Boston High-Speed Rail Montréal New York

Connecting Montréal to the American Rail Network

A New York-bound route would attract far more passengers than one heading for Boston.

Montréal is one of North America’s most appealing cities and it’s only a few dozen miles from the border. As a result, both American and Canadian politicians have been arguing for the expansion of rail service from the metropolis south into the United States. Yet, after decades of work, little of consequence has actually been completed. But with stimulus funds for high-speed rail soon to be distributed, it’s worth considering what routes would be most appropriate for possible service.

In 2000, at the request of the states of Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire, the Federal Railroad Administration designated the Northern New England route as an “official” high-speed corridor. This series of lines would include connections between Boston and Portland, Boston and Albany, Springfield and New Haven, and Boston and Montréal. The three states began studying a connection with Canada and released a report detailing potential services in April 2003. The study advocated 110 mph top speed service on the 329-mile route, providing a 5h48 trip between Boston and Montréal. New Hampshire, more focused on expanding highways into Boston, abandoned interest and the project has laid dormant since.

But the federal stimulus reawakened the possibility of funding the project with national money. Upgrades of the partially abandoned route could be sponsored by the Department of Transportation.

Yet, the City of Montréal and the State of New York have a different objective: connecting the French-Canadian city with Gotham. In the 1970s, hyperactive Montréal mayor Jean Drapeau attempted to connect his city with New York via TGV, a project that was ultimately abandoned due to lack of governmental commitment. New York’s state rail plan pushes an improvement of the connection between Albany and Montréal, but only after the link between Buffalo and Albany is substantially accelerated.

A connection to Montréal may be long-off, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be on the minds of U.S. and Canadian transportation planners. Rather, it could be an important route — if it’s planned and routed correctly. What follows is a comparison of a hypothetical major investment on the two most prominent visions of high-speed routes between the cities, at average speeds of 180 mph. By comparing the routes at high speeds rather than the 70 or 80 mph averages typically proposed by the investment-weary states, the ultimate advantages of the different routes can be more easily discerned. The conclusion of this post — that a connection between New York and Montréal would be a far more valuable investment than one between Boston and Montréal — would be the same no matter the speeds of train service offered, but demonstrating consequences at 180 mph allows for best-case circumstances to be analyzed.

* A note at the end of this post describes some implementation problems with the routes described.

New England Rail Connections Boston-Montréal

The map above shows the route of the proposed Boston-Montréal corridor and potential service routing off the line onto existing Amtrak routes. The 329-mile route between the two cities would take almost two hours to complete (and about one hour from Montréal to White River Junction, where the existing line branches off).

When developing high-speed rail networks, a 3h30 travel time constitutes the upper limit of how far people are willing to choose rail travel over air routes. However, I have also included information on travel times of five hours to Montréal with the intention of demonstrating potential future expansions of true high-speed service and the implications for customers willing to travel further. I produced these maps by calculating existing travel times on Amtrak from Boston, White River Junction, and Montréal; the map assumes no improvement of service on any of the other lines shown here.

As the map demonstrates, only one major metro area, Boston, would be within 3h30 distance of Montréal, with several smaller cities such as Burlington also within striking distance. Excluding Montréal, about 5.1 million people live in the metropolitan areas affected by this service, almost all of them in the Boston area. Expanding time to 5h would reach 1.2 million more people and allow travel to Springfield and Portland.

One major problem with this planned route is that trains would enter North Station, not South Station, where most service from Boston originates. This means that it would be impossible to continue service from Boston to Providence or Springfield, unless the North-South Rail Link connecting the terminals is ever built. Yet, even with the North-South Link, service would still only reach 9.1 million in 3h30 (including Providence and New London) and 4.2 million more in 5h (including Hartford, New Haven, and Stamford).

New England Rail Connections New York-Montréal

The longer route between Montréal and New York City, via Albany, at around 380 miles, would provide service to Montréal to a far larger group of individuals — a total of 41.7 million in nine states and the District of Columbia. That’s because the slightly longer than two hour trip between Montréal and New York would provide a direct connection to the center of the speedy Northeast Corridor. In addition to New York and Albany, cities within 3h30 of Montréal would include Newark, Trenton, Philadelphia, Stamford, New Haven, and Springfield. Within five hours: Wilmington, Baltimore, Washington, Hartford, New London, Providence, and Syracuse.

In other words, a New York route would provide service to Montréal in five hours or less for the majority of the Northeastern seaboard, with the visible exception of Boston, which would be more like 6h30 away save for improvements along the Boston-Albany route. Despite the more expensive costs related to the longer length of this corridor over the previous described, this route would provide a rail option for a far larger number of people — 41.7 million, to be specific — and would therefore make up its value as a result of much higher likely ridership. Here is a chart comparing the two corridors:

Building Rail to Montréal
Boston-Montréal Corridor New York-Montréal Corridor
Population* within 3.5 h 5.1 million 29.9 million
Population* within 5 h 1.2 million 11.8 million
Total population* affected 6.3 million (13.3 million with N-S Link)
41.7 million
Daily flights to Montréal from cities within 3.5 h 10 flights (from Boston) 41 flights (from New York and Philadelphia)
Daily flights to Montréal from cities within 5 h 18 flights (from Washington and Hartford)
Total Flights
10 flights 59 flights

* Population in metro areas of more than 100,000 along the route (not including Montréal).


Even if the New York corridor were twice as expensive as the Boston route (it wouldn’t be), it would still provide more travel benefits to more people per unit of cost. These numbers indicate unambiguously that the route from New York would be vastly more productive than the one from Boston. It is in the national public interest to ensure that funding go to the former, rather than latter, route.

But the only government-approved national rail map we have suggests that the Boston corridor is the one that deserves high-speed rail. Meanwhile, the six senators from Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire are undoubtedly collectively stronger than New York’s two — which means that by measure of governmental influence, a Boston-routed corridor seems more likely to move ahead. That fact says a lot about the problems with the American political system and our unwillingness to submit national policy to an objective test. If our high-speed rail dollars are to be well-spent, we have an obligation to compare the benefits of multiple corridors and invest in the most effective option.


Note: there are several technical problems that would have to be addressed for both potential routes to allow through-running.

  • In New York, the Empire Connection, the line on the west side of Manhattan that trains would take to enter Penn Station, heads east as it enters the facility. To allow trains to continue southwest to Philadelphia and beyond, the driver would have to go to the other end of the train (it would reverse directions). To speed things up, there could be another driver ready to assume controls as the train entered New York, to allow for a seamless and potentially stop-free transition.
  • In Boston, trains arriving at North Station would similarly have to reverse directions to go northeast to Portland. A direct connection to service emanating from South Station (west to Springfield or southwest to Providence) would not be possible unless Massachusetts built a connection either through the North-South Link or around the city at some location. This seems unlikely. Otherwise, passengers would have to change stations to transfer to other trains, slowing down connections and making through-routing impossible.
  • Trains would have to be bimode diesel/electric for through-routes reaching away from either proposed high-speed corridor and the main NEC.
Boston Metro Rail

MBTA Moves Forward With Blue Line Extension Planning

MBTA Blue Line Extension MapLong-planned link between Revere to Lynn, however, still lacks funding source.

Yesterday, the Government of Massachusetts announced that it would sponsor the completion of a planning report on a northeast extension of the MBTA Blue Line. The completion of the Draft Environmental Impact Study, which is a required step on the path to building a major infrastructure project in the United States, will demand about $300,000 in consulting fees. Yet this new guarantee of planning funds in no way ensures the eventual completion of the project, which would stretch from the Blue Line’s existing terminus at Wonderland to Lynn, several miles up the North Shore. Boston’s transit agency is mired in billions of dollars of debt and has a number of projects that are being prioritized over this extension.

The Blue Line opened in 1904 to streetcar operations and was converted to rapid transit technology in 1924. It is the shortest of the MBTA’s several rail transit lines and attracts 67,000 riders a day — high for most transit systems, but not Boston, whose three other lines each carry more than 100,000 daily users.

Massachusetts has been planning for a lengthening of the line to Lynn for years, with state legislators approving a bill in 2004 that committed a 50% funding match if federal dollars to cover the rest of the project’s cost could be found. The project’s eventual construction cost will be more than $600 million. The study will determine the environmental and neighborhood impacts of the project’s route. With the DEIS completed, MBTA could theoretically begin applying for New Starts construction dollars from Washington.

Yet, the Boston region has concentrated funding on other transit priorities. A 0.4-mile Blue Line extension south from Bowdoin to the Charles/MGH Station, where it would meet the Red Line, recently received $29 million in design money from the state, though there is no guarantee the $300 million project will be built. Meanwhile, the light rail Green Line would be stretched from Lechmere into Somerville and beyond if planners on that side of the Charles River get their way — and find more than $900 million. Boston’s Silver Line busway is under constant improvement and will be stretched south along Washington Street. None of these projects are fully funded and the MBTA, which spends 30% of its operating budget to service its more than $5 billion debt, isn’t exactly ready to commit to more transit service.

The above projects were included in the Central Artery/Tunnel (Big Dig) settlement process approved by the state in 1990 as part of a deal to mitigate the impacts of expanding highway capacity through the region’s core, which means they’re prioritized, if Massachusetts is ever capable of finding the tax revenues to cover their cost. The Blue Line expansion to Lynn was not included in that deal as far as I know.

Perhaps even more problematically for the Lynn Blue Line extension, cities along the route have been ignoring MBTA’s demand to reserve right-of-way for the project. The city of Revere allowed the construction of a condominium and parking garage directly in the path of the proposed track, so the MBTA will either have to pay to buy and demolish that building, or it will have to realign the route through a marsh. Either “solution” will increase costs exponentially. It’s unclear why Revere wouldn’t be responsible for covering these new costs.

Just as importantly, a Lynn extension may not be the best investment for Boston. Lynn is already served by MBTA commuter rail, which offers 20-minute service to North Station throughout the day. Also, there are significant arguments to be made for a prioritization of the Green Line, which will serve already dense areas of the region and encourage infill and transit-oriented growth.

Image above: Blue Line extension map, from Future MBTA

Boston Bus

Boston to Extend Silver Line to Mattapan and South Station

Boston Silver Line Extension MapBRT — currently operating in two sections — will be united

Boston’s MBTA opened the Silver Line bus rapid transit project in 2002 and 2004 to little acclaim. The state had paid for the corridor as an environmental remediation effort for the Big Dig highway tunneling project being built simultaneously and had promised excellent rapid transit service, but what the city’s citizens actually got was a two-part, slow bus line that didn’t attract much more ridership than the routes it replaced. Now Governor of Massachusetts Deval Patrick has announced that he will spend $114 million in federal stimulus money to connect the two independently operating parts of the line and extend it to Mattapan, through areas currently underserved by rapid transit.

Part of the problem with the Silver Line is that it’s not so much a “line” as a collection of corridors with the same name. The MBTA operates four routes with the denomination: a surface-level line in partially independent right-of-way along Washington Street from Downtown Crossing to Dudley Square; two routes from South Station to the waterfront, running partially underground and then along the street in newly development waterfront areas (SL2-3); and a final route from South Station, via the waterfront, to the airport (SL1). To get from the Washington Street Silver Line to the other parts of the line, one must walk or transfer to the Red Line subway. It’s not exactly intuitive.

In downtown and along Washington Street, the Silver Line doesn’t feel much like rapid transit — its stations are only slightly nicer than those of other bus lines, and it’s not particularly fast: the signal priority that was supposed to speed it up saves customers an average of 7 seconds. On the other hand, the second from South Station to the waterfront is quick, as it operates in its own right-of-way in a new tunnel, and connections to the Red Line at the train station are simple. Though buses there operate on electric current, however, the Silver Line doesn’t feel much like high-quality light rail. The ride is choppy and the buses are loud. It’s not the best, and its failings demonstrate some of the inherent disadvantages of investing in cheaper bus rapid transit: the technology’s simply not as good as light rail, and the “bus” part of the rapid transit becomes an excuse for underinvesting in the line’s infrastructure.

Mr. Patrick’s announcement will pave the way for an extension of the line along Warren Street and Blue Hill Avenue from Dudley Square to Mattapan, where the Red Line Mattapan high-speed line currently terminates. As shown in the map above, the project will serve areas of the city far from rapid transit, including areas of Dorchester and Roxbury that are some of the city’s poorest. On about two-thirds of the line, buses will get full-scale busways with median stations, while the other third will get partial busways and side stations. Because these corridors will be marked, but not physically separated from the other vehicles traveling along the roads, it’s likely that the Silver Line extension will move customers slightly more quickly than buses do now, but not much because car drivers are not going to be as friendly as perhaps they ought to be. The bus route is expected to open by 2012, but locals continue to argue that a light rail line along the corridor would be more productive for the area.

What’s perhaps most interesting about the announcement is that it sidelines the third phase of the original Silver Line project, which was supposed to involve building a new $1.5 billion bus tunnel from Downtown Crossing to South Station, allowing a direct connection between the Washington Street line and the waterfront lines. The stimulus money will provide for a surface route from the Chinatown Orange Line station along Essex Street to South Station. This part of the project will be completed this fall. Here’s the problem: at least according to the Boston Globe, “Riders who get on at Mattapan will have to get off at Dudley Square and switch buses if they want to go all the way to Downtown Crossing or South Station. They will have to switch buses again at South Station if they want to go to the airport.” That’s insane. If you build the connection, the buses should be able to operate the whole route. If the problem is the rolling stock — the waterfront sections have electric and diesel service and the other just has diesel buses — buy new buses.

So this investment will do a little to improve transit in areas that need it, but it won’t solve the inherent problems with the Silver Line, and it won’t really make the service a unified line, as it appears it will still operate as several different services-in-one. Boston’s continued reluctance to invest in full rapid transit is really too bad, especially considering that the city’s existing ridership, which demonstrates that big investments in transit there are worth it — its Green Line has the nation’s highest ridership for a light rail line, its subway lines are the fourth-most-used in the country, and its commuter system is number five.

On the other hand, you get what you pay for. If the government is only willing to pony up $114 million for a project that would have cost $1.5 billion just to put in its own right-of-way downtown, it’s not going to get the same level of service.

Image above: half-mile radii around existing MBTA stations, with route of BRT extension highlighted in yellow, from Mass Gov


Massachusetts Looking to New York for Clues on Funding Transport

New Massachusetts Transportation Authority would combine MBTA and the Turnpike Authority

As a result of today’s difficult economic circumstances, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) is facing a $160 million budget deficit and the state government is pushing for major reforms to prevent the agency from again falling into the fiscal hole. After being prodded on by Governor Deval Patrick (D), the state House and Senate are currently considering legislation that would radically alter the face of Massachusetts transportation by combining the MBTA and the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority into a new Massachusetts Transportation Authority. The formulation – transit services plus toll-raising bridges, tunnels, and roadways – closely follows the form of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

The new authority would be under the direct supervision of the governor, who would sit as the head of the board, and who would also appoint all four other members. The lack of input from other sources – such as the city of Boston or the state legislature, for instance – is problematic, as the formulation basically allows the governor to make unilateral decisions about state transportation. That could be dangerous under a transit-hostile executive.

Defenders of the legislation, such as House Speaker Robert DeLeo (D), “said the bill will rein in costs through consolidations and streamlining of the delivery of transportation services,” according to an AP article. How exactly a transit agency and turnpike authority being combined will lead to “streamlining” is a mystery to me, considering they offer completely different services.

The bill would reduce the amount of money paid out to victims of transportation accidents; several cases have caused the authority to lose millions of dollars in lawsuits, and the government sees this legal reduction as one way to rein in costs. But while the MBTA might lose a few million a year on such accidents, reducing settlements won’t nearly make up for the large budget deficit.

Whether or not the new authority would actually have the means to balance the transit system’s operating deficit is unclear, as the Massachusetts Turnpike in its current formulation doesn’t make a profit that could be used to fund transit, as do the tunnels and bridges operated by New York’s MTA. Rather, the Turnpike simply pays for its own operations through the toll revenues. Toll hikes, fare increases, or the addition of another tax source will be necessary to get Boston’s transit system back on track, not simply a reorganization of the agencies.

What makes New York’s MTA relatively efficient is its willingness to redistribute with a vengeance; of the $1.5 billion it collects yearly in tolls, it only sends about $400 million back to the bridges and tunnels, with more than a billion dollars going to transit to make up for a programmed deficit there. That’s made possible because of high tolls and efficient maintenance of the structures.

Can Massachusetts do the same by raising tolls and reducing overhead on its tollways? It will have to if it wants this agency reorganization to have any positive effect.

Boston Finance High-Speed Rail

The Misuse of Stimulus Funds

Boston’s proposed South Coast rail exemplifies what isn’t high-speed rail

Senator John Kerry (D-MA) told reporters yesterday that he envisioned using some of the high-speed rail funds from the stimulus legislation currently under discussion to “accelerate the process” of implementing the South Coast rail corridor, a proposed commuter rail system to run between Boston and the cities of Fall River and New Bedford. The problem is that he seems to think that the Senate’s proposed $2 billion for high-speed rail will provide the dollars to get this commuter rail project moving.

Mr. Kerry has been one of the nation’s top rail advocates in recent years, so to see him pushing forward with the idea of using high-speed funds for what will be a relatively typical commuter rail system – running with big diesel locomotives at speeds of less than 100 mph – is myopic. What is the point of assigning $2 billion to fast rail if those funds go to standard rail projects? Where is this politician’s vision for a national rail network?

All in all, I’m disappointed with Senator Kerry. Fortunately, however, he probably won’t be able to take advantage of those funds for his pet project. The text of the legislation ensures that, according to Mr. Kerry’s own presser, only projects with trains “reasonably expected” to run above 150 mph get funded, and the stimulus package as a whole is supposed to be spent within months, not years. Massachusetts state officials had estimated that this $1.4 billion project would be completed by 2016. Engineering is not even close to being finished.

How, then, could Mr. Kerry have said what he said? Chalk it up to a politician’s limited understanding of the bills he himself is sponsoring, perhaps, but there’s no excuse for this senator not realizing that a commuter rail project such as this simply doesn’t fit the high-speed designation. Nor would its construction – to begin in 2011 at the earliest – do anything to stimulate today’s lackluster economy.

It’s a good thing the Department of Transportation, not Mr. Kerry’s office, will control the money’s distribution.