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.