TRANSITMATTERS, a nonprofit known for delving into the nitty gritty of very specific transportation issues, went in a different direction on Tuesday, releasing a sweeping report calling for a multi-billion-dollar overhaul of the state’s commuter rail system over the course of a decade or more.
Dubbed regional rail, the ambitious proposal calls for transforming a rail network designed primarily to deliver people at peak travel times each weekday to and from Boston into a subway-like system offering frequent, faster service throughout the day – every 30 minutes in the suburbs and every 15 minutes in denser neighborhoods.
The report calls for electrifying the entire network and replacing existing locomotives and coaches with self-propelled electric vehicles called electric multiple units, or EMUs. The report also recommends raising all station platforms to allow for direct boarding onto trains and allowing free fare transfers between regional trains, subways, and buses.
Regional rail would represent a huge leap into the future for a system that is currently struggling with antiquated locomotives and coaches and having a tough time making the trains run on time. The current system is technologically backward, lacking the capacity to even say how many riders it has. It has also been slow to target new markets, only recently laying plans to target weekend riders and reverse-commuters.
Regional rail would leapfrog that slowly emerging discussion and take it in a whole new direction. As TransitMatters board member Jarred Johnson said: “The answer isn’t less transit, it’s more service.”
The electric trains could accelerate and decelerate much more rapidly, speeding up travel times. Raised platforms would allow quicker boarding and ease handicap access. With faster trains and slower dwell times at stations, TransitMatters said more stations could be added to existing lines with no increase in travel time for riders. More frequent service could also spur development in Gateway Cities served by rail line, including Lowell, Lawrence, Haverhill, Fitchburg, Worcester, and Brockton, the report said.
“Commuter rail is stuck in a ‘chicken-and-egg’ dilemma today,” the report said. “Trains running every two hours off-peak are not reliable enough for people to choose to depend on them, so people drive when they might otherwise use transit. Regional rail solves this dilemma.”
TransitMatters supports building the North South Rail Link between South and North Stations, but said the link isn’t necessary to begin the regional rail conversion. The TransitMatters report recommended scapping plans to expand South Station, saying more capacity could be added there by simply requiring trains to get in and out of the station in 20 minutes rather than the current 35 minutes. “Doing this would nearly double current capacity at South Station,” the report said.
The report also had a few other high-priced recommendations, including doing away with the Needham commuter rail line and serving that community by extending the Orange Line into West Roxbury and the extending the Green Line’s D line into Needham. The report also recommended spurs off existing commuter lines to Peabody and Woburn.
The big question with regional rail is cost. Transit Matters put out a very loose cost estimate of $2 to $3 billion to electrify the system, bring station platforms up to train level, and resolve certain transportation bottlenecks. The estimate did not include the cost of the EMUs.
TransitMatters said regional rail could be accomplished incrementally, perhaps starting with the Providence Line, which is nearly fully electrified already, and then rolling it out line by line. Many of the commuter rail system’s existing trains need to be replaced, and TransitMatters said the state should slowly substitute EMUs for existing diesel locomotives and coaches.
The TransitMatters report said little about how all the work would be funded, other than to say money could come from the proceeds of bonds backed up by the expected cost savings from lower operating costs.
“This is not just a vision,” said Marc Ebuña, the president of TransitMatters. “It’s a practical business model that can be accomplished incrementally.”
The report was shared in advance with state Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack and top officials at the T, who offered comments and suggestions, some of which were incorporated into the report.
Joe Pesaturo, a spokesman for the T, said “we greatly appreciate their hard work and strong advocacy for a convenient and reliable public transportation system that will serve the region’s needs for decades to come.” He noted the state launched a commuter rail vision study late last year that is likely to touch on many of the same themes. According to Pesaturo, the state’s study is looking at full or partial system electrification; a change in vehicle technology to EMUs or other lower emitting and more flexible rolling stock; double or triple tracking, including any associated right of way acquisition; and new facilities and stations.
A Coalition for Regional Rail is also about to be launched, with its founding members including US Rep. Seth Moulton, Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, state Sen. Eric Lesser, Mayor Michael Cahill of Beverly, Dan O’Connell of the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, and Hugh Grant of the SouthCoast Development Partnership.
The TransitMatters report was released on Tuesday at a press conference held in the boardroom of MassINC, the publisher of CommonWealth magazine. CommonWealth, which reports extensively on transportation issues, has allowed TransitMatters to do podcasts at its office and submit op-eds for publication in the magazine. The magazine did a Q&A with three members of the TransitMatters board in October.