Sunday, July 1, 2018

Bus shuttle upsides: Finding opportunities from irregular operations

Starting next weekend, the Lowell Line will shut down on weekends for nearly six months, to allow the installation of Positive Train Control (PTC) and expedite track work for the Green Line extension. These are worthy and necessary projects. PTC will make the Commuter Rail system safer and more reliable, and GLX will bring better transit options to tens of thousands of daily riders.

No one likes a bus shuttle, but they do give us an opportunity to try new and innovative service patterns. Yet the T has taken the Lowell Line schedule and made it all but unusable, nearly tripling the duration of a trip from Lowell to Boston, while at the same time ignoring nearby resources—the 134 bus and the Haverhill Line—which would be duplicated by the Commuter Rail replacement service. TransitMatters recently wrote about how the MBTA could optimize Orange Line shuttles in Roxbury and Jamaica Plain using parallel Commuter Rail service, and this page has written about how the MBTA could optimize the Alewife-Harvard shuttle. This is a similar idea.

The Lowell Line dates to the 1830s—one of the first railroads in the world—when the Boston and Lowell Railroad was built as a freight line to serve the factories on the Merrimac. Its proponents underestimated the potential for passenger traffic and for the most part avoided existing town centers, yet the fast travel time—a stagecoach trip took most of a day, and even in 1835 the B&L made the trip in under an hour—attracted significant passenger traffic: an early lesson in the concept of "induced demand." Two centuries later, the trip is still reasonably fast, direct and, because it was originally built to avoid town centers, hard to approximate with buses on nearby streets.

The railroad runs 25 miles from Boston to Lowell, while a bus zigzagging to serving each station runs 35, nearly all on narrow, local roadways. No wonder the schedule from Wellington to Lowell requires an hour and forty-five minutes. This is the reason that permanent replacement Commuter Rail service with buses on the weekend which is floated from time to time is a non-starter: buses are unable to efficiently make intermediate stops in town centers over a long distance. Rail service can, and, with the implementation of Regional Rail elements (i.e. level boarding platforms, faster-accelerating electric trains), could do so more quickly and efficiently than it does today.

As proposed, the Lowell Line bus replacement schedule makes use of Wellington’s proximity to I-93, and buses begin there, rather than downtown. This is similar to the busing taking place this summer on the Worcester Line, where buses have connected to the Green Line at Riverside. Yet for the Worcester Line, the T provides express service from Framingham to Riverside (which is significantly faster than the local route) and local service to serve stops in between. For the stations in Newton, no service is provided, but nearby bus routes, and the Green Line, provide service without slowing the trip from further out.

A similar concept could be applied to the Lowell Line. There is no redundant service for the outside portion of the route: a bus trip making each stop from Lowell to Anderson/Woburn is scheduled to take 45 minutes, as long as the full rail trip from Lowell to Boston. From there, rather than wending their way through Woburn, Winchester and Medford, replacement service could run express down I-93 to Wellington, reaching the Orange Line in an hour and, with a transfer, getting a traveler North Station in 1:15, not a particularly fast trip, but better than a two-hour crawl. For trips to and from Winchester and West Medford, no additional service would be required: it’s already there in the form of the 134 bus.

The 134 runs almost the exact same route as the proposed replacement shuttle. It passes through Winchester Center, within a stone’s throw of Wedgemere, and a half mile from West Medford (which is served directly by several other bus routes), from which it continues to Wellington. The service is provided hourly, which is more frequent than the Commuter Rail shuttles, so intermediate travelers from, say, Winchester to Lowell could ride into Wellington, and connect to a bus to Lowell. To provide the same span of service would require that a few buses—two on Sunday morning and two each evening—be extended by a few stops to Winchester (this might be something small enough that it could be done in the short term, without waiting for a new schedule). Most passengers would find taking the 134 as convenient, if not more so, than the replacement shuttles.

This idea would also save the T operating costs. The current Lowell Line shuttles are scheduled to take 1:45 from Lowell to Wellington, and 1:45 back. Running directly from Anderson/Woburn to Wellington would cut this to an hour, saving nearly 90 minutes of operating time for round each trip. With 16 round trips each weekend, this would save 22 hours of operation. Extending a few 134 trips to Winchester would claw back three or four additional hours of service, but it would still result in 18 hours of operating hours saved each weekend. Given that this project is slated to run from now until December, it will affect 20 weekends of service, and if a bus costs $125 per hour to operate, this would save the MBTA $45,000 in operating costs.

Another option, rather than running buses to Anderson/Woburn and on to Wellington, would be to skip the Anderson/Woburn stop—which is a large park-and-ride, so people using it could park at other, nearby stations—and run directly from Wilmington to Reading instead and connect to Haverhill Line service. This train runs parallel to the Lowell Line only a mile to the east, and Reading would be roughly a 40 minute ride from Lowell. The Haverhill Line weekend schedule would have to be increased slightly to provide the same level of service that the Lowell Line does: currently the Haverhill Line is served by only six trains on a weekend day, with three hours between trains. With the Lowell Line shut down, Keolis should have some additional staff available for these trains, since the net operation would still be less than the Lowell Line running. This would not only better-utilize existing resources and provide a better product to the traveling public on the Lowell and Haverhill lines (although the cost savings from less busing may be canceled out by running more trains), but it would draw in new riders to the Haverhill Line with more frequent service.

This table assumes a cost of $125 per hour for bus service, $750 per hour for rail service (estimated here), and that each train would only require a single bus.

AlternativeTravel Time
Bus HoursTrain HoursCost:
per weekend | total
Local bus to Wellington2:00560$7000 | $140,000
Express bus to Wellington1:15380$4750 | $95,000
Bus to Haverhill Line1:10269$10,000 | $200,000

Assuming you'd need two buses to handle any instances with more than 50 riders, the calculation would be:

AlternativeTravel Time
Bus HoursTrain HoursCost:
per weekend | total
Local bus to Wellington2:001120$14,000 | $280,000
Express bus to Wellington1:15760$95,000 | $180,000
Bus to Haverhill Line1:10529$13,250 | $265,000

While the Reading/Haverhill Line alternatives cost more (because they require more railroad operations) passengers would pay a Commuter Rail fare from Reading, nor does it take in to account additional Haverhill ridership, which would recoup some of this expense. Another alternative would be to have Amtrak's Downeaster trains stop at Reading for bus passengers to Lowell, although capacity may be an issue. These estimates do not take a detailed look at how buses would be deployed, although the current schedule seems to show buses laying over at Wellington and Lowell for more than an hour, hardly an efficient use of resources. The Haverhill Line alternative, in particular, would allow a bus to make a round-trip in two hours, matching the frequency of improved train service there.

The installation of PTC gives us opportunities to experiment with different replacement service. Instead of simply drawing a line on a map, the T should be creative in leveraging existing infrastructure to provide the best possible product to the traveling public, while at the same time finding ways to reduce operating costs. These often go hand-in-hand, and the Lowell bus service is an example of how, with some small changes, the T could save time for its passengers and money for itself.

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