A few years ago, the MBTA hoped the costs and service of the commuter rail would be improved through a competitive bid for the entire commuter rail contract. As most riders know, this did not come to pass.
Many interested stakeholders, including A Better City, requested the MBTA consider a long-term contract, where the vender would be responsible for the infrastructure costs and maintenance of the system. Through this type of agreement a vendor could plan and budget for procuring modern vehicles that could bring more reliable service to the system, and feel confident that they would see a return on their investment. Unfortunately, the MBTA did not pursue this strategy, and in 2013 it awarded an eight-year contract to Keolis.
After three years, this partnership is not producing optimal commuter rail service for the metropolitan Boston region, but commuters, business leaders and elected official still hope our rail system can someday reach its potential.
MassDOT is currently beginning a two-year commuter rail vision study to inform the process for the next procurement of the rail operating contract. This will help to better understand the future needs of riders, businesses and the economy. It is the time to rethink how we use our commuter rail tracks, as well as reconsider the management approach for commuter rail services. This MassDOT study should consider the future market demand for commuter rail services and the cost of expected infrastructure needs.
Given the continued growth in the urban core and cost of housing throughout Eastern Massachusetts, the commuter rail will continue to be an essential component in the regional economy to support efficient access to a larger pool of housing and jobs. If we want to both reduce the environmental impact of diesel-fueled trains and improve reliability, we should consider the investment in electrification of the system. Additional tracks may be needed in some areas to support more efficient operations and new stations. Development and economic needs of many growth areas in metropolitan Boston will depend on the public sector’s support and vision of the commuter rail network.
Reconnecting The Urban Rail System
One of the most interesting areas of this study focuses on the type of vehicles we use on our train tracks. To utilize a true urban rail service we likely need two different types of vehicles, one set separate from the longer and heavier trains that run traditional, regional service. Urban rail means shorter train sets running on the existing commuter rail tracks, but with a higher frequency service within targeted areas in the inner core of the network. Ridership demand likely already exists and it could unlock significant development in multiple areas of the Boston region.
The first step would be to identify and test modern train sets that can operate on our existing train tracks. Urban rail systems can use smaller, self-propelled rail cars called diesel multiple units (DMU) or electric multiple units (EMU), that are more like the MBTA Green Line vehicles than a train to the suburbs. These units can accelerate and brake faster to serve more closely spaced stations than traditional trains.
The MBTA considered purchasing DMU vehicles a few years ago, but backed out due to budget constraints. DMUs and EMUs can thrive here in Greater Boston and they actually were once an important part of the transportation network. Some train stops in Boston and Newton were once open to the public, but now lay dormant. The train tracks still exist, we just need the right vehicles, station platforms and scheduling to reestablish our urban rail system.
Portions of the Fairmount Line, the Framingham corridor, parts of the Seaport area, Lynn and the future West Station along the Boston/Cambridge line are excellent locations to test a urban rail schedule along the current commuter rail tracks. These areas and others would thrive if we can transport workers between these areas in half the time it takes on the Green Line or our local MBTA bus routes. Advancements in technology and modern vehicles make this vision possible, and it can be cost effective too, as commuter rail in the MBTA system is cheaper on a cost per rider, per distance traveled, than the same metrics for our bus network.
Addressing Current Challenges
Yet it still leads back to the overall management relationship between the operator of the commuter rail system and the MBTA. The existing arrangement with Keolis runs through 2022, but in the next competitive procurement of commuter rail, the MBTA and MassDOT should consider an arrangement that runs much longer, potentially a 30-year agreement. The MBTA currently owns the trains and infrastructure, while Keolis is responsible for operations and is paid based on specific performance standards. A longer contract would allow for the vendor to make investments and the business decisions on the train cars and rail lines that will support more efficient and reliable service. Only through a long-term contract can there be a true public-private partnership to address our current challenges with commuter rail.
Even with all the setbacks and delays, and the state of good repair needs, there is a chance for commuter rail and urban rail to succeed and become a national model for mobility and generation of economic development. We just need to think boldly, prioritize urban rail and start a blueprint for delivering on these dreams of a proficient commuter rail network.
Rick Dimino is president and CEO of A Better City.