» 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)