MBTA considers how to improve commuter rail, but developments continue to take years

MBTA commuter rail trains at South Station. Photo by Edward Orde/Wikimedia Commons

By Lindsey Vickers
BU News Service

BOSTON – While Boston residents have access to numerous public transit options, service choices decrease the further you get from the city. For MetroWest commuters looking to travel via rail, there’s just one: the Framingham/Worcester Line.

A one-way ride from Framingham to South Station rings up at $9.75, and a round-trip ticket is nearly $20. Combined with limited departure times – especially during off-peak hours – the commuter rail can seem like a subpar choice.

Nevertheless, about 2.5 million riders board the commuter rail each month.

The Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) is considering options for improving the rail network as part of its “Rail Vision” project. It’s part of the MBTA’s “Building a Better T,” a five-year capital investment plan that began in July 2018.

Rail Vision focuses specifically on commuter rail. There are six improvement plans under consideration, including diesel and electrified service, increasing the number of bi-directional trains, unconstrained parking at some stations and even decreased fares.

Last year, Rail Vision published a full review of 16 comparable rail systems from throughout the world. It found that only two U.S. systems were fully reliant on diesel-powered locomotives. None of the international rails it studied used diesel technology. In fact, 10 of the 16 assessed are fully electrified.

Two of the MBTA’s commuter rail alternatives rely on diesel-powered trains.

It’s unclear which option will be best in the long haul. Current projections show that Alternative 6, “Full Transformation,” which involves using electric trains to provide 15-minute service at many stations, including Framingham and Natick Center, yields the greatest gains in ridership, according to Scott Hamwey, manager of Transit Planning for the Mass. Department of Transportation.

Currently, some commuter rail stations have undergone improvement projects. The only station that MetroWest residents will hopefully see changes to soon is Natick Center, which is among the top 25% of busiest commuter rail stations, according to the MBTA. Though currently in the design phase, the station will eventually be redesigned to improve accessibility. The Framingham station has yet to see changes.

The MBTA is also gradually working toward full implementation of “positive train control,” which alerts engineers of trains that are moving too fast, or if there is a possible collision. Congress mandated certain rail systems implement the system in 2008.

The MBTA is one of many rail systems nationally that has struggled to meet deadlines to implement this safety measure. Congress has extended the positive train control implementation deadline three times, with the MBTA receiving an additional extension until 2020. It expects to complete the project by the end of next year.

While the MBTA works to meet the newest deadline, there are some national success stories. As of last December, the Port Authority Trans-Hudson, North County Transit District, Portland & Western Railroad and the Southern California Regional Rail Authority “self-reported that they fully implemented (positive train control) systems on their required main lines,” according to the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Railroad Administration.

While the Baker administration announced in August that “transportation officials would speed up planned work to improve the system faster,” timing for improvements to the commuter rail continues to be unclear.

During a recent advisory committee meeting, Hamwey said precise scheduling on developments, such as the “alternatives,” to the commuter rail are still in flux. Before knowing next steps, “we will have to wait to see how the next two meetings go,” he said.

This article was originally published in MetroWest Daily News.

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