ANALYSIS: Is MBTA Electrification Worth It?

MBTA FMCB Launches Electrification of Providence, Stoughton, and Fairmont Lines. Connection to NEC Seen as Improving Potential for Project's Success.

04 November, Boston MA – The MBTA Fiscal Management & Control Board unanimously voted November 4th to support commuter rail electrification, beginning with Providence, Stoughton and Fairmont that connect to the already electrified northeast corridor as well as to Lynn.

Sticker shock has begun. “Why are we spending so much money?” grumble observers, egged on, predictably, by the Boston Herald and Pioneer Institute.

Actually, electrification has a pretty good business case. The financial case is even better considering environmental benefits. Electrification represents just a fraction of a total $10 billion of improvements being contemplated for T commuter rail. Most of that money will generate a better customer experience – renewal of the fleet (necessary no matter what kind of service is offered), and new high-level station platforms.

Beginning with the route to Providence makes sense since wires are already on the mainline used by Amtrak trains. The T would need only electric rolling stock and wires over some sidings and tracks in South Station before it reaps the financial rewards of electrification.

Greater Boston area

The MBTA Fiscal & Management Review Board has thrown its weight behind electrification of the Providence, Stoughton and Fairmont commuter rail lines {ANRP}.

Lower Operating Costs

Without the costs of fuel and maintaining diesel engines, electrification has traditionally saved money over the long run. In Europe, where government shouldered the risk and paid the cost of capital for state run railroads, electrification spread to cover virtually all significant commuter and mainlines. American railroads, held to an investment timeline of Wall Street, have not been able to justify the higher up front costs.

Since electrification is a significant fixed asset, a high volume of trains is needed before it pays off – 20 trains a day in each direction, according to Japan Railways.

Faster Trains

Anyone with a Tesla knows how much faster acceleration is with an electric motor. On a service with many stops such as commuter rail, this can mean a savings of a minute per stop, which adds up to significantly shorter total trips – think 15 or 20 minutes per train. It’s like having an express train without a separate train.

Faster trains are more attractive trains. More people will ride commuter rail. Ticket revenue will increase. More significantly, faster trains can be ready for the next run more quickly, meaning less trains are needed in total. This is a big savings: trains you don’t need to buy, depreciation not present and less maintenance costs (even through train miles don’t decline, having less pieces of equipment lowers maintenance costs. Significantly, as it turns out.)

Lower Emissions

Much of the impulse to electrify comes from the environmental benefits of electrification. But doesn’t electrification just mean moving emissions to a different place? No. Because diesel engines transfer only about 30% of their energy to the wheels, while electric engines position 95% of the energy at the wheel. A significant benefit from electric traction power is the ability to capture the energy created during braking. The greater efficiency of the electric power means less total emissions.

Support for the T’s Long-Term Goals

Electrification supports the vision of frequent service fully exploiting our existing commuter rail infrastructure. Improved regional rail has an economic benefit. Employers get a larger pool of potential employees. Workers get access to more jobs. Better train service sparks development, a tangible measure of economic value. Being 15 minutes closer to Boston is of real significance for gateway cities like Lynn, Lawrence, Lowell, Fitchburg, Worcester, Brockton. Electrification is a key attribute of subway-like service. Lower costs make it easier to increase the number of trains, which spreads the cost further, making it less per train and per rider. Only electrification lowers emissions from more frequent service.

There are solid reasons to support electrification, but to address the critics, it is apparent that electrification makes financial sense. While the financial case for electrification is reasonable, it is the financial results of lower emissions that really make it a no-brainer investment for Massachusetts. Lower emissions don’t just make us feel good. They translate to measurable public health benefits that save the state significant money. As a society we are also paying the price from climate change. This too should be part of the financial calculation. The state will benefit. Electrification is worth it.

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Associate Editor; Consultant for Rail Planning & Development
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Christopher has 15 years of railroad experience, starting as a Conductor on Cape Cod and 15 years of public policy advocacy and outreach work. Christopher is Executive Director of Vermont Rail Action Network, communicating the vision of better trains to elected and government officials, community leaders and the public. Christopher is a consultant for freight and passenger planning and development projects including operating planning, federal grant applications, marketing, and public outreach.