Why we have such bad commuter rail service in Boston

Labor Day Week continued…

Part of the misery of work in the U.S. is commuting in a country of 325 million trying to use infrastructure (highways, railroad tracks, bridges, tunnels) that was built for a country of 150 million.

This summer I was amazed that a guy at a party admitted to being an executive for the company that runs the universally hated commuter rail system here in the Boston area.

When they’re on schedule, our trains run every hour or two during off-peaks times and usually no more frequently than every 30 minutes at rush hour. This renders the commuter rail more or less useless except for those who can plan their lives to the minute.

I asked Could the trains run every 15 minutes as they do in Moscow? [Subway lines in Moscow run every minute on weekdays, every two minutes on weekends, but commuter rail is less frequent.]

The answer was “no” because the MBTA uses super heavy rolling stock, more like what you’d see on a freight train, and the tracks would be quickly destroyed by such frequent usage. The difference is easy to see if you go to England, for example, where the long-distance “trains” look to an American eye more like subway cars.

Why couldn’t we buy these lighter vehicles here? “I don’t know,” he responded, “but I think there are political connections involved with the rolling stock manufacturer.”

Why were the prices so high and yet the system was always losing money? “Unions,” was the answer. The company that runs the train is French. How could our unions be less efficient than workers in France? “It is on a completely different scale,” the international executive responded. “I have never seen a group of workers as unproductive as American union members.”

We have structural problems here in Boston as well. Because North Station and South Station aren’t connected, trains can’t be scheduled to keep rolling through a station. They have to back up after reaching downtown Boston. The $15 billion Big Dig project didn’t connect the stations. “Take long view, build N-S Rail Link” suggests that we redo the Big Dig so as to accomplish this goal.

Related:

11 Comments

  1. Neal

    September 9, 2017 @ 1:36 pm

    1

    >Why were the prices so high and yet
    >the system was always losing money?
    >“Unions,” was the answer.

    I suppose the managers are all competent and focused like a laser on executing the mission at the highest possible level of service and lowest possible cost.

  2. paddy

    September 9, 2017 @ 1:52 pm

    2

    Why aren’t the railway systems automated, not requiring a driver?

    Soon we will have autonomous cars, but we can’t adopt the German railway setups that drive themselves on a loop automatically?

  3. Al

    September 9, 2017 @ 4:21 pm

    3

    Until Massachusetts voters stop rewarding the Democrats for a job poorly done, nothing will change. Sadly, I don’t see that happening.

  4. Anon

    September 9, 2017 @ 4:24 pm

    4

    This post is pretty much a disgrace to Harvard’s name for even hosting this. Perhaps you should have researched ANYTHING about that guy at a party’s claims before making yourself look completely ignorant.

    ——————–

    Lets go through your claims, one by one:

    “The answer was “no” because the MBTA uses super heavy rolling stock, more like what you’d see on a freight train, and the tracks would be quickly destroyed by such frequent usage.”

    Freight train cars are often more than double the weight (286,000lbs is what most freight rail is rated to) of commuter rail cars (most are around ~130,000lbs). Freight rail runs trains of 100+ cars 24x7x365 on the cross country mainlines. Even a frequent commuter rail line doesn’t come close to the levels of punishment that freight rail puts on tracks.

    “Why couldn’t we buy these lighter vehicles here? “I don’t know,” he responded, “but I think there are political connections involved with the rolling stock manufacturer.”

    Passenger trains are heavier in the US because of antiquated FRA regulations regarding how strong the cars need to be. Basically, the regulations require extreme frame strength to not deform significantly rather than modern concepts like crumple zones. I believe this is changing/slowly getting pressured to change, but that’s why they’re heavier, not something absurd like political connections with a rolling stock manufacturer/ (not to mention that the commuter rail rolling stock is from a bunch of different manufacturers, not one, so this claim doesn’t even logically make any sense).

    EVERY commuter rail system in the US has same issues with heavier than ideal railcars. It’s makes them a little slower/less efficient (more weight to move), but it’s not an obstacle to frequent service. Metro-North, LIRR, NJ Transit, etc all operate similar weight rail cars and run very frequent services on some lines.

    “Why were the prices so high and yet the system was always losing money? “Unions,” was the answer. The company that runs the train is French. How could our unions be less efficient than workers in France? “It is on a completely different scale,” the international executive responded. “I have never seen a group of workers as unproductive as American union members.””

    Public transit, including commuter rail, is not profitable anywhere*. It isn’t profitable in France, it isn’t profitable in the UK, and it isn’t profitable here. The private companies running it in some countries only make money because they get a government subsidy to do it. It’s a public good, not an entity aimed at making a direct profit. (the economic gains created by the better transportation are indirectly good for the economy, of course). Your local roads don’t make a profit either.

    *The only place it is profitable is a couple systems in Asia. They don’t make any money running trains either. They make money by buying up a large swathe of property, building a train to it, and capturing the growth in property values/leasing by developing around the transit. If you gave the MBTA property rights to develop/lease everything within 4 blocks of a MBTA station, they’d make a bunch of money too. We don’t allow our public transit agencies to operate as for-profit developers like that in most cases.

    ————–

    “We have structural problems here in Boston as well. Because North Station and South Station aren’t connected, trains can’t be scheduled to keep rolling through a station. They have to back up after reaching downtown Boston.”

    This one is true at least, it does make it harder to run frequent services. Bottlenecks on other lines (for example, the construction of the Southeast Expressway constrained the Old Colony Branches down to 1 track in spots) also limit the potential for services.

    But most of the reason is simply that we aren’t willing to pay for a transit system of that level of service and quality, so we don’t get it.

  5. Matt Cad

    September 9, 2017 @ 4:53 pm

    5

    The reason we don’t have trains like the ones in England is because it would require massive capital investment. The commuter rail currently uses diesel-powered locomotives to push unpowered sets of passenger rail cars. In England, each passenger car moves under its own electric power, similar to the MBTA subway trains, without the need for a locomotive.

    Electric self-powered trains are clearly superior – they can start and stop much faster than the diesels, allowing for greater headways, and can be mix-and-matched depending on demand. But to make that happen, we would need to electrify the entire commuter rail system. That would mean stringing hundreds of miles of catenary wire and building expensive substations along each route. We’re talking billions of investment. Then, we would have to replace the entire commuter rail fleet – since the current passenger cars would be useless without locomotives – and completely overhaul our maintenance and repair facilities.

    Of course, some of this can be done piece-meal over time. I.e. we slowly electrify a few lines at a time. But there are lots of risks and inefficiencies that go along with that too (I won’t get into them here.) The point is, to make the commuter rail work well, we’re talking about a huge up-front investment that the governor and legislature have signaled no stomach for. This is the consequence of reform-before-revenue approach.

    Lastly – the North-South Rail Link would NOT be another big dig. It’s hard to overstate the big dig’s enormous complexity, while NSRL is relatively simple. It would involve very little disruption to the city as it would be done with a tunnel-boring machine, not cut-and-cover like the central artery. In terms of cost, it’s important to note that of the big dig’s $15 billion construction cost, about $13 billion was for the central artery alone. The Silver Line, the Ted Williams Tunnel, and the Zakim Bridge combined accounted for less than $2 billion.

  6. philg

    September 10, 2017 @ 5:25 am

    6

    Matt: the trains I saw in Britain were not electric. See https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Rail_Class_220 for an example of the “small car with small engine” design.

  7. Tiago

    September 10, 2017 @ 5:28 am

    7

    “Anon” is right. The reason why US rolling stock is so heavy is because of outdated FRA regulations. It makes for passenger trains to be ridiculously oversized, heavy, inefficient, and more polluting. Hey, just like American cars.

  8. Matt Cad

    September 10, 2017 @ 1:29 pm

    8

    Ah, so you are referring to Diesel Multiple-Units (DMU.) The good news is that there are FRA-compliant DMUs, and even better, the Patrick Administration announced in 2014 a plan to purchase 30 of them to service the Fairmount Line starting in 2018. The Fairmount line was to be the first phase of a new “Indigo Line” that would eventually extend west via Back Bay, Yawkey, West Station, Boston Landing, and Riverside Stations.

    The bad news is that the Baker Administration killed that plan last year. Turns out it’s not so easy as putting new trains on the same tracks – it would also require station platform height changes and other investments.

    And in the end, if you’re going to invest in improving the system, you may as well do it right. Currently it takes 31 minutes to travel from Fairmount to South Station. DMUs would bring that down to 26 minutes. With fully-electric cars, it would be just 18 minutes. It’s a big difference in overall time because of acceleration and braking ability, which means the trip is faster, but also you can run more trains at a time.

    Again, it all comes down to investment.

  9. jay c

    September 11, 2017 @ 11:08 pm

    9

    Anon: “if you gave the MBTA property rights to develop/lease everything within 4 blocks of a MBTA station, they’d make a bunch of money too.”

    Actually the legislature would make sure to let their friends obtain the MBTA property and make money instead. Read “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York” by Caro.

  10. Andrea Matranga

    September 13, 2017 @ 5:24 am

    10

    The FRA rules do not exclude cronyism. They could have been implemented, or retained past their due partly because they would exclude more modern models from foreign manufacturers, who aren’t going to keep a separate line open to sell five or six trainsets to the American commuter rail market.

  11. Anonymous

    September 13, 2017 @ 3:14 pm

    11

    I would not discard FRA rules without analysis. They may be the reason that rare US train crashes produce only few fatalities and injures

Log in