Wednesday, August 22, 2012

MBTA ridership time/distance charts

I posted a chart in reference to Alon Levy's post about commuter rail ridership distribution a few weeks left. He pointed out that the same treatment could be given to commuter rail in other cities, like Boston. Results as follows:
Note: Old Colony includes the Greenbush Line unless otherwise noted. "Eastern" is the Newburyport/Rockport Line, which is the old Eastern Railroad. Traveler distributions for its branches are pretty similar.
This chart is the same as the ones for New York. The ridership levels are lower, of course, as are the distances. Only 5% of Boston's ridership comes from beyond 60 km, while 25% of New York's ridership travels that distance. Now, since I collected these data, I can run them for other variables. Here, for example, is the same chart shown by minutes instead of kilometers:

A couple of notes: travel times were calculated for the shortest scheduled travel time, and are shown from each outlying station to North and South Stations. Service to Back Bay is 5-6 minutes shorter on the non-Old Colony South Side lines.
There's a bit more variation here. Notably, the Lowell Line shows up as having shorter travel times, since it is a relatively short line with relatively fast speeds. And the Worcester Line, which is one of the longer lines, stands out as having longer travel times, although it achieves relatively good ridership despite this. One other way to view these data is to look at average speed by line. Do note that this chart is not cumulative, but show the fastest available service for each station:
Note: these times are for inbound trains only; the Worcester Line does have some outbound trains which average 38 mph from South Station to West Natick.
Note how the Providence Line and the Lowell Line are by far the fastest in the system. The express from Mansfield to Boston averages 45 mph; the run to Back Bay averages nearly 55. The Lowell Line, which has speed limits of 70 mph, averages over 40 mph on express runs from North Billerica (less from Lowell which has a long, slow section through a yard south of the station. These lines have more spread-out stations and are mostly grade-separated; except for two grade crossings in West Medford there are no public grade crossings on the Lowell Line and none between Boston and Providence.

The Fitchburg Line is relatively fast (especially for express trains) although it's length means that trip times are long. It benefits in ridership by not paralleling a direct highway to the city and it is slated for speed upgrades which should shave 10 minutes off travel times. Other line speeds are relatively abysmal (Haverhill might see improvements based on ongoing trackwork), with a particular finger pointed at the Worcester Line.

The MBTA will soon seal the deal to buy the whole of the line to Worcester. I wouldn't hold my breath on increased speeds. The T could have purchased higher speed cars and electric motors for the Providence Line. Did they? No. The line to Worcester is double-tracked in its entirety (except for a stretch through the Allston yards, but that should be remedied) and has four grade crossings (indeed, the only four grade crossings between Boston and Springfield) in total. There is no reason that 80 mph line speeds would be difficult to attain in short order, and 110 in the longer range. But there's little about higher speeds and shorter times coming from upstairs.

There's potential for ridership with trip times equal to or better than driving. Worcester is slightly off the Turnpike, so the 45 mile trip takes closer to an hour. At rush hour, there's usually traffic adding another fifteen or thirty minutes. And the tolls—$3.60 each way—add to the cost of driving significantly, as it's the only line where the driving option is tolled. Sub-hour trip times should be easy, and 60 mph, 45 minute trip times not out of the question (beyond that, connections to Springfield and Amherst would be much more feasible if trip times to Worcester were halved). That would be progress for the state's second largest city. … As long as the T actually serves Worcester (and doesn't just build a park-and-ride on the outskirts as they seem to like to do).


  1. The Worcester line is horribly, disgracefully slow. But it's going to take a while to remedy. A portion is still using wayside signals, and the switches are only maintained to 60 mph specs. They have to rip all that up and replace it. It will take awhile. Ending the single tracking section is the first order of business starting next month, I think.

  2. I expected Providence and Worcester to be have the farthest ridership, but Fitchburg is a surprise. I suppose it comes from all the ridership coming from South Acton?

    Worcester should have closer-in ridership, too. There's demand in Allston and Brighton, and it should be served by more than just one station (try four, like the Fairmount Line). But that requires double-tracking and then high frequencies, fares integrated with CharlieCard, etc.

  3. @Alon There's a lot of ridership from the towns west of South Acton, actually. Daily boardings (see Blue Book) are:

    Fitchburg (49.6 miles): 462
    North Leominster (45.1): 366
    Shirley (39.4): 144
    Ayer (36.1): 490
    Littleton (30.1): 250
    South Acton (25.3): 856

    So South Acton accounts for about a third of the ridership from the western end of the line. Decently-large parking lots help (N. Leominster has a new garage being built), but I think the real issue is that it doesn't parallel a highway with access to downtown, and that the road gets narrower and worse the closer you get. There are a bunch of bad options for getting downtown via Route 2. First you have to navigate several traffic lights and a rotary through Acton and Concord. At 128 you have three bad options:

    1) going through the Alewife (nightmarish at rush hour; frequently backing up for half an hour) and then on to surface roads with low speeds, lights and backups to Boston,

    1a) go to the Alewife and park and take the Red Line, although parking is $7 a day, sometimes fills up and you still hit some of the traffic.

    2) Taking 128 to the Turnpike, with $5 round trip in tolls and frequent backups to boot, or

    3) Taking 128 up to 93, which is, in general, an hour-long trip during rush hour. Driving from South Acton to Boston in the best of conditions is a 45 minute affair; but easily an hour at rush hour. Fitchburg to Boston is over an hour. The train from South Acton to the city is 42 minutes, and 32 minutes to Porter (so 40-45 to Harvard and Kendall Squares). At rush hour, the express is faster than driving, which can't be said of many other lines (with the exception of Providence and Lowell).

    Also interesting to note is that the rush hour trains are focused on the outer portion of the line. The 6:30 and 6:55 Fitchburg trains run express; there's no service at minor stations in Weston and Belmont for more than an hour (the Weston stations have few passengers and little parking; the Belmont stations have bus service nearby). With the improvements upcoming to the line it is slated to run 10 minutes faster, with most of the savings coming on the outer portion of the line. This would yield an express run from Fitchburg to Porter in an hour even, and 1:10 to North Station; the run from Fitchburg to Porter will average 46 mph if they can shave off that time (some high-level platforms won't hurt, either).

    Hopefully they'll think about more of a clockface schedule once they have (almost) full double track, and will run more service in the inner part of the line, too.

  4. Re: Worcester. Yes, it should. The Green Line fills a two-car train every five minutes at rush hour running through a less-dense part of Newton than the Worcester Line; the 500-series express buses get stuck in the same Pike traffic as everyone else (would a carpool lane from Newton Corner to Allston make sense? Is the Pope Catholic?). Upgrading the Newton stations to two-sided affairs would make a lot of sense once the new stations are in place at Yawkey (mostly constructed) and Allston (planned for New Balance), as would a clock-face shuttle (even if it were only every 20 to 30 minutes) with bus connections at West Newton and perhaps a new station at Newton Corner.

    This could be partially funded by reinstating the tolls at Weston Newton (75¢, which would also alleviate people using Washington Street to skip the toll in Weston) and a 25¢ surcharge on other tolls. It's interesting to note that Newton was quite opposed to the Turnpike not only because it tore up hundreds of houses but because they also feared losing their transit service which, not long before, had provided 40+ trains a day, each way, to Boston. The mayor filed an ICC protest to delay the road and only some hand wringing by Callahan (yes, that Callahan) regarding the Prudential Tower deal falling through (it was never in jeopardy due to the road) made the mayor pull the protest. Had it been filed, it's possible the Newton road would have met a similar fate as the Southwest Corridor; delayed so much that it was eventually dropped. Really interesting read here.

    This is the topic of a separate post (as is leveraging MIT, Kendall and even Harvard money to grade-separate the Grand Junction line and run that as a shuttle to North Station from Allston).

    As for outer Worcester speeds, this should be a statewide issue. If the gas tax is raised, and it really should be raised, this would be a worthy infrastructure project. I see no reason why the current road bed could not support 110 mph trackage from Weston to Worcester. Hell, the Weston to Framingham portion was once four tracks wide (as was the inner section before the B&A sold it to the Turnpike Authority). My totally amateur (see blog title) reading is that you could probably run at speed for most of the run from Weston to Framingham and Ashland to the curves around Lake Quinsigamond in Worcester. If you could average 60 mph even you could run from Boston to Worcester in 45 minutes, and then extend some trains to Springfield and Amherst and be time-competitive with car travel. Springfield is rebuilding Union Station, and Amherst has nearly no direct bus service, necessitating a time-consuming (3 hours from Boston to Amherst) change in the decidedly-dodgy Springfield Bus Station.

    1. Joel N. Weber IIJuly 26, 2015 at 3:22 PM

      What are the worst bottlenecks we'd run into if we attempted tripple or maybe even quad track from Weston to Newtonville?