Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Brief Notes on Boston Transit

Photo Credit: Pi.1415926535 CC BY-SA 3.0

I was in Boston at the end of last week for a conference and rode around on Boston transit for a bit. I’d ridden their commuter rail many times, but not much in the city besides the Silver Line bus service to the airport.

I noticed that the Red and Orange Line subways both appeared to be very well patronized at rush hour, with some pretty crowded trains. A couple of stops left people unable to get on and having to wait for the next train. Even off-peak had pretty good loads. The frequencies seemed to be decent too.

Curious, I went to Wikipedia and pulled the ridership stats. Boston’s heavy rail ridership is very good for such a small system at 552K weekday riders vs. around 750K in Chicago and Washington. (Philly has 312K).

But Boston has much less milage than Chicago and Washington. On a per route-mile basis, Boston is at 15,000/mile, with Chicago and Washington at less than half that (7,500/mile and 7,200/mile, respectively). That’s pretty impressive.

I was chatting with a friend and we both agreed that New York’s often dilapidated stations still have something of a hint of romance, thanks to things like the mosaic tiles and other artwork. Boston’s subway, by contrast, exudes a dull midcentury style decay. (I’m not sure when the station decor actually dates to).  It’s clearly in need of a major refresh.

Boston’s commuter system remains extremely focused on coverage vs. frequency. It uses old legacy diesel locomotive technology. The contrast with Philly’s system (which has its own share of problems, let’s note) is stark.

If Boston was electrified and had a tunnel linking its two train stations like Philly, it’s easy to see game changers happening here for both commuter rail and Amtrak. (This could allow direct Amtrak access from all the northern Boston commuter lines, plus the Orange and Green Lines, and allow Amtrak through running to Maine). Alas, last I read Boston was actually thinking about terminating weekend commuter rail service instead of investing in it. I’m generally not an advocate of rail expansion projects in an era when there are huge basic maintenance needs, but a man can dream about the long term.

Meanwhile in Rhode Island, I noticed that Amtrak was building a new Taj Mahal station at Kingston, including brand new high platforms and a third track. This is a $41 million project, which seems a dubious investment at this fairly small stop. This is being paid for by the feds, apparently to enable the Acela to overtake the regional at this location. But it will also enable the MBTA to extend commuter rail service from Wickford Jct.

Rhode Island now has high platform stations at Providence, TF Green, Wickford Jct, and Kingston. Presumably they’ll convert Westerly at some point. The Massachusetts stops are almost all low platform. It’s kind of crazy that it’s Little Rhody that’s building all these expensive, modern stations.



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