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Aaron M. Renn: For Commuter Rail, Better Service to Boston, Not Southward Expansion

mbta-providence-place

MBTA Commuter Rail passing under Providence Place. Photo (cc) Sean_Marshall.

Rhode Island recently spent a large sum of money to extend MBTA commuter rail service south to TF Green Airport and Wickford Junction. Both of them feature large parking garages (although the TF Green Interlink facility is for more than rail transit) that are not typical of suburban train stations and were very expensive.

These stations are only served by select trains on weekdays only, and feature long journey times to Boston – 1:35 from TF Green and 1:50 from Wickford Junction. Though these stations can be useful for commuting to downtown Providence – I’ve used the TF Green service for that myself – Providence is not nearly the employment market Boston is. What’s more, the Wickford Junction station is in a particularly inauspicious location.

Unsurprisingly, ridership is low. TF Green had about 200 passengers per day as of last summer, and Wickford Junction about 150.

With a mind-numbing total price tag of $100 million for this project (the estimated cost of just the transit portions) – almost $300,000 per rider – it’s unlikely that this will ever be viewed as a successful project.

As with the philosophy of the Boston area commuter rail generally, this service expansion was based on expanding the coverage area, but not the quality of service. In effect, it is an equity investment to make access to transit more equally available geographically (though economically more troubled areas like Pawtucket remain without service, so it doesn’t provide more economic equity).

While geographic equity is a legitimate government goal, public transit requires certain characteristics such as origin and destination demand, density of residences and employment, and walkable destinations in order to work well. It’s possible to add service to areas, but that does not mean it will be cost effective or well patronized.

Additionally, the South County expansions don’t move the needle for Rhode Island. One of the biggest challenges facing the area is of course the economy. In the Greater New England there are basically two main sources of wealth generation: New York and Boston. To the extent that you are in New England and are tied to one of those markets, you are generally succeeding. To the extent that you are cut off from them, you are struggling. The Providence area struggles because it is not as able to tap into the Boston economy given the just far enough distance between them by both car and transit.

This isn’t a problem that can be solved entirely, but there are things that can be done. One of them is bringing a different philosophy to transit investment, one focused on improving the quality of the connection to Boston from areas that are well-positioned for success rather than expanding service to places like Wickford Junction.

The rail line from Providence to Boston is already electrified, has concrete ties, and supports relatively fast speeds by Amtrak’s Acela service. The Acela makes the trip from Boston to Providence, with two intermediate stops, in only 35 minutes. Given that the rail line is already capable of electrified, very fast service, investing in this service from existing high demand areas to reduce commuter rail journey times and improve service frequencies is the obvious way to improve commuter rail.

Fundamentally, because the tracks are already electrified, what would need to be done for this is to purchase new electrified rolling stock. Philadelphia’s SEPTA commuter rail system is already fully electrified. Their latest Silverliner V electric multiple unit (EMU) cars are already rated at 100 MPH speeds and have much faster acceleration than MBTA diesels. They cost $2.3 million apiece. It should be possible to simply place an order for these cars more or less off the shelf. Also, some type of yard and maintenance facilities would be needed, which would not be inexpensive. Additionally, to further speed up boardings, all Massachusetts stations would ideally be rebuilt to be fully high platform.

With these improvements, it should be reasonable to reduce the Providence to Boston journey time to approximately 40-45 minutes, depending on intermediate stops. This should be coupled with a clockface schedule featuring hourly service off peak (similar to Chicago) plus additional peak period runs. This would be game changing in terms of access and convenience to Boston. Lower cost, basic level infill stations in more urban areas, featuring simple platforms and no parking, could be added if warranted.

Also, the use of fast accelerating EMU equipment would allow urban infill stations in places like Olneyville and Pawtucket without excessive delay penalties. Potentially also this type of equipment would allow for future expansion of in-state rail shuttle service as proposed by Peter Brassard, especially if implemented by building basic urban stations instead of Taj Mahals.

There would be challenges, of course, apart from the obvious of money. The MBTA claims that South Station is at capacity for peak period operations. The MBTA also reportedly does not want to run electrics because they want to keep consistent equipment on all routes for scheduling flexibility. Massachusetts similarly would need to be convinced to build high platforms at its existing stations. And electrified trains can’t serve the new stations that Rhode Island just built at TF Green and Wickford Junction because they use freight tracks/sidings that are not electrified. Amtrak might also prove to be a pain.

Most of these are problems that easily could have been made to go away if the $100 million price tag for the South County rail expansion had gone into this much more useful project instead. And other problems are more political than technical.

While the ship has sailed on the South County expansion project, for future projects Rhode Island should be looking at game changing investments in speed and frequency from Providence to Boston.


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51 Responses to Aaron M. Renn: For Commuter Rail, Better Service to Boston, Not Southward Expansion

  1. Brian Hull April 24, 2013 at 9:09 am #

    As someone who takes the train from Providence to Ruggles station for work, I concur with this. The 1 hour and 3 minute time listed on the schedule usually extends to an hour and 15 minutes as the train stops 7 times between Providence and Ruggles. Making those stops as short as possible and accelerating the train between stops would reduce travel time and make the lives of the many, many folks who ride the train from Providence to Boston much more pleasant.

  2. Jon F April 24, 2013 at 9:26 am #

    I like Mr. Renn’s ideas. One of the things I really found fascinating about Japan is that they had different equipment for different routes (particularly Shinkansen) as each route had different needs. Boston to Providence (and Boston-Worcester) should be a higher priority route (as opposed to the ridiculous Greenbush Line). Adding equipment for those particular routes that would allow the trains to travel faster would increase the viability of the Boston-Providence commute. If you could make it, at peak times, in under an hour, Providence becomes a VERY attractive option for commuters and businesses. It’s the closest thing to picking PVD up and placing it closer to Boston that is physically possible. I would suggest possibly running some express trains during peak hours which could potentially cut that travel time even lower.

    I do know that Boston is in the process of working on a South Station Expansion. For starters, it’s necessary to provide better headways on the Fairmount Line (which for those unfamiliar, functions as essentially another rapid transit line since it doesn’t leave the city limits) and make room for South Coast Rail and an increase in the frequency of Worcester trains. The USPS facility next door will need to be demolished and I believe the state either already purchased it or is in the process of doing that.

    My one concern would be the additions of an Olneyville or Pawtucket station. And this is a slight reservation. I know it’s not the best example, but Brockton, MA has a central train station beautifully located right downtown. It also has two additional stations just a little north and just a little south of the city center. The end result is that foot traffic at the central station is fairly low because most residents use either of the stations located outside of downtown. It’s hampered would could have been a nice boost for downtown Brockton. Providence is obviously in far better shape than Brockton, but my concern would be than an Olneyville station (and potentially a Pawtucket station) would draw passengers and the subsequent foot traffic away from downtown Providence. I could make a better case for not building Pawtucket and Olneyville stations if Kennedy Plaza were better connected to the train station, but that unfortunately isn’t the case. Some potential Pawtucket passengers may already choose to just drive to Attleboro, so Pawtucket is less of a concern than Olneyville. But again, these are just slight reservations.

  3. Jason April 24, 2013 at 9:29 am #

    It is hard for me to think of a worst way to spend transit money in RI than parking garages in Wickford Junction.

    It’s infuriating we talk about how unaffordable urban infill stations, street cars, BRT with signal priorities, separated bike lanes, etc while building up far flung parking garages.

  4. tkillmurray April 24, 2013 at 10:12 am #

    Give the Warwick and Wickford station more time before assessing ultimate impact — although I support improving quality of existing service. Travel times to/from Boston do inhibit my use of those stations alough I live in Kent County. I am one of a few commutters who use MBTA in the morning from Providence (departure time and reliability) and Amtrak in the afternoon (speed and child care pick-ups). That flexibility and choice is not available in Warwick and Wickford.

  5. Tony P April 24, 2013 at 10:17 am #

    The locomotives pulling MBTA commuter rail are more than capable of 100MPH or more. In fact they are electric at the drive section, have been for many years.

    And Providence to Boston could be done in under an hour but you’d have to skip some stops. In fact I know the 6:33AM train out of Providence gets to Back Bay at 7:35. It skips Canton and Ruggles.

    And coming back you want to be on the 5:05PM out of Back Bay. You’re back in Providence in 1:05.

    The problem with commuter rail in Warwick and Wickford is that it simply costs too much. From Providence the monthly pass is $314! It rises significantly for Wickford. Plus the parking is about $9 a day. So do the math – $45*4.33 = $194.85 a month plus $350 is $544.85 a month!

    A car – figure insurance $100 a month, fuel $250 a month, maintenance $100 a month you’re up at $450 per month. Add parking and it comes to $644.85 but you have the CONVENIENCE of being able to get up and go when you want to do so.

  6. barry April 24, 2013 at 10:19 am #

    We’ve discussed this a lot already. Part of the Wickford/Warwick commuter rail extension is building for the future when the opportunity was available, and since they have already been built, instead of griping, we need to make it work better short-term. Suggestions to do this include:
    adopt Ripta’s COA strategy of stopping #65 south county express buses at Wickford Jct to supplement (not feed) the trains, this provides much more flexibility in the schedules for users, but to be successful will require coordinated fare policies on the mbta/ripta. (As a first simple step, I’d suggest mbta conductors accept a Ripta monthly pass for intrastate rail travel in RI and ripta drivers accept an mbta monthly pass for travel to/from RI train stations)
    promote transit incentives in the Providence area – for example since the State House area, so convenient to the rr station, state employees who all get free parking (except those paying extra for garage space) should be offerred a discounted rail/bus transit package as an alternative. Better, give all state employees a $50 month raise and charge $50/month for parking for those that insist on driving. Parking cashout as it is called has been shown to be effective. This is especially needed at URI-Providence which at great expense gives free parking for all students/faculty/staff at the Conention Center garage, even though they are right downtown. (There is a bill, H5636 to be heard May 1 that addresses this somewhat) No wonder the commuter rail and ripta struggle to get commuters! RIPTA’s “ecopass” promotion for private employers should be combined with commuter rail and advocates and labor usions should be pressing private employers to participate.
    Advoctes, business organizations, labor unions, and environmental groups should also help by distributing commuter rail schedules more widely.
    Boston-Providence commuter rail has been improving since it was reinstated, and electrification is a good idea for environmental reasons too, but the mbta funding and operational issues are so problematic. But I appreciate that this post calls attention to this, it will be helpful in the long run.

  7. Ryan April 24, 2013 at 10:26 am #

    Providence and Pawtucket will get absolutely nothing – let me be absolutely clear – NOTHING in the way of commuter rail improvements if South County Commuter Rail fails.

    South County Commuter Rail has not yet entirely failed – growth is slow, but there is growth, and the project hasn’t actually been completed yet. So, fear not, Mr. Renn, there’s still time for us to shoot ourselves in the foot by killing the next phase of the project – another southward extension to Kingston – under the theory that based on Wickford Junction’s failure (due to being a fundamentally bad station), we can guarantee that commuter rail at Kingston will also fail due to being “another southward extension,” and in spite of the fact that Amtrak is pulling down ~450 riders daily at Kingston today. And let me reiterate – as goes Kingston, so goes Woonsocket, Pawtucket, Cranston and Olneyville.

    One of the ultimate end results of South County Commuter Rail is that the South County rail stations are all going to be decoupled from the Massachusetts Commuter Rail network. That’s what RIDOT wants – and once we have commuter rail from Westerly to Providence, RIDOT is liable to get what it wants, and use whatever rolling stock it sees fit. You’re correct in that the platforms at Wickford Junction and T.F. Green Airport being un-electrified pose a small problem to the dream of running EMUs on the Providence Line, but Providence’s layover yard being unelectrified poses a much larger problem, and the MBCR’s recalcitrance concerning the use of electrics poses a much larger problem as well – but the MBCR is an absolute non-issue if RIDOT assumes control of the line. Amtrak is on much better terms with RIDOT than they are MBCR, and when the contract for Rhode Island Commuter Rail goes out to bid, I have not a single doubt in my mind that Amtrak wouldn’t both bid and win.

    Speaking of Amtrak, they are already engaged in constructing the third track between Kingston and Westerly, and the money has already been spent for the high-level platforms due to be started once the third track work is finished. Look forward to that by early-to-mid 2014. With URI President David Dooley agitating for the Kingston extension, I fully expect it to work its way back into the headlines some time between mid-July and early August of this year. I wonder, Mr. Renn, will you be right back here campaigning against it when it does? Are you willing to lead the charge against more investment into intra-state commuter rail operations? Will you go on the record to say “I oppose commuter rail expansion?”

  8. Peter Brassard April 24, 2013 at 10:37 am #

    Brockton is not a great comparison for Pawtucket or Olneyville. Even though Pawtucket is a city it functions, as does Olneyville, as an inner city neighborhood of Providence, not as a CBD for an isolated city.

    Both Pawtucket and Olneyville have large amounts of underutilized commercial space and are surrounded by tens of thousands of residents from nearby walkable residential neighborhoods. It may be more of a psychological rather than actual barrier, but even though both have extensive highway access, due to traffic or archaic street patterns both are perceived to be difficult to reach by car.

    An Olneyville station wouldn’t just serve Olneyville, Silver Lake, or Hartford Avenue, but about half of Federal Hill and the entire Armory District would be walkable to such a station. More people could walk to a Cross Street/Sacred Heart Avenue station in Central Falls rather than the current Dexter Street in Pawtucket.

  9. Jef Nickerson April 24, 2013 at 10:41 am #

    Ryan, please take a deep breath.

  10. James Kennedy, Transport Providence April 24, 2013 at 11:05 am #

    My understanding is that the people of North Kingstown voted down the possibility of a bike path between Wickford Center and the train station. That would have been a better option for commuters (a damned bit cheaper and more pleasant, that’s for sure!) and would have doubled as a tourist destination and amenity for residents. Especially considering that the bike ride down 1A from Wickfahhhd tuh ‘Gansett is so nice already, but the bike ride west or north from there is so god awful scary.

    Olneyville & Pawtucket stations definitely need to be a thing.

  11. James Kennedy, Transport Providence April 24, 2013 at 11:20 am #

    Also, I think clearly Kingston would be much more successful than Wickford, anyhow, because of URI, the existence of paid-parking on the campus (which is not something that happens in PVD’s URI campus, sadly) and because of the bike path, which connects to the station. I’m tempted to say that Kingston would be more successful if it was a non-stop to Providence, with no Wickford or Warwick in between, but of course I’d like to see those succeed too.

  12. Ryan April 24, 2013 at 11:38 am #

    James,

    I can’t seem to find conclusive evidence one way or the other as to if there was a vote on the path. The planning document I did find was dated 2005 and certainly predates the train station, so it would be in everyone’s best interests to actually revisit creating such a bike path. One of the biggest problems with Wickford Junction is, of course, that the only way to leave Wickford Junction is “back out the way you came in.” RIPTA’s new express buses should help with this, but I very much doubt that they’ll be a good substitute for the local services out of Wickford that I’ve suggested before. Still, progress is progress and this is a start.

    Another thing that would drastically help the train station – and something that needs to happen anyway – is pedestrian facilities along the combined segment of 102 and 2. I’d say “better” pedestrian facilities except for the fact that there are none there at present – no sidewalks, no crosswalks, no pedestrian-friendly phasing for the traffic lights, no walk signals, nothing.

    102 in general could be a much friendlier road towards peds and bikes.

  13. Ryan April 24, 2013 at 11:56 am #

    Another thing I keep forgetting to mention – Amtrak is also pressing the MBCR hard to get with the program on full high-level boarding and center passing track(s) for express trains. Those improvements are in the Northeast Corridor Infrastructure Master Plan ( http://www.amtrak.com/ccurl/870/270/Northeast-Corridor-Infrastructure-Master-Plan.pdf ) and likely will happen by 2020.

    Once we have those facilities in place, there will be enough room to run tiered commuter service. RIDOT could run South County Commuter Rail as a local service making all stops from Westerly to South Attleboro, where the trains would proceed to run express the rest of the way into Boston, skipping every stop until Ruggles or even Back Bay. Meanwhile, MBCR can run the Providence Line as a local train making all stops from Boston south to Providence, and then skip every infill stop between Providence and T.F. Green Airport. Passengers at Providence, Pawtucket and South Attleboro all gain the option to take a local train to non-Boston destinations or take an express train and be in Boston in 40 minutes, while commuter service from South County all the way into Boston does not suffer an unduly long commute time once it is separated away from the local stops in Massachusetts.

  14. Jason April 24, 2013 at 12:09 pm #

    Ryan, are you saying double down to Kingston?

    Listen, I think you’re right that if South County rail fails it’s going to become harder and harder to get the infill stations that should have been built put in place, but that doesn’t mean I have to pretend that it was done right.

    The problem with Wickford is both the location and the ridiculous expense. Kingston not only makes more sense (connecting URI to Providence, existing station and use), but wouldn’t come with the tens of millions of dollars wasted on a garage that’s too expensive to fill anyway.

    That’s not to say that Kingston shouldn’t ever get a connection. That’s not to say I’m not rooting for a lot of the things that Barry is hoping for to improve Wickford. And that’s not to say that I don’t want to see growth or expect to see growth.

    It is to say that the cost per rider was astronomical and primarily put into infrastructure that doesn’t improve the way our trains run. That’s wasteful and no conceivable amount of ridership in the next 2 decades could lead that to making sense.

    The point, to me at least, is that Wickford should serve as a lesson. Broader vision for transit in RI is great, but we can’t build all at once. Given that constraint, we shouldn’t phase our building by defining the boundaries and building the structures that really come to life only when they’re a part of that bigger function system first. We need to direct our resources toward the best marginal gains. We need to build where failure is not likely; not build and then struggle because failure is not an option.

    We’re stuck with two stations that are brilliant (more or less) for the RI rail transit system of 2030, without a rail transit system that makes sense for RI in 2013. Let’s support them, but let’s not forget where the real potential lies and where success is waiting for the taking. Let’s make the RIGHT marginal investments going forward instead of always pretending we’re in too deep.

  15. Ryan April 24, 2013 at 1:16 pm #

    No, I’m saying double down to T.F. Green – especially if T.F. Green turns into a strong bus hub on top of the airport and rental car services there already, there’s plenty of demand for a dramatic uptick in rail service there. (There’s also an argument about better balancing Boston air traffic between KBOS and KPVD in the same way that New York has KJFK and KEWR and Washington has KDCA and KBWI, but that’s an entirely different topic of conversation.)

    Let me also be clear in saying that I don’t believe Wickford Junction should be immune from all criticism. I’ve called it one of the worst things to happen to commuter rail, ever, and I stand by that statement. But there’s a huge difference between just criticism of a flawed station and calls for, per Mr. Renn, no further southward extension in spite of everything that is working in favor of southward extension. And there’s a huge difference between “Wickford Junction is a horrible station, let’s work to fix some of the problems” and “Wickford Junction is a horrible station, let’s work on damage control and explaining the failure away in the context of embarking on a new and different commuter rail project.” And make no mistake, stopping further southward extension will have a real, immediate and drastic negative effect upon plans for infill stations and a Woonsocket Line.

    Wickford Junction is there. Forever. We’re stuck with it. We have to make the most of it. There’s no other choice.

  16. Ken Milstead April 24, 2013 at 1:48 pm #

    When I lived in Providence (downtown) and commuted to Cambridge, I found that the extra comfort and time savings of using Amtrak was well worth the $ 50 or so extra for the monthly pass. The only real trade-off was lack of flexibility compared with the T trains. I found myself buying T tickets at times to supplement the Amtrak pass when I missed an Amtrak train or needed to travel at a time when there was no Amtrak train.

    I think the easiest answer for decreasing train times from Providence to Boston would be to have AMTRAK run additional trains – perhaps from Westerly to Boston and back – 4-5 times per day. This would cut the travel times in half compared to the T trains and would extend service further south to the RI-CT state line (with hopefully a stop at TF Green). Other states have subsidized Amtrak routes to serve rural communities and/or to supplement/replace commuter rail so there is definitely precedent for this sort of arrangement.

    The T trains could then make the in-fill stops like Pawtucket that are greatly needed to increase ridership and (for the most part) skip Providence station (with maybe every other train stopping downtown).

  17. SGH April 24, 2013 at 1:59 pm #

    Ken,

    I’m not sure what the data is for Rhode Island, but high population density areas generally keep Amtrak in the black. Just from a pure financial arrangement, it might not even be worth it to subsidize what could already be a profitable addition of service; especially if the addition increases ridership as it gets more convenient. Although that’s just conjecture.

  18. Ken Milstead April 24, 2013 at 2:08 pm #

    SGH -

    Good points! I’m not familiar with the type of financial arrangements that Amtrak makes in these instances. I wonder if RI could negotiate a contract where RI subsidizes service for 1-2 years as a test market with some sort of sliding scale decrease of subsidies if the lines produce enough ridership to be profitable for Amtrak without subsidies.

    With Amtrak’s current (constant!) budgetary uncertainties, they aren’t going to decide to start service on such a line on their own with any possibility of increasing their budget problems.

    Such a negotiation could be win-win. Amtrak’s future is obviously as an East Coast and California company. Eventually, the Republicans are going to kill the subsidies for cross-country service as they have tried to do for years. Whatever Amtrak can do to attract more riders in the RI area will only help their survival.

  19. Peter Brassard April 24, 2013 at 2:59 pm #

    The funding is fully in place for adding a third track and constructing high platforms at Kingston Station. The work is slated to begin Spring 2014.

    Like it not it not South County Commuter Rail is extending to Kingston, which is a better location for commuter rail than Wickford. It takes 20-minutes to get to a highway from Kingston and there are over 25,000 people live/work/study within a mile and half of the station. With the push for the URI/ RIC nursing program, plus URI plans for campus expansion in Providence, having a viable commuter rail link is critical.

    Aaron’s suggestion for improving Providence to Boston commuter rail service before extending south or abandoning the south, ignores the Rhode Island and Federal investments that have been made or that are about to be made.

    The MBTA is first and foremost and probably always will be a Boston system. Why would the MBTA want to change anything (high-platforms, electric train sets, or limit stops to provide express service)? The Providence line is their cash cow. There’s a subsidy from Rhode Island, Providence is the largest reverse commuter destination outside of Boston, and the passengers reasonably only have Amtrak or driving as an alternative. If they do nothing they won’t loose any ridership and actually ridership will continue to increase.

    Perhaps the MBTA should terminate at Providence instead of extending further south as it does today. Whether it’s Amtrak, RIDOT, Shoreline East, or unimagined rail division of RIPTA, Rhode Island and the Providence area would be better served if it had its own commuter rail or shuttle train service that could provide transfers to Boston-bound MBTA trains.

  20. Ryan April 24, 2013 at 3:58 pm #

    Peter, the third track construction work has already begun. You can go down to the tracks between Westerly and Kingston today and see work happening as we speak. I believe Spring 2014 is the target for the high platforms, and the implication is that a third track will be completely in place before that time.

    And you’re absolutely correct in that the MBTA has little to no interest in scheduling its trains for the convenience and ease of use of what is ultimately a secondary market for them. They most likely also are hesitant to sink money into high-platforms and extra tracks on their own volition. Fortunately, they don’t control dispatching – Amtrak does, and Amtrak has shown a willingness in the past to play hardball at the expense of the MBCR. Amtrak wants the high platforms for the entire line to speed boarding and detraining, reduce dwell times, and therefore increase capacity. And Amtrak wants the passing tracks for the same reason. The MBCR can either go along willingly or get dragged along, but I don’t think anyone in the upper levels of management really wants to try their luck with an inter-agency turf war.

    And when RIDOT takes over the operation of Rhode Island trains, it will be possible to negotiate a deal for Rhode Island trains to express through to Boston, and to create a similar arrangement as the one in place between Metro-North and the Shore Line East today.

  21. Peter Brassard April 24, 2013 at 4:32 pm #

    The irony is that in the 1980s there was 40-ish minute express commuter service between South Station and Providence, subsidized by the state, with just three stops in between, Pawtucket, 128, and Back Bay. That was with really exhausted old New Haven Railroad diesel train stock.

    Since Providence also has the highest ridership outside of Boston in the MBTA’s system, in the interim, another conversation might be to propose some express service, with existing equipment and Massachusetts platforms, in part mirroring the service from 30-years ago. Though that might require some encouragement from Amtrak or the FRA.

    I saw the gravel under the bridge where the third track will go in Kingston, but what I was told is that actual construction on the platforms and track wasn’t supposed to begin until Spring ’14 and that the reason why the northbound platform is closed is for track work from Westerly through Kingston. I could have been misinformed.

  22. Ryan April 24, 2013 at 5:07 pm #

    My understanding is that the track work in question is directly related to the third track – preliminary work on switches.

    The timeline as I understand it is that this track work is a 12-week project, so we’ll know soon enough which one of us was misinformed.

  23. mental757 April 24, 2013 at 6:14 pm #

    @James Kennedy – I wouldn’t discount the demand between Kingston and TF Green (by making Kingston nonstop to Providence only as you suggest). URI drives plenty of air travel from the likes of students, sports teams, as well as faculty and staff (recruiting, research, partnerships, etc.). Throw in the fact that there is NO RIPTA service between the two anymore (used to be on the 66) and you can see the importance. Ryan Center/Boss Ice Arena events might drive some use as well.

    There are so many points in this thread, I don’t know where to start. One thing everyone needs to know and understand is the track ownership issue. AMTRAK owns the rails in RI, MA owns theirs in MA. RI has to pay the MBTA/MBCR (pilgrim partnership) for the Providence service and also has to pay them on top of AMTRAK for every train that travels south of Providence. Eventually, RI will ned to determine where the “split” will be – either Providence or TF Green. I think it might end up at TF Green since there is a logical second source of demand to connect TF Green with Boston and points between (air service plus commuters). TF Green is also seen to be the southern most “Boston-centric” stop on the line whereas, Wickford, Kingston, Westerly, and any other potential infill station are geared more for Providence commuter service. Given these roles while factoring in infrastructure constraints (electrification), a logical service patern can be developed. MBTA commuter rail service from TF Green north with 10-12 weekday roundtrips and then hourly (with 30 minute headways at peaks) from Westerly to Providence (making all stops) which would eventually extend up to Woonsocket on smaller rolling stock – perhaps a 1-2 car DMU type setup. If track 3 gets electrified in RI, then you can upgrade the trains then.

    The absolute most important thing to do now is to find ways to support and promote the service we already have. I gave up driving to Boston for anything decades ago and always take the train. I am now doing that for my meetings in Providence. If the train time doesn’t work, then I take RIPTA – even if it is at a place with ample and free parking at 1pm on a Friday. People think I’m nuts, but I make my point about being vested in the service. Its really easy to find the negatives in the current state of commuter rail in RI, lets be leaders in highlighting the positives! \(soapbox rant over)

  24. Coryndon April 24, 2013 at 6:35 pm #

    This conversation touches on an important political issue. Rhode Island does not see connection to Boston as critical to its success especially if you are further south.

    This drives the prioritization of improvements inside Rhode Island over more effective fixes that increase the connection between Providence and Boston both rail and otherwise.

  25. Peter Brassard April 24, 2013 at 6:52 pm #

    True, but conversely, many from Boston or Massachusetts similarly don’t see a point or advantage of connections to Rhode Island. As Aaron has noted in other articles, this is a New England problem though the phenomenon also exists in New York State and New Jersey. The town or the state are much more the priority in New England rather than the metropolitan region, which in fact is the primary unit of wealth generation and economic activity worldwide.

  26. David Rocha April 25, 2013 at 4:10 pm #

    I agree with the both of you. This is why I think a major priority to consider that often gets lost in Boston talk is connecting to Worcester, Fall River, and to Shore Line East. It’d be great if we could position Providence as a secondary hub. We need to look at connecting New England cities in the way we approach our problem with RIPTA. We’re looking at making Warwick a secondary hub in that system. We should look at making Providence comparable in that way. Not everyone wants to add an hour to their trip going to Boston first.

  27. David Rocha April 25, 2013 at 4:23 pm #

    Takr into account that both Worcester and Providence are simultaneously trying to build major medical research and service centers. A direct link between the two would open a lot of doors to sector-wide cross-pollination.

  28. Steve April 25, 2013 at 6:08 pm #

    1) The problem is not the extension to Wickford Jct., it is the speed between Boston and Providence, which could be a lot faster even with diesel engines currently being run. Additional frequencies over the entire route and weekend service south of Providence would help also.

    2) The Wickford Jct. Station is not in a bad location. It is easily accessible from Route 102. The building is quite beautiful, well planned out and attractive to those who use it. The problem is that it serves Downtown Providence as its principal destination and not Boston. Providence needs more employers downtown so that the potential customer base can be increased.

    3) Stopping at Onleyville is non-starter. It would have all the problems that Wickford Jct. and Hillsgrove have because it is still on the non-electrified line, and would add more time to the run between the Airport station and Boston without adding any significant numbers riders.

    4) On the other hand downtown Pawtucket makes a lot of sense. The area around the station is densely populated and the line is already electrified.

    5) Electrification of the existing line (assuming the T would run electric locomotives) would significantly improve ridership at all Rhode Island Stations.

    6) Extension to West Kingston poses a number of problems. The siding at Wickford Jct. ends at the station. Extending it south requires a bridge over Rte 102 and then it has to pass through a wetland. Parking at Kingston is already a major problem, and building a parking garage means converting all remaining parking to PAY PARKING which would negatively impact on the current Amtrak ridership. Also Amtrak is required by law to charge higher prices than competing commuter services, so a portion of its Kingston-Boston market would be lost.

    7) The current construction in the Kingston area is refurbishing the existing road bed. Construction of the third track is still in design, and construction on that won’t begin until next year. No plans exist to extend the third track from Kingston to Westerly.

    8) Having the South County Commuter service as a stand alone service would require a switch in trains at Providence, decreasing the number of riders and increasing the basic costs of the services. The current system has the MBTA run the extension in return for some liability insurance and the capital turned over to them previously to purchase additional equipment. The fares south of Providence are so high that they probably do pay for the cost of the extensions.

  29. Aaron M. Renn April 25, 2013 at 7:19 pm #

    Thanks for all the comments. I appreciate the intelligent conversation and have enjoyed reading.

    One thing I don’t understand is the beilef that there’s big demand at TF Green. I use that station when I can, but rarely notice that many riders. There are definitely some areas within walking distance, but it’s not a fantastic pedestrian area. I don’t see the airport itself as traffic generator. And in general I’d rather run buses all the way to Providence than terminate them as feeder service to rail. (This is a problem with light rail and similar lines in general in that existing bus service is often sacrificed to force increased rail ridership).

  30. Aaron M. Renn April 25, 2013 at 7:23 pm #

    Oh, I took a tour of Quonset business park today. With 9,100 industrial jobs, Wickford could potentially be a reverse commute station if there were shuttle buses to get people to the park. There isn’t one today but I’m told that there’s season shuttle service for the Martha’s Vineyard ferry. This might help link unemployed city workers with a jobs center, but even so probably not that many folks served.

  31. Ken Milstead April 25, 2013 at 7:35 pm #

    Aaron,

    There are two ways to look at rerouting of existing longer-distance bus services to service new commuter rail lines:

    (1) As you noted, such changes can be viewed as a means of forcing increased ridership of commuter rail (by eliminating the alternative of taking the trip by bus).

    (2) Such changes can also be viewed, however, as a means of better using resources in two ways:

    (a) Commuter rail costs are relatively fixed. Adding an additional 100 riders to a scheduled train really costs nothing more than running the same train empty. Adding an additional 100 riders to a scheduled bus run requires adding two additional buses and the resulting extra equipment, drivers, and fuel costs (plus increased pollution, traffic, etc.).

    (b) By eliminating longer bus runs, bus service frequency *and* range for the areas being fed into the commuter rail line can be increased without requiring additional money for RIPTA bus equipment, fuel, and drivers. If, for example, a 1 hour bus run from Kingston to Providence can be substituted with two bus runs from the Kingston area to the Wickford Junction station and back, these shorter runs can create a larger catchment area for riders of both the bus service and the commuter rail.

    With good planning, those two bus runs from Kingston to Wickford Junction (for example) could serve uses other than commuter rail: park and ride for employers near Wickford Junction to park at the station and commute to jobs nearby (if the rail corridor leads to the predicted increased development in the area), transportation to shopping at the Wickford Junction station and other nearby locations, or even as a means for people who live near the train station to use the Wickford Junction garage as a park and ride to travel to Kingston (e.g. URI faculty, staff, and students).

  32. Ryan April 25, 2013 at 8:12 pm #

    Steve,

    1) They’re both problems. Slow speeds between Boston and Providence hurt the convenience and usability of the line by everybody, but Wickford Junction itself is also a huge black mark on the system itself because of its high cost for low ridership and for its awful location, which segues directly into…

    2) You forgot those two unfortunate qualifying words at the end… “for cars.” And, indeed! Wickford Junction is a beautiful station and quite readily accessible by car from Routes 1, 2, 4 and I-95. This certainly helps anyone and everyone planning to drive to the train station (which is a market we absolutely want to lock down), and it makes the prospect of a South County Bus Terminal co-located with the station immensely doable. However, it doesn’t help people who first arrive at the station by train, be they planning to walk (as the area has dismissed pedestrian concerns), bike (as the stretch of 102 in the vicinity is built out to almost freeway-like quality, which at the very least will be a jarring shock to anyone entering the area from the more bike-friendly and scenic stretches of 102 that exist elsewhere), or take a bus (that doesn’t yet exist). The only way out of Wickford Junction is the same way you came in, which is a big problem for anyone looking to come to South County as opposed to going away from it.

    3) …unless you electrify those tracks, which needs to happen anyway.

    4 & 5) Agreed with no further comment.

    6) The structure over which the extended track would travel already exists – in fact, so too does a structure for potentially FOUR-tracking to Wickford. I don’t believe the wetlands would pose a significant problem to ultimately connecting Wickford’s third track to the incoming third track at Kingston, but even if they do, those tracks can simply merge back into the existing tracks over the wetlands without posing significant problems. You’re correct in that parking at Kingston is already a major problem, which is why a garage (and the end of the free parking there today) is coming to Kingston whether or not the Commuter Rail does.

    6A) “Also Amtrak is required by law to charge higher prices than competing commuter services, so a portion of its Kingston-Boston market would be lost.” Huh?? Which law is that, again? I’m fairly certain that the real reason Amtrak charges a premium for its tickets is because people buy them at that price. Amtrak costing more than various and sundry commuter rail operations up and down the NEC hasn’t seemed to unduly impact Regional ridership between Providence and Boston, New London and New Haven, New Haven and Stamford and New York, New York and Trenton, Trenton and Philadelphia, Philadelphia and Wilmington, or Baltimore and Washington. It also hasn’t stopped Amtrak from working out deals for cross-honoring of some kind or another with just about every one of those commuter rail operations – in fact, the MBCR and Metro-North are the only two companies that DON’T have some kind of deal on the books. They’re also the two commuter rail companies most hostile to Amtrak. Go figure.

    7) I suppose I was misinformed, then. That’s unfortunate.

    8) And having the Shore Line East as a standalone service from Metro-North requires everyone to switch at New Haven – except for the Shore Line Express trains which run through for a single seat ride to Stamford, an arrangement that I believe I proposed be put into place with the South County Line trains turning into express runs after South Attleboro. And even when those Express trains aren’t operating, the requirement to switch trains doesn’t seem to be unduly impacting ridership on either service and New Haven has managed to figure out how to coordinate across-the-platform timed connections for maximum usability. It can work here.

    As a general point to the people who earlier proposed running DMU service from South County up to Woonsocket, that’s frankly a bad idea both because it squanders the electrified line we have already and because there’s much less of a commute demand from Westerly or Kingston to Woonsocket as for either of those locals to Providence. However, Quonset already has freight rail tracks similar to the freight tracks that Woonsocket Line service must run on. To Mr. Renn’s point, Quonset likely could be a major source of ridership and connecting Woonsocket to Quonset makes more sense both from a traffic standpoint as well as an operational one.

    Also to Mr. Renn’s point, and to rehash one of the many reasons why Wickford Junction is in the worst location it possibly could have been placed in:

    Davisville Junction, had it been built instead, would have far more effectively served Quonset while still having direct freeway access via 403 and therefore not compromising the impeccable park-and-ride usability of the station, if the goal was truly to build a park-and-ride.

    An actual Quonset Station would have required negotiating a deal for track usage with P&W, which would ultimately mean a deal already in place to streamline starting up a Woonsocket Line service.

    East Greenwich is cut off from Greenwich Cove by the tracks, but has also been spared the fate of so many other suburbs to be turned into a fast-moving automobile paradise. That also means that its freeway access is not the best, and its roads are all very slow. If ever there was a place where most of the community can safely be marked down for Day 1 Ridership numbers several years before a station is even (re)built there, it’s East Greenwich.

  33. Peter Brassard April 25, 2013 at 8:13 pm #

    There are actually three bridges at Wickford Junction. The center “or express” bridge is where the main northbound and southbound Amtrak tracks are located. There are two separate “local” bridges. The southbound third track aligns and just stops short of one of the “local” bridges that extend over Route 102. It’s visible from Google Maps aerial images.

    There’s no question that Pawtucket should be built. The catchment area for the Dexter Street, Pawtucket location would serve a population of 13,000 to 15,000 who would be within a 10-12-minute walk or 5-7-minute bus ride. However, for Olneyville the population that would be served by a station would be well over 28,000 people within the same walk and bus times, or about twice as many as Pawtucket.

    There are several facets to the TF Green Station: Commuter rail, Airport rail link, Car rentals, and Development of a new mid- to high-density mixed-use neighborhood (yet to be built). The current Commuter Rail service is too erratic. I’ve proposed this before, but if there were a more regular schedule or headway times, airport users might be more likely take advantage of the rail service. Also, the current service ends too soon in the evening and many people are forced to drive due to the lack of a weekend schedule.

    Rhode Island’s mixed rail/bus transit system will not work well until there is fare coordination between the MBTA and RIDOT/RIPTA.

  34. Peter Brassard April 25, 2013 at 9:05 pm #

    East Greenwich would have made the most sense for a suburban station. It’s coverage area would include Potowomut, Cowesett, and the northern end of North Kingstown, all of which are fairly high density for suburban areas, with a fair number of apartment buildings and complexes. Highway access is lousy, as it takes at least 10- to 15-minutes during rush hour just to drive to Route 4 or 95. Plus there’s several thousand people that live in Downtown East G that could walk to the station.

  35. Dan April 26, 2013 at 9:54 am #

    I am just curious. Has anyone ever done a study that determined where the Providence workforce (especially the downtown) actually comes from. Even a home zip code study might be useful. Or a study that reverses that and shows what zip code Rhode Islanders commute to for work. This whole discussion hinges on the “build it and they will come” scenario. But in the end is it convenient enough to get people out of their cars and onto commuter trains.

    I have said this before with other posts on rail. If I take a 35-45 minute trip door to door for work do I want to replace that with a 1 hour commute by rail which will include me standing in the cold, the heat, the rain waiting for a train. If my place of work is more than 1/4 mile from a station with no reliable way of getting there, what incentive do I have to take the train. Is it practical if schedule is not frequent enough to fit my work schedule or daily routine.

    People commute by train to cities like Boston and New York because its more convenient than driving into the city. Traffic is horrendous. The frequency and types of service available gives them flexibility. People are willing to wait on platforms and change trains because it is still better than driving. Also, most of the commuter stations around Boston and New York have a sea of parking because there are will never be enough bus routes to adequately service the suburban sprawl in the bedroom communities that surround these cities

    Don’t get me wrong. I am a proponent of rail but I am also practical when it comes to the habits of people and their notion of convenience. I think that Rhode Islanders just don’t have it bad enough to consciously choose rail. Today, choosing to commute by rail is a sacrifice that a lot of people are not willing to make.

  36. Peter Brassard April 27, 2013 at 11:38 am #

    Aaron – Currently there are three local bus routes (#8, #14, #20) that travel between TF Green and Providence. I’ve occasionally taken the #14 West Bay local from Newport. Rarely does anyone get on or off at the terminal. Though I’ve never taken the local #14 from Providence. Also only the #20 operates to late evenings and on weekends.

    Dan – Excellent question. Where does the workforce come from that works in Downtown Providence? If statistics exist, whether by zip code, census tract, or employer survey, were those numbers used to determine the best locations for new commuter rail stations?

    Besides traffic, the high cost of parking is another reason why New Yorkers and Bostonians use the train and subway. The argument that Providence traffic isn’t bad enough to warrant people to use the train doesn’t really hold when New Haven is compared. New Haven’s traffic is similar to Providence, where it’s predictable sluggish and you can get to work in a reasonable time frame by car. Many Shoreline East and Metro North commuters, who do not make transfers, work in New Haven.

    As for “build it and they will come,” Rhode Island’s current expansion of just a few stations isn’t really a system. Would more people use commuter rail if a more complete system was built, and if there were more stations, would they be located where the bulk of the population lives?

    Shoreline East was started in 1990 as a temporary measure to reduce traffic going to New Haven while extensive construction was done on Route 95. A lot of stations were added all at once, creating an instant system. I don’t know the specifics, but since the initial service was considered temporary, were all the Shoreline East high platforms built in 1990 or added later? If the system was thought to be temporary how was parking dealt with? Were formal surface parking lots constructed or were cars parked along the side of roads or on dirt or grass?

    As far as “no reliable way of getting there,” there is a real disconnect when your train reaches Providence Station. This illustrates a lack of planning and commitment or perhaps timidity to making the commuter rail system work. The “R” Rapid Bus service or the Core Connector streetcar and more so both would address the current lack of connectivity once you get to Providence.

    Is this a case of penny wise pound foolish? Build a couple of Rolls Royce commuter rail stations instead of spending a little more on a dozen Volkswagen beetle stations.

  37. Ryan April 27, 2013 at 2:33 pm #

    Peter, more people would almost certainly use the train stations we have today if they could get to where they wanted to go with the train. Even if they potentially had to deal with a transfer, it is likely that utilization of the train stations we have already would increase – so the real question is not “should we invest in a dozen McStations or a couple of Taj Mahal Stations,” it’s “How can we best connect people and businesses to these stations?”

    The answer to how many stations we build and where we build them is one that has a complicated answer which depends wholly on how quickly and for how much we could go from zero to opening day on the entire Woonsocket Line, and how much capacity is available for use on RI/Providence services today versus 2020 when the capacity expansions are mostly in place.

    Service to Kingston most likely has a 2017 start date, at the absolute earliest. Any other expansion we could dream up or name at this point is certainly not going to be in place prior into 2020. So the real question we need to ask, and the conversation that we need to be having, is about feeding people into the system we’ve got and driving demand for those expansions.

    It’s a conversation that RIPTA needs to be a much larger part of.

  38. barry April 27, 2013 at 5:29 pm #

    I think this is the 40th post on this thread! Lots of good ideas, we need to get them out to more than gcpvd. We might think about summaries, op-eds, presentations to the Environment Council of RI, the RI Assoc of RR Passengers (RIARP), Transportation Advisory Committee and State Planning Council, Coalition for Transportation Choices, URI, League of Cities and Towns, Grow-Smart etc etc Short-term opportunities for individuals: before House Finance Committee on transit funding (Tues 4/30) and on Upass (Wed 5/1), at transit state house rally 5/2, materials could be distributed at PVD Station on Ntl Train Day Sat 5/11, RIPTA Board 5/20, at RIARP meeting 5/20, at TAC 5/23…

    Additional substantive comments: those hoping for a Kingston commuter extension need to work on South Kingstown town government which did NOT ask anything for commuter rail in the last TIP project submissions – unlike Pawtucket and Central Falls where a station was a high priority, and also interested wre Woonsocket, and to some extent, Cranston but nothng from south county.

    James noted that No Kingstown rejected a bike connection Wickford Jct – Wickford (along the rr branch that once made it a junction!) but note East Greenwich and Warwick are cooperating in proposing a bike path connect near a possible East Greenwich stop over a new bridge over a creek to connect to the downtown EG to the Godard Park area. This has made it into the TIP. Perhaps that might add to a East Greenwich stop priority!

    Finally, did you catch the news item about possible plans to move DHS state workers to central Providence (pg A6 today) – note they would have 168 employees but are asking for 300 parking spots! No hope of any form of transit succeeding if so much “free” (but expensive) parking is given
    away to commuters even in central Providence. At least I have this on the agenda of Monday’s ECRI-RIDOT Roundtable.

  39. Ryan April 27, 2013 at 5:44 pm #

    barry, for those of us who don’t know, could you educate as to where the RIARP meeting will be held? RIARP’s web page is hopelessly out of date.

  40. Peter Brassard April 27, 2013 at 7:45 pm #

    Contact RIARP by snail mail:
    RIARP, PO Box 8645, Warwick, Rhode Island 02888-0645

    You would have to become a member to attend and dues are $15.

    Find application at:
    http://www.riarp.org/Join.htm

  41. Ryan April 27, 2013 at 8:01 pm #

    Yeah, I’ve been meaning to send my membership application over…

  42. Pam Thomas April 27, 2013 at 8:40 pm #

    Is no one concerned about the lack of parking at the providence station for workers trying to get to Boston? If you’re not there by 6:30am, you’re out of luck. This has been a problem for years. Why can’t this get fixed? Why should people have to drive to Attleboro, whose parking situation is getting worse too? Finally, the reason no one takes the train from wickford to providence is that the bus travels the same route just as efficiently and the parking is free. The bus also let’s downtown workers off closer to their offices. Those of us who live in NK would love to see Amtrak in our town so we wouldn’t have to drive to Kingston (where the parking is also bad, see a theme?) but Amtrak doesn’t want to add another stop and more time and you can’t disagree with that.

  43. Jef Nickerson April 29, 2013 at 9:28 am #

    Barry’s point about the relocated state offices and free parking is one we’ve discussed before of course.

    What I find interesting, is whatever you think about Treasurer Raimondo’s pension plan, the pension system was changed. But somehow it is completely beyond the realm of possibility for anyone to even discuss taking free parking out of state union contracts. Imagine the savings if the State did not have to build or lease 300 parking spaces in Downtown Providence.

  44. Claude Masse April 29, 2013 at 3:06 pm #

    Quite a discussion going on here.Being in the Central Valley of CT. I’m sure most of us would be envious of the infrastructure already in place in Greater Providence-south.Between New Haven &Hartford up into Springfield it’s single rail.We have dreams but little has been done.Being a Rhode Island native,and understanding density,I feel you commuters do and will continue to be able to innovate on the current product you already have.
    To Mr. Renn I say Providence has always from the 19th century on, been a rail minded place.With the Boston commuter market to feed on,your dilemma seems small compared to our mountain to climb here in Greater Hartford.

  45. Steve January 2, 2014 at 12:29 pm #

    My concern about Mr. Renn’s comments are that they are not Providence centered.

    It seems to me that we must focus not on getting to Boston but building the transportation systems supporting Providence; thus contributing to the economic growth of Providence.

    The strategy needs to be creating the funding sources that build RIPTA rail capacity that connect PVD with its airport and its largest suburbs (as far south as Warwick, north to Woonsocket, and east to New Bedford).

    Of course, the Providence Connector streetcar system is a top priority so as to assist in the development of the “Link” parcels.

  46. Steve January 6, 2014 at 2:37 pm #

    Fact Check:
    -Providence Metro is New England’s second largest metro
    -Providence is New England’s 2nd largest city (and growing)
    -Providence is the 132th largest city in the nation
    -Providence Metro is New England’s second largest (by far)
    -Providence Metro is the 10th most densely populated in the nation
    -TF Green Airport train station is not designed for cummuters, it is to get airline passengers to Provdience Satiton (and points north), as it is a Providence airport.

    All of this seems to me that the state plan should be Providence centric…the “all roads lead to Rome” concept.

  47. Concentrist August 13, 2014 at 9:06 pm #

    I work in the Boston Financial District and live in the boring Boston suburbs. I absolutely love Providence and its easy access to the ocean and abundance of quality golf courses. If only Amtrak ran a 35-40 minute morning train from Providence to South Station! I definitely would buy in Downtown/College Hill and would be proud to call Providence home. Providence is vibrant city that has much to offer, but, the 55-65 minute morning commute is a show-stopper.

  48. Ken August 13, 2014 at 9:30 pm #

    Concentrist,

    Amtrak runs just such a train. The trip is about 30 – 35 minutes from Providence to Back Bay or South Station (and also stops at Route 128). When I lived in Providence, this was my preferred commute (over the MBTA) due to time savings, comfort, and only slightly higher cost. (A monthly pass was about $ 30-40 per month over MBTA costs when I left Providence 4 years ago.)

    Check the Amtrak site for more details.

  49. Concentrist August 13, 2014 at 10:32 pm #

    Ken,

    Thanks for your response. Unfortunately, times have changed. The only morning train leaves Providence at 6:58am and typically arrives at South Station around 7:55am. I know because a colleagues actually does the Providence to South Station commute and my MBTA train pulls in a few tracks over at approximately the same time. I watched it closely when I was considering Providence. I even had a place picked out to buy. The morning commute time killed it for me.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Urbanophile » Blog Archive » A Better Commuter Rail Expansion Plan for Providence - April 24, 2013

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  2. The Saturday Morning Post: Quick hits on politics & more in RI | WPRI.com Blogs - April 27, 2013

    [...] Aaron Renn has a great piece over at Greater City: Providence bemoaning Rhode Island’s decision to spend $100 million extending commuter rail service to [...]

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