Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Saving GLX by (temporarily) cutting Fitchburg?

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is mostly finished with a $300 million rehabilitation of the Fitchburg Line, which will yield more capacity on the line and faster speeds on the longest in-state line in the system. At the same time, the Green Line extension project has seen exponential growth in cost, mostly due to bizarre contracting methods and poor oversight. But it's still a complex project. And now an idea is being floated to cut back a branch of the line to Union Square in Somerville—a branch which parallels the Fitchburg Line—which is in dire need of better transit.

But maybe this presents an opportunity for some out-of-the-box thinking. Both branches of the GLX are slated to be built alongside existing Commuter Rail lines, and building next to an active railroad is not particularly easy. There are safety concerns, FRA issues, and even the cost of staff to insure the safety of workers—and the safe passage of trains—comes at a significant cost. If you could cut all parallel rail service, you could save a lot of time and money: rather than having to rebuild in a constrained corridor, you could more quickly build the project in a much easier work environment.

This, of course, would require cutting Commuter Rail off from the the terminal in Boston. For Lowell, this is a non-starter: busing from Winchester or West Medford would be subject to the whims of traffic on I-93, as would buses from Anderson/Woburn. And the Lowell Line also serves Amtrak and some Haverhill trains which bypass traffic on the single-tracked portions of the Haverhill Line. At busy times on this line, there is a train every ten minutes.

But for Fitchburg, this presents an opportunity. Before getting to Boston, Fitchburg Line trains stop at Porter Square. Already, between 30 and 50% of Fitchburg riders begin or end their Commuter Rail trip at Porter, transferring for a trip to Harvard, Kendall or even in to Boston. What if, for a short period of time, you closed the line inbound from Porter to allow for reconstruction, and had everyone transfer at Porter?

While this would be inconvenient for some riders, and put a bit more of a load on the Red Line, it might save a lot of time, and a lot of money, in the construction of the Union Square portion of the Green Line extension, as well as the portion near Lechmere where the branches meet and cross over the Fitchburg Line. Shuttle bus service could be provided between North Station and Porter (a 20 minute ride) but most passengers would take the Red Line. Considering that nearly half the riders already get off, and most jobs downtown are located near or south of the Red Line (in the Financial District and Back Bay) this would be only a minor inconvenience for them. With faster track speeds on the Fitchburg Line, in fact, it might actually be a wash for many commuters.

Using GTFS, I've tested out a few test trips from South Acton:

+16 minutes to North Station
42 minutes via North Station
58 minutes via Porter, Red Line and Green Line.

+6 minutes to Seaport
66 minutes via North Station and #4 bus
72 minutes via Porter, Red Line and Silver Line

+5 minutes to Copley
56 minutes via North Station and Green Line
61 minutes via Porter, Red Line and Green Line

+3 minutes to Park Street
52 minutes via North Station and Green Line
55 minutes via Porter and Red Line

0 minutes to LMA
72 minutes via North Station and Green Line
72 minutes via Porter, Red Line and #47 bus

0 minutes to South Station, Kendall and Harvard
58, 48 and 42 minutes via Porter already faster than via North Station

It's a wash for most commuters other than those traveling to North Station, and most commuters' final destination is not at North Station, but somewhere to the south (since North Station is mostly surrounded by highway ramps and water). In the long run, running trains to North Station makes sense. But if service could be curtailed at Porter for a year to save millions of dollars, I think it is a worthy sacrifice.

In addition, service on the Fitchburg Line could increase in frequency. Each train terminating at Porter would save 20 minutes of round trip running time. This could be translated in to an extra trip in each rush hour to help spread the load, and an extra midday and evening trip as well using the same equipment. It would also be a good opportunity to, once and for all, construct high-level boarding platforms at Porter to allow faster boarding of trains at the station. The two-track station would be more than adequate for the current schedule on the Fitchburg Line, and during the midday, trains could be stored on the tracks beyond the station well shy of construction in Union Square.

The five train sets currently stored in Fitchburg would be enough for full service on the line; the first train arrives in Porter at 6:40 and could easily make the outbound run to Littleton for the 8:20 service back to Boston in the morning. In the evening, the first outbound train to Littleton could easily turn back to Boston in time for the late local departure at 6:20 (which could be pushed back a few minutes with no ill effect on passengers).

With the route mostly cut off from the network, light maintenance would have to be established somewhere along the line (perhaps at the maintenance of way facility near Alewife). For heavier maintenance, trains would have to be shuttled to Lowell across the Stony Brook line from the Willows. This railroad is slow and would need improvement for anything but occasional moves (if it were faster, it could host passenger service from Fitchburg to Boston via Lowell) but would likely be adequate for short-term moves. The extra crew costs would be offset by the savings of rebuilding the inner part of the line quickly and economically.

Is there precedence for this? There is. From 1979 to 1987, the Southwest Corridor was rebuilt below grade between Hyde Park and Back Bay for the relocated Orange Line. The issue was that the Needham Line was only accessible via the corridor. Rather than keeping a track in service and continually moving it around for the rest of the rebuild, they shut down Needham service, replaced it with express buses (which encountered less traffic on the Turnpike than they would today) and rebuilt the corridor in place, That project is obviously larger than the Fitchburg project, and necessitated a longer shutdown, but there are certainly similarities which could yield similar cost savings. See page 202 here.


  1. Would this also cut off the grand junction backup route thru Ayer? Fairly important during turnpike construction, I suspect.

    It's funny that Lechmere riders are expected to lose 18 months of service but they haven't considered a Fitchburg shutdown.

    1. Very good point re: Lechmere, which has as many riders as the Fitchburg Line.

      The Ayer Route would have to be rerouted via Lowell and the Stony Brook. There are questions as to just how deteriorated that railroad is; it's Pan Am's main freight line, but still probably a mess. But if it's the kind of mess that $1m would upgrade to Class 2 track, then it's pretty doable. And the Grand Junction could potentially be kept open most of the time as very low speed, temporary, frequently shifted exempt trackage, since it mostly crosses this corridor laterally from BET.

  2. In terms of commuter rail operations, this should be doable: they already did a weekend shutdown where they turned trains at Porter. There's a crossover not too far away, and the next block signals are not too far past Porter, so you could store trains on the main tracks past Porter without slowing down trains coming into the station too much, and without any changes to the signal system. In terms of getting trains to the maintenance facility, the Pan Am main line works, and there's also the longer route via Worcester and the Grand Junction. If the Wachusett Layover is done by the time this potential idea happens, it would be a good place to set up light maintenance.

    The biggest concern with all this, though, is what it will do to the Red Line. There's not a whole lot of spare room on the Red Line and gaining an extra few hundred passengers during rush hour, especially in huge clumps as they all get off one train at the same time, might be a bit too much for the line.

    1. Red Line would be an issue, but this may be a drop in the bucket. Per counts, it would be about 300 extra people per train. Maybe 250 if you also ran an express bus down Somerville Ave and across the bridge in the morning when the crush is worst (i.e. in the evening people more filter out, but everyone from the train gets on the Red Line in the morning). 300 people across six cars is 50 people per car, or 1/4 of the crush capacity. But figure that as people detrain and make their way down the stairs/escalators, they're probably going to wind up spreading out on to two trains. Will this mean that a train may wind up full at Harvard? Yes, maybe. But that happens pretty often anyway.

      The T could try to monkey with the schedule, having the starter hold a train at Alewife and trying to match arrivals, or having a train run express from Porter to Kendall when full, but that seems like way more trouble than it's worth. Red Line riders, for better or worse, are used to full trains. Adding 2000 people over the course of rush hour to a line already carrying 15,000+ per hour is not a huge deal. Especially if/since it's not permanent.

  3. Not a Boston resident, but the fact that both branches of the GLX parallel existing rail lines raises a red flag in my head. Why not cancel this project, and just add stations and electrify the commuter lines instead to offset the slower trips. Maybe even put in a single bypass track at some of the stations. Surely this could be accomplished for under a $billion. Put the leftover money as a down payment on the North South Rail Link.

    If you want to extend the green line, extend it somewhere that doesn't copy existing transit lines. Maybe the Grand Junction line. Or maybe Cambridge Street. Maybe both.

    1. There are two reasons this extension makes sense:

      1. North Station is not a destination. Without a North-South Rail Link, people need to use other modes to get to their final destination. At South Station, 17% of people get on the Subway. From North Station, it's nearly double that, with many fewer walkers. (Data from here.) Bringing more people in to North Station means more people have to make that transfer. But the Green Line allows a nice, through trip instead, and serves downtown and Back Bay with a one-seat ride.

      2. The Green Line has capacity. Depending on the growth of ridership on the GLX, any of the lines could be extended north to provide run-through service. Nearly all Green Line service is west-to-east terminating downtown. The GLX would allow those trains which run through downtown to carry passengers in both directions. And with the hardest part of the route—the Charles crossing—built, it should already be halfway there.

      Boston doesn't really have anywhere to put transit that doesn't follow existing transit lines without deep bore tunneling. Rights of way are narrow and taken up by Commuter Rail, which runs far enough out that it has to interact with freight and can't easily be replaced with other modes. The Lowell branch of the GLX is plenty wide enough for four tracks, at least to the old Fitchburg cutoff and is a logical choice. The Union branch makes sense given the width of the right of way and the underserved neighborhood (good luck taking transit from Boston to Union at rush hour). Neither of those lines has usable transit right now, and even with frequent service to North Station you'd still be forcing a transfer and running more trains in to a station that is near capacity with limited room for expansion.

    2. I absolutely agree that an extension of the Green Line makes sense.

      I guess the $3b just gets me for a line with an alignment that is somewhat of a compromise in order to follow existing rights-of-way. The price really is so bad that if they can't cut the cost the project should be scrapped for now.

      Perhaps some of the assumptions made when screening the initial alternatives, namely that using existing surface right-of-way would save money, turn out to be false. A subway for the smallish loading gauge and short (<300ft?) train length of the green line should not be especially expensive.

      Elsewhere, $3 billion would cover most of the costs to build the North-South Rail Link, which is arguably more important than the GLX. Or, alternatively, a 4 mile bored tunnel extension of the Green Line following the absolute ideal alignment with little disruption to a dense built environment on the surface.

      Citybanan in Stockholm is quite comparable to the NS Rail Link. 3.7 miles of 2 track tunnel and 2 four-track stations for about $2.5 billion. Even within the US there are examples of much better cost control; the Los Angeles Regional Connector has three new underground light rail stations in 1.9 miles for $1.5 billion, double that and you get six stations in 3.8 miles for $3 billion, very comparable with the GLX.

      All that said, your idea of temporarily cutting back commuter service to Porter in order to save money is not a terrible idea.

  4. Also in term of Green Line construction, this would also considerably help one of the trickiest bits of the whole project: the bridge over the Fitchburg Line tracks and the elaborate system of ramps to split the Union Square and Medford branches and connect both of them to the future maintenance facility. In fact, I'm pretty sure that this is what the most recent shutdown was for, and I suspect there will be more such shutdowns in the future, though it's obviously easier when you can just set things up on the tracks for a week or two to build the bridges.

    1. Yes, this is true. Building a straight-over viaduct there might save a lot of money. Getting rid of the ramps to the maintenance facility might really save a lot. But then you have to maintain and store the cars somewhere (Riverside?) which might not have the space. Not sure how well that works. Maybe you could build a line down Blue Hill Avenue and store some cars in the Mattapan yard.

    2. The one huge advantage of that yard location is that it's close to Downtown. Otherwise, they still have space at Arborway and Watertown that they could use by extending lines there. A Blue Hill Avenue line would be useful too, but the Mattapan Yard is not that big and might be filled up just between cars for the High Speed Line and Blue Hill Avenue service. And all the other yard options are still at the west/south end of the system, an the GLX will mean the loss of the existing Lechmere yard.