Jarred Johnson

On any given weekday in Greater Boston, one can find tens of thousands of people traveling slowly and expensively into Boston. Many sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic on interstates, costing each driver over $2,600 per year on average; others must take uncomfortable bus trips that take 45 minutes or more in similar traffic on local roads, only to have to switch to the subway.  

Thousands of them could have faster, more comfortable trips by commuter rail. Many of them have relocated to cities and towns along these lines, in fact, thanks to cheaper suburban housing costs. But the commuter rail system of today fails to serve all these commuters by being infrequent and too expensive. And like the rest of the MBTA, it’s fallen into severe disrepair, with delays on a regular basis. 

Massachusetts is growing, and despite more remote working, we face growing traffic congestion, and growing carbon and particulate matter emissions. Before the pandemic, traffic congestion cost the region’s economy over $4 billion in lost productivity – and it’s only gotten worse.  

There is an alternative: tackling the commuter rail’s poor reliability by moving it into the 21st century and away from an unreliable, expensive diesel fleet that cost the MBTA $114 million to maintain as recently as 2019.  

More Reliable, More Frequent 

The key to better commuter rail is electrification. Reliability of trains is often measured by the mean distance between equipment failure on a car or locomotive. Electric multiple units, powered by overhead catenary, can go 10 times further than a diesel locomotive before a breakdown because they have so few moving parts. As the Ashmont-Mattapan High Speed Line and numerous other heritage streetcars around the world demonstrate – New Orleans continues to operate a car from 1894 – electric trains have unmatched reliability.  The least reliable modern electric trains are five times more reliable than the most reliable diesel trains. Electrification and modern electric trains would also make service faster, cutting the end-to-end trip on some lines by as much as 50 percent, even with new stations.   

This enables the transformation proposed in TransitMatters’ Regional Rail for Metropolitan Boston report: one in which trains run every 15 to 30 minutes all day, every day, in a reliable, environmentally friendly, and affordable manner. Such a transformation would provide several benefits: faster access to the entrepreneurial activity and housing growth in Gateway Cities; faster transit for inner core communities poorly served by the subway; and better service for midday trips, of value to many shift workers and 9-to-5 commuters alike. Even people who do not commute still need to get to school, social events, banks and other destinations. Without non-car options, these destinations will be a source of congestion and pollution. 

Electrified regional rail is key to reducing congestion and emissions. Electric power gets greener as the grid does; the improved speed and reliability would also provide a viable alternative for drivers, helping to reduce single-occupant vehicle trips. Electrification with overhead catenary avoids the pitfalls of battery-powered trains. Like laptop or cell phone batteries, the lithium-ion types used in electric vehicles will retain less charge over time, requiring the batteries to be recycled and replacements purchased.  

Work Can Start Today 

Electrifying the system will take time, but implementing Regional Rail can start today. The MBTA took a strong step by providing somewhat more frequent, all-day service in 2021, and can go further by lowering fares, making commuter rail an option for essential workers, students, and older adults.  

But truly realizing the vision of reliable, fast and frequent service requires investment. We need specific commitments to funding and implementing service increases, capital planning for best practice electrification and accessibility and proven, talented professionals who can manage such a large undertaking. The federal appropriations for infrastructure projects won’t last forever.  

Far from a reason to abandon this vision, the MBTA’s state of good repair crisis makes transforming the unreliable, expensive commuter rail system all the more urgent. Even if the absolute cost goes up with Regional Rail reforms, electrification and frequency improvements mean that capital and operating dollars will go further, towards a system that keeps Boston competitive, and not be squandered on patchwork improvements that will at best only serve the commonwealth for a few years.  

Gov. Maura Healey was exactly right when she said in her campaign platform that the current commuter rail system is “squandering an opportunity to build a stronger and more inclusive state economy.”  Its operating model is a vestige of a time long past, and everyone in the commonwealth suffers as a result. It fails the Gateway Cities who could be part of Boston’s prosperity, and it fails Boston, which is seeing that prosperity choked away by inadequate transportation.  

Efforts to build transit-oriented development will come to naught if there’s no transit. Greenhouse gas emissions from transportation will not fall if we can’t help people get out of their cars. Yes, transforming the commuter rail into regional rail will be a large and expensive undertaking, but the cost of doing nothing is all those people crowded on buses, stuck on the Tobin Bridge at rush hour while a half-empty commuter train rumbles out to Chelsea below.  

Jarred Johnson is executive director of TransitMatters.

How Electrified Regional Rail Can Transform Massachusetts

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 3 min