, making the 1969-era Red Line cars look young by comparison. New, modern streetcars could each carry nearly double what a PCC does with more low-floor doors for far more efficient boarding. By spreading weight across three trucks (sets of wheels) instead of two, the whole "the bridges won't support larger vehicles" straw man. (PCC: 18,000-21,000 lbs/truck, plus air conditioning units, Seattle streetcar: 22,000 lbs/truck.) The bridges likely need some work anyway, and a concrete deck to support buses weighs a heck of a lot more than ballast and track (buses need a lot of concrete). And the T is good at quickly replacing old bridges. So maybe you just replace the bridges.

For example, the Seattle streetcars cost on the order of $3.2 million each, and Mattapan would likely need five streetcars, and two spares, to run service, so about $22 million overall. Streetcars are spec'ed to last 30-40 years, so it's a $500,000 investment per year. 10 buses, at $750,000 per bus, would cost $7.5 million, but only last 12 years, so the capital cost would be about the same (30 buses over 36 years = $22.5 million, slightly less given a discount rate, but at least right now, money is cheap). And the cost to convert the corridor to bus transit—given BRT costs of $10-$50 million per mile—the cost of vehicles would be dwarfed by the cost of concrete. The answer for Mattapan is easy: just buy modern streetcars for the Mattapan High Speed Line.

But then what do you do with the PCCs? They're still sort of useful transit vehicles, and it's not hard to look at San Francisco to see where PCCs operate as both transit vehicles and as transit and as a rolling museum (and tourist attraction). We won't run PCCs in mixed traffic on the Green Line any time soon (or probably ever), but there is somewhere that the fleet could provide a useful transit connection and operate in a tourist-friendly location: between Andrew Square and the Convention Center.

Why this route? While older streetcars could conceivably run on surface lines (and did as recently as the late 1990s) doing so with any regularity would have liability and accessibility concerns, and decrease the capacity of the Boylston-Tremont subway dramatically, where a slot using a 45-foot PCC is far less efficient than one with a two- or threee-car LRV. It would also require pantograph conversion. San Francisco gets around this by running the PCCs on the surface of Market Street with the light rail in the tunnel below (which was built in 1982, only 85 years after the Green Line went underground in Boston). Basically, in Boston, the current light-rail lines are out.

So that leaves a purpose-built line. Nearly every rail right-of-way in Boston is used for rail service, or has been converted to a multi-use pathway. (For instance, Minneapolis runs historic streetcars on an old section of streetcar right-of-way, but other than a short portion of the Fells, we don't have that.) With narrow streets, we can't easily throw in something Kenosha-style. But there is one stretch of railroad track in Boston which sits unused: the so-called Track 61 in South Boston.

The state currently owns Track 61, but it hasn't been used for freight service in decades (and other than vague platitudes, there are no plans to do so any time soon.) There have been calls to run DMU service on Track 61, but this is such a risible plan—crossing the Northeast Corridor and Old Colony lines at-grade, at rush hour, in a roundabout route—that it will never happen, even if the T were to acquire the appropriate rolling stock. Recently the City of Boston has proposed using it for a split terminal from the Fairmount Line, which is more feasible, but still requires a diamond crossing of the Old Colony Line, and the desire line of the Fairmount Line almost certainly aims downtown (and where there is a Red Line transfer), not at the Seaport. If freight were ever to run across the line, streetcars would not preclude future freight use at off hours (which is done in several other corridors) if shipping traffic required a daily freight movement on the line.

The route of Track 61 and an extension to Andrew in yellow.
It's the route of Track 61 which is most intriguing, as it would make a last-mile connection between the Red Line and the Seaport, which currently requires a ride on two over-capacity transit lines (the Red Line to South Station and the Silver Line to the Seaport). For commuters from the south going to the Seaport, a transfer at Andrew would save five minutes of commute time, and (more importantly) it would pull some demand off of the Silver Line at rush hour, when buses run every minute-or-so at crush capacity and leave passengers on the platform. With some minor (seven figure) improvements (stations, overhead, a couple of interlockings), there is an unused rail corridor with mostly-existing rail on which the PCCs (or new rolling stock) could be run in relatively short order.

The key would be to find both funding and possibly a non-MBTA operator. (Power could be acquired from the adjacent MBTA facilities, but it could be run by a different organization. Let's start with funding: there are mechanisms in place. Capital costs could come from a TIGER-type grant, and operating costs from a transportation management association or perhaps from the Mass Convention Center Authority or even MassPort, especially since they have hundreds of millions of dollars for parking garages in the area (maybe, uh, we shouldn't build that parking garage, wait, don't call it that).

Amazing! Trams/streetcars can have level boarding.
(Minneapolis-Saint Paul "Metro")
As for the rolling stock: The current PCCs are inaccessible, but are made accessible with high-platforms along the Fairmount Line. This could be replicated along Track 61, especially since the stations would be built from scratch and fewer in number. (In theory: Andrew, Broadway, Convention Center, Black Falcon.) More likely would be low-platform modern trams (and by modern, I mean "flush with the platform") to run on the line with PCCs used for supplemental service (weekends, middays, etc). It might be possible to strike a deal with the Seashore Trolley Museum to both use the Seashore-owned 5734 (which likely needs some rehab but ran within the past 20 years and has been stored underground at Boylston) and perhaps relocating some other MBTA equipment from there for an outpost of the Maine facility: a small, San Francisco-style rolling museum showing the transit history of the oldest subway in the country.

DMUs and commuter rail to the Seaport is a round-peg-square-hole issue. The scale is not really appropriate (especially if it is diesel, with more local particulate emissions in a high-density residential community) and the routing certainly isn't. (There's also the matter of significant single-track, which is easier to navigate with light rail equipment.) Moreover, with the Red Line adjacent at one end and the Silver Line at the other, it might be possible to simply tie in traction power from each end without building any new facilities, so the power costs would be minimized (overhead is cheap, substations are expensive). Track 61 shouldn't be let to sit and fester for the next 25 years. But if we do something with it, let's do something sensible.