FOR OVER A HUNDRED YEARS, the design of Green Line cars has been dictated by the Lechmere Inner Loop, a 42-foot radius curve that has required custom-designed vehicles ever since the T moved beyond World War II era trolleys. This custom design has shackled the T and all Green Line riders to trolley equipment that fails to respond to service reliability and accessibility needs. The T’s current fleet consists of a potpourri of aging and inaccessible Type 7s, derailment prone Type 8s, and extremely expensive Type 9s. This paradigm was boldly challenged by MBTA staff at a recent presentation to the MBTA’s Fiscal Management and Control Board detailing a Green Line future made bright by a coordinated vision of capital investment that will transform operations and improve service.

The proposed Type 10 trolley will be fundamentally different from what T riders have been accustomed to. The T plans to remove the Lechmere inner loop as part of the GLX project, and with a series of other upgrades such as curve modifications at the Reservoir and Boston College stations and a rebuild of the century-old Lechmere Viaduct, it will become possible to use minimally modified trolleys based on the existing Bombardier Flexity. The new trolley design features cars that are each the length of one and a half existing trolleys, yet carry the capacity of two old cars by eliminating duplicate cabs and couplers, for a 33 percent improvement in passenger capacity per train length. The entirely low floor and sliding door design allow ramp and stair-free accessible level boarding, similar to the Red, Orange, and Blue Lines. Best of all, this trolley design is already in service in Europe, decreasing the risk that the order will have unforeseen reliability issues.

By ordering standard light rail vehicles, the T can create a significantly more competitive bidding process, resulting in lower costs and better options. The initial phase will involve one new car replacing a pair of Type 7s/Type 8s, with capacity increases coming from a small increase in trains per hour. Once the single cars have entered service, a further set of infrastructure modifications promises to massively increase capacity. Current Green Line standards call for platforms long enough for three Type 8s, equivalent to the length of two new cars. Once all platforms on a line have been brought to this standard, the T can operate two of the new vehicles coupled together, providing the equivalent capacity of four current cars. On the D and E Lines, only three stations are presently out of compliance; rebuilding them will allow the T to run coupled LRVs and thus double capacity, a return on investment unheard of elsewhere in the system. In “Phase IV” of the project, the 15 stations out of compliance on the B and C lines would be rebuilt to allow dual-LRV operations on the entire Green Line. To put this in context, the very important Red and Orange Line upgrade programs provide less than half the relative capacity increase.

Beyond the substantial positive impacts for riders, the Green Line transformation program will have important impacts on operations, service, and the T’s finances. A single new car holds the capacity of two old cars yet only requires a single operator, doubling the labor productivity of each train. The current Green Line requires twice the subsidy per trip of the Red and Orange Line, with labor costs being the single largest component. This savings could be used to significantly increase off-peak service. In addition, the new design consumes less than half the power per passenger. The new cars will be equipped with the next generation fare system, AFC 2.0, and will support all-door boarding, significantly reducing dwell times. Even a single new car will quadruple the number of doors available for boarding at surface stops. Combined with ongoing transit signal priority projects, this will decrease surface run times and further increase productivity and capacity. Future capital needs are also affected: coupled Type 10s can hold so many passengers that stations will effectively never need to be longer than 225 feet, saving money and space in future projects.

The Fiscal and Management Control Board’s support for this transformative project, and the panel’s immediate hiring of a production manager/construction manager demonstrates that the board is willing to make high-leverage capital investments. This approach can and should be brought to other components of the T’s transit network. In particular, the regional rail vision being embraced by political leaders and transit advocacy groups offers an excellent opportunity to leverage platform rebuilds, AFC 2.0, and new vehicles to unlock a new business and operating model. With proof of payment, high platforms, and electric catenary (already in place on the Providence Line), the T can move to create frequent, reliable service on its existing commuter rail network. Similar to the operational improvements with the proposed new Green Line cars, electric multiple units promise faster intercity trips, more reliability, and lower operating costs.

Green Line transformation is a great project that fits the control board’s mission to reform operations by investing in capital. It may be a signal that more change is on the way–at least we can fervently hope so. The best way to bring a larger measure of reliability and cost savings to our intercity rail system is to move away from the 20th Century commuter rail model that is failing to respond to our economy and our mobility needs. Taking a lesson from Green Line transformation, the T should embark on a strategy to transform commuter rail into regional rail, using the same forward-looking thinking it is bringing to America’s busiest light rail transit system.

Ted Pyne is a member of TransitMatters and leads its outreach and recruitment efforts to college students in Massachusetts.