Thursday, March 6, 2008

MBTA Woes and a New Worcester Union Station Commuter Rail Service

This morning's news from the MBTA front was not really all that uplifting for the troubled agency.

The good news for commuters: the T claims they will not be raising fares in 2009. However, there could be fare increases in 2010. The MBTA Board is expected today to approve a spending plan to help augment the $75 million deficit the T has, according to The Boston Globe.
The proposed budget, which would take affect July 1, takes $20 million from the T's $55 million rainy day fund. In addition, the T would restructure $50 million in debt under the plan, adding to the cost of future payments, and find $5 million in savings in the coming budget year, partly by hiring fewer administrators.

"We're concerned," said Lee Matsueda, program director for the T Riders Union, a community group. "There's no way that the system can sustain itself the way it is set up now."

The Riders Union and other consumer groups have been lobbying state legislators to bail out the T, arguing that riders cannot afford more hikes. So far, Governor Deval Patrick's administration has talked about restructuring the state's transportation agencies and raising money from proposed casinos, but he has not laid out a specific plan to plug all the financial gaps.

The T is definitely in a financial pickle.

In more "not so great" news for the T, research conducted by a University of Virginia graduate student found that the Charlie Card may not be such a wonderful "smart card." The Boston Herald reports that for an additional $1 per card, the MBTA could purchase a more secure transactional card. The research was conducted solely to warn commuters about the possibility of identity theft. This theft could pose a bigger risk if the Charlie Card gets merged into the Mass Pike's Fast Lane system.

This is what the T had to say:
Joe Pesaturo, an MBTA spokesman, yesterday said: “It is MBTA policy not to discuss the security measures around its smart card technology. If this group is well intentioned and has information it wants to share with the MBTA, then MBTA staff would be happy to review the information.”
Finally, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette reported that state transportation officials are researching to see if an alternative Worcester commuter rail line can be created. Here are the highlights from that article:
State transportation officials are studying a possible new commuter rail route between Union Station in Worcester and North Station in Boston that could supplement existing commuter rail service from Worcester to South Station in Boston, and provide new commuter service in West Boylston, Clinton and Lancaster.

Last month, however, transportation officials undertook an examination of existing freight tracks that run north out of downtown Worcester from Union Station through West Boylston, Sterling, Clinton, Lancaster and Harvard to Ayer. At that point the plan envisions commuter trains picking up the existing tracks used by the Fitchburg commuter rail line to North Station in Boston.

Study of an alternative commuter rail line to Boston comes after years of fruitless negotiations between the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and CSX, which owns the tracks currently used for the 10-train commuter line through Framingham and are being targeted for as many as 10 more trains per day.

While the state has proposed purchasing and upgrading the Framingham line to allow greater use of the tracks for commuter service between Union Station and South Station in Boston, officials have reported little progress to date despite long-running and ongoing negotiations with CSX officials.

As part of that plan the state has developed options including construction of a parallel line for some key stretches of the Framingham line and advanced switching systems, to allow additional commuter trains to share the tracks that are also used for freight trains.

Lt. Gov. Timothy P. Murray said yesterday he is encouraged by the initial reviews of the possible new commuter-train route from Worcester to Boston. “It’s in the preliminary stages. I think the EOTC officials are initially encouraged at the feasibility of this, but it is a long process.”

Mr. Murray said the effort comes as the state for the first time in decades is starting to put together a comprehensive rail plan that will look at how the state can better utilize and integrate the rail infrastructure for passenger rail and freight. “They both are critically important to the current and future economic growth of the state,” Mr. Murray said.

“Some of our transportation team saw this as a potential option as we strive to look at ways we can expand rail service between Central Massachusetts, Worcester and North Worcester County,” Mr. Murray said of the possible new commuter train route.

“The initial review and ride by the EOT people has them wanting to further look at this internally and evaluate some of the costs and challenges that may be there. But to me it is encouraging in that there is at least an additional option for us to look at,” Mr. Murray said.

He said the plan could eventually require an agreement between the rail companies that own the existing tracks. Except for an initial stretch of track leading out of downtown toward Greendale in Worcester, the entire length of the route is owned by Pan Am Railroad, and state officials have had some preliminary discussions with the company.

Mr. Murray acknowledged, “the slow pace of negotiations” with CSX regarding expanded service on the Worcester — Framingham — Boston line and said the state is making a strong effort to work out either state ownership and acquisition or other options that would allow greater use of the CSX line for commuter rail.

“These are resources that are going to be needed more than ever and people have to be reasonable in their demands in negotiations. We are getting frustrated that things are not moving faster with CSX,” Mr. Murray said.

“The future is clear with gasoline approaching $4 a gallon and roads getting clogged, that we are going to have to utilize all of our transportation assets,” Mr. Murray said. In both the passenger rail and freight businesses, he said, “everyone agrees the rail is one underutilized asset.”

“There needs to be that shared cooperative approach among the different owners, and there needs to be incentives in place or hammers in place that require freight and passenger to work together so there is a level playing field in facilitating maximum use and shared cooperation among the entities,” the lieutenant governor said.

“This is an interstate commerce issue as well as being vitally important to Massachusetts,” he added.
While a secondary commuter rail line would definitely benefit communities North of Worcester, I sure hope the state can come to a solution regarding the Worcester-Framingham line.

The Worcester-Framingham line needs to have more trains running, similar to how the other commuter rail lines operate. There is a huge amount of population in the towns abutting the Worcester-Framingham line. This population needs an alternative route into Boston, beyond just driving on the Mass Pike.

While the proposed alternative line may not directly benefit Worcester residents (because it sounds like it would be a long trip to Boston), I'm sure towns including West Boylston, Harvard and Lancaster would welcome some alternatives for commuting into Boston.

The question is - does the state/T have the right funding to extend to another Worcester commuter rail line? If the state adds another Worcester line, will they forget about the Worcester-Framingham riders?


AJ said...

Great post! I was explaining to a fellow commuter today that one of the reasons I enjoy your blog so much is that you link to news articles, and I am not a newspaper subscriber. That article in the T&G sounds very encouraging. I only hope it comes to fruition in our commuting lifetime. I do believe even adding the alternative West Boylston/Sterling line would help with some of the Framingham line congestion. I have a couple friends who live in West Boylston and shoot down 140 to the Westboro stop to ride our line and have to believe there are a good deal of people who do the same in other towns. The fact that they are considering parallel tracks is encouraging, as well as the thought of increasing frequency beyond Framingham. I truly think that would entice more riders. It's very discouraging to know that if I don't catch a 12 o'clock train home, I'm stuck here until the 4 o'clock train rolls out.

Thanks again for all the info.

Train Rider said...


Thanks for your feedback AJ! The fact that there are no trains to Worcester between 12:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. is appalling. A few years ago, my dad was ill and one of my colleagues left work to drive me to Worcester so I could go to the hospital because it happened during that Worcester train dead zone. Gee Dad, can't make it to see you, sorry, you got ill outside of my commuting schedule. Crazy, huh?

Great point about people from the Northern side of Worcester taking the Worcester-Framingham line. I also think that there are people from the Sturbridge, MA and CT area who come to Grafton to take the T. I see Connecticut license plates in the parking lot all of the time.

They really need to do something to alleviate overcrowding on the busiest lines. But, if the webcast on WBUR was any indication, I'm sure the only feedback we'd get from Dan Grabauskas is "well, your line is popular, hence the crowding."

What I would love is for the train to be express from Ashland. The Framingham and Natick riders already have so many options, there need to be some Worcester express trains that are truly express.

Train Rider

Anonymous said...

I think they need to get things in order on the existing line (improve on-time performance, fill those gaping holes in service, add an earlier morning train for people who have jobs that start at 7 am) before they think about constructing a new line, unless it's possible to do both at the same time as opposed to concentrating so much on the new line that things go even further downhill on the current one. It would be great if they could bring commuter rail service to those other towns, but it needs to be done without ignoring the significant issues with the line that's already there.