Runner Up: Bringing the Providence Line Into the 21st Century


by Ari Ofsevit


Providence is only 40 miles from Boston, but at rush hour, driving between the cities can take up to two hours, and the rail line between them hosts outdated commuter trains that are slow at peak hours and infrequent the rest of the day. First opened in the 1830s, the railroad has been upgraded over the years: in the mid-20th century to remove roadway grade crossings, and in the 1990s when Amtrak upgraded the tracks and electrified the line to make it a high-speed corridor. Nearly two centuries after it opened, the Boston-to-Providence line is still in heavy use, Amtrak running fast, reliable, electrified service, with trains from Westwood to Providence averaging 102 mph, start-to-stop. Yet the MBTA, which owns the railroad itself, does little to take advantage of operating in the fastest corridor in the country. Its diesel trains are not only less reliable and more polluting than electrified trains, but considerably slower: some average only about 40 miles per hour over the same distance, and when they do reach their top speed, it’s only 75 mph. Passengers board and alight via narrow, steep stairs, leading to long waits— called “dwell times”— and safety requires that each door be staffed by a conductor, resulting in an inefficient use of both equipment and people, and a failure to attract as many passengers as would otherwise ride transit if the trains were faster. 

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The Caltrain line between San Jose and San Francisco is approximately the same distance as between Boston and Providence. It, too, has been operated in about the same manner for more than 150 years. Yet with growing congestion on parallel highways and increasing ridership, Caltrain made a decision to electrify the railroad, and buy newer, faster, more-efficient rolling stock. And they’re doing it from scratch. Every catenary pole and electrical feed has to be installed and tested and every track at the terminal station needs electrification. Between Boston and Providence, the infrastructure is already built. It’s just not fully used. In addition to local-source pollution, diesel trains are limited in their acceleration and do not have top speeds as high as electric trains. Carrying a power plant on board, diesels are also significantly more prone to mechanical issues. In fact, the MBTA’s diesel fleet breaks down between 10 and 50 times as often as electric commuter trains in other American cities1 . Greater acceleration at low speeds and higher top speeds mean that an electric train cannot only go faster than a diesel, but it can attain that top speed more quickly. If a diesel and an electric train pulled out of Route 128 at the same time, the diesel would arrive at Sharon in seven minutes, but the electric train in five. At many stations, low-level platforms are still in use, as they have been since 1835. Every passenger getting on or off has to use a narrow, steep staircase to board or alight, which is much slower than stepping off onto a platform. The doors are operated manually, and regulations require that each pair of doors be attended by a crew member; so conductors keep half the doors shut even when hundreds of people wait to board. Combining electrification and level boarding would cut 15 to 20 minutes off the trip to Providence. 

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Nearly all the physical infrastructure is in place. The right-of-way was built in the 1800s, roadway crossings removed in the 1900s (today it is the only MBTA Commuter Rail line with no grade crossings), the tracks upgraded for high speeds in the 1990s, and the electrification built around the same time. Only some minor modifications would be required. The largest cost would be building new stations. Providence, Route 128, Back Bay and South Station already have level-boarding platforms that allow passengers to get on and off trains as if they were subways. The rest of the stations on the line, however, would need these platforms. These stations already have ramps to provide “vertical circulation” to keep passengers from crossing the high-speed tracks at grade; so the main cost would come from building the new platforms.2 In addition to improving travel times, this would create a fully-accessible service for passengers with mobility needs. New rolling stock would be required as well. The MBTA’s fleet is relatively old, and some cars are downright ancient, dating to the 1970s. It’s as if 15,000 commuters rely on a Dodge Dart to get to work every day. New trains acquired for operation on the Providence Line would allow its current equipment to move to the rest of the system or, for the oldest railcars and locomotives, be removed from the system altogether. Since the MBTA will need to acquire new equipment anyway, the net capital cost is at worst negligible and the long-term operating costs are quite favorable. 


When Caltrain wanted to electrify its main line, it used $650 million in Federal Transit Authority money known as Core Capacity funding, reserved for existing fixed guideway systems in corridors that are at or over capacity and where the project in question will increase capacity by at least 10%. This pot of money is only applicable to about half a dozen cities in the country. Since a portion of federal funds have been carved out for these sorts of projects—and the Bay Area has already applied this funding to a very similar corridor— there is no reason to believe the Providence Line would not be eligible. 


While the trains in use on the Providence line today are comparatively slow, they still provide a faster trip than driving. Given current ridership, commuters would save a total of approximately 6000 hours of travel time per day—more than half an hour per commuter. If passengers value their travel time at $15 per hour, this yields a net benefit of $22.5 million per year, a benefit that would only increase as more commuters ditch their cars for a faster train. As faster trains will draw more people out of their cars, service, as necessitated by demand, may need to be provided more frequently during both peak and off-peak hours. Will this cost more? Not necessarily. Faster service times allow the same number of staff and vehicles to provide more service, and will attract more passengers, resulting in increased fare revenue. Today, the first train leaves Providence at 5:00 a.m. and arrives at South Station at 6:10. It turns around and heads back to Providence at 6:25, arriving there at 7:35, and leaving again at 7:50 to arrive back in Boston at 9:00. The “cycle time” from when it leaves a terminal to when it makes its second trip, is nearly three hours. Thus, this single train provides two rush hour trips in the peak direction. But the next train at 5:30 completes only one; its second trip wouldn’t arrive in Boston until 9:30. So to provide eight trips to Boston during rush hour—approximately one every 30 minutes—current service requires seven trains, most of which then sit idle in Boston until the evening rush hour. Now, imagine a train that makes the same trip in 45 minutes. This train would leave Providence at 5:00, arrive in Boston at 5:45, return to Providence by 6:45 and be ready for its next trip at 7:00. The next train, starting at 5:30, would be able to complete the 7:30 trip, and so forth. By 9:00, the same number of trips—one every half-hour—could be run with only four trains. Finally, allowing passengers to board trains at high-level platforms would improve the efficiency of Commuter Rail staff. Today, a Red Line train with 1000 passengers requires one staff person. A Commuter Rail train with the same number of passengers requires five. When the Red Line train stops at Broadway or Harvard, it takes less than a minute for 400 passengers to board: 24 doors open, each door accommodating only 16 passengers with a step-free entry to the train. Yet a similar number of people boarding a Commuter Rail train requires four staff (plus the engineer), boarding through eight narrow doors. The dwell time at the busiest Providence Line stations is four minutes, when those for a train with all its doors open and a level platform would be only one. With off-board fare payment, a single conductor and single engineer could operate a Commuter Rail train. Today, it takes five staff 75 minutes—6.25 person hours—to operate a train from Providence to Boston. Given the changes described herein, it would take just two staff 45 minutes to make the same trip—1.5 person hours, a decrease of 76% in person hours per trip. 



  1. regional-rail-doc# 
  2. Mansfield is a special case: it sits on the STRACNET military route which links Joint Base Cape Cod to the national rail network and would require significant changes to build new switches and bypass tracks to allow freight movements to pass a passenger track. Still, compared to the cost of building a high speed rail line, these costs are orders of magnitude less, and the benefits, in terms of passenger time savings, decreased highway congestion, and reduced operation costs, would pay dividends on the investment.

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