North South Rail Link to get study

The Baker administration has agreed to release $2 million for a North South Rail Link feasibility study, The Boston Globe reports. An earlier attempt to build it was canceled by then-governor Mitt Romney in 2003 after the projected price tag rose to over $8 billion, according to the article.

According to the North South Rail Link advocacy site, the project was first proposed as early as 1912 because “stub-end service” is less efficient than through-running service. It requires that tracks be used to store trains when they’re not in service and trains have to back out and be switched aside when the next one comes in. According to the South Station Expansion project website, constraints on station capacity contribute to frequent delays on both MBTA commuter rail service and Amtrak service:

Today’s [Northeast Corridor] on-time performance is approximately 85% for Acela Express and 75% for Northeast Regional trains. The 2030 target for on-time performance is 95% for Acela Express and 90% for Northeast Regional. Without expanding South Station and its support facilities, not only will these targets be missed, but on-time performance will deteriorate even further in the future.

North Station is in a similar boat, but its limited capacity has contributed to the fact that there’s only one rail service to Maine and no rail link between Boston and Montreal (although that’s also because people from New Hampshire apparently believe that Interstate highways are built by the free market). There are currently no solid plans to expand North Station, but South Station expansion looks to run into the billions.

For NSRL advocates such as former governors Michael Dukakis and William Weld, the link might be more expensive than South Station Expansion, but it would have more benefits. For one thing, neither North nor South Stations would have to be expanded — now and again, 50 years later; it would be easier for commuter rail trains from the south side of the system get to the maintaince facility, which is on the north side, more off-peak commuter rail trains could be run, transforming it into more of a regional rail service from a purely commuter service (which would help spread out housing demand through the region instead of concentrating it in certain neighborhoods). Better service would help get commuters out of cars and into trains and the lack of a need for trains to idle in layover facilities at places like Beacon Park Yards would have an enormous impact on air quality.

Transportation secretary Stephanie Pollack dismissed the North South Rail Link in a Boston Magazine article last month, in part citing the fact that the MBTA would have to buy electric locomotives to use the tunnels. This is true, but it would be a good thing for the commuter rail system to be electrified. It should have been done ages ago.

While the locomotives would have to be dual mode electric and diesel at first, they would allow for the gradual electrification of the system (maybe starting with the Fairmount Line, as Ari Ofsevit has written). This is important because while oil prices are at record lows, there’s still that whole global climate change thing to worry about, as well as the fact that whatever the fuel efficiency innovation and production technique, oil is still a limited resource. Electrifying the system would allow trains to run faster, recoup lost energy from braking, run more frequently and it wouldn’t matter where the power of the future came from. Sticking to diesel would be cost-effective in the short run, but gradual electrifaction could take advantage of short term costs and long-term gains.

Lastly, as Massbenchmarks noted,  oil prices are low, but so are interest rates. It’s the perfect time for a big capital investment.


A possible schematic of a unified commuter rail system, from the NSRL website and Brad Bellows architects.


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