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.


  1. Great write-up (as usual!). This reminds me of similar nonsense that happened with Silver Line Phase 3. That was the 1+ mile tunnel, multi billion dollar that was going to connect the Washington Street Silver Line branch directly to the Seaport / Logan branch. Like this commuter rail proposal, it was dressed up as a noble service to the predominantly minority community in Roxbury so they could have a "one seat ride to the seaport and airport". As in this case, it was very hard to find anyone in that community that wasn't pressing for fast, reliable connection into the main MBTA system at Park / Downtown Crossing.

    Once you took a look at the Silver Line Tunnel, you realized that it's bizarre mile plus loop to connect places that were a couple of hundred yards apart was entirely and completely due to Convention Authority demands. The weird, location of the tunnel entrance on Arlington Street was to allow easy access for buses which were to run from the Hynes (owned by the Convention Authority) down Boylston. The contorted looping of the tunnel led it through the edge of the Common Garage (owned by the Convention Center) and then on to the Seaport Convention Center.

    These two legislators may be very well intentioned, but at the end of the day you'll find ....the Convention Authority still trying to foist a transport plan that will only benefit the Convention Center, while sticking the bill to taxpayers. And screwing the Roxbury community. Ah, the spirit of Billy Bulger still lives on all these patronage schemes from the Convention Authority dressed up as benefiting the Commonwealth as whole.

    1. Ha, I almost made that comparison. The SL Phase III was very much a solution in search of a problem, especially since there is already a tunnel which leads from the south in to the Green Line, straight to Park Street, with a flying junction at Boylston so it actually wouldn't create capacity issues (since some cars from the west could be looped at Park). Of course, this would require upgrading the Silver Line to Dudley to light rail, at which point the extension down Blue Hill Ave would make too much sense for the small minds at the T and the City.

      From the west, the less obvious connection would use the bellmouths under Arlington to build a 1/2 mile tunnel to connect to the Silver Line at South Station and then onwards to the Seaport and the Convention Center. So you'd get an east-west connection from Back Bay/Hynes to South Station and the Convention Center. From there, you could head down Track 61 to parts unknown. It would cost, but it would make way too much sense.

  2. Could the Fairmount line become another branch of the red line? Seems like all it would take is a bridge by the south Boston bypass and a flying junction to connect south of broadway.

    1. It's an interesting concept but it has some flaws. The first is that you'd now be splitting the line in to three branches, rather than two, so you'd have less service on each branch feeding in to the same amount downtown, or you'd be trying to squeeze more service in to the main Cambridge-Dorchester subway. The second issue is that you'd cut Fairmount off from ever carrying main line rail, i.e. freight, or anything from the Franklin Line or NEC.

    2. Yes the folks over at the MBTA enthusiasts discussion group had the same criticisms. I think with the new cars and upgraded signals it wouldn't be much of a problem, the NYC subway deals with that many branches on some lines. The freight issue to south boston might be the bigger problem, though. Its a shame because trains every 5 minutes on the line could do a lot for affordable housing in the region.