Sustainable Development: Interurban Rail Transit in Western Massachusetts/Southern Vermont Can Start Without Delay.

On July 7th, 2017, Massachusetts legislators submitted for approval an annual budget in excess of $40 billion which, for the second consecutive year, lacked funding for a study to create regularly scheduled high speed rail service linking Springfield and Boston by way of Worcester, Palmer and Framingham. The failure of the study to make the budget came behind closed doors, after a months-long bipartisan campaign led by Longmeadow Senator Eric Lesser and the completion of the multimillion dollar rehabilitation of Springfield’s Union Station.

Last year’s termination of funding for the rail study was more straightforward. Peter Picknelly, owner of Springfield-based Peter Pan Bus Lines, reached out to Governor Baker after funding for the rail study passed both chambers of the legislature. Picknelly persuaded Baker to change the rail study to a transit-oriented working group that would consider bus service, claiming the rail study was redundant.

Whether the rail study was redundant may not have been best determined by the CEO of a company with a virtual monopoly on Western Massachusetts intercity transportation, whose traditional coach service stands to lose if facing any competition whatsoever. I argue instead that the rail study itself may have been unnecessary as existing infrastructure is available for establishing regularly scheduled service between the Hub and the City of Homes.

Current service between Boston and Springfield is limited to one train per day in each direction, this being Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited between Boston and Chicago. Eastbound trains are often excessively late, and timing is prohibitive for day excursions to either city.

Aside from the Lake Shore Limited, trains with regular service frequency have been absent from the Inland Route since 2004.The Commonwealth’s prior claims for not increasing Boston to Springfield service, known as the Inland Route, have included arguments that the tracks between Springfield and Worcester are a) privately held and b) not up to standards desired by the MBTA. More on that later.

Things have been progressing north of Springfield, however. Amtrak’s Vermonter, which provides once-daily North/South service in the Pioneer Valley’s Knowledge Corridor, wrapped up $83 million in infrastructure improvements and completed stations in Northampton, Holyoke and Greenfield, before crossing into Brattleboro, Vermont en route to St. Albans near the Canadian border.

In Vermont, this has brought newfound interest in passenger rail infrastructure. When Vermont conducted a statewide commuter rail study that placed an astronomically high $300 million plus figure on the acquisition of rolling stock a private solar energy company, AllEarth, made a rather surprising announcement: the company would purchase twelve sixty-year-old Budd Railcars (that had been in service in Dallas) for $4 million. The railcars have been delivered to Vermont and while no clear plan has been put in place, the organization has announced the start of some service in the near future.

This guy’s Vermont-bound.

Budd cars were very much ahead of their time when introduced after the Second World War. The steel framed trains are their own autonomous locomotive, while seating as many passengers as a typical passenger rail car. Furthermore, cars can be added on to or subtracted from depending on service requirements, allowing for a high degree of responsiveness to market demands. They frequently bridged the Springfield-Boston gap as the Boston & Albany Railroad’s Beeliner service, as seen below:

Springfield to South Station in two hours!

So what does this mean for Springfield? Let’s look at the facts:

  1. A private rail operator has twelve train sets ready to go.
  2. Said private operator has a very recently upgraded and modernized railroad to run on.
  3. Budd cars, unlike larger train sets, are significantly cheaper to operate and can operate with very low overhead.

I envision the following service to be viable: Brattleboro via Springfield to Worcester, allowing for a cross-platform connection to the MBTA’s express service from Worcester Union Station to Boston South Station.

Amtrak’s Vermonter can make the trip from Brattleboro to Springfield in 94 minutes. For the Worcester leg, we judge from the Lakeshore timetable that our Budd Railcar trip can make it in at least 75 minutes, though it took the Budd Cars of yore a breezy 63 minutes.

And what about Worcester? The city has promoted its once-a-day express commuter rail services, dubbed Heart to Hub, as reaching South Station in just 66 minutes and returning in only 70. Ridership figures have not been staggering for a number of reasons, and the presently overcrowded South Station, coupled with track limitations on the line, cannot fit express trains at more convenient hours.

Presently, trains depart Worcester at 8:00am and arrive at South Station at 9:06am, and the return trip leaves South Station at 7:35pm for an 8:45pm arrival.

My plan has trains arriving from Springfield on the underutilized other platform at Worcester Union Station. This platform is used, to my knowledge, rarely and only by excursion services such as that offered by the Providence and Worcester Railroad to the Roger Williams Zoo.

Conveniently, there’s a waiting train on the MBTA’s platform.
Vermont trains arrive on the unused but clearly present platform to the left, passengers board Boston trains on the platform to the right (via panoramio

This kind of connection is surprisingly common. For example, Connecticut’s Shore Line East service from New London is timed to link with Metro-North trains headed to Manhattan, with connecting times of five to eight minutes being the apparent norm:

So based on available information, I have the following schedule in mind:

To Boston read left column down, from Boston read right column up.

Do I intend this to be a schedule for commuters from Brattleboro with once-a-day service? It doesn’t look very viable in that sense, but I can imagine people using it to commute to Springfield and from Springfield to Boston. It also makes sense from an intercity travel standpoint as Brattleboro currently has only once-a-day bus service to Boston. Just because the service does not exist does not imply that there is no demand, as the nearly two hour and thirty minute CapeFlyer service has shown (which also runs at an annual profit).

This service could act as a shuttle, as a morning Vermont bound railcar would only have to wait until 8:30am for a trainload of passengers from Boston, and provide connecting service intermittently throughout the day with various non-express commuter rail trains. Furthermore, this would provide the private company with the opportunity to receive subsidies from Massachusetts in addition to Vermont, while serving as a clearly in-demand service for the Knowledge Corridor’s glistening new rails and stations. As a Budd Railcar, the train would be able to link up with ease to the soon to be established commuter rail network in Vermont. A Worcester to St. Albans service would be a possible rail route without disrupting preexisting service to and from Boston.

Some service is far better than none, and while a high speed line may one day be in the cards, it won’t happen under the current administration and with the influence of private money over the public good. To fight fire with fire, the Commonwealth should investigate whether AllEarth is set to provide a service that merits extension into the Bay State.