MBTA: East West Study Outreach Generates Outrage

MBTA Outreach Presentation Sparks Pushback on Low Ridership and High Cost Projections.

Commentaries on the MBTA’s handling of the East West Passenger Rail project.

10.June, Boston MA – Following the release of an insiders’ presentation, numerous advocates and interestd individuals have bombarded MBTA with incredulous looks at its calculation of dismal ridership numbers and exorbitant construction costs.


Christopher Parker analyzes the background of the prospective East West Passenger Rail project:

Western Massachusetts has felt little benefit from the red-hot Boston economy. Expanding Springfield — Boston rail service appears a logical way to mitigate the diparity: link underemployed communities to economic opportunity, open up affordable housing options for professionals priced out of the Boston market, and provide an asset to spark locally grown economic growth for Western Massachusetts.

The state has been aware of the urge to expand public transportation westward, but a poor relationship with CSX has been considered an insurmountable obstacle. CSX has made it clear it does not want MBTA trains on its freight mainline west of Worcester. In recent times, CSX ran 4 intermodal and 5 merchandise trains each way; that frequency has been considerably reduced by precision scheduled railroading (PSR).

Existing Conditions

The circa 1830s Boston & Albany route is “tough railroading,” according to an experienced railroad man, and not fit for high speed. Top historical speed was 70mph; it is 60 mph today. Historically, passenger trains took four hours between Albany and Boston. Now, Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited 448/449 takes six hours to meander through Wellesley, Natick, and Framingham, up the Worcester Hills to Brookfield, and over the Berkshires to Pittsfield.

Studies

Intercity travel markets were estimated in 1995 by the American Travel Survey which found significant travel between Albany and Boston, Hartford and Boston and New York and Worcester, but relatively less Springfield — Boston travel.

The 2016 Northern New England Intercity Rail Initiative (NNEIRI) regional service conceptual planning study included the route relative to a New York to Montreal route. The study projected that eight daily round trips between Connecticut, Springfield and Boston would generate 107,200 riders from western to eastern Massachusetts; establishing Springfield — Boston service would cost $273-309 million, primarily to double-track Springfield — Worcester, and make capacity improvements at Worcester Union Station.

The state’s study

In 2018, MBTA commissioned the $1 million dollar East West Passenger Rail study to evaluate six alternatives for improved Pittsfield — Boston service, ranging from a new high speed end-to-end line, to a hybrid route with connecting Springfield — Pittsfield bus service.

In February of this year, the study authors released ridership projections that are much lower than those anticipated by multiple advocate organizations. The study’s projections yield an exorbitant cost-benefit ratio that makes the project untenable. Advocates protested: former Commonwealth Transporation Secretary Jim Aloisi tweeted, “The East West Rail report contains such questionable modeling that it’s being viewed as wholly unreliable & deliberately negative”.

The study team returned last week with higher revised numbers, primarily the result of extending their estimated 20-mile radius of ridership for each station to include the City of Northampton and U-Mass Amherst, two obvious wells of ridership that had been counted out on the first pass. Estimates of induced ridership were also changed. Those changes multiplied the ridership projections to more realistic levels.

Advocates also question the study’s cost estimates, which are dramatically higher than the NNEIRI study and other independent estimates. Much of the expanded estimated cost increase reflects acceptance of CSX’s expected demand that any higher speed tracks be built much further from the existing line than the original second track was, promulgating property acquisition, earthmoving, wetlands mitigation, and new bridges. The study makes no suggestion of challenging the CSX demand, despite there being numerous current, valid precedents of similar projects utilizing standard 14-16 ft wide ROWs.


Joshua Coran analyzes the veracity of the Study’s evidence:

The Massachusetts East West Passenger Rail Study: Analysis of Proposed Infrastructure Costs

By Joshua Coran

Rail Users’ Network, and Director of Product Development and Compliance, Talgo, Inc.

Infrastructure

The fundamental problem [with the MBTA East-West concept] is that the existing infrastructure dates from 1831 – 1833. At that time “high speed rail” meant 15 mph. The presentation on 06.February identified nine “key constraints” as follows.

  1. Complex at-grade crossings near Framingham

There are only four road crossings in Framingham on the Boston Subdivision main line. Six CSX freight trains and 54 MBTA passenger trains cross two of them every week day; 42 trains of them also use the latter pair. They are protected with flashers and gates. It is unlikely that the twelve or fourteen additional trains proposed will be sufficient to trigger the need for additional protection.

  1. Capacity Constraints Worcester to Springfield

This issue will be the most difficult. CSX is an enthusiastic participant in “precision scheduled railroading,” [meaning that the schedule of] a very long, slow and heavy freight train [will impact MBTA’s schedule]. [It] is not clear why this constraint is limited to east of Springfield. In the case of Alternative Three, CSX will certainly insist on capacity improvements on the Springfield – Pittsfield segment as well. [Replacing] the 47 miles of second main track that Conrail removed will increase capacity more than enough to compensate for that consumed by the proposed passenger trains. Eight additional universal crossovers (and related signals) will be required. Quandel Consultants, a small but long standing and well respected firm, has provided estimates for this work (including upgrading to 90mph) of $191.8 million

  1. Heavy passenger and freight use poses capacity constraints to new services

The graphic presenting this constraint pointed to the segment east of Worcester. There is little freight in this stretch (and none at all east of Framingham). West of Framingham there is always at least 25 minutes between MBTA passenger trains, even during peak hours; the existing infrastructure could easily handle twice the service plus any freight now on the rails or anticipated. East of Framingham one time each weekday two MBTA trains are only ten minutes apart, and another pair are twelve minutes apart, but the average headway during the peak is more than 18 minutes, again allowing for a doubling of the service with the existing infrastructure. [There] is a proposal to add (back) 10 miles of third main track east of Framingham, further increasing capacity. Quandel’s numbers show [this project’s] cost to be $29.6 million. Allowing $1 million for each of the three station platforms that will have to be relocated brings the total to $32.6 million. As this railroad was once four tracks wide, it is no surprise that all four railroad bridges over roadways and all thirteen road bridges over the railroad can accommodate this additional track. I am adding $35.3 million to upgrade it to Class 5 (90mph), bringing the total cost here to $67.9 million

  1. Large number of private at grade crossings between Springfield and Pittsfield

[There] are twelve; [at] $408,000 per crossing, the cost of protecting all twelve comes to less than $4.9 million.

”Significant grade and ROW constraints between Springfield and Pittsfield”, and “Steeper vertical grades and greater curvature reduce operating speeds through Leicester[sic]”

The negative effects of gradient can be mitigated by means of modern light weight equipment and high power locomotives. The lower power requirement of the very light Talgo sets currently in use on the Amtrak Cascades (Eugene Oregon – Vancouver, BC) corridor is currently saving time by enabling faster acceleration [and substantially reducing fuel costs, and GHG emissions]. On the ascending mountain grades of the MBTA route, [Talgo equipment] will result in significantly higher train speeds with no civil work needed.

  1. Greater curvature affects rail speeds at several locations between Worcester and Springfield, […] and at several locations between Boston and Worcester.” 

This problem can also be mitigated by equipment designed for that purpose. The Talgo sets in use in the Pacific Northwest have a suspension geometry that tilts the cars towards the low (inside) rail in a curve, reducing the lateral force experienced by passengers (and coffee cups, etc.). Conventional equipment will tilt in the opposite direction, magnifying that force. In addition, a low center of gravity allows Talgo equipment to operate safely through curves at higher speeds than can conventional cars. Because this 1830s vintage railroad alignment is highly curved this feature is very helpful and will eliminate the immediate need for expensive realignment of the railroad.

  1. Long term capacity constraints at South Station

This service will require occasional use of one station track in Boston. The capacity issue at South Station already exists [though only during rush hour], and any solution can provide sufficient space for the new service at negligible incremental cost.

  1. Rolling Stock

The necessary locomotives, passenger cars and maintenance facility were not specifically addressed at the February 6 meeting. The estimates presented there for each alternative did have a line for “vehicles + supporting facilities”. At $192.4 million for Alternative 2 and $206.7 million for Alternative 3, the numbers appear a bit low. I have estimated $87 million for a maintenance facility and $27 million for each train consist. Thus for Alternative 2, which requires three consists, the total is $168 million. I added an allowance for contingency and program management, bringing the total to $206.7 million, 7.4% above the consultant’s figure. Alternative 3 requires five consists making the total $273.0 million, 32% above what was presented at the February meeting.

  1. Total Capital

Adding it all up, the cost of Alternative 2 is $385.0 million, 18% of that projected by consultants. Alternative 3 will cost $537.6 million, less than 17% of the projection.

  1. Benefits

Under this low budget approach one might assume benefits would be significantly less than those produced by spending nearly $2 billion more (for Alternate 2) or in excess of $2.5 billion more (Alternate 3). To see what just a half billion would buy I ran a simulation of the proposed consist, a ten unit Talgo pulled by a Siemens Charger chosen to approximate the capacity and features of a Down Easter. The results are shown in this table – The talgo train with low-budget second track upgrade of the existing line is shown on the first line with the consultant’s proposed alternatives below:

Predicted Schedule Times (minutes)

Thus this proposal should save not only billions of dollars, but also nearly a half hour to (or from) Springfield compared to Alternative 2 and more than 20 minutes to Pittsfield compared to the even more expensive Alternative 3.

This remarkable result might produce some skepticism; however, the Talgo times are quite achievable. The simulation that generated these results included many conservative assumptions, some of which were:

Maximum speed is 80 mph (on track built and maintained for 90).

Schedule padding is included to reduce overall average speed by more than 5 mph.

The Siemens specified power is assumed to be at the main generator, with 85% available at the rail. Train resistance is given by the Davis equation, which is known to be conservative. Intermediate stops are made at Chester, Palmer, Worcester, Framingham and Back Bay.

Passenger load is always 100%. (Over 23 tons of “live” load)

Speed is reduced 264 ft. prior to all restrictions (due to PTC inefficiencies, which should ultimately be resolved)

Before power is applied to begin increasing speed out of any restriction, the rear of the train is 236 feet clear.

Average braking rate on level track is less than 2.2 mph/sec. (compared to the 3 mph/sec. normally achievable).

Where a grade change is unfavorable, its effect is immediate (as soon as the front of the train reaches it, the simulation assumes the entire train is on the new grade). If it is favorable no advantage is taken until nearly the entire train (all but the last 28 ft.) is on it.

Super-elevation (banking in curves) is limited to 5” on the passenger-only MBTA-owned track east of Framingham and to 4” (current practice) west of that point. (Six inches has long been the accepted maximum.)

Super-elevation of the numerous reverse curves is limited to an additional 0.5” above the current figure.

Cant deficiency is limited to 5” (compared to the 7.2” for which the Talgo equipment is designed).

Summary

We propose using available technology and modestly improved existing infrastructure to produce a better result (higher average speeds) at a much lower capital cost than that proposed by the consultants.

All that is needed is to:

  • Restore the second main track and, for ten miles east of Framingham, one more track,
  • Upgrade all track to FRA Class to 5 (90 mph),
  • Increase super-elevation to 4 inches where needed (5 inches east of Framingham),
  • Improve a few road crossings and
  • Use tilting train sets with Siemens locomotives.

Excerpts reprinted with permission from the Rail Users’ Network and RUN Newsletter – Summer 2020 issue. If you enjoyed this article, and would like to see others, please consider becoming a member of the Rail Users’ Network, at  railusers.net .