Train Time is hosted by Karen Christensen, founder of the Train Campaign and Chief Executive Officer of Berkshire Publishing Group and a writer specializing in sustainability and community with a focus on China. She was senior editor of the Encyclopedia of Community (SAGE), and is a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania Press and an associate in research at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University. She founded the Train Campaign in 2011 as a project of Barrington Institute, sister nonprofit to Berkshire Publishing Group.
East-West Rail- A Phased Approach
This document takes a critical look at the MassDOT East-West Passenger Rail study which can be found here. This study has several potential flaws that have been pointed out by numerous public officials and railroad industry players. This document examines a major flaw in MassDOT’s study- the gross exaggeration of the cost to run rail service in the range of 2 hours to 2 hours and 20 minutes between Boston and Springfield, and that service along this corridor could be implemented much sooner than MassDOT has presented.
Our proposal for a phased approach is summarized here:
Phase 1: Service to Springfield
The MBTA currently requires 9 train sets to operate peak service on the Worcester Line. With only four tracks available for layover in Worcester, five of these trains overnight in Boston.
There are two very early morning repositioning trips that do not have high ridership but are required to provide service during peak rush hour. If some of these trains instead ran overnight to Springfield (where Amtrak already stores equipment overnight for early-morning service to New Haven), they could operate through service to Worcester and Boston without additional operating costs, since the current empty trip from Boston to Worcester would be replaced with a slightly-faster trip from Springfield to Worcester, albeit with more passengers on board. This would allow two round trips between Boston and Springfield to be operated with negligible additional operating costs.
Phase 1A: Service to Pittsfield
Another early action item would be to extend MBTA trains 552 and 557 to and from Pittsfield, providing a second trip to and from Pittsfield. This would require additional track and route west of Springfield, as well as layover space at or near the Pittsfield station. This would probably also allow at least one weekend round trip, on a schedule similar to the weekday trip (although with a later morning departure and potentially later evening departure) to operate, since the train would otherwise spend the entire weekend in Pittsfield. This would depend greatly on the access to the CSX line between Springfield and Pittsfield.
Phase 2: Full schedule to Springfield with five new round trips per day
A second phase would incorporate a full schedule as described later in this document, with five new round trips between Boston and Springfield, and additional bus and/or rail connections between Amherst and Pittsfield, and would add more full weekend service. While additional train sets would not be necessary, some investment in rolling stock may be required. This would be considered a full-build option and would require significant dispatching rights from CSX and likely require a capital outlay for the state to purchase the railroad.
Phase 3: Additional service to Pittsfield or elsewhere beyond Springfield
Additional phases could include through-routing more trains to Greenfield or Pittsfield, or having through-routed trains to New Haven via the Inland Route to Hartford, essentially combining East-West rail service with the Hartford Line CTrail service. Rail service could be provided to Amherst and north to Millers Falls or Brattleboro depending on demand. In addition, added service would likely require the construction of a second track in the gaps where no such track exists today, although this, too, could be done in phases, since there are three distinct single-track segments and doubling any of them would lead to improved operating conditions. This would require significant integration of the regional railroad network, since it would include several Amtrak services (NHV-SPG shuttle service, Vermonter service, Valley Flyer and the Lake Shore), ConnDOT-run CT Rail service, and MBTA or MassDOT-run service.
Current Amtrak Run Times
Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited (Trains 448 eastbound and 449 westbound) are currently scheduled between South Station and Springfield in 2:28, with stops at Back Bay, Framingham and Worcester. However, trains regularly make the trip faster than this scheduled time, sometimes arriving at intermediate stations early and waiting to make up time before scheduled departures. Based on data for trains between January 1, 2019 and today, the median arrival time for train 449 in Springfield is three minutes ahead of schedule. Train 448, which must connect to Train 48 at Albany-Rensselaer, often arrives late at Springfield because of delays west of Albany, but its median travel time is also faster than the scheduled time, and because it is frequently running late, it can frequently “make up time” and recently made the trip from Springfield to Boston as fast as 2:01.
Simply optimizing the current schedule could yield faster travel times. For example, Train 449 is scheduled to depart Worcester westbound at 2:03 p.m. MBTA train 518 departs Worcester at 1:55 p.m. Because there is currently only one platform track in Worcester, Train 449 frequently arrives before the MBTA train has left and cleared the interlocking, subjecting it to a delay, albeit one built into the schedule. Moving the MBTA service a few minutes earlier would reduce this delay, and the upcoming station improvements in Worcester should eliminate it.
Alternative 2 proposes a travel time between Boston and Springfield of 2:14, which, according to the study, would require $1.8 billion in capital expenditure between Worcester and Springfield, with only minimal investment between Worcester and Boston. (While this alternative includes a bus connection from Springfield to Pittsfield, it assumes the need for $71 million in capital costs for such a bus, which seems quite high considering that buses would utilize the existing bus terminals at the Springfield and Pittsfield train stations.) Today, this travel time is attained regularly by Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited service, and minor schedule changes to reduce conflicts like the one mentioned above would allow service to reliably meet this 2:14 schedule, or better. It is worth noting that in 1950, Boston and Albany trains ran between Springfield and Boston in 2:00, with stops at Palmer, Worcester, Framingham and Newtonville.
The chart below shows these run times since Jan 1, 2019. Data was compiled from Juckins.net, which compiles a database of Amtrak reported arrival and departure times. Data for trains without a departure and arrival time at South Station and Springfield were not included. The maximum travel times of 5:28 and 4:40 were not included for clarity. The “min segment time” shows the minimum time by adding together the fastest service on each segment served: it is not the fastest time achieved on any one date, but the fastest time that could be run given the actual fastest running time on each segment. The rest of the data show percentiles for actual data for running times between Boston and Springfield.
This assumes a 1:03 trip from Boston to Worcester, and 1:11 from Worcester to Springfield. The current Amtrak service from Worcester to Springfield is scheduled in 1:15 going westbound, and 1:11 going eastbound. However, trains usually run faster, with median travel times of 1:09 and 1:10. With a 1:03 trip from Boston to Worcester and the current 1:10 trip from Worcester to Springfield, travel times of 2:14 would be attainable using the current infrastructure and time tables.
This also suggests that faster travel times would be possible. The 10th percentile travel times between Worcester and Springfield is 1:05. Combined with the 1:03 travel time between Worcester and Boston in the report, this would yield a travel time of 2:08 from Boston to Springfield with no significant new investment simply with better dispatching to assure trains run on time. This may require buying dispatching rights from CSX, or buying the line outright. Based on the 2012 purchase of the Worcester-to-Framingham section, this would cost between $100 and $150 million.
We find that, using the existing infrastructure, run times of 2:14 are not only possible, but frequently attained, despite the line’s relatively poor operating conditions for passenger rail. In Swiss railroad engineering, there is a saying:
Organization before electronics before concrete
In other words, it is much easier and cheaper to change dispatching and operational practices than to change equipment, and it is harder still to build new infrastructure. We believe that several round trips can be made on the Boston-to-Springfield railroad in little more than two hours without procuring any additional rolling stock, using the existing railroad infrastructure. Therefore, we believe that the two billion dollar infrastructure figure for Alternative 2 in the report is too high by approximately two billion dollars.
The process described here lends itself to a phased implementation.
Phase 1: weekday rush-hour trips
At SPG: Amtrak / CT Rail from NHV, Valley Flyer from GFD
At PAL: Bus from Amherst
East to Boston
PIT (phase 1A)
West to Springfield
PIT (phase 1A)
At SPG: Amtrak / CT Rail to NHV, Valley Flyer to GFD
At PAL: Bus to Amherst
It makes sense to operate train service west of Springfield, particularly to Albany, with an intermediate stop in Pittsfield. Albany is a reasonably strong intercity anchor, and moreover offers further connections to upstate New York, the Mid-Hudson region, Vermont, and Montreal, and possibly a faster connection to New York City for Pittsfield and points west of Springfield. The medium-term plan could and should extend trains west of Springfield, but in the short term, there are several obstacles which make it more difficult to provide this service during the very early phase of East-West Rail, at least for most trains, and especially on weekdays. We should note that this early phase is still years earlier than MassDOT’s proposed schedule.
Continued service to Albany would be difficult with the existing MBTA fleet, possibly compromising train set availability on the Framingham/Worcester Line at rush hour. An additional round trip to Pittsfield in the morning and evening, to complement the existing Amtrak trip, would be relatively simple (assuming operating rights were obtainable from CSX) by extending one train from Springfield to Pittsfield. This would, however, require a layover facility in Pittsfield. Unlike Springfield, there is no current storage facility in Pittsfield, where the station consists of a platform adjacent to the northern of the two tracks. There would also be questions of crewing issues to move train crews to and from Pittsfield, and potentially overnight them there between shifts.
There are three potential means to allow layover in Pittsfield:
- Park a train set on this track overnight. While seemingly simple, this would occupy this track for several hours overnight, which would impact CSX movements through the area, and potentially access to the CSX yard tracks east of the station. It would also be a problem at times when the eastbound Amtrak service is significantly delayed, since the station track would be occupied, although delays of the magnitude in question of several hours are relatively rare. Otherwise, it would require a power hookup for the train as well as a security, which may already be present at the multimodal center.
- Build a new layover track east of the Pittsfield Station. There are large deindustrialized sites and old rail yards adjacent or connected to the right-of-way east of Pittsfield which could be used for train layover. These would likely require some new track, although it’s possible that track could be repurposed for this facility. This would require additional track work, power and signaling, as well as additional running time to move the train out of service, but would not foul the main line.
- Extend service to Albany and utilize the existing Amtrak layover facility there. Any extended train from Pittsfield to Boston would depart Pittsfield around 5:15 a.m. and return around 8 p.m., which would mean a 4:15 a.m. departure from Albany and 9 p.m. arrival. These times, especially in the morning, would not be desirable, but Amtrak’s Albany facility would require minimal improvements to accommodate an MBTA train set.
Costs & Next Steps
Costs for phase one should be minimal, mostly for layover modifications. In Springfield, there is an existing platform under CSX control which could be used to store at least one train set. Additionally, there is another unattached track on the northside of the station which would require a switch to the main line, which should cost approximately $1M. Also, an overnight power hookup would need installation. The situation in Pittsfield (and in Greenfield) would be similar in cost.
Later this month, TransitMatters will release a plan for additional service and significant time savings. We believe a trip time of approximately 90 minutes between Boston and Springfield will be possible in just under a decade. Such a plan will include much more frequent service to Pittsfield and the Berkshires as well as possible new station opportunities. There are also exciting opportunities for connecting services to Connecticut and New York City, Albany, and in-state destinations like Amherst and Greenfield.