Fairmount Corridor Construction Promotes Better Use of Commuter Lines in Boston

» Capital investments will do part of the work in expanding use of the regional rail network, but operations is where the real benefits will come.

Boston has one of the nation’s most extensive and well-used commuter rail systems, with twelve lines splayed out from its terminal stations located downtown. But use of those services within the dense core communities of Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville is limited. Despite the fact that the commuter lines pass through those cities as they head out into the suburbs, few residents there choose commuter rail over the subway and bus network, likely because of few stops, limited frequencies of service, and inadequate connections with te rest of the transit network, both in terms of operations and fares.

As in other American cities, this represents a significant under-use of an asset that could play a significant role in upgrading Boston’s transportation network.

With the Fairmount Corridor improvement project, however, that situation will begin to improve on a limited basis — at least within a few neighborhoods south of downtown. Last week, MBTA transit officials broke ground on an infill station at Dorchester neighborhoods’s Talbot Avenue, one of four new stops planned on this commuter rail link (only one remains unstarted). These new infill stations — the others are at Four Corners, Newmarket, and Blue Hill Avenue — and faster connections into the central business district will aid commuters by decreasing travel times and reducing necessary connections. But in order to maximize ridership, these capital investments will not be adequate.

The push for amelioration of service on the 9.2-mile Fairmount Line (whose entire route is within the City of Boston proper) has been long demanded by neighborhood groups in Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan, who see trains pass by them everyday but lack easy access to stations, as the route currently only has five including the termini at Readville and South Station, where connections with the Red Line subway and Silver Line busway are possible. Of the MBTA’s commuter routes, the Fairmount Line is the lowest-performing, with less than 3,000 daily riders and only 70 passengers per train on average, compared to more than 200 for all the rest.

After significant public efforts to encourage the construction of new stops along the route in the early 2000s, a court order required the completion of the four stations by December 2011 — a deadline that is unlikely to be met. But when the improvements are finished, Boston will get something like a third rapid transit line to its southern neighborhoods, joining the Orange Line to the west and the Red Line to the east.

Though many of the new stations will be within a mile of Red Line ones, the neighborhoods through which the Fairmount service goes are sufficiently dense that two rail routes through the area does not seem inappropriate, especially at the relatively minor $15-20 million cost of building each of the new infill stations.

Rapid transit, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. Commuter rail service between service end points takes about 25 minutes with the existing trainsets (faster DMUs are being considered for the future), much faster than is possible using current bus or subway routes (55 minutes). But if service levels remain as they are today, it is difficult to imagine many new riders hopping on board. Only 17 round-trips are provided each day, with frequencies of every 45 minutes at rush hour and less than every hour during the midday. There is no night or weekend service.

While schedules such as those might be acceptable for people who leave their cars at park-and-ride lots in the suburbs in order to make their trips into the city in the morning and out in the evenings, they are completely inappropriate for transit-dependent populations such as those found in the areas through which the Fairmount Line runs. This, and the focus of bus services on the subways, not the commuter rail, explains the corridor’s currently low ridership in spite of the high use of other types of transit in the neighborhood, generally on par with Boston’s average of 33% public transportation mode share.

Past Fairmount Corridor feasibility studies have examined the possibility of expanding service to every 15 minutes at peak times, an operations level that planners suggest could increase ridership to more than 4,000 a day. Fare integration with the rapid transit network allowing free transfers into the subways and buses would bump up use of the line even more. To get from Readville to Downtown Boston currently costs $5.25 on the Fairmount Line, far more than the $1.70 required to take the bus.

Improvements such as those being implemented here — the creation of infill stations, expansion of frequencies, and potential fare integration — should be considered for all of the Boston area’s commuter lines since they are cheap ways to improve the quality of the public transportation network.

Like in most other American cities, commuter rail services in Boston are arbitrarily separated in terms of fares from the subway and bus networks. This in an inefficient use of resources since it encourages people to take overcrowded but lower-priced local networks instead of commuter lines that can in many cases get people to where they need to go more quickly.

Unfortunately, due to the peculiarities of transit funding in this country, due to federal support, getting capital improvements underway is a more simple process than are expanding service hours or reducing fares, both of which are mostly reliant on local funds. This results in a situation where construction projects continue even as the frequency of trains and buses declines. If the primary purpose of programs such as the Fairmount Corridor improvement project is to increase ridership, this is a problematic situation.

Whatever the fate of service along the route, local community groups have been pushing hard to encourage redevelopment around the new and existing stations. A series of urban villages have been proposed in these districts; the effort received livability funds from the Federal Transit Administration and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Specifically, a former chemical facility near the Fairmount stop in the Hyde Park neighborhood has been targeted for a major project. This is a welcome effort by the community to take advantage of new transit resources, rather than to turn their back on them, as is far too frequent in other cities.

Image above: Boston’s South Station, from which Fairmount Line trains originate, from Flickr user Tim Sackton (cc)

30 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Wdobner

    How about putting a few more dollars into the line, electrifying it, and buying a few Silverliner Vs or M8s and getting a real improvement in performance relative to the current locomotive hauled sets and proposed DMUs? The tracks into South Station are already electrified, so most of the expensive terminal track is finished. I would be interested to see a serious study into the electrification of the Fairmount Line by the MBTA as the cost would likely be quite nominal.

  • George

    Isn’t it just $4.75 from Readville to South Sta? Readville is in zone 2.

    The whole city should be zone 1A. There’s no reason it should cost $1.70 to go on Red Line from Braintree to Alewife and $4.75 to ride a much shorter distance between Readville and downtown.

    Another thing is that the Fairmount Line often suffers from bustitution. I’m not quite sure why.

    • Andre L.

      That is another example of how “zonal” pricing doesn’t work. Pricing should be done with distance-based fees, with – where applicable – surcharges for center area or peak times.

    • The line has seen a lot of bustitution because it was single tracked, and construction has added a 2nd track, which involved redoing bridges.

  • Since the Fairmount Line only has a short segment shared with other trains, it should be a prime candidate for severing from the FRA and running as true rapid transit. Operating costs would fall due to reduced staffing, and modern noncompliant regional trains have superior acceleration to that of the M8s.

    Ironically, if the Fairmount Line were not upgraded to rapid transit, it would be a good option for a reroute of intercity trains, away from the Providence Line. It provides a slightly shorter route to South Station, avoids the 90-degree turn from Back Bay, and has lighter commuter traffic. But, obviously, the Providence Line is good enough, and if the Fairmount Line is needed for rapid transit, the local needs should have priority here.

    • Wdobner

      If they’re going to go with rapid transit then they’d owe it to themselves to at least investigate the possibility of a FRA waiver similar to that granted to Caltrain for their conversion of the SF-SJ route. An FRA waiver allowing vehicles with crash energy management and UIC standards would potentially allow the operation of largely off-the-shelf European commuter rail EMUs with performance almost equaling that of our rapid transit vehicles.

      It’s certainly a bit more complicated because Amtrak would be involved through their yard and into the terminal. But AFAIK there is negligible freight traffic along the route to deter a potential waiver. And admittedly South Station would present serious platform height problems with almost any extant UIC EMU (such as the FLIRT, Desiro, or Coradia). But the cost to either procure a higher floor EMU, or reduce the height of two tracks’ platform at South Station is likely to be far less than the cost to rebuild the line as a rapid transit line. I hate to use the term ‘hybrid’, but it is possible we could end up with a vehicle that is neither FRA compatible EMU, rapid transit vehicle, nor an off-the-shelf UIC EMU, but embodies elements of all three.

      And if I understand the wording of Caltrain’s waiver correctly then it specifically enables run through FRA compliant traffic from south of San Jose to be operated alongside otherwise non-compliant EMUs and HSTs between SJ and SF. As a result conversion of the Fairmount line to a waivered operation with non-compliant vehicles between South Station and Readville Jct would potentially allow both Franklin line trains to run through, and still give Amtrak a viable bypass to the Southwest Corridor.

      • Single-level UIC-compliant EMUs can be manufactured with high floors; it’s not a big deal. For example, the trains on the RATP-operated segments of the RER have a boarding height of 1.1 meters (link). In general, it’s easier to build high-floor than low-floor equipment. Asking for a FLIRT with a boarding height of 1.2 meters is much easier than asking for an E231 Series with a boarding height of 55 cm.

        For a line that has relatively light traffic, it’s of utmost importance to get mass-produced technology with as few changes as possible, or else costs can go through the roof. In California, the specially designed rolling stock sells for twice or more what it sells in the rest of the world.

  • Fare and integration seems like a key here ~ the train ticket becomes more appealing on the destination side if a ticket on the train came with “free” bus use within a zone around the destination station, with a discounted cross payment from the rail farebox, and more appealing on the origin side if a one-way bus ticket is upgraded to a return bus ticket with the train fare.

  • If my memory is correct, there is one slight error in this article. I remember reading a lengthy report that stated that peak frequency could not exceed every 20 minutes due to capacity limitations at South Station (article mentions 15). That would change if the proposed station expansion happens.

    Also of note is that while increased service is proposed…the MBTA lacks the equipment to run it. Currently, the MBTA is renting out ancient locomotives from maryland to cover existing schedules. On one side, there is excess capacity on weekends, so adding weekend service shouldnt be an issue….but on the other hand, thats more miles being added to old equipment.

  • Frank

    I think renewed scheduling is key to enhance utilization of the line. From my experience living in Boston, erratic MBTA schedules made using the system virtually impossible.

    I had a reverse commute from Fenway to Wellesley. Although both stations (Yawkey in Fenway) are on the same line, there were no outbound morning trains that served both. (And don’t get me started on how Wellesley has NO LOCAL bus service at all.) After living car-free for 12 years in Philly and NYC, I was forced to buy one.

    I also doubt the MBTA will spend precious operating funds on enhancing service to a traditionally poor, black neighborhood. They certainly won’t buy brand new trainsets to serve it.

  • A lot of this sounds very similar to the CTA Gray Line plan for the in-city Metra Electric District services in Chicago:

    http://bit.ly/GrayLineInfo

    • Jake

      Has the City of Chicago considered this or are they discussing it? Seems like an awesome idea. I considered attending the University of Chicago and was always chagrined by the distance from the El stations (especially the Red Line) and the walk it takes through that type of neighborhood.

    • FG

      Except that Metra Electric already provides good service with EMU’s and high level platforms. It’s more like the infill stations going in on the UP North Line or improving service on the west side which has few Metra stations and no ready alternatives.

      • Hourly off-peak service is not good service.

        • FG

          It’s better than the other Metra lines and the trains are pretty empty off peak. And it’s not uniformly an hour off peak, there are a couple of express trains at noon. In fact, there are usually 2-3 SB (NB is pretty similar) trains off peak (M-S unlike the rest of the system which has M-F schedules) during the day, it’s just after the 7:20 UPark train that things get slow in the evening. I suspect they could easily fill another train 30 minutes later in the evening.

          • Nathanael

            If the stations hadn’t been left to rot, I might respect the service better. Most of the Metra Electric stations down the South Side are actually dangerous due to crumbling concrete in the stairs.

        • FG

          I should also add reliable, clean, quick and more pleasant than taking the el.

  • Beta Magellan

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t moving from under 3,000 to over 4,000 riders a day with frequent service a bit underwhelming? I don’t have any idea about cost/rider–and switching to diesel multiple units for this line as part of regular updating of rolling stock makes sense–but this sounds like the Fairmount Line’s main problem is that it’s a route of marginal importance, even if frequencies are pretty atrocious at the moment.

    • It is underwhelming indeed. the point Yonah is making (and that I sometimes make on my blog whenever I rant about organization before concrete) is that it’s important to integrate the fares with the subway, and in general treat the line like rapid transit that runs on legacy rail rather than like commuter rail with frequent stops.

      • jim

        I came across a map from Transport for London showing all the services that were integrated under Oystercard: London Underground, London Overground, Tramlines and National Rail Lines. Some of the outlying stations had a little dagger next to them. In the legend it’s explained that these stations are serviced by fewer than four trains per hour off-peak (0930-1600 M-F). One is advised to check timetables before planning to use these stations.

        Are there any commuter rail stations in the US that are serviced by as many as four trains per hour off-peak?

        One cannot treat a line as rapid transit that happens to run on legacy rail if there aren’t many trains on it.

        • Jamaica, and maybe Newark Penn. Even half-hourly off-peak service is hard to come by in the US on individual lines.

          But, to convert the Fairmount Line’s service level to rapid transit, everything is needed: fare integration, adequate frequency, infill stations, level boarding.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Three times an hour to Newark. There is the alternate to Broad Street. They make a big deal about three times an hour to Newark Airport. Mind the 40 minute gap.

          • Nathanael

            Geez.

            Philly has quite a bit of half-hourly and every-20-minutes off-peak — and with fairly orderly schedules, too — but nothing consistently better. Shuttling between Market East and 30th St, it’s 15 minutes or better except during the wee hours on weekends, which is about as close as you’re going to get in the US.

            So Philly represents “decent practice”.

            LIRR has nothing better than half-hourly outside Jamaica, and the schedules for Penn-Jamaica are horribly irregular. Likewise, Metr-North has nothing better than half-hourly apart from 125th Street. 125th St, I think, does effectively have at least 4 trains an hour to Grand Central, but again it’s horribly irregular.

            I wouldn’t expect any other US system to be better than those three.

  • Off-topic: I’ve finally read the DMU study you link to, and the train performance it considers normal is just awful. The current practice involves a 70-second acceleration penalty from 0 to 60 mph (cf. 24 seconds for the FLIRT from 0 to 100 mph), one conductor per two cars, manually-operated doors so that only 50% of doors open at any given station, and 60-second dwell times.

    Even the service proposed with DMU sucks: acceleration penalty would drop to only 43 seconds to 60 mph, fuel consumption would be 2 car-mpg (an off-the-shelf GTW achieves 4), off-peak frequency would be an awkward 40 minutes, and staffing levels would remain at one conductor per two cars.

    The upshot of this (about which I intend to post reasonably soon) is that modernization of rolling stock and level boarding can lead to large speed gains, which would score very well by the FTA’s dollars-per-minute-saved metric.

  • FG

    Could this line be replaced with light rail (not bustitution/busway) and connected to the red line somewhere, or is there no ready way of doing that, which would mean getting into downtown some other way? Or is it potentially needed as heavy rail connected to the rest of the network (MBTA, NEC, etc)?

    • Nathanael

      (1) This is the diversionary route when there’s construction on the Southwest Corridor (which is part of the NEC), so yes, it is important as heavy rail connected to the rest of the network.
      (2) There’s no downtown capacity to connect it to the Red Line.

      Alon’s approach, however, makes perfect sense. But may require FRA rules reform. (Sigh.)

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