Saturday, December 26, 2015

Why is there no train station at Walden Pond?

Photo from here.
When I was hiking the Appalachian Trail through New York, I passed MetroNorth's Appalachian Trail station. Every weekend, a couple of trains stop there and drop off hikers, who can hike in either direction on the trail. There's no parking lot at the station, nor road access (although Route 22 is only a couple hundred feet away). It is scheduled specifically for hikers, and while it only serves a few hundred passengers a year, the small station is sufficient for the crowds. Breakneck Ridge is a similar station, although not on the AT, as is Manitou, although it also has very limited rush hour service.

While the Appalachian Trail was built in New York in the 1920s and 1930s (meant to serve as a regional resource for city dwellers), the Appalachian Trail station is much newer. It was built in 1991 at the behest of MetroNorth and the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, which maintains the trail in the area. The total cost of the station? Just $10,000, with negligible additional costs for a few trains to stop. Even if only a few hundred people use the station each year, their fares add up to more than that every year.

The Bay Circuit Trail runs 200+ miles around Boston,
including around Walden Pond. Full section map here.
Which brings us to Concord, Mass. While not on the Appalachian Trail, Walden Pond is one of the most heavily-visited outdoor sites in the region, both for swimmers and beach-goers in the summer, and walkers and hikers year-round. The Fitchburg Line goes right by the pond—Thoreau rode the train there, although he may not have liked the new technology—but the nearest stations are about two miles away (Concord, which is closest, is along a busy road with a crossing of Route 2, hardly conducive to pedestrian travel). While the pond abuts the railroad, and the Bay Circuit Trail—the 200-plus mile trail around Boston—comes within a stone's throw, the trains roll through at 60 or 70 miles per hour, weekdays, and weekends.

And even if you choose to drive, Walden Pond can be hard to get to. There's an $8 per car fee, but the 300-space lot routinely fills to capacity on weekends in the summer, with a line of cars idling on Route 126, waiting for an open spot (there is minimal other parking nearby on the narrow roads in the area). And while some people certainly come by train or bicycle, many more are put off by the relatively long walk from the local train station. But what if the train stopped at Walden?

The $10,000 MetroNorth spent on its station in 1991 would be about $18,000 today, with more cost, perhaps, because the site is more remote than the Appalachian Trail Station. And two platforms might be required since the railroad there has two tracks, so the cost might be upwards of $50,000 for a simple station. (I don't know if you could get an ADA waiver given the remoteness of the station; if not a mechanical lift may suffice for infrequent wheelchair-bound visitors.) Stops could be made on weekends year-round (or at least during non-snowy months) and perhaps even on some afternoon and evening trains in the summer for late-day swimmers and picnickers.

From there, the Bay Circuit Trail provides hiking in either direction, and the station sits in the middle of one of the largest trail networks and conserved areas in the region. (We can have an argument about the merits of conservation land encouraging sprawl and high housing prices, but this at least is a large, mostly-contiguous portion.) For pond visitors, the swimming beach is a 15 minute walk along a wooded path, rather than a narrow roadway shoulder. This is about as long as the walk from Manchester-by-the-Sea to Singing Beach, at trek made by hundreds of beachgoers on warm summer days. At $15 per roundtrip, it would only take 83 passengers per day for 20 weekends of the year to make back the construction cost of the station—in one year.

Photo from here.
This could be sold as a partnership, or even partially funded through private sources. The MBTA can provide access to a DCR property and other outdoor resources. A station could even provide a safer crossing location for the tracks, which several trails cross and which now have a speed limit of 80, up from 60. It may also help tourism: the train I rode in late December had British tourists headed for Concord looking out the window at the pond, an international destination. Perhaps we should make it easier to access.

The Bay Circuit Trail, Appalachian Mountain Club and The Trustees of Reservations—two large, longstanding Boston-based outdoors advocacy organizations—could work to promote transit-friendly excursions for city dwellers. There would be more options for Walden Pond visitors to get to the reservation (and fewer cars), more revenue for the T with minimal expenses and more opportunities for people from the city who may not have a car to get outside and active. There are questions of erosion: perhaps such a partnership could put a portion of each ticket sold to and from Walden towards the maintenance of the trails there. Other than slightly longer trips for Fitchburg Line weekend riders (and given the padding currently built in to the schedule, I'm sure a stop could be built in without any delay), everyone is a winner.

This should happen.


  1. Historically the Fitchburg Railroad did have a station here and what would be considered an amusement park for the late 1800's. The biggest reason why you will never see a commuter rail station here is that the park tries to limit the number of people in the park to increase the enjoyment of visitors and to conserve the plants and animals.