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As we're all aware, a new schedule went into effect on 5/22/2017. This schedule is the result of the work of the Worcester Line Working Group and incorporates the concept I proposed in my change.org petition back in August of 2016. This post will explore a number of topics related to this new schedule:
1) Worcester Line Working Group (recap)
2) Why are all AM trains late on this new schedule?
3) Results of the public comment process
1) Worcester Line Working Group (and how we got a new schedule)
First of all, it's important to remember that the schedule changes are only made twice a year: in May and November. This is because every time the schedule changes, the entire crew rotations for all lines need to be changed - which takes time and effort. I believe that there are contractual obligations for the crews to have a six month duration for their assignments, also. Most crewmembers do not stay on one line throughout their workday, so it's really only possible to change all the schedules for all the lines at the same time. There have been minor schedule changes published in other months, primarily to accommodate construction or to correct problems with published schedules.
With that in mind, here's a recap timeline of how we got to the new 5/22/2017 schedule:
October 2015: Lt. Governor Karyn Polito announces a new once daily roundtrip non-stop Worcester to/from Boston "bullet" train. It was soon renamed the "Heart to Hub." By the time this new concept was announced in October, it was too late to implement it in November 2015 - the schedule was already set and crew assignments were well underway.
January 2016: The MBTA publishes a draft schedule to be implemented in May 2016 that incorporates the new Heart to Hub service.
February 2016: Public hearings are held and a public comment period is implemented to gather feedback regarding the new draft schedule.
May 2016: The new schedule is implemented that incorporates the Heart to Hub train (along with some other (not minor) changes).
June 2016: Minor tweaks are announced to the May 2016 schedule. These tweaks increase the duration of certain trains, in recognition that the May 2016 schedule was too aggressive and not consistently achievable.
August 2016: I publish a proposal to modify the morning schedule. I eventually gather about 600 signatures on a change.org petition to implement the proposal.
September 2016: With the volume of public interest in the Framingham-Worcester line schedule increasing, as well as upcoming infrastructure changes for the line (Boston Landing and the double track through Beacon Park), MBTA General Manager Brian Shortsleeve decides to keep the current May 2016 schedule (with the July tweaks) in place and not make changes in November 2016. At the same time, he invents and convenes the "Worcester Line Working Group."
September - December 2016: The Worcester Line Working Group meets approximately bi-weekly to discuss potential changes for the schedule. The Worcester Line Working Group eventually included: Lt. Governor Karyn Polito, Rep. Alice Peisch (D - Wellesley), Rep. Carolyn Dykema (D - Southboro, Westboro), Rep. James O'Day (D - Worcester), Stuart Loosemore (Worcester Chamber of Commerce), Jessica Strunkin (495/Metrowest Partnership), Brian Shortsleeve (MBTA General Manager), Jody Ray (MBTA Assistant General Manager in charge of Commuter Rail Railroad Operations), two Deputy Directors of MBTA Railroad Operations, David Scorey (Keolis CEO/GM), the Keolis Manager of Operations Planning, a general public member / commuter from Wellesley, and me.
December 2016: A draft schedule for May 2017 is published.
January - March 2017: Public hearings are held and a public comment period is implemented to gather feedback regarding the new draft schedule.
March 2017: The Worcester Line Working Group reconvenes to review the public comments and finalize the May 2017 schedule. See item #3 below.
May 2017: The new schedule is implemented. Whew!
2) Why are all AM trains late on this new schedule? (AKA: It's not my fault. Really!)
As almost everyone has noticed, the AM on-time performance has been less than stellar throughout May and June. In fact, almost every train is late in the morning. Believe it or not, it isn't yet possible to blame the new 5/22/2017 schedule.
As fate would have it, the last stretch of the line that needed tie replacement and railbed resurfacing was in one of the most critical stretches for us: from Wellesley to Southboro on track 2, which is the inbound track for the morning rush hour. This project started in April 2017 and should be fully completed as of Friday 6/23/2017 (although I'm not sure when or if they will complete the tie replacement directly within Framingham station, which appears to have stalled).
As described in this blog post, tie replacement and railbed resurfacing requires speed restrictions on the disturbed area. The MBTA has implemented policies and procedures to minimize the length of the speed restriction, but it can't be eliminated.
These speed restrictions are directly responsible for almost all of the morning delays we have experienced in May and June. Obviously there have been significant isolated events such as equipment failure, but I'm talking about the daily 5-15 minute delays that have been persistent.
One of the recent questions I have heard is that once the construction work and speed restrictions moved west of Framingham, why were local trains that originated in Framingham (and therefore didn't have to encounter the speed restrictions) affected?
The reason for this is that the AM schedule is now "maxed out" and a delay to any train can easily cascade to following trains. What do I mean by "maxed out?"
First of all, it's important to understand the basics of automatic block signals. That sounds technically complicated, and I describe it in detail in the glossary, but it's a simple concept.
The line is broken up into blocks, with a signal at each end of each block. Very generally, the concept is that only one train can occupy each block at a time. So let's imagine a train line with 4 blocks: A, B, C, and D:
Block A: occupied by a train
signal between block A and block B: Red, to indicate that a train in block B shouldn't enter block A
Block B: empty
signal between block B and block C: Yellow, to indicate that a train in block C should go slow through block B and be prepared to stop at the red signal between A & B.
Block C: empty
signal between blocks C and block D: Green, since blocks C and B are empty.
Block D: the next train
(This is highly simplified and just here to illustrate the concept. It gets a little more complicated in real life, but this suffices for the purposes of our discussions here. In other words, railfans and railroad employees, don't fill up the comments below with how a red automatic signal doesn't prevent a train from passing it, etc. etc.).
Now consider that on the AM inbound schedule, local trains depart just after the express trains pass through Framingham (it would be somewhat silly to put a local train in front of an express!). Using the block concept above, it is obvious that the local train can't be scheduled to leave immediately after the express train - otherwise it would be stuck at a red light until the express got to the next block and then the local would still have a yellow signal (and slow speed) until the express got 2 blocks ahead.
On the Framingham-Worcester line, the block length (and therefore signal spacing), speed limits, and other considerations associated with the automatic block signal system mean that ideal minimum time between trains is 8 minutes. This interval is the most crucial element for the AM schedule.
Take a look at the intervals between express and local trains at Framingham in the morning on the new 5/22/2017 schedule: there are intervals of 8-9 minutes for each pair of a local train following an express train. Therefore, it is critical that the express train gets through Framingham on time - otherwise, almost any delay to an express train will delay the local train behind it.
Why is the schedule built with the bare minimum spacing between local and express trains at Framingham? The answer is at Yawkey, where the expresses meet the locals at the other end of their express runs. Taking a look at the interval between expresses and locals at Yawkey reveals intervals of 10-12 minutes - close to that minimum 8 minutes for block spacing. The locals need to leave Framingham early enough so that they can get to Yawkey early enough to not delay the following express train.
This is how the schedule is "maxed out" from 5:15 AM to 9 AM. There isn't any room on the schedule to insert another train - the local trains are just barely squeaking between the express trains. The local trains depart Framingham at the minimum interval AFTER an express, and arrive at Yawkey close to the minimum interval BEFORE the next express.
The good news is that we now have every possible train we can get, given the current infrastructure. This means the frequency of trains is maximized. The bad news is that delays to any one train can quickly cascade to every other train following it, and that is exactly what has been happening with the recent tie replacement project.
With an express train encountering a 1-2 mile speed restriction in Southboro as a result of the tie replacement project, it becomes 5-10 minutes late. That's enough to delay the departure of the local train from Framingham, and then the local train is 'chasing the signals' of the express train until the express can get far enough ahead of the local train. For example, if the local train departs Framingham 5 minutes late due to the late express train, it might accumulate another 5-10 minutes of delays by the time it gets to Natick Center since it is operating at reduced speed due to the "less than clear" signals it is seeing.
All of this means that it is really too early to judge the new 5/22/2017 schedule, since the construction related speed restrictions are skewing the on-time performance.
Keolis intended to send "stone trains" last week to dump new ballast along the last stretches of the tie replacement project in Southboro. Once that ballast is tamped into place, the speed restrictions should be lifted after 24 hours.
There are or were a number of other issues that have resulted in speed restrictions and prevented us from seeing the true performance of the new schedule.
2A) Intervale Road bridge: In March 2017, during the routine quarterly inspection of all commuter rail lines, the geometry train discovered an issue at the Intervale Road overpass in Weston (between Route 128 and Wellesley Farms station). This resulted in a 30 mph speed restriction for every train passing over this bridge. Some work must have been completed at the bridge, but the speed restriction was not removed until the geometry train reinspected the line in early June 2017. The Intervale Road bridge will be replaced in the next year or so.
2B) CP 6 construction: "CP 6" is the new interlocking (set of switches) being constructed in Brighton alongside the Mass Pike near the original Staples store location (between Brooks Street and Parsons Street). This interlocking is being built to replace CP 4 which was removed & displaced by the Boston Landing station construction. At various times over the past few weeks, there has been a temporary stop sign for trains on track 2 (the AM inbound track) near this construction area. The stop sign has not existed every day, but when it is in place, trains typically stop there momentarily or proceed slow after receiving permission to go past the stop sign by the work foreman. The CP 6 construction is not scheduled to be completed until well into the Fall, so intermittent speed restrictions may plague us for a few months here.
2C) Heat kink near Worcester station: Early in June, a heat kink was found on the track leading into Worcester station (what's a heat kink? see the picture and explanation here). The kink was repaired without disrupting service to Worcester station, but the entire section of track needed to have ties replaced and railbed resurfacing done. This resulted in a 10 mph speed restriction for 1-2 miles of track immediately east of Worcester. Obviously this is devastating to all trains leaving Worcester, since the speed limit - even on the controlled siding leading to the station - is usually much faster than 10 mph. Keolis intended to complete the work in this area by Friday 6/23/2017.
2D) Speed Restriction near Boston Landing: In early June during the same inspection which cleared the Intervale Road speed restriction, the geometry train discovered a problem near Boston Landing, resulting in a temporary speed restriction there of 30 mph. Keolis has indicated that work will be executed to repair the problem and the speed restriction there should be removed by Friday 6/30/2017.
Hopefully once the majority of these speed restrictions are lifted in the very near future, the on-time performance of our line will improve dramatically. I'm ever the optimist...
2E) Dwell Times: However, it must be noted that some astute riders have noticed troubling delays that appear to unrelated to the speed restrictions described above. These observations are related to longer dwell times at certain stations, increasing any delay that a train might have already had. There have been various reasons observed or noted:
i) Reduced staffing on trains, resulting in fewer doors being opened. Fewer doors means increased dwell time while passengers climb through the limited doors that are open.
ii) Delayed opening of doors. Conductors not opening doors immediately when a train stops can result in delays while passengers wait for doors and traps to be opened.
iii) Not all doors being opened. This could be due to conductor behavior OR mechanical problems, but when only one door/trap instead of both doors/traps at a particular boarding point are opened, all the passengers are funneled through half the usual access points, potentially resulting in increased dwell time.
2F) West Natick Mini-High construction: Finally, the reconstruction of the mini-high platforms at West Natick has recently started, and riders have noticed a flagman at the station to protect the work crew. I don't have details on how long this project will take or if there will be speed restrictions or a temporary stop sign in this area. Even if they did implement something restricting the speed of trains at West Natick, it would probably not result in big delays since all trains (except the Heart To Hub) are stopping at West Natick anyway.
We'll have to keep an eye on these potential issues.
3) Results of the Public Comment period for the new schedule
As described above, a draft schedule was published in December 2016 and public comments were gathered through a combination of meetings, an on-line survey, and via phone and e-mail. In March 2017, the Worcester Line Working Group met to review those comments and finalize the schedule, which is how we arrived at the final schedule implemented on 5/22/2017.
Overall, 282 people completed the online survey, while 6 people submitted separate comments via e-mail or letters. A number of people commented at each meeting (I attended each one). The MBTA aggregated the responses and presented some statistics regarding the responses, but since it was a self-selected survey and not a scientifically valid poll of a randomly selected subset of the ridership, the statistics from the survey don't represent valid statistics for the ridership as a whole. At the Worcester Line Working Group meeting in March we all recognized that fact and used the statistics for what they were - a method to generalize the responses from the survey.
We discussed a number of topics during the March meeting and I'll explore the most relevant topics here:
3A) AM commute: Most of the survey responses indicated "more or similarly convenient" for the AM commute on the draft May 2017 schedule. There were some complaints about the minor changes in departure times for some trains. There were no recurring complaints or issues which motivated the Worcester Line Working Group to reconsider the draft AM schedule, so there were no changes to the station stop patterns on the draft AM schedule. Some minor tweaks were made to certain departure and arrival times after the full modeling process was completed, but no station stops were added or removed from the draft schedule published in December 2016.
3B) PM commute: The survey responses for the PM commute on the draft May 2017 schedule were split between "similar, less, and more convenient." There was a wide range of comments and reasons for this variation.
The draft May 2017 schedule combined what had been separate express and local trains (departing South Station at 3:30 PM and 3:40 PM respectively) into one full length (Boston to Worcester) local train. As previously explained (see item #8 here), there were a number of reasons for making this change. Approximately 40 comments / survey responses indicated dissatisfaction with this change. We discussed these comments at length at the March meeting and decided to stick with the plan to combine the two trains.
A number of responses commented on the lack of outbound service between 2 PM and 3:30 PM.
Additional responses indicated concern regarding the change in departure times for PM trains, primarily focused on the change of some trains to a 5 minute earlier departure time. Passengers expressed concern that they would not be able to leave work and get to the trains at the new departure times. However, these comments were not of a sufficient volume to prompt the Working Group to reconsider the overall PM schedule. We also discussed and recognized that people who would be pleased or neutral with the proposed time shift (which could allow people to get home earlier in time for day care pickup or other evening activities) might be less likely to submit comments (on the general theory that people are more apt to complain about negative issues).
3C) Boston Landing: The comments received and decisions made regarding the service schedule for Boston Landing are discussed in this blog post (see item #1).
3D) Heart To Hub: There were a wide variety of comments received on the Heart To Hub, and it occupied a considerable amount of the discussion at the March 2017 meeting of the Worcester Line Working Group. The most publicized comment was a letter from Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty. I responded to that letter in this blog post. The letter was discussed but it was recognized that there is no way to accommodate a "better" time for the Heart To Hub with the current infrastructure.
Twenty three comments about the Heart To Hub were received from riders who indicated they used other trains. These additional comments included requests to change the times (similar to Mayor Petty's letter), to NOT change the times, to add more stops, to NOT add more stops, and to eliminate it completely. None of the themes from these comments generated enough consistent ideas to lead to any particular idea being considered by the Working Group.
The draft schedule published in December 2016 proposed adding Ashland & Framingham to the PM outbound Heart To Hub (see item #9 here). Three comments (including the letter from Mayor Petty as a 'comment') were received in opposition to this idea and three comments were received in support of this idea. At the March 2017 Working Group meeting, this topic was discussed at length. We revisited the reason for adding Framingham and Ashland, which was an attempt to increase ridership on this train which has had very low ridership. Passenger counts indicate approximately 75 passengers use the PM Heart To Hub, and this number is not increasing - it has remained consistent since September 2016.
The Worcester Line Working Group agreed to remove Framingham and Ashland from the PM Heart To Hub with the expectation that there may be other ways to increase the ridership on this train, including targeted marketing efforts.
3E) Express trains: 38 people commented on the express trains. It is very easy to summarize those comments: everyone wants an express train that goes to/from their station without stopping anywhere east of their station. That comment was heard from passengers at every station from Ashland to Wellesley. I had a particularly interesting back-and-forth on this topic with a fellow commuter at the Natick public meeting. She was adamant that all express trains should stop at Natick Center, and she did not seem receptive to the idea that adding stops to express trains would a) increase overcrowding on them, or b) increase the trip duration for passengers west of Natick Center. My thoughts on where express and local service should start and end are summarized at item #10 here, and none of the comments I heard or read (during this public comment process or at any other time) have led me to reconsider my opinion that West Natick is the easternmost station that should get express train service. [The comments section below remains open for all you Natick Center passengers to make your best argument for express service!]
It is my hope and expectation that we'll keep the Worcester Line Working Group intact and use it as a forum to discuss future schedule and infrastructure changes.
"Soft Opening: An unannounced or lightly announced business opening, instead of or prior to a grand opening." (from Wiktionary)
The new parking lot on the north side of the Framingham Station is having a soft opening on Monday June 12, 2017. From the MWRTA:
The Grand Opening is scheduled for later this month. For now, we get access to a portion of the lot. Before we get to the details, let's get some definitions out of the way:
"Banana Lot" - the existing parking lot, north of the train station and north of the eastern side of the freight track wye leading to the CSX North Yard. It's called the "banana lot" because it is shaped like a banana alongside the freight track. Access to the Banana Lot is via a small unnamed side street off of Howard Street in downtown Framingham. Use "47 Howard Street" in your GPS to get you to the general area.
"Infield Lot" - my new name for the new parking lot on the "infield" or between the west and east legs of the wye leading to the CSX North Yard. This lot is directly north of the train station platforms. We'll see if we can make my new name stick. Access to the Infield Lot is from the Banana Lot via a new grade crossing across the freight track.
"Route 135 / South Lot" - the existing parking lot along the south side of the main line tracks, directly adjacent to REoute 135 / Waverly Street. No modifications are being made to this lot.
All of these lots are owned by the MBTA and managed by the MWRTA. They are all zone 4254 for payment by the PayByPhone app. For more details on parking apps, see item #5 here.
Details on the Monday 6/12/2017 Soft Opening:
1) As noted in the tweet above, parking in the Banana lot along the guardrail (south side of the Banana lot) will be prohibited. I'm not sure why, but I'm guessing they might be installing additional permanent fencing along that alignment.
2) Only the northernmost row of the new Infield parking lot will be available. This is highlighted in yellow on the figure above, and also shown by the arrangement of traffic cones in the photos below. The remainder of the parking spaces are unavailable because security cameras are being installed on the light poles. It appears there will be about 50 spaces available in the Infield lot, which should be adequate to replace the unavailable spaces along the guardrail in the Banana lot. (There are additional spaces available in the Pearl Street parking garage which don't usually fill up, if you can't find a space in either the Infield or Banana lots).
3) The existing pedestrian crossing across the freight track from the Banana lot to the main line track 1 platform will be closed permanently. To get from the Banana lot to the station, pedestrians will have to walk to the new automobile grade crossing across the freight track and use the new access point to the station.
4) A new pedestrian access walkway will be open for the new Infield lot near the elevator and pedestrian bridge. See figure above and photos below.
Click on any of the pictures below for a full size version.
Although this is pitched as a podcast primarily focused on Auburndale, I also get a chance to discuss broader issues on the Framingham-Worcester line such as the second track through Beacon Park and the Worcester Working Group. Give a listen!
"The Codcast: Auburndale whistleblowers"
Available on iTunes here
Regular scheduled passenger train service over the former Boston & Albany railroad returns to the Allston / Brighton neighborhood on Monday, May 22, 2017, for the first time in over 50 years. With a groundbreaking on May 12, 2015 and the "Grand Opening" on Wednesday May 17, 2017, the construction of the new "Boston Landing" station took almost exactly 2 years.
I'll focus this blog post on four different topics:
1. Service schedule for Boston Landing
2. Track arrangement
3. Grand Opening celebration (with pictures & video!)
4. Odds & ends...
As many of you are aware, the MBTA postponed making changes to the Framingham-Worcester schedule in November 2016 in order to embark on a more comprehensive process of implementing a new schedule. The addition of the Boston Landing station was a major factor in that approach. To recap, the process was:
September 2016: Worcester Working Group formed
December 2016: Draft Schedule for May 2017 published
January-March 2017: Public hearings & public comment period
March 2017: Worcester Working Group meeting to review comments and finalize schedule
I'll write a separate blog post to cover schedule changes dealing with stations other than Boston Landing.
1A. AM Schedule
1Ai. Inbound AM Schedule
As I noted in the December blog post about the new schedule, Boston Landing was added to only the local Framingham-originating trains. This actually allows everyone to get to Boston Landing relatively easily without adding more time to the duration of the express trains. For anyone west of Framingham wishing to go to Boston Landing, they can de-board in Framingham and transfer to the next inbound local train. Each Framingham-originating local departs Framingham only about 8 minutes after the express, so the transfer wait is not onerous. This transfer process actually allows reasonable service for anyone west of Framingham going to any of the stations between Natick Center & Boston Landing.
This transfer process was discussed at the Worcester Working Group, and it was certainly my understanding that there would be no fare penalty for making this transfer. For example, a passenger travelling to Boston Landing from Ashland should only have to pay the zone 6 one-way fare ($10.00) rather than a 2 zone interzone fare ($3.25) plus a zone 5 one-way fare ($9.25). I have not followed up to find out if there has been any official policy change or procedure implemented for train crews to be able to implement the transfer process. This is only an issue for someone buying a single ticket, since monthly passes allow unlimited usage (and therefore unlimited transfers).
The only exception to the 'only Framingham-originating trains stop at Boston Landing' rule is P510. This is because the Heart to Hub train prevents a Framingham originating local train from leaving right after P510 comes through Framingham. Passengers on P510 originating west of Framingham would face a 40 minute wait at Framingham to transfer to P590 to get to Boston Landing if P510 didn't stop at Boston Landing.
There were very few comments received during the public comment process regarding the inbound AM service. Some express train passengers NOT going to Boston Landing did like the idea of not adding the Boston Landing stop to the express trains (since it would increase the overall duration of those trips). Since the publication of the final schedule in late April, I have heard some comments from passengers intending to get to Boston Landing from west of Framingham and those comments have been critical of the need to make the transfer in Framingham.
1Aii. Outbound AM Schedule ("reverse" commute)
A number of comments were received during the public comment period from passengers intending to travel from downtown Boston (or connecting transit services) to Boston Landing. Four trains make stops at Boston Landing to accommodate these passengers. However, a number of comments noted the long gap between P589 (arriving at Bostong Landing at 7:45 AM) and P509 (arriving at Boston Landing at 9:06 AM). This gap is the result of the 'end' of peak inbound service from the suburbs - the P589 equipment turns at Framingham to become the last inbound peak train, P590. P509 goes to Worcester as essentially the first 'mid-day' train.
1B. PM Schedule
1Bi. PM Outbound Schedule
As with the morning commute, only local Framingham terminating trains will stop at Boston Landing. This does present a minor problem for Boston Landing passengers bound for destinations west of Framingham, since the express-local sequence at Framingham is not conducive to a transfer there (transfer times of ~20 minutes). There are a number of solutions for this issue:
1Bi.a) Boston Landing passengers can get to P521: P521, the 5 PM South Station express to Worcester, is the most popular evening train. Although it doesn't stop at Boston Landing, those passengers can take INBOUND P520 from Boston Landing at 5:04 PM and get off at Yawkey at 5:09 PM. They can then board outbound P521 at Yawkey at 5:11 PM.
1Bi.b) Boston Landing added to P525: A stop at Boston Landing has been added to P525 since there is no corresponding inbound-outbound trick for Boston Landing passengers to access P525.
1Bi.c) Use bus 57 to access outbound trains at Yawkey: The other option to access either P519, P521, or P523 is to use the inbound 57 bus along Brighton Ave and Comm Ave to Kenmore and then walk over the MassPike to the Yawkey Commuter Rail station. The 57 bus operates about every 5 min around the time of those trains.
1Bii. PM Inbound Schedule ("reverse" commute)
During the public comment period, a number of comments were received from passengers intending to travel from Boston Landing back into downtown Boston during the evening commute. All seven trains passing Boston Landing inbound from 3:00 PM to 8:00 PM will stop at Boston Landing to accomodate these passengers. However, there is a large gap between P518 (departing Boston Landing at 3:07 PM) and P520 (departing Boston Landing at 5:04 PM). Most of the comments submitted noted this large gap. This gap is due to the gap in outbound midday service from P513 (departing South Station at 11:55 AM) and P515 (departing South Station at 2:00 PM). These trains turn at Worcester to become P518 and P520). With no other equipment west of Boston during those times, it is impossible to generate inbound service between those sets of equipment. Adding an outbound train departing South Station at 1:00 PM would generate a return inbound trip that would stop at Boston Landing at around 4:05 PM - cutting the two hour gap to one hour between trains. Something that we may want to advocate for in the future.
1C. Midday and Evening ("Off-Peak") Service
This initial schedule for Boston Landing service focuses on 'typical' 9-5 (approximately) workers at Boston Landing - arriving at Boston Landing from the west or the east. There are a number of inbound and outbound trains that skip Boston Landing in the middle of the day, and no service inbound or outbound for Boston Landing after 8:01 PM.
Although I advocated for adding Boston Landing to all of those trains, only ONE other person submitted a comment during the public comment period advocating for this expanded service. I was amazed and was expecting an outpouring of comments from the Allston-Brighton community requesting more service - especially for evening service to and from downtown Boston. Faced with a lack of public demand for more service than what was shown on the draft schedule in December, the Worcester Working Group agreed to keep the service level at what was published on the draft schedule. We all agreed that this can be revisited and service added to the next schedule revision (November 2017) if there is a public demand for more service.
I'm definitely interested in hearing about your experience if you're a new Boston Landing commuter! Leave some comments below.
2. Track Arrangement
One of the biggest benefits that will affect ALL riders of the Framingham-Worcester line is the replacement of the 50+ year single track section between Yawkey and the location of Boston Landing station with a double track main line. This will improve the reliability, resiliency, and schedule flexibility for ALL train trips.
In early December 2015, the track arrangement near the (then future) location of Boston Landing station was reconfigured for the first time since the 1960's when the MassPike extension was built. From the 1960's to 2015, the tracks reduced from 2 main line tracks to one single track at "CP 4" (the interlocking just to the west of the current location of Boston Landing). This "original" configuration is shown below:
Although I can't be sure, the reason for only maintaining one track towards South Station is probably due to fact that in the 1960's, with most commuters switching to car travel, commuter rail service had been reduced to a single set of equipment that made a few trips back and forth to Framingham each day. With only one commuter rail train in service, it could easily operate on one track (track 2) from South Station to Framingham - leaving track 1 available for freight train service. This would also explain why the platforms at the three Newton stations were constructed on track 2 only - it was going to be the "passenger" track while track 1 was used for freight. Clearly the thinking in the 1960's (with the construction of the MassPike extension) was that the auto was the future.
By December 2015, CSX had relocated all of their freight service out of the Beacon Park yard. This allowed the freight leads to be removed and replaced with a "shoo fly" track to enable the construction of the Boston Landing station to proceed without trains directly alongside the new station.
With CSX moved out of Beacon Park yard, land was now available to reconfigure the tracks so that a second mainline track could be added to eliminate the only gap in double track mainline between Worcester and Boston. Since Boston Landing was being constructed by the developer, an arrangement was made that stated if the MBTA constructed the second track through Beacon Park before Boston Landing was completed, the Boston Landing construction crew would connect their two station tracks to the 2 mainline tracks going east through Beacon Park. The result is the final configuration of Boston Landing station. The track work was actually completed with a shutdown of service over the weekend of 4/29/2017-4/30/2017.
The final configuration of the tracks throughout the entire former Beacon Park freight yard:
Here are some pictures from 4/30/2017 showing the (almost) final track arrangement (construction of the freight lead is not yet complete in this picture, and it's still unknown to me if there will be two freight leads under Cambridge Street).
3. Boston Landing Station Grand Opening
I was privileged to attend the Grand Opening ceremony for the station on Wednesday 5/17/2017 (with my wife!). Quite the ribbon cutting with what seemed like an endless line of politicians and dignitaries!
Boston City TV made a nice report and compilation video of the ceremony speeches and entire event:
Some of the tweets from the event:
Although Gin's pictures at the link above probably give you a better tour of the station, I did grab some of my own pictures (click on each of them for a larger version):
The historical photos they found for the station posters are fabulous.
4. Odds & Ends:
4a. "Areas of Refuge"
Many of you have asked me about the fenced in areas at either end of the station, as shown here:
The two areas at each end of the platform are accessible via a ramp that is normally blocked by an "emergency exit" gate. These are "areas of refuge" and their implementation at Boston Landing station is somewhat of an odd artifact of a code requirement. Fire code now requires an "area of refuge" for people unable to use a stairway to escape a potential fire in a space that is not protected by a sprinkler system. The area of refuge is intended to be a safe space (equipped with two-way communication, hence the blue post with the call box on it) where people can shelter away from a fire danger until they are able to be rescued. It is not intended to be a path or route OUT of a building or the area of danger, but rather just a temporary holding place.
Since it would be difficult to equip the Boston Landing station with a sprinkler system (there aren't many ceilings and the station is outdoors), the areas of refuge were apparently required for compliance with building and fire code. The irony of course is that there is essentially nothing combustible or flammable in the station, with the exception of perhaps the equipment associated with the elevators. And even if an elevator caught fire, it would be quite easy for people to 'shelter' away from the fire at another end of the station. I have a hard time imagining a scenario where the entire platform was in flames and people needed to use the areas of refuge. But better safe than sorry I guess...
4B. Why is the station that Boston Landing paid for not even adjacent to Boston Landing?
The Boston Landing station is well to the east of the main portion of the Boston Landing development. In fact, the main entrance to the station is down a path about 100 feet east of the northeastern corner of the Boston Landing development. Once the Stop & Shop is torn down and replaced with the upcoming development there, the station will appear to be more a part of that development than Boston Landing!
The answer is track geometry and available land. First, the available land between the Boston Landing development and the MassPike is too narrow for a station.
Second, even if there were enough land, the area directly north of the Boston Landing development has tracks still curving out of the curve just to the west. It is much better and much easier to put a station on a straight section of track, primarily because it is much cheaper and easier to build things at right angles rather than with customized curves. In addition, building a platform on a curve increases the 'gap' between the train and the platform since the ~80' long coaches can't conform to a curved shape.
Finally, the additional land available to the east of the area north of the Boston Landing development allowed space for the 'freight lead' switch.
Any other questions?
Luckily it was Friday, or this would have been even worse. The loss of the regular set of equipment for the busiest train of the entire Commuter Rail system (not just Framingham-Worcester) led to a predictable outcome - delays and inconvenience for thousands of passengers. Our system doesn't have the contingency or resiliency to absorb problems like that - but Keolis did actually mitigate this situation relatively reasonably (although I'm not trying to discount the serious delays & inconvenience that passengers encountered).
For those of you who are interested, I've been able to piece together what happened just so you can see how the situation developed and how it was mitigated.
Thursday's P521, the 5:05 PM outbound express from South Station, is the same set of equipment that is used for the next morning's P508. While outbound through Westboro and Grafton and to Worcester, it encountered a problem with the locomotive (which was #1072). Rumors indicate it had a problem with a traction motor.
At some point overnight that locomotive (#1072) was swapped out with a different locomotive (#2004). I only mention this here because some folks might be wondering if the problems from Thursday night were the reason for the Friday morning problems - and as far as I can tell, the problems were unrelated.
That brings us to this morning (Friday 5/12/2017). The first indication of trouble came across at 6:43 AM when T-Alerts alerted that P508 would be delayed due to a mechanical problem. Indications are that locomotive #2004 had a failed Head End Power (HEP) unit and a failed air compressor. Learn about the HEP in the glossary, but the important point is that the train can't operate without a functioning air compressor - since the brakes use that compressed air!
Without reproducing the entire schedule, which is available here, the relevant movements from Worcester after 6:45 AM are:
P508 departs 7:00 AM (using Thursday's P521 equipment from the layover yard)
P510 departs 7:30 AM (using the equipment from P503 arriving Worcester at 7:07 AM)
P552 departs 8:05 AM (using the equipment from 'deadhead' (no passengers) outbound 6501, arriving Worcester around 7:40 AM)
The layover yard at Worcester has capacity for 4 train sets. Those 4 train sets are used for P500, P502, P504, and P508. After 6:30 AM, the only set in the layover yard is for P508. This is relevant because it shows that there was no 'spare' set (or even just a locomotive) available in the layover yard to be substituted for the dead P508.
Once P508 was determined to be dead and unavailable, the scramble started to 'cover' the trip with other equipment and keep all of us passengers somewhat close to on time.
The only reasonable solution was to use the P503/P510 equipment as P508. There was no other equipment within 40 minutes of arriving at Worcester (and 6501 is an even smaller capacity set than P503/P510). It's also not reasonable to switch out a locomotive from a 'good' set and tack it onto the intended P508 set. Because of the arrangement of the layover yard and switches at Worcester, that would have required multiple connections, disconnections, and shifting movements. It would have taken an hour.
Using the P510 equipment as P508 presented a capacity problem, since the P503/P510 set had only 3 doubles and 2 flats while P508 usually has 8 doubles. The numbers:
8 doubles = capacity of 1,440
3 doubles + 2 flats = capacity of 768
In 2016, P508 had documented daily ridership of over 1,600 passengers - that's correct, documented ridership above the capacity of the usual train set. [Hence the reason for my petition last year and the change of P506 to an express train starting in 2 weeks...if you're reading this and you usually take P508, consider switching to P506 after 5/22! I digress.]
This explains the flurry of T-Alerts warning about reduced capacity and delays. Fridays typically have lower ridership than other weekdays, but everyone knew once the P510 set was substituted for P508 that capacity was going to be a problem.
The new P508 using the P510 equipment departed Worcester at 7:13 AM - only 13 minutes late, but with the expectation of capacity issues down the line.
With the P510 equipment being used for P508 - leaving the Framingham-Worcester line short one set - Keolis had to make some quick decisions. The options available were the cancellation of P510 (or another Worcester or Framingham originating train) or the use of a spare set to keep all the trains operating.
The normal service plan for Commuter Rail includes one spare set stationed in Boston to cover any problems on any of the South Side lines. Earlier this spring, when the equipment shortage was most severe, that spare set was used in normal revenue service - meaning there were no spares. Luckily for us, there was a spare available and it was sent out to help.
After 7 AM, with the Worcester layover yard empty, all the inbound trains have to be 'turns' of outbound equipment. There are no sets that layover in Framingham, so all of the Framingham inbound trains 'turn' from outbound equipment. The normal outbound sequence after 7 AM is:
P503 arrives Worcester at 7:07 AM - becomes P510.
6501 arrives Worcester at 7:40 AM - non-revenue deadhead move of equipment from Boston to Worcester for use as P552 (Heart To Hub).
P585 arrives Framingham at 7:32 AM - becomes P584.
P505 arrives Worcester at 8:24 AM - becomes P512.
Keolis made the following adjustments:
The 6501 equipment was held in Framingham and became P584.
P585 went to Worcester and became P552 (Heart to Hub)
The extra set went to Ashland and started from Ashland as delayed P510.
Why did they shuffle 6501 and P585? That's not clear to me, but it could have been due to set size - an attempt to get the set with the larger capacity into a position to take the trip with the higher expected ridership. It does appear that holding 6501 in Framingham prevented the extra set from proceeding west past Framingham due to the traffic congestion at Framingham - hence the reason why it was only able to get to Ashland (not Southboro or further west) to originate there as P510.
The 7:45 AM - 7:50 AM time is a critical moment in Framingham with the usual arrival of P585 & P508 along with the departure of P584. As many Framingham riders are aware, a delayed P508 can result in confusion about which train will leave first - P508 or the local P584.
This morning, the line-up at 7:50 AM appears to have been:
P508 at Ashland operating about 20 minutes late and getting very full.
P585 past Framingham and continuing outbound to Worcester to become P552.
6501 standing by at Framingham to become P584.
The extra set standing by east of Framingham waiting to get past the traffic in Framingham to go west.
As expected, there was significant confusion at Framingham with 6501/P584 on track 1 (the "outbound" track) but waiting for P508 to pass before departing Framingham. There were some reports of P508 passengers being left on the platform at Framingham, and MOST passengers waiting for P508 at West Natick were NOT able to board P508. A fellow Framingham-Worcester posted this picture of the conditions on P508:
P552 was initially advertised as being converted to make all local stops. However, it only made local stops from Grafton to Southboro to accommodate stranded passengers from P510. It then skipped all the stops after Southboro, but it was never able to get around P510 and followed P510 into Boston. Although I can't confirm it with rider reports, T-Alerts indicates that P510 skipped the Newton stations (as it usually does) and P552 made the three Newton station stops - but it isn't clear why this would have been needed since there were no indications that P584 was over capacity at the Newton stops.
The remainder of the commute proceeded as expected, with cascaded delays for everything after P508. Final answers:
P508 arrived South Station about 25 minutes late.
P584 arrived South Station about 25 minutes late.
Note: If you intended to take P508 but couldn't get on due to overcrowding, you actually got to Boston 50 minutes late (vs. your intended arrival time).
P510 arrived South Station about 20 minutes late.
P552 arrived South Station about 20 minutes late.
Note: if you intended to take P510 from Grafton, Westboro, or Southboro, you ended up on P552 and were about 40 minutes late (vs. your intended arrival time).
P586 arrived South Station about 10 minutes late.
Could Keolis have done anything better? Hard to say, but considering the largest set broke down without a replacement immediately available, keeping everyone delayed less than an hour has to be a minor success. I'm not sure about the 6501 / P585 shuffle - if they had kept 6501 going to Worcester it could have become a delayed P510 from Worcester. P585 could have continued to Worcester to become P552, and the extra could have been used as P584. That would only have reduced the delay for the P510 passengers from Grafton, Westboro, and Southboro - everyone else probably would have had similar delays to what actually happened. And I'm not clear on set size decisions, so that might have been why they did what they did and they might have made good decisions.
An argument can be made that P508 should not have even tried to stop at Framingham or West Natick to attempt to squeeze more passengers on board. They could have gotten on P584. That's a valid point. I think that Keolis and the MBTA are reluctant to have trains skip scheduled stops due to the possibility of 'interzone' passengers becoming trapped on a train past their station.
Also important to note that P508 was able to operate express ahead of P584, which helped to reduce the delay for P508 passengers - otherwise the delay for them could have been an hour.
Clearly it would have helped us to have a spare set standing by in Framingham or Worcester. That just isn't possible with the equipment inventory that the MBTA owns - and note that it is the MBTA that owns and allocates equipment, NOT Keolis. So perhaps call your legislator and invite them to increase funding for Commuter Rail so we can have more spare sets.
NOTE: This blog post has been updated on 4/14/2017 to modify the scheduled time for P512 as per the following tweet. The time for P512 has been temporarily adjusted for a few weeks due to the track work project (more info here about that). Apparently they are keeping that temporary change in place even though there will be NO track work on Monday. All of the schedules below have the correct adjusted time for P512.
original blog post:
Our friend Ari had a great idea for a consolidated schedule that incorporates the extra trains announced for Marathon Monday.
Here it is! Click on either of the JPG images for a full PDF. [Why the "Rosie Ruiz express trains?" If you don't know that story, it's a classic Boston Marathon story...]
The official details are on this page. There is a different page here with more details about the MBTA and the Marathon.
For the first time the MBTA is selling a $20 "all day" pass that will allow unlimited travel anywhere on the Framingham-Worcester line all day Monday April 17, 2017. Someone commented that the pass should really be applicable for the ENTIRE commuter rail network so that spectators can travel from other lines to the Framingham-Worcester line for the marathon. Regardless, the all day ticket is an innovative idea that might have applicability to other large events. I might have to buy one just for the novelty / collectible ticket (and it's only a few dollars more than my usual roundtrip ticket). [Update 4/14/17...I did buy one...]
The weather looks relatively good for Marathon Monday, so expect overcrowding and slight delays on the mid-day trains with lots of spectators using Commuter Rail. At least that's what has happened in recent years.
Here is a nice map showing how the Framingham-Worcester line parallels the Marathon route (click on it for a PDF):
Finally, if you are along the marathon route during the overnight hours from Sunday to Monday, don't be surprised to see a thousand or so bikes.... the "Midnight Marathon Ride" has grown exponentially over the past few years. Ari estimated the ridership below.
NOTE: Starting at 8 PM on Sunday night for the Framingham-Worcester line, and for the entire MBTA system all day Monday, NO bikes are allowed. That includes folding bikes. NO folding bikes allowed. The entire MBTA system is typically very crowded Monday, so it is a rule to preserve capacity for people.
Three topics in this blog post:
1) West Natick mini-high platforms
2) Tie replacement project
3) Framingham parking lot
I'll cover Boston Landing and the single track through Beacon Park in a separate blog post.
Mini-High Platforms at West Natick
The mini-high platforms (one for each track) at West Natick are the platforms at the far western end of the station where the platforms are at the same level as the train vestibule, enabling passengers to board the train without climbing up stairs. They provide handicapped accessibility for boarding and deboarding trains. The mini-high platforms were removed from service at least a year and a half ago - I can't find a reference to an exact date but the situation was noted in this Fox 25 report in March 2016.
The mini-high platforms were removed from service due to deterioration of the concrete structure and the unsafe condition of the 'folding' portion of the platform. The folding platform along the track is used to allow wide freight trains access past the station. When the station originally opened in 1982, Conrail (predecessor to CSX) needed the ability to transport wide loads to Boston and the Beacon Park freight yard. What is a wide load? As described in this blog post, wide loads are most frequently electrical transformers around here, although out west they ship airplane fuselages by train (unless they fall into a river (please click that link, you won't be disappointed)). The ability to fold out of the way is the reason that the edge of the platform sometimes feels 'bouncy' on mini-high platforms.
The delay in rebuilding these mini-high platforms appears to be related to the normal capital planning process along with the potential that the work would trigger ADA (Americans With Disabilities) requirements. For any stations that are not 100% handicapped accessible, any construction work that exceeds 30% of the assessed value of the station triggers full ADA compliance. Full ADA compliance at commuter rail stations means full length high platforms - similar to Boston Landing or Yawkey, with fully accessible paths from the surrounding area to both platforms. It's possible that with such a simple station as West Natick, constructing new mini-high platforms would exceed this 30% threshold. This would force the MBTA to do nothing or build full length high platforms - a substantial and complicated capital project for West Natick, since the 'grade crossing' walkway across the tracks to the track 1 platform would need to be replaced with a bridge with elevators. That ain't cheap.
As you can see, this is an odd glitch in the ADA requirement. The effect is to force the MBTA to avoid repairing the mini-high platforms so they don't trigger the 30% threshold. Obviously they should just build full length high platforms, but the capital budget isn't unlimited. I have heard rumors that the MBTA was negotiating with the relevant authorities for some relief from the ADA requirements so they could implement logical repairs such as West Natick without having to trigger the complete rebuild of stations. This makes sense, since without that relief the MBTA would be forced to make no repairs to the mini-high platforms. Even if they were going to build a full length high platform station, the planning, design, permitting, and construction of that would take years - so allowing them to repair the mini-high makes sense in that context also.
As some of you have noticed, the existing mini-high platforms have been demolished. The current plan is to replace them with construction scheduled for June. I don't have details regarding if this is part of an agreement or waiver for the ADA requirements or if that was even a factor. But the good news is they are finally getting fixed!
It will be interesting to see if the rebuilt platforms include folding platforms for wide freight trains or if they construct fixed platforms. I have been told that CSX has waived their rights to take wide freight loads east of Framingham. With the closure of the Beacon Park freight yard, the only scheduled freight service east of Framingham is tank cars to the Houghton Chemical facility in Allston & boxcars to a produce warehouse in Everett. Neither of these customers require wide freight cars, and there are no facilities for 'special' loads to be delivered via the Framingham-Worcester line to Boston. Eliminating the folding platform would allow for the construction of a fixed platform, which is much easier to maintain and less susceptible to failure. If I get more information, I'll edit this blog post.
Tie Replacement Project
We're into the final stretch of the tie replacement and railbed resurfacing project. Work on track 2 from mile 14 to mile 28 will commence on Monday April 3 and should be complete in early June. Many of you may have noticed that they have already staged bundles of new ties alongside track 2 on this stretch. Track 2 is the southernmost track and the track that both inbound and outbound trains use between Framingham & Boston (why? see this blog post).
The tie replacement project has been completed on all other sections of the line: the entire length of track 1 (except directly within Framingham station), from Boston to mile 14 on track 2, and from mile 28 to Worcester on track 2.
Mile 14 is between Wellesley Hills and Wellesley Square, while mile 28 is between Southboro and Westboro. You can see the exact locations of each mile marker on this awesome mapping website. Therefore the project limits are from Southboro to Wellesley. This project also includes both tracks directly within Framingham station.
This blog post has some photos and videos of what the tie replacement actually looks like. But if you want just one video of what tie replacement looks like, this one is pretty good:
This blog post explains the entire process of tie replacement, including the innovation of using a track stabilizer to minimize the length of track where a speed restriction needs to be applied. The benefit of the track stabilizer to help keep the rush hour commutes moving without excessive delay can't be overstated. Construction is necessary, but the MBTA truly is doing what they can to minimize the inconvenience for us. Take a look at that blog post - I won't regurgitate it here, but it's still completely applicable.
The MBTA has made two changes with this spring's tie replacement project in terms of communication & planning:
1) Announcement that mid-day trains may experience 5-15 minute delays; and
2) Change to the schedule of P512 to avoid a en-route delay at Framingham.
The communications are on this website but were also tweeted out:
The mid-day delays of 5-15 minutes are understandable as trains may need to operate at reduced speed near the construction workers.
The change to the time of P512 is related to the loss of track 2 through the Framingham to Wellesley stretch. On a normal day, the sequence between Wellesley Farms and Framingham is:
9:19 AM: outbound P507 at Wellesley Farms on track 1.
9:21 AM: inbound P512 at Framingham on track 2.
9:39 AM: outbound P507 at Framingham on track 1.
9:43 AM: inbound P512 at Wellesley Farms on track 2.
So from about 9:20 AM to 9:40 AM, both tracks are needed for the regular schedule between Framingham and Wellesley. This is actually the last time until the evening commute that both tracks are needed along this stretch. Mid-day train trips are sequenced such that only one train is travelling in either direction on this stretch. That's another good thing in the context of this tie replacement project since this means that those mid-day trains only see minor delays and no trains have to be completely cancelled.
The construction work does not start until after the AM rush hour in order to avoid delaying the high ridership commuter trains. P512 is the just outside the defined "AM rush hour" and therefore is subject to the mid-day construction delays. The construction crews move onto the tracks as soon as inbound P586 clears past them, which is anywhere from 8:40 AM to 9:20 AM, depending on where they are staged.
With only one track available between Framingham and Wellesley after 9 AM, it's impossible to have P507 & P512 on that stretch at the same time. By delaying P512 so that it essentially 'waits' for P507 to get to Framingham, P512 can then proceed past Framingham and occupy track 1 where P507 had just been occupying. There's the 20 minute delay - instead of departing Framingham at 9:19 AM as per the published schedule, it departs at 9:39 after P507 has passed by.
Keeping P507 on time allows P514 to operate on time - if P507 were delayed for 20 minutes, then a delay would cascade to P514 (which uses the equipment from P507).
The delay to P512 actually happened frequently in the early summer of 2016 - but P512 would depart Worcester on time and then sit at Framingham for 20 minutes with an announcement about the delay once the train arrived in Framingham. Proactively announcing this delay now and holding the train in Worcester for 20 minutes seems to be a better solution - passengers will be able to plan ahead and change their schedule if needed.
In the past I had advocated for the delay to be applied to P507, even if that delayed P514, since ridership on P512 is higher than P507 (and P514). As documented in this blog post, they implemented my suggestion in July of 2016. I'm not sure why they didn't consider it now. I'll suggest it again.
New Parking Lot in Framingham
Construction is just resuming on the new parking lot in the 'infield' of the CSX North Yard east and west wye tracks. Governor Baker presided over a groundbreaking ceremony for this project back in October of 2016.
Click on the image below for a PDF:
Down in the lower left corner are the statistical details that matter for us:
Existing "banana" lot: 118 spaces
"Improvements": lose 14 spaces
New parking lot: 220 spaces
New total: 324 spaces
(net gain 206 spaces)
Those statistics do not include the lot on the south side of the station (adjacent to Route 135) since no changes are being made to that side.
I've been told that the existing walkway across the freight track adjacent to the banana lot (actually called the "station track" by CSX) will be closed. People parking in the banana lot will have to walk across the freight track at the entrance to the new parking lot and walk through the parking lot (along a sidewalk) to the pedestrian bridge (where a new access point through the fence will be made). This will eliminate access to the easy but dangerous and illegal path that people use to cut across the main line tracks right near the old station building (now the Deluxe Depot Diner).
Construction is estimated to take "a couple more months."
In other Framingham parking news, the MWRTA is now enforcing the overnight parking ban for the train station parking lots. On a number of occasions this winter, cars were left in the lots overnight during snowstorms, preventing proper and complete snow removal.
If you can't read the fine print, it defines "overnight" as:
1 AM - 5 AM Monday to Friday
12 AM - 7 AM Saturday & Sunday
Also, the MWRTA is interested in our feedback about the Framingham station and parking since they took over a few months ago. Send them an e-mail at email@example.com and/or leave a comment below.
The current proposal to "suspend" weekend MBTA Commuter Rail service is the extreme endpoint of a game that has been played for many years with the finances of the MBTA. A "draconian service cut" such as this has been predicted since at least 2009 - and maybe it's surprising that it took so long to finally get here.
The basic problem is the mandate that the MBTA balance its budget. Although that sounds reasonable, the devil is in the details. And the details in this case are a sudden reallocation of additional state assistance towards capital projects rather than to offset legacy debt costs.
In 2015, Governor Baker's own "Special Panel" recommended using $187 million of additional state funding to help the MBTA balance their budget. The latest budget proposal from the MBTA still asks for $187 million of additional state funding - but now that money won't go to operations (and debt service) but rather to capital improvements.
Without that money in the operations budget, the MBTA has to cut costs in order to balance the budget. Eliminating weekend Commuter Rail service and expanded "Ride" services are two of the biggest line items being cut to balance the budget - and supposedly "allow" the $187 million to go towards capital improvements and not operations.
The solution is obvious: take some of that $187 million and put it back into the operating budget. Only $17 million of the $187 million is needed in order to save both weekend Commuter Rail service AND the expanded Ride services!
THIS SOLUTION DOES NOT REQUIRE ANY ADDITIONAL FUNDING FROM THE STATE. It simply reallocates state budget money already being earmarked for the MBTA.
Skip down to the end of this blog post for the details on how you can help to make this happen.
How did we get here?
As described in the aptly titled "Born Broke" report from 2009, when the "Forward Funding" law was enacted in 2000 the MBTA was burdened with $3.3 billion in debt. Much of that debt was related to the Big Dig - and that debt is even called out in the recent presentation regarding the budget (see page 48 here).
The law also required that the MBTA balance its budget using "own source revenue" (like fares, advertising, etc.) and a fixed share of the state sales tax. In many fiscal years, that hasn't worked out, and the state has had to allocate additional funding beyond those sources in order for the MBTA to balance their budget.
The conclusion of the Born Broke report sums up the situation both then and now: "The underperformance of the sales tax as a principal financing source and too much debt are the causes of the T’s structural weaknesses. Until these factors are addressed, no amount of reorganization, efficiencies, or reforms will allow prevent deficits in FY10 or in the future."
Hence the prediction in the Executive Summary of the Born Broke report that "without external assistance in the form of debt relief or new revenue the Authority will be forced to make draconian service cuts and impose dramatic fare increases."
We've already seen the dramatic fare increases. With the loss of the previous 'external assistance,' we're now on to the draconian service cuts.
The oft-cited D'Alessandro Report from November 2009 reaches much of the same conclusions.
Those reports are from quite a few years ago, what about now?
For many of the intervening years since "Forward Funding" was enacted in 2000 (both prior to and after 2009), the MBTA has been able to cobble together enough 'reforms,' revenue increases (fare hikes), and additional state funding to avoid drastic service changes. Some of those reforms - especially recent reforms - have been wholly positive and beneficial. These include the investigation and move to improve the parking revenue stream and the restructuring of debt in a fiscally responsible way (see page 8 here) among others. Other attempts, especially in the early to mid-2000's, were essentially shell games to keep the budget balanced while avoiding the larger real issues. Many reforms have been controversial - privatization of the 'cash room' and other services. Other reforms haven't made the headlines, but have affected many - "30% reduction in Corporate Headquarters/Administrative positions" (see page 14 here) for example (and then we wonder how designs like Auburndale slip through?).
In April 2015, Governor Baker commissioned a Special Panel to investigate the MBTA - primarily as a direct result of the disastrous winter of 2015. The report that was produced explicitly "rejects the ‘reform vs. revenue’ debate because the MBTA needs both."
Most of their proposed solutions were implemented - the Fiscal and Management Control Board was implemented as a result of the report. That report also laid the groundwork for the fare increase in July 2016.
However, one of their recommendations that wasn't implemented was that the Legislature should "Limit future General Fund operating assistance by purpose to cover (1) debt service payments (2) employee costs for staff moving off of the capital budget."
Huh? That's some mumbo-jumbo. Let's break that down. Since "Forward Funding" was implemented, it has never worked perfectly. In many fiscal years, the legislature has allocated additional money to the MBTA so that the MBTA can balance their books. That's the "General Fund operating assistance" being talked about. [The "employee costs for staff moving off the capital budget" is another fascinating story - essentially the MBTA was using capital funds to pay operating expenses. That's now been fixed.]
The Governor's Special Panel recognized that the FY16 "General Fund operating assistance" was $187 million. The 2015 report included this slide:
Allow me to summarize that slide in one phrase: The State should take back the legacy and Big Dig debt from the MBTA. That would allow the MBTA to implement the goals of "Forward Funding" without the weight of that debt dragging the T's budget down.
Doesn't that sound familiar? IT'S THE SAME CONCEPT RECOMMENDED IN BOTH 2009 REPORTS.
But alas, that's not what is being proposed with this year's budget. This slide from the March 13, 2017 presentation to the FMCB still includes a mention of the $187 million supplemental assistance - but instead of being used to pay down the debt, it is now allocated to capital improvements:
That's from page 15 of the presentation - I've added the highlighting.
Although it is an admirable goal to set aside funding for capital improvements, reallocating the additional state assistance away from the operating budget means that SOMEBODY STILL HAS TO PAY THE BILLS - the "bills" being the debt service on the mountain of debt that the MBTA carries.
Enough Dave! I can't stand all this talk about debt and General Funds and State Assistance...
This is all backdrop to where we find ourselves today. The MBTA has set this goal of being able to balance the budget without using the $187 million towards operating expenses. How do they do they do that? The same way you balance your budget at home: reduce expenses.
So forget everything you're reading about operating subsides, ridership counts, and other factors related to weekend Commuter Rail Service. Elimination of weekend Commuter Rail service is intended to do one thing only: scrape up some cash to balance the budget and to make it appear that the $187 million in additional state assistance can be removed from the operating budget and allocated to capital improvements.
Let's dive into the details - but first, we need to make sure we're all on the same page:
Capital budgets vs. Operating budgets
Remember, capital expenses (building stations, the Green Line Extension, the purchase of red and orange line subway cars, etc.) are NOT part of the operating budget. The operating budget pays for operations - bus drivers, subway operators, and the Keolis subcontract among other things. So don't get confused when you hear that the MBTA isn't spending enough capital - they actually aren't spending all that they could in terms of capital funding. Some of that is due to the delay in the Green Line extension, but capital spending is a story for a different day (see slide 17 here if you want details on the capital spending problem).
Keolis is a subcontractor
Keolis, as the private operator of the Commuter Rail, has a contract to perform a service. As part of the contractual arrangement, they are paid on a monthly basis for the work performed. If the level of service that they are required to perform changes (for example, more or less trains on a schedule), then their compensation would change. This is an important fact that many folks don't understand. The MBTA sets the service level and implements policies. Keolis is essentially obligated to do what the MBTA tells them to do. Clearly they have nothing to do with the proposal to eliminate weekend service - it would reduce the payments they get!
Commuter Rail Revenue goes to the MBTA
Every penny of every fare collected by Keolis goes directly to the MBTA. Keolis does not 'keep' any of the revenue they collect - they are paid separately by the MBTA. Again, there are probably plenty of people who think that the compensation for Keolis is somehow tied to the fares collected. It just simply isn't true. The value of the payments to Keolis are independent of the value of the fares collected.
Most of the cost of weekend Commuter Rail service has already been paid for
Saving $10 million while cancelling 104 days of service doesn't seem like a great bargain because it isn't. The problem is that the only savings that can be recognized are the small incremental staff and fuel costs for weekend service. The other costs - rolling stock, infrastructure, and maintenance aren't affected enough by the reduction in weekend service. The rails and fleet of equipment still need to be maintained, and the reduction in 'wear and tear' isn't enough to change the price that the MBTA is paying for those long-term services.
Fine, just please tell me why Weekend Service is being cut!
By cancelling weekend Commuter Rail service, the MBTA projects that they can save $10 million. Presumably this value is from:
1) Lower cash payments to Keolis; but offset by
2) Lower revenue from weekend fare collection.
In other words, if you stop going out to dinner every weekend, you'll save the money that you would usually be paying the restaurant. But there is an offsetting cost - you still need to eat, so the cost of food that you're cooking at home offsets the savings. The savings CAN'T be the total of your restaurant bills. Same for Commuter Rail - there won't be any cost for running the trains on the weekend, but there also won't be any fares being collected.
There has been no explanation of how they are calculating the $10 million value - and we need it.
This page from the recent budget presentation shows how the $10 million works to close the projected $42 million budget gap:
That slide is a little confusing, but read it from right to left. Without any changes, and assuming the $187 million of additional state assistance does NOT go to the operating budget, then the MBTA predicts that they will have a $42 million structural deficit.
On top of that $42 million deficit, they want to spend $7 million on strategic operations hires (why are they needed? see: Auburndale). That means that they have to find $49 million in cost reductions or additional revenue to get to a balanced budget. Each column on that chart represents an incremental move from the total $49 million deficit towards the balanced budget on the left.
Clearly the solution is to follow the recommendations of the Governor's own Special Panel in 2015: maintain additional state assistance to the operating budget for the purposes of payment of debt service. That 'frees up' funding that can be used to avoid making some or all of the $49 million in cuts to 'balance the budget.'
What? It's that simple?
Well, yes and no. Clearly it's that simple with regards to the reallocation of the $187 million of additional state assistance. But once I discovered this whole story, I realized it leads down lots of other paths:
1) With the MBTA typically not spending all of their capital funding, the $187 million allocated to the MBTA under this budget proposal could easily be 'taken back' towards the end of the fiscal year if it is unspent. That could help the administration balance the overall state budget if needed. Another shell game with MBTA money.
2) The idea of using the $187 million towards capital improvements allows the administration to claim that they are 'investing in the MBTA.' But it avoids what the 2015 Special Panel found was the REAL solution: Balance the MBTA budget with the $187 million of additional state assistance to the operating budget AND find NEW sources of ADDITIONAL REVENUE to provide the MBTA with funding for capital projects. Another shell game with MBTA money.
3) Highlighting the "subsidy" that is needed for various weekend Commuter Rail trips is not a valid measurement of the savings that can be achieved. Those "subsidy" values include a percentage of the fixed cost of the Commuter Rail network, which, as noted above, isn't a fair way to calculate the savings. Steve Koczela does the math that matters in this tweet and shows that the actual savings averages out to $6.24 per weekend rider. The MBTA presentation of subsidies that aren't real is another shell game with MBTA money.
4) Reform before revenue has failed. Every report that has been commissioned to look at the MBTA - including Governor Baker's own 2015 Special Panel - has reached the conclusion that the MBTA needs both reform AND revenue. As noted above, some of the recent reforms have been good - and some of the controversial and/or painful reforms are probably also good. But the idea that the MBTA can continue to balance their budget without new revenue AND avoid draconian service cuts has finally been proven false. Another shell game with MBTA money.
What do we do?
This is where it becomes very simple. If you want a world class transit system that isn't the only major Commuter Rail system that shuts down on the weekend, then DEMAND IT.
Remember that the MBTA is not a completely independent state agency. Clearly the MBTA didn't come up with this budget proposal that includes the idea of moving the $187 million around without participation from the corner office in the State House. So calling the MBTA isn't really what needs to happen.
Call your legislator and the governor's office (617.725.4005 or 888.870.7770) and let them know what you think. Here are my ideas for what I'm going to tell them:
1) Stop playing shell games with the MBTA budget.
2) Allocate at least some of the $187 million back to the operating budget so that weekend service and the Ride can be preserved.
3) Actually, allocate the full $187 million back to the operating budget so the MBTA can restore operations staff and systems to where they need to be while paying down more of the legacy and Big Dig debt.
4) Find new additional revenue sources for capital improvements for the MBTA, as recommended by Governor Baker's Special Panel in 2015.
Use this link to find the phone numbers for your legislator.
Changing the Heart to Hub train to times that align with a 9-5 workday in Boston (as recently requested by Worcester politicians) will devastate the schedule for the non-Worcester ridership of the Framingham-Worcester line. It's just not possible with the current infrastructure that we have.
Recently, Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty sent a letter to the MBTA requesting that the times of the Heart To Hub train be changed to be better aligned with a 9-5 workday and that no stops be added to the train. While these might be reasonable requests that would add value to MBTA Commuter Rail passengers from the Worcester area, those requests need to be considered in the context of the entire Framingham-Worcester line ridership.
[I discuss the rationale of adding Framingham and Ashland as station stops to the evening Heart to Hub train at item #9 in this previous blog post. I won't repeat that explanation here.]
The current schedule of the Heart to Hub train is:
Depart Worcester: 8:05 AM
Arrive South Station: 9:07 AM
Depart South Station: 7:35 PM
Arrive Worcester: 8:40 PM
The Heart to Hub train also stops at Yawkey and Back Bay but currently does not stop at any other station between Yawkey and Worcester. The Heart to Hub train was originally announced in October 2015 and was added to the schedule in May 2016. There are many blog posts here about the Heart to Hub train and they can all be found using the "Heart to Hub" category link for this blog.
The draft schedule that will be implemented in May 2017 proposes these changes for the Heart to Hub train:
Depart Worcester: 8:00 AM
Arrive South Station: 9:06 AM
Depart South Station: 7:35 PM
Depart Framingham: 8:12 PM (NEW STOP)
Depart Ashland: 8:18 PM (NEW STOP)
Arrive Worcester: 8:45 PM
Clearly neither the current nor the proposed times for the Heart to Hub train are ideal for the vast majority of commuters working a 'typical' 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM (or close) workday in Boston. In that context, the request by the Worcester politicians seems to make sense. But the solution - a schedule that answers this request - is fraught with problems.
Hypothetical "Ideal" Schedule for Heart to Hub train
In order to demonstrate the problems with a modified schedule for the Heart to Hub train, I have developed a hypothetical schedule with the Heart to Hub train at a 'more desirable' time. For simplicity, I have only modeled the evening commute, but the morning commute has similar problems.
In order to develop this schedule, I have applied the same constraints that currently exist for the infrastructure that exists on the Framingham-Worcester line. These constraints are:
1) Minimum of 10 minutes between departures from South Station.
2) Minimum of 12 minutes between any trains arriving at Framingham.
3) Minimum of 30 minutes between trains arriving at Worcester.
The reasons for these constraints are explained at the bottom of this blog post.
The other 'rules' I applied were not really constraints, but were used to guide the process of building the schedule:
1) All trains destined to points west of Framingham are express trains. These express trains skip Boston Landing and all stations before West Natick; and
2) All local trains terminate at Framingham and make all stops between Boston and Framingham.
These rules (and common sense) dictate that a local train can depart close behind an express train - but not the other way around. It is impossible to have a local train depart just before an express train - the local train would block the track!
NOTE: I am NOT proposing that the outbound Heart to Hub train stop in Framingham. I have included the time that it PASSES THROUGH Framingham because that is a constraint in scheduling it. Hence the italicized "strikethrough" for that time - it is NOT A STOP, but that time is the approximate time the train passes through Framingham.
The methodology used to develop this hypothetical schedule was as follows:
1) I aimed to have the Heart To Hub depart Boston at a 'reasonable' time for a worker leaving their office at 5 PM. Assigning a departure time of 5:10 PM seemed to be reasonable to account for walking to the station. It also allowed me to keep the three earlier trains (3:30 PM, 4:20 PM, and 4:30 PM departures) at the same times as they are proposed on the May 2017 draft schedule.
2) Having the Heart to Hub depart at 5:10 PM 'works' because it fulfills all three of the operating constraints:
a) It departs 40 minutes after the previous departure from Boston;
b) It passes through Framingham approximately 24 minutes after the previous train; and
c) It arrives in Worcester 31 minutes after the previous train.
These metrics also show that it is impossible to move those previous trains to LATER departure times:
d) if the 4:20 PM express train departed later, it would create a conflict at Worcester with less than 30 minutes between arrivals; and
e) if the 4:30 PM local train departed later, the Heart to Hub train could possibly 'catch up' to it somewhere prior to Framingham (although I will acknowledge that the 4:30 PM local train could probably move 5-10 minutes later).
3) For the remainder of the schedule, I kept the total number of outbound rush hour trips at 10, which is the same as what is proposed on the May 2017 draft schedule for the PM rush hour PLUS the Heart to Hub.
4) With the Heart to Hub departure and arrival times set and the earlier train times locked in, the next step is to build the remainder of the PM schedule. First, we can add an express train with a departure time from Boston of 5:20 PM. Again, this train just barely fulfills all three criteria:
a) It departs Boston 10 minutes after the previous train;
b) It passes through Framingham 16 minutes after the Heart to Hub train; and
c) It arrives in Worcester 29 minutes after the Heart to Hub train.
5) The next train needs to be a local train in order to offer service to stops before West Natick. To comply with the scheduling constraints, the local train can depart at 5:30 PM. This train then meets all three criteria:
a) It departs Boston 10 minutes after the previous train;
b) It arrives at Framingham 21 minutes after the previous train; and
c) Worcester is not a factor since it terminates in Framingham.
6) To maintain consistent service to all stations, the next train is an express. Assigning it a 6:00 PM departure from South Station allows it to fulfill all three criteria:
a) It departs Boston 30 minutes after the previous train;
b) It arrives at Framingham 18 minutes after the previous train; and
c) It arrives at Worcester 38 minutes after the previous train.
7) The 6:10 PM, 6:40 PM, and 6:50 PM departures from South Station follow the same pattern established for the 5:20 PM, 5:30 PM, and 6:00 PM departures from South Station.
What's the Problem?
The above hypothetical schedule for Heart To Hub passengers probably looks great if you want to get to Worcester after leaving your office at 5 PM. So where's the problem? First, let's take a look at the draft schedule proposed for May 2017.
A comparison of this proposed draft with the hypothetical schedule reveals the problems:
1) Passengers on P521 (the 5:00 PM express) have their commute pushed 20 minutes later. This train is the most popular train in the evening commute and carries an approximate passenger load of 1,400 passengers. For simplicity's sake, let's assume that those 1400 passengers are evenly distributed to all 7 destinations (which is NOT a valid assumption - data shows that Framingham and West Natick have much higher ridership than other stations). This assumption means that approximately 200 passengers are destined for Worcester - and those passengers would benefit from the new Heart to Hub times. BUT THE OTHER 1,200 PASSENGERS WOULD BE DELAYED 20 MINUTES. Even if you try to stretch the ridership count at Worcester to assume that Worcester has a disproportionate share of the ridership or assume that some Grafton passengers would drive to Worcester to take advantage of the Heart to Hub, there still is over one thousand passengers going to the other stations.
2) Passengers on P593, (the 5:10 PM local) have their commute pushed 20 minutes later. This train is the most popular local train in the evening commute and carries an approximate passenger load of 630 passengers. None of these passengers are destined for Worcester, so ALL 630 PASSENGERS WOULD BE DELAYED 20 MINUTES.
That is a total of approximately 1,800 passengers that have had their commute made 20 minutes later. That far exceeds the TOTAL number of passengers using Worcester Station for their commute.
3) With the hypothetical schedule above, there is a ONE HOUR GAP IN SERVICE FOR ALL STATIONS (except West Natick and Framingham). For example, if you want to go to Wellesley Square, you can only arrive there at 5:08 PM or 6:09 PM. Similarly, if you are destined to Westborough, you can only arrive there at 5:25 PM or 6:26 PM. This is at the height of the rush hour. The proposed May 2017 schedule has trains arriving at those stations every 40 minutes during the same period. This gap in service is a logical consequence of a super express train - the track needs to be clear so that the Heart to Hub can speed through directly to Worcester.
4) The modified arrival times for the 1,800 passengers delayed 20 minutes could have serious consequences for those passengers. During many recent public comment periods, passengers have noted that many after-school child care facilities close at 6 PM. On the current and proposed May 2017 schedule, passengers leaving work around 5 PM can get to their destination with enough time for child care pickup before 6 PM at all stations between Boston and Framingham (Ashland is too close for my comfort - but maybe some passengers try to do it). The hypothetical ideal Heart to Hub schedule prevents anyone from arriving at their destination with enough time to get somewhere else by 6 PM if they leave work around 5 PM.
5) The ~5 PM express train and ~5:15 local train have existed for at least 15 years. Many passengers have built their daily commute / work / life schedules based on these train times, and disrupting that schedule could inconvenience them or push them away from the Commuter Rail. I'm not normally a fan of doing something because "that's the way it's always been done," but when it comes to schedules such as these, there should be some deference given to historical precedent.
Changing the time of the Heart to Hub train to be "better" for Worcester bound passengers leaving their offices at 5 PM clearly presents too many insurmountable problems for passengers from every other station on the line. That's why it can't happen with the current infrastructure on the line.
What's the solution?
If the Heart to Hub train can't be moved around on the schedule to a 'better' time, than what can be done to improve the experience for Worcester (and all) passengers on the line? Better infrastructure is the answer...and in particular:
1) A second platform at Worcester Station and/or improved track layouts around Worcester. Once you start playing with the schedule, you quickly realize that the limitation of a minimum of 30 minutes between arriving trains at Worcester really handicaps any kind of creative scheduling. Eliminating that constraint by adding a second platform or reconfiguring the track layouts could eliminate or change that constraint, which could allow for better scheduling options. See footnote #3 below about Worcester station.
2) Upgrade the speed limit on the line (or sections of the line). Speed limits on a railroad are governed by many factors: track bed and rail conditions, track geometry (it's considered bad form for trains to go flying off of curves at high speeds), signal spacing, and safety considerations (density of grade crossings). Some of those constraints can't be corrected - the curvature of the track can't be changed without realigning entire sections of the railroad, which would most likely be impossible in the densely developed area around the Framingham-Worcester line. But some sections of track are straight or nearly straight, and those sections could have the speed limit changed. That might require upgrading the track bed and/or modifying the signal system, but those are changes which can be done.
3) Install a passing track somewhere on the line. In years past, the schedule included "leapfrog" moves where an express train would pass a local train - while both were travelling in the same direction. With only two tracks between Boston and Worcester, this required opposing traffic to be scheduled so that it would not conflict with the leapfrog moves. This resulted in very tight timing of the schedules for moving trains back and forth. Any upset or delay to the schedule would quickly cascade to multiple trains. Recent schedules have eliminated the "leapfrog" moves, since they introduced an unacceptable risk of cascading delays. I believe this is the correct answer given the infrastructure we have.
Adding a passing track (or two!) somewhere between Boston and Framingham would allow these "leapfrog" moves to be added back to the schedule. The real estate exists for additional tracks between Weston and Framingham - this section once had four tracks. Most bridge abutments accommodate four tracks, although most station platforms would need to be rebuilt. The ideal configuration would be to put the passing track(s) between the outer "local" service tracks, although having the local tracks in the middle serviced by center island platforms with the express tracks on the outside could also work.
Adding a passing track would allow the Heart to Hub train to move past trains making station stops - reducing or eliminating the long gaps in service for those stations while the track is kept clear for the Heart to Hub with the current infrastructure.
4) Installing high level platforms. Dwell time is the time a train spends in a station while passengers embark or disembark. Dwell time is a large factor in the overall duration of a train's trip. As ridership increases, dwell times increase - add 30 seconds of dwell time at 6 stations and you've added 3 minutes to the duration of a trip. High level platforms - where passengers step directly onto the train rather than needing to climb the stairs on the train from the platform into the train vestibule - dramatically reduce dwell time. Not only can passengers board more quickly (climbing stairs is slow), but ALL of the doors of a train can be remotely opened and closed (like a subway car) allowing MORE passengers to board at the same time. Both Yawkey and South Station have high level platforms for the entire length of every platform - and the soon to open Boston Landing station will also have full length high level platforms. But every other station (including Back Bay) has either all low level platforms or a combination of low level platforms and a "mini-high" platform that offers some handicapped accessibility.
Constructing high level platforms at every station would be expensive - but they don't all need to be done at once. Changing the highest ridership stations to high level platforms (especially Back Bay) would be money well spent.
5) Electrification. Now we're talking about very long term but very beneficial capital investment. Electric powered trains offer many advantages over the diesel locomotive trains that the MBTA now uses but the most relevant for this discussion is the quicker acceleration and deceleration (stopping time). Electric trains would decrease the overall duration of every trip - and would be compatible with the proposed North-South Rail Link tunnel through Boston.
6) Stop getting hung up on the marketing buzz of "one hour Worcester to Boston" (which isn't even true anyway). Obviously everyone wants a direct train from their station to Boston at the most convenient time for them. With only two tracks, it just isn't possible. So instead of trying to promote service that benefits one station at the expense of other stations, why not just focus on the really good express train service that Worcester DOES HAVE regardless of the Heart to Hub? Why not add more express trains (that stop at all stations from Framingham to Worcester) paired with local trains so nobody loses service but everyone gets better service?
Hopefully Worcester residents and politicians will understand that a more comprehensive and collaborative approach to the Framingham-Worcester Commuter Rail line schedule will result in benefits for everyone. That's more productive than pitting the ridership from one station against the ridership from other stations in an unwinnable civil war. Let's work together to make Commuter Rail great again!
Footnotes / Technical reasons for the three constraints:
1) Minimum of 10 minutes between departures from South Station. The block signalling system effectively requires about 8 minutes between trains on the Framingham-Worcester line so that a train behind another train can proceed on 'clear' signals. Rounding that up to 10 minutes allows for some contingency. For a more comprehensive explanation of block signalling, see "Automatic Block Signal System" in the Glossary. Watch the corny little video linked from that definition.
2) Minimum of 12 minutes between any trains arriving at Framingham. Again, this is due to the block signalling system. At Framingham, the signals and switches are densely spaced, which is a good thing - lots of options and room for trains to go to different tracks and get out of the way. So why 12 minutes instead of 8 or 10? Framingham is 21 track miles from Boston - and trains making station stops or just travelling over those 21 miles have more opportunities to encounter minor delays. Moving the spacing to every 12 minutes at Framingham allows for some contingency and reduces the chances of delays for a following train. This constraint actually doesn't come into play very much since the first and last constraints effectively govern the schedule.
3) Minimum of 30 minutes between trains arriving at Worcester. Worcester Union Station is served by a single platform on a siding track off the main line. This track is effectively a dead end for the MBTA - the track past Worcester station is owned and dispatched by CSX - and movements by MBTA / Keolis trains onto CSX property are complicated and difficult. In addition, the storage yard for MBTA trains is EAST of Worcester station. This means that after a train arriving at Worcester is unloaded of passengers, it has to reverse direction and move towards Boston then reverse direction AGAIN and move into the storage yard - all the while, blocking access into the station for any other train. The switch and track configuration in this area does not allow for parallel train movements or train movements around the storage track "entrance."
The new design of a proposed change to the Auburndale Commuter Rail station moves the platform from track 2 to track 1. This doesn't sound like a big deal - trains can just switch tracks, right? It's not that simple, and this proposed design will either result in massive disruption to the entire schedule (for EVERYONE) or massive changes to service at the Auburndale station.
The simple problem is that moving trains back and forth from one track to another blocks both tracks for opposing traffic while the switches are aligned for the track change and while the train moves from one track to another. Properly implementing this would require precise timing for trains to meet (or actually NOT meet) at these locations. The current schedule is not designed to accommodate that timing. And with the AM and PM rush hour schedules jam packed with trains, tweaking the times of ANY train will require changing the times for ALL TRAINS. THIS IS WHY THIS ONE STATION DESIGN AFFECTS EVERYONE ON THIS LINE. It's not just a problem for the Auburndale passengers.
I'll dive into the details below and present some potential solutions at the bottom. Skip forward to those if you're not interested in the technical details.
100% Design Now Complete
On February 15, 2017, the MBTA held a public meeting to present the final design for the reconstruction of the Auburndale Commuter Rail Station. I joined about 50 people to listen to the presentation which was led by a combination of the MBTA Capital Delivery Department Project Manager, the Design Consultant Project Manager, and the Project Manager from the architecture firm. Much thanks to the Village Bank in Auburndale for their hospitality and for providing snacks!
About 17 people spoke to provide comments on the station design. Many comments focused on construction issues such as the potential loss of parking and road closures while the station is being rebuilt. Some relevant comments related to the design and final product included:
- Shelter has no walls to provide protection from the wind (multiple comments on this topic);
- Design does not include screening between the station and the Mass Pike; and
- Thanks and praise for the accessibility that the new station will provide.
I used my public comment time to highlight the switching platform problem and the potential schedule and/or service disruption problem.
Ari Ofsevit spoke after me and echoed the concerns about a single platform station on track 1. He picked up on a potential interesting solution to part of the problem - please read his blog post for his summary of the problem and his idea for a solution.
Why design a new station with a platform on one track only?
Since the Mass Pike was constructed along the railroad right-of-way in the 1960's, the three Newton stations have had a platform on the track 2 side only. This is the reason that those stations have no 'reverse peak' service: track 2 is used for inbound AM trains AND outbound PM trains. Similarly, track 1 is used for outbound AM trains and inbound PM trains - and without a platform on track 1 at any of those stations, none of those trains can stop there.
The concept of a redesign of the Auburndale station has been ongoing for many years - driven by the local community and local politicians. The major goal of the redesign appears to have been to provide an accessible station - but both a handicapped accessible station AND a more accessible station to the village center and the surrounding community.
Maintaining a one platform station (rather than constructing platforms on both sides of the station) is apparently a strategy that was adopted to minimize the cost of the project. It is important to note that the Americans with Disabilities Act essentially mandates that when any improvements or changes are made to a Commuter Rail station that exceed 30% of the assessed value of the station, all elements of the station must be made fully ADA-accessible. These accessibility requirements require full length high level platforms and the 'typical' accessibility elements that we are familiar with at newer stations like Yawkey and Boston Landing. This means that it is not legal nor acceptable to build a new platform on track 1 and keep the low level existing platform on track 2.
In 2013, a 30% design review meeting was held for the Auburndale station where a single rebuilt platform on track 2 was presented (at least as one of the options). This design required passengers to go "up and over" both tracks to get from the village center to the platform. According to reports, this design was widely criticized at that public meeting and the public advocated or agreed that having the station platform on track 1 was the correct option - where the "up and over" is not needed. There does not appear to have ever been a concept or plan to design or build a two-platform solution, nor did the project team convey the operational issues with a platform on the track 1 side only.
In my opinion, NO COMMUTER RAIL STATION on a two track line should ever be allowed to have a one platform station designed, constructed, or even talked about. Commuter Rail stations don't get built very often, and having a station with a platform on only one track potentially locks that station into reduced service for many years.
The current design for the Auburndale station (with the new platform on track 1) includes a new "universal interlocking" just east of the station. This interlocking is a set of switches that allows a train to switch from either track to the other track. The new interlocking ("CP 10") will mean that Auburndale will have interlockings on either side of the station (CP 11 already exists). The intent of adding a new interlocking was to provide a way for trains to switch from track 2 to track 1 to make a station stop at the new platform on track 1. It is apparent that everyone involved assumed that these interlockings and this switching back-and-forth concept would allow for either the same level of service or even better service. BUT THERE WAS NO MODELING OF THE SCHEDULE TO PROVE THAT.
During the public meeting, I described the problem as this: even with two interlockings on either side of the station, there are still essentially two one-way streets pointed at each other. Switching trains back and forth will require precise timing and probably will require some trains pausing to allow these switching moves to happen. This is less than ideal - well, actually, it's disastrous.
What does switching the platform from track 2 to track 1 do to the schedule?
Let's focus on the AM commute to see how disastrous the track change could be. First, we'll take a look at how things work on the proposed May 2017 schedule. As discussed above, track 2 is the inbound track and track 1 is the outbound track for the AM commute (actually from Framingham all the way to Boston). Keeping the tracks dedicated to these 'directions' for the AM commute allows for unimpeded flow. I've added the approximate times that EVERY train passes Auburndale to the schedule image below - the orange boxes with italicized times are NOT station stops, but rather the times that a train passes Auburndale without stopping.
If we focus on the Auburndale station stop times and rotate the data, we get the table below.
Track 1 in Boston: P587 moving westbound, approaching Boston Landing
Track 2 near Wellesley Farms: P584 departing the station stop.
Track 1 at Boston Landing: P587 departing the station stop.
Track 2 at CP 11: P584 passing inbound through CP 11 and switching to track 1.
Track 1 at Auburndale: P584 making the station stop.
Track 1 near West Newton: P587 approaching CP 10.
Track 1 at CP 10: P584 stopped inbound at CP 10 awaiting P587.
Track 1 at CP 10: P587 switching from track 1 to track 2.
Track 1 at CP 10: P584 stopped while switches are realigned to allow it to switch to track 2.
Track 2 at Auburndable: P587 passing P584 and moving outbound on track 2.
Track 1 at CP 10: P584 moving inbound from track 1 to track 2 towards the station stops at West Newton
Track 2 at CP 11: P587 moving outbound from track 2 back to track 1.
This scenario has taken less than 10 minutes but it involves about 8 miles of track along with each train passing through FOUR switches - two at each interlocking. Obviously that's less than ideal - and it doesn't even work (one train needed to wait at a signal / interlocking). And we've only tried to solve ONE of the conflicts.
Part of the problem is the one mile length of the "wrong direction" track at Auburndale. For these scenarios to work, it is almost impossible to get the timing exact so that the trains are both on the 'wrong' track at the same time - in other words, having the inbound train moving through CP 11 from track 2 to 1 and the outbound train moving from track 1 to 2 at CP 10 AT EXACTLY THE SAME MOMENT. If either of those movements doesn't happen at the same time, then it is likely one train will get through their set of switches but will arrive at the next interlocking before the other train has cleared through it. With only ONE mile between interlockings, there just isn't enough time for anything to go less than perfectly. The first train will have to stop at the 'blocked' interlocking and wait for the other train to clear the interlocking.
This can be illustrated by attempting to fix the CP 10 conflict in our model scenario above by moving the operation of P587 five minutes earlier. But this just moves the conflict to CP 11! P587 will arrive at CP 11 before P584 has had time to switch from track 2 to track 1 at CP 11.
This analysis proves that to have trains pass each other at Auburndale on the 'wrong' tracks requires precisely timed meets that would have to occur with the precision measured in seconds. Any delay of even a few minutes to one of the trains involved in the meet would most likely delay the other train. Most of you realize that keeping trains on time to the precision of under a minute is not a realistic goal on this line.
With this short distance between interlockings, the clear solution is to move one train completely through BOTH interlockings before the other train arrives. Then the timing does not have to be as precise, since the second train just needs to arrive after the first train has cleared both interlockings. But wait a minute...by doing that, THE RAILROAD IS EFFECTIVELY REDUCED TO A SINGLE TRACK AT THAT LOCATION! We've been waiting years for them to fix the single track bottleneck at Beacon Park, and now we're implementing a new one. That's one context to prove this won't work. Also remember that the new CP 10 interlocking can't be moved east to make the single track section longer - the West Newton platform is still on track 2 just east of new CP 10. Ugh.
But even if you accept the concept of an effective single track at Auburndale solution, the schedule consequences are massive. P587 would have to move 10-15 minutes earlier so that it could get past CP 11 before P584 arrived there... but once you start making changes that dramatic, the schedule completely falls apart for multiple different reasons:
1) Meets at Framingham (departure/arrival of local trains vs. expresses);
2) Arrival times of trains at Boston; and
3) The equipment cycle.
The equipment cycle problem is easy to illustrate since it isn't even possible to move P587 five minutes (let alone 10-15 minutes) earlier - it is using the equipment from P502 which arrives at South Station at 7:33 AM. With 15 minutes as the most reliable time to turn a train from inbound to outbound at South Station, moving the departure time of P587 from 7:48 AM to 7:43 AM would require moving P502 five minutes earlier... and you can see how the problems cascade exponentially (especially if you start moving departure times by 10 or 15 minutes). In fact, the AM schedule is completely jam packed at both Framingham and in Boston - so there isn't any way to tweak the times of any train without AFFECTING EVERY OTHER TRAIN FROM 6 AM TO 9 AM.
THIS IS WHY THIS ONE STATION DESIGN AFFECTS EVERYONE ON THIS LINE. It's not just a problem for Auburndale passengers.
But wait, it gets worse. The signal system of a railroad is designed to prevent collisions, and it does this by essentially warning a train crew about the condition of the rail and signals ahead. For example, when you're driving around town in your 2 ton car, you can see any traffic signal with plenty of time to stop. On a higher speed highway, there might be a warning sign that a traffic signal is ahead - and sometimes those even warn you of the CONDITION of the signal (i.e. signs which say "red signal ahead when flashing"). For a multi-ton train that isn't as easy to stop, this is exactly how the railroad signal system works. If a signal is red for stop, then signals BEFORE that red signal will require the train to start slowing down well before it reaches the red signal.
The implications of this for the CP 11 - CP 10 dance are clear. If our inbound P584 is switching from track 2 to track 1 to make the station stop at Auburndale, it is effectively occupying BOTH tracks in that area, and there will be stop signals facing an outbound train coming from Boston. The 'warning' signals that require the outbound P587 to slow down approaching the stop signals will stretch towards Boston for at least a few miles. This means that P587 is either going to have to slow down as it approaches the area (with the resultant negative schedule consequences) or the schedule will have to be adjusted to keep it away from that entire area until the signals can allow for the train to operate at normal full speed. Either way, the overall schedule is drastically affected. And remember - the schedule of an AM outbound train is critical for inbound service - those outbound trains have to get out to Worcester or Framingham in order to operate back inbound.
So what's the solution for this mess? There are a number of possibilities:
1) Build Auburndale with a platform on both tracks. This should be the ONLY solution. It allows for flexible scheduling with increased service for the reverse commute option. But it isn't funded and it isn't designed. Your first reaction might be that a two platform station would be much more expensive than the current plan, but that's not the case. The two-platform Yawkey station cost ~$13.5 million and the two-platform South Acton station recently cost ~$9.5 million. The average of those is $11.5 million - which is the amount budgeted / estimated for the current Auburndale design. We're getting a one platform station for about the same cost as a two platform station - because we're also getting a new interlocking and signal system upgrades (which don't really help us).
There are two sub-options under this solution:
a) Postpone implementation of the current design until a two platform solution can be designed, funded, and implemented. Obviously this delays accessibility for Auburndale station.
b) Modify the current design to incorporate elements that will allow for a two platform station in the future. For example, set aside space that can accommodate elevators, ramps, and other required elements to get across the tracks - even if they can't be built now.
2) Implement Ari's solution detailed in his blog - build new platforms on track 1 at all three Newton stations using the money budgeted for the new CP 10 interlocking (which Ari readily admits is inferior to building a two-platform station at Auburndale). This would presumably allow all three Newton stations to have the same rush-hour only service that they have now. It still may require some schedule changes, because Wellesley Hills and West Natick require rush hour service on track 2 only (see this blog post about that). So rush hour trains would still be required to switch tracks at CP 11. But it would be easier to manage ONE change of tracks rather than two for rush hour trains. Also note that this solution perpetuates the lack of reverse commute service throughout Newton. And with millions of dollars being spent on stations in Newton now, the second platform at each station will probably be delayed well into the distant future.
3) Build the station as designed and change the use of Auburndale. This concept eliminates rush hour 'normal' commute service at Auburndale but implements NEW 'reverse' commute service at Auburndale. In other words, since the 'reverse' commute trains are already using track 1, having them stop at the new Auburndale platform will not introduce the switching tracks CP 11 - CP 10 dance problem. Keep the trains traveling on the tracks they use today. Obviously the downside to this is the loss of the brand new Auburndale station to the ridership that uses the station the most - passengers commuting to and from Boston on a 'typical' schedule. And although the data is somewhat old, the indications are that Auburndale is the busiest of the three stations. This solution also means that the new CP 10 will be relatively unused (although more interlockings on a railroad are generally good, since they offer solutions to unforeseen problems).
4) Demand the MBTA develop a functional schedule AND solicit public input BEFORE construction proceeds. This should have been how the project started - isn't the schedule the most important aspect of a station? What does accessibility matter if the station has no service? Regardless of how we got to where we are now, this solution should be implemented in conjunction with any solution above or any other possible solution. Who knows, maybe they can come up with something that works... but I seriously doubt it.
I will be raising this issue in future meetings of the Worcester Working Group and I'll engage with local politicians and stakeholders. It's never too early to reach out to your legislators to sound off on this issue. I'll keep you updated with what I learn.
Congratulations to the Patriots! I wasn't convinced they would win until they got the second 2-point conversion. Then I knew it was destiny.
The MBTA & Keolis have announced a service change for Tuesday 2/7/2017 for the Framingham-Worcester line: the morning HeartToHub will operate as a full length local train making all station stops. The theory is that by having this train make extra stops, it increases the overall passenger capacity for all of the intermediate stops - potentially helping alleviate overcrowding on ALL trains.
I've attempted to make an UNOFFICIAL very rough ESTIMATE of the schedule for it here:
P552 - AM Heart To Hub:
Worcester: 8:05 AM
Grafton: 8:18 AM
Westboro: 8:22 AM
Southboro: 8:31 AM
Ashland: 8:35 AM
Framingham: 8:46 AM
West Natick: 8:51 AM
Natick Center: 8:56 AM
Wellesley Square: 9:01 AM
Wellesley Hills: 9:05 AM
Wellesley Farms: 9:08 AM
Auburndale: 9:13 AM
West Newton: 9:16 AM
Newtonville: 9:19 AM
Yawkey: 9:29 AM
Back Bay: 9:34 AM
South Station: 9:40 AM
This schedule assumes that P586 departs Framingham on-time and operates ahead of P552. The above schedule is NOT official and is probably VERY OPTIMISTIC - but it should be generally close to what might happen.
The official page with updates is here (http://www.mbta.com/events) although as of early Monday afternoon it didn't yet have details about the conversion of the HeartToHub to a local train.
Expect overcrowding on many trains - try to move your AM commute / trip earlier since earlier trains (pre-7 AM departures) will have more capacity on them. The weather certainly won't help with on-time performance...but I would rather be having some delayed trains if it means we're celebrating another Super Bowl win!
As discussed in this blog post below, the next phases in the roll out of the new May 22, 2017 schedule are the public hearings and the associated public comment period.
The MBTA has published the public hearing schedule:
Tuesday, January 31
6:30 p.m. - 8:30 p.m.
Newton City Hall
War Memorial Auditorium
1000 Commonwealth Avenue – Newton
Wednesday, February 1
6:30 p.m. - 8:30 p.m.
2 Washington Square – Worcester (Parking is available in the Union Station Garage at 225 Franklin St.)
Monday, February 6
6:30 p.m. - 8:30 p.m.
Natick Town Hall
13 East Central Street – Natick
The official MBTA web page with details on the public hearings is here.
The official 'reveal' of the new schedule is on this MBTA web page. There were no major changes to the draft schedule that I published back on December 16, EXCEPT that inbound train P520 was moved 5 minutes later. There were some other minor time tweaks, but no changes at all to any rush hour trains. I updated my PDF of the proposed schedule so that it includes all the changes.
Please make sure to fill out this survey and add your comments. That is the only way to get your written comments on the "official" record - tweets and comments written here will NOT become part of the official record.
But the best way to get your comments on the record will be to come to one of the public hearings! I hope to be able to get to some of them, so I'm looking forward to meeting more of my blog and Twitter followers.
Finally, the MBTA published a helpful comparison table to compare the existing schedule to the proposed schedule for service from each station to and from selected destinations.
[Edited 1/18/17: Images and PDF updated with most recent draft schedule. The only significant change is P520 was moved 5 minutes later. A few other trains had minor tweaks to some times. There were NO changes to any times for AM or PM rush hour trains between the 12/16/16 and 1/15/17 versions.]
On December 1, 2016, this blog post provided a preview of the draft morning Framingham-Worcester weekday schedule to be implemented on May 22, 2017. The entire weekday schedule is now available. The schedule is shown in the three images below - the entire schedule plus 'zoomed in' images of the AM and PM rush hour service. Click on any of the images below for a PDF of the entire schedule.
There have been a couple of changes to the morning schedule between December 1 and now, which are outlined below. My entire commentary from the previous blog post is also provided here, just for continuity.
Comments / thoughts:
1) Caveats: This is the official draft proposed schedule, which the MBTA and Keolis have agreed can be implemented in May 2017. But that also comes with a bunch of caveats:
a) This is the final draft developed as a result of the Worcester Line Working Group meetings. There might be some minor tweaks to some times as the MBTA completes simulations of the 'runs' over the next few weeks but the concepts shouldn't change - there won't be any stops added to or taken away from particular trains, locals and expresses will stay where they are, and trains won't be shuffled around before the final draft schedule is published by the MBTA.
b) The intent is that in a few weeks, this draft / proposed new schedule will be formally published by the MBTA. That will be followed by a formal public comment process. More on that below.
c) This is only a PROPOSED schedule, and the public comment process may result in changes being made before it is implemented in May 2017. There is no way to predict if those changes could be substantial or not.
2) Publication of this draft: All members of the Working Group agreed that this draft schedule could be published here on my blog to offer everyone a 'sneak preview' before it gets published officially by the MBTA and the public comment period starts. So if you see something you hate, don't get too fired up yet - remember, this isn't cast in stone.
Enough with the disclaimers...
Morning Rush Hour Inbound Service:
3) Our Petition worked! The AM service is essentially my proposed schedule from the petition that many of you signed, with two major changes:
a) the Heart To Hub train is NOT eliminated; and
b) P510 stops at Natick Center & 3 Wellesley stations.
3a) Heart to Hub: How did they keep the Heart to Hub? Easy - we're getting another train set. Currently, the AM peak service is serviced by eight train sets. With the addition of another set to increase the number of sets assigned to nine, the Heart To Hub can stay on the schedule. Or another way to look at it is new train P586 (7:14 AM departure from Framingham) can be added to the schedule with the ninth set.
As you can see, there will now be 12 inbound trips between the start of service and 10:00 AM arrival at South Station - 13 if you include the P512 'shoulder service.' It's relatively easy to see how 9 train sets can make 12 or 13 trips - the sets from the first four trips go back outbound and then come back inbound. Those turns would theoretically be:
P500 goes back out to Framingham and is 're-used' as new P586.
P502 goes back out to Framingham and is 're-used' as new P588.
P504 goes back out to Framingham and is 're-used' as new P590.
(P582 goes back out to Worcester and is 're-used' as P512, but P512 is outside of rush hour, so it doesn't count towards the 12 inbound peak trips, but it is the fourth of the four re-used sets to get to 13 trips from 9 sets.)
As previously noted on other blog posts, 4 train sets start the day in Worcester after spending the night in the layover yard. The other 5 sets come from storage in Boston.
Where do they get a ninth train set? How do they get more equipment when they have been struggling to maintain set sizes recently? The MBTA & Keolis have recently undertaken some relatively drastic steps to increase the availability of locomotives & coaches, and the expectation is those projects will be complete well before May 2017. This includes:
a) Off-site overhaul of 10 existing out-of-service locomotives. The request for proposals for this project was recently published and bids are due in mid-December.
b) Overhaul of additional out-of-service locomotives by Keolis and other local repair facilities.
Technically speaking these projects are a mix of true 'overhauls' and more modest comprehensive repairs or proactive component replacement, but it's easier for me to just say 'overhauls.'
c) Off-site execution of 4-year inspections for 19 coaches which have been out-of-service awaiting those inspections. This work will be done in Delaware by a railcar maintenance company.
When complete, these tasks will result in growth of the overall fleet size for the South Side Commuter Rail operations - allowing us to get a ninth set and allowing everyone to benefit from better equipment availability.
3b) P510 at Natick Center & 3 Wellesley stations: My original proposed schedule converted P510 to an express train with similar service as the other express trains - express from West Natick to Yawkey. However, it was pointed out that Natick Center and the 3 Wellesley stations have had inbound service with stops in the 8:20 to 8:30 AM time frame for many years. I went back and checked and it's true - the ~7:30 AM departure from Worcester making all stops to Wellesley Farms has been on the schedule for at least 16 YEARS. So there is something to be said about not removing long-established service that people have built their routine around. From a purely schedule fairness perspective, I'm not thrilled that these 4 stations end up with better service than any other stations, but keeping those 4 stations on the P510 schedule only adds 8 minutes to the duration of P510.
4) Boston Landing: Adding Boston Landing to the local Framingham-originating trains actually allows everyone to get to Boston Landing relatively easily without adding more time to the duration of the express trains. For anyone west of Framingham wishing to go to Boston Landing, they can de-board in Framingham and transfer to the next inbound local train. Each Framingham-originating local departs Framingham only about 8 minutes after the express, so the transfer wait is not onerous. This transfer process actually allows reasonable service for anyone west of Framingham going to any of the stations between Natick Center & Boston Landing.
4a) Boston Landing added to P510: Since 12/1/16, the decision was made to add Boston Landing to P510. This is because the Heart to Hub train prevents a Framingham originating local train from leaving right after P510 comes through Framingham. Passengers on P510 originating west of Framingham would face a 40 minute wait at Framingham to transfer to P590 to get to Boston Landing if P510 didn't stop at Boston Landing.
5) P506 now an express: The major element of my proposal and petition was the conversion of P506 to an express train, with a new local Framingham-originating train right behind it. That's what we wanted and that's what we got! Our hope is that this change moves some passengers from P508 to P506, thereby alleviating some of the overcrowding on P508. So if you are a P508 passenger, start thinking about what you can do to move to P506!
6) Addition of Ashland to P590: For the first time ever a local train will start in Ashland, rather than Framingham. There are a number of reasons we decided to do this:
a) The outbound set of equipment used for this service can continue west to Ashland without needing to depart Boston substantially earlier. In other words, the equipment & personnel are available and it's possible.
b) There are no conflicting train movements in the area which would preclude P590 making a 'turn' in Ashland.
c) Ashland has the largest parking capacity on the line, and both lots never come close to being filled at any point during the day.
d) A later morning inbound trip from Ashland could theoretically align with the addition of Ashland to the outbound evening "Heart to Hub" express train which is later in the evening (see below for details on PM schedule). In other words, perhaps some passengers will be able to take advantage of a slightly shifted workday schedule in Boston (~10 AM to ~7 PM?) by taking P590 in the morning and P552 (the Heart to Hub) in the evening.
e) Adding Ashland to P590 should not impact the crowding on the train, since it has excess capacity.
f) Adding Ashland to P590 does not impact riders from Framingham east since the added stop has not changed departure times from any other station for P590.
7) Renumbering of trains: The MBTA has renumbered the local trains (vs. the current schedule and the draft I published on 12/1/16). The elimination of using "P580" as a train number and starting with "P582" now means that the equipment turns have increasing numbers for each set of equipment. For example, on the current schedule, train P581 comes outbound from Boston and turns in Framingham to become P580. By skipping the number 580 on this new schedule, P581 will now come outbound from Boston and turn at Framingham to become P582, which is much more intuitive - all outbound trains will increment by one digit UP at Framingham for their inbound turn.
Evening Rush Hour Outbound Service:
8) Consolidation of P517 & P589: The current schedule includes express P517 & local P589. The proposed May 2017 schedule combines these trains into one full length local train (which would be called P517) departing South Station at 3:30 PM. Three reasons for this change:
a) Ridership: The ridership for P589 is quite low. The ridership for P517 isn't terrible, but it still isn't incredibly high.
b) Set utilization: By eliminating one set from the early rush hour 'rotation,' a set becomes available to serve as a spare for the rush hour commute. This increases the resiliancy of the equipment fleet for the entire rush hour service schedule.
c) Track utilization: By eliminating one set from going to Framingham and coming back into Boston early in the evening commute, the tracks have less trains running across them, allowing for less congestion and better resiliancy.
9) Addition of Framingham & Ashland to Heart to Hub train: The PM Heart to Hub train departing South Station at 7:35 PM has excess capacity (OK, that's the politically correct way of saying it has low ridership). Adding Framingham and Ashland does not substantially increase the transit time of the trip to Worcester, and may draw additional ridership onto this train. Why Framingham and Ashland?
a) Framingham has the highest ridership of any station on the line. Also, due to the signals, grade crossings, and physical characteristics of the line, trains already operate at reduced speed through Framingham, so adding the station stop is not eliminating a high speed segment of the trip. Finally, the construction of the new parking lot on the north side of the station will add over 200 parking spaces to the station area.
b) Ashland (as noted in #6 above) has excess parking capacity. Also, matching it up with the AM P590 trip offers a possible 'alternative' workday schedule for some commuters / potential passengers for the Heart to Hub. Finally, a new Transit Oriented Development project near the Ashland station may result in increased ridership to/from Ashland station - some of whom could potentially utilize the evening Heart to Hub train.
10) Standardized headways: From 4:20 PM to 5:50 PM, the schedule now operates on a fixed 40 minute headway for each local train and each express train, with 10 minutes between an express and a local train. In other words, with the exception of West Natick and Framingham (which are serviced by both express and local trains), a train departs for each destination west of Boston every 40 minutes. For example, Worcester bound passengers can depart South Station at 4:20 PM, 5:00 PM, and 5:40 PM. Passengers bound for Natick Center (as an example) can depart South Station at 4:30 PM, 5:10 PM, and 5:50 PM.
These standardized headways are the best compromise between frequent service and the spacing of trains to avoid conflicts. As many of you are aware, the 25 minute spacing between the current 5:15 PM local (P593) and the 5:40 express (P523) is just too close - P523 frequently 'catches up' to P593 before Framingham. Increasing that spacing to 30 minutes (along with changing the equipment rotation) should solve that problem.
Many of you may recall the 20 minute headway between local trains on previous schedules - a 5:15 PM local departure from South Station was followed by a 5:35 PM local departure from South Station. As previously discussed on this blog, that was only possible with a 'leapfrog' move - the 5:30 PM express train went AROUND the 5:15 PM local train. While that was a nifty move, it was perilous for the schedule - if anything went wrong and there were any delays, the delays could rapidly become widespread and substantial. We just don't have good enough infrastructure to keep a leapfrog move on the schedule. A (quite long) third passing track is really needed to be able to reliably include a leapfrog move on our schedule.
We spent a fair amount of time exploring the options for evening headways and looking at the pros and cons of various options. The Worcester Working Group feels that the 40 minute headway system for the height of the rush hour is the most reliable schedule at the most frequent service interval possible. We spent time learning about the infrastructure constraints that if solved would allow for more frequent service. Hopefully there will be announcements in the near future about some infrastructure projects that will benefit us.
11) The 5:50 PM train no longer operates to Worcester: The current P525 departs South Station at 5:50 PM and operates all the way to Worcester. But P523 departs South Station at 5:40 PM and operates all the way to Worcester, so having the Ashland to Worcester stops on P525 is somewhat duplicative. Removing the Ashland to Worcester segment from P525 improves congestion at Worcester, which has been a problem in the ~7 PM to ~9 PM window on the current schedule. Service to stations from Ashland to Worcester is not substantially or realistically reduced.
12) Only minor changes to trains between 6 PM and 7 PM: The important factor for this later half of the evening rush hour is the constraint at Worcester: trains should arrive at Worcester no more frequently than every 30 minutes. This has been discussed on previous blog posts, and is the result of four factors:
a) The dead end track at Worcester station (MBTA doesn't have permission to go west of the station);
b) The single platform at Worcester station;
c) The arrangement of interlockings on the approach into Worcester station; and
d) The positioning of the layover yard EAST of Worcester station.
The current schedule includes a number of trains which arrive at Worcester less than 30 minutes after the preceding train. While that can sometimes work, it is only possible if everything happens precisely on time. Increasing the interval to 30 minutes for each arrival increases the resiliancy and reliability of the entire schedule.
So, how does this affect the 6 PM to 7 PM window of Boston departures? With the Heart to Hub arriving in Worcester at 8:45 PM, the latest arrival of the previous train is ~8:15 PM. This pushes it back to a 6:45 PM departure from South Station, which also squeezes the departure of the previous train between that and the 5:50 PM local. Taking a closer look at these timings, you can see that it is impossible to continue the 40 minute express / local pattern after 5:50 PM - everything would get jammed up and there would be a long interval of no service to particular stations. Therefore keeping the ~6 PM to ~7:30 PM Boston departures similar to what they are now offers reasonable service to the most stations.
The current 6:20 PM "limited" train departing South Station is moved earlier 5 minutes, but it can't become an express and skip the Wellesleys and Natick Center. If it did, then those stations would not have service for an entire hour between the 5:50 PM and 6:45 PM Boston departures.
13) Boston Landing: As with the morning commute, only local Framingham terminating trains will stop at Boston Landing. This does present a minor problem for Boston Landing passengers bound for destinations west of Framingham, since the express-local sequence at Framingham is not conducive to a transfer there (transfer times of ~20 minutes). There are a couple of solutions / mitigations for this issue:
13a) Boston Landing passengers can get to P521: P521, the 5 PM South Station express to Worcester, is the most popular evening train. Although it doesn't stop at Boston Landing, those passengers can take INBOUND P520 from Boston Landing at 4:59 PM and get off at Yawkey at 5:04 PM. They can then board outbound P521 at Yawkey at 5:11 PM.
13b) Boston Landing added to P525: Without a similar inbound-outbound trick to reasonably access P523, the next train servicing stations west of Framingham is P525. A stop at Boston Landing has been added to that train since there is also no corresponding inbound-outbound trick for Boston Landing passengers to access P525. Boston Landing passengers can use P593 to Framingham and transfer to P523, but that requires a ~18 minute wait at Framingham.
14) Public Comment Process: The current conceptual plan for implementing the new schedule is:
a) Worcester Line Working Group completes finalizing entire new weekday draft proposed schedule by Christmas (COMPLETE).
b) Early January: MBTA formally publishes draft schedule and begins 6 week public comment period. Public Hearings will be held, although the venues and schedule haven't been worked out yet.
c) Mid-February: End of 6 week public comment period.
d) Mid-February to Mid-March: MBTA, Keolis, and Worcester Line Working Group reconvenes to review public comments & finalize new schedule.
e) Mid-March to early April: Keolis builds final equipment & crew rotations for new schedule.
f) Early April to mid-May: Crews choose new assignments (this always happens for 6-8 weeks prior to every new schedule being published in May or November).
g) May 22, 2017: New schedule implemented.
ALL OF THAT IS DRAFT AND SUBJECT TO MAJOR REVISION
This is a pretty exciting example of activism and everyone coming together behind a petition with a government agency responding and making the requested change. Our voices did matter and we're on the way to a better schedule!
Even though we're not done, it's important to note that the Working Group included many people who all contributed and engaged very constructively. It has been a very collaborative process and I'm glad I got to be a part of it. Besides me, the Working Group includes Lt. Governor Karyn Polito, Rep. Alice Peisch (D - Wellesley), Rep. Carolyn Dykema (D - Southboro, Westboro), Rep. James O'Day (D - Worcester), Stuart Loosemore (Worcester Chamber of Commerce), Jessica Strunkin (495/Metrowest Partnership), Brian Shortsleeve (MBTA General Manager), Jody Ray (MBTA Assistant General Manager in charge of Commuter Rail Railroad Operations), two Deputy Directors of MBTA Railroad Operations, David Scorey (Keolis CEO/GM), the Keolis Manager of Operations Planning, and another general public member / commuter from Wellesley.
Stay tuned to this blog and I'll publish updates on the Public Comment process as soon as it is finalized. Subscribe to get e-mail updates when the blog is updated.
There have been a number of articles recently about the poor on-time performance of the Framingham-Worcester line.
Boston Herald article
Boston Globe article
One of our Twitter friends, Meghan, even had her letter published in the Boston Globe.
The longest article was in the Telegram & Gazette, and it does the best job at explaining the difference between the "Worcester Working Group" and the "Worcester Line Rapid Action Group" (and that's not only because the article quoted me!). More on the Rapid Action Group below.
With regards to the delays, the data doesn't lie, and kudos to the MBTA for being transparent with the on-time performance data. Take a look for yourself at:
In general, delays are unacceptable. In reality, it's a bit more complicated than that. I'll offer my thoughts on the on-time performance and some potential reasons for the delays. But first, I'll offer one criticism of the data being provided by the MBTA and reported in those articles: the data provides no information about the MAGNITUDE of the delay. A 5 minute delay is the same as a 90 minute delay for the purposes of reporting how many trains were on time. I think that is an important fact - I'm not happy when my train is 6 minutes late, but it also doesn't ruin my whole day. But a 30 or 60 minute delay has the potential to really screw up my work or evening schedule.
I'm not trying to minimize any delays in the recent past, but my own completely subjective feelings are that:
1) There have been too many epic meltdowns recently (see blog posts about 10/24, 11/4, and 11/8. I didn't even write blog posts about some of the severe equipment shortages around 11/4 and the week of 11/7).
2) Those epic meltdowns result in some huge delays for many of us.
3) But overall, those epic meltdowns don't represent 40% of the trips I'm taking. Maybe 10%? That would be one per week on average. Maybe it's 2 per week? The other 2-3 delayed trips per week (to get to ~40% delays) are probably less than 10 minutes. Again, that's just my experience, and feel free to open the debate in the comments below...
Why are the delays happening at all? I think there are a number of factors to blame.
1) Bad luck. A fatality in Wellesley relatively early in the rush hour one evening not too long ago delayed some trains by hours. The train involved in the buffer strike at South Station being a Worcester train was bad luck (the incident itself wasn't bad luck - I'm just saying it was bad luck it was one of OUR trains).
2) The slippery rail season seems to have been bad this year. With only one 'wash train' for all the lines on the South Side, combating slippery rail is difficult. And it isn't clear to me that the wash train operated as much as it could, either because of equipment issues or other factors. This was what I was alluding to in my quote in the T&G article - slippery rail is bad luck, but was everything possible being done with the wash train to "make our own luck" to mitigate the related delays?
3) Equipment availability & mechanical issues. It is no secret to anyone that the last few months have seen a periodic shortage of coaches, locomotives, and/or entire train sets. The extensive delays and cancellations around 11/4/2016 could only have been caused by equipment issues.
What's the good news? Believe it or not, Keolis actually cares about these delays. Perhaps it's our advocacy, perhaps it's the political pressure, or perhaps it's the fines for late trains, or perhaps it's them just doing their jobs, but they're trying to fix it. They have created the Worcester Line Rapid Action Group to work on short-term solutions for the delays.
David Scorey, the Keolis General Manager (and a fellow Framingham-Worcester commuter) recently spoke about the Worcester Line Rapid Action Group. Watch this video - it has some nifty footage from some of the recent construction projects.
The Rapid Action Group is an internal Keolis-only group, focused on creative solutions to reducing the delays for our trains. Some of the solutions they have implemented include:
1) Adding conductors / crew members to the trains with the highest ridership. P508 actually went from 4 assigned conductors to 5 on the new crew rotation which was implemented on 11/21/2016. Other morning trains have had extra staff added on a temporary basis. Adding staff allows for more doors to be opened, speeding up passenger loading. Dwell time (the time a train is stopped in a station), especially at our stations which don't have full height platforms, can be a significant source of delays. Just 1 minute longer at five stations is 5 minutes - delays add up quick.
2) This next one is a little technical, but it's a great idea and it has been very effective. The basic idea is to have inbound express trains switch tracks well before Boston Landing - therefore avoiding a slow switch there.
"CP 4" is the interlocking / switch just west of Boston Landing. This is the switch where the two tracks from Worcester become one to get past the Boston Landing construction. Switches are not all the same - there are different switches with different geometries that allow for different speeds through them. A switch with a shallower angle off the straight track allows for higher speeds through the switch. Unfortunately, the switch at CP 4 is only rated for 15 mph.
As many of you know, rush hour trains (both inbound and outbound) usually use track 2. There's a long story behind that, but here at CP 4 the basic story is that the Newton stations have platforms only on track 2 - so trains making the Newton stops have to be on track 2 (there are no crossovers between CP 4 and the Newton stations). Trains not making the Newton stops don't have to be on track 2.
As shown on the diagram, going to or from track 2 to the single "shoo fly" track requires going through the 15 mph CP 4 switch. The 15 mph speed limit through CP 4 is effectively enforced by the fact that the 'best' signal a train can get going to or from track 2 is a "slow clear" ("Proceed at Slow Speed [15 mph] until entire train clears all interlocking or spring switches, then proceed at Normal Speed [maximum authorized speed for the track]").
Passing through CP 4 to or from track 1 avoids the effective 15 mph speed limit. Trains on that routing remain on a straight path. There is a 30 mph speed limit adjacent to the Boston Landing construction zone, so trains still have to slow down there, but the slow down is not as dramatic.
The Rapid Action Group came up with the idea to route morning express trains onto track 1 through CP 4. Since they don't need to stop at the Newton stations, they can switch to track 1 at CP 11 (the "Weston Switch"). This is the closest interlocking that allows for changing tracks west of CP 4. This change can save ~2 minutes for those trains, and every minute matters. This routing has been used for trains P502, P504, P508, and P510 for the last couple of weeks, and it appears to have helped with on-time performance. Believe it or not, P508 was actually early on Tuesday 12/6/2016.
3) Another change that Keolis has made involves the sequencing of the tie replacement project. In addition to the limitations described in this blog post, they are also not allowing the construction work to occupy track 2 until P512 passes through. As many of you recall, the tie replacement project in May and June did not have this restriction placed on it, and P512 was frequently substantially delayed due to the construction work. P512 is not technically a rush hour train, but it does have relatively high ridership, so this change helps those passengers. Mid-day trains after P512 are also less affected by the construction work, since the schedule through the mid-day has been structured to allow for areas of single track operation without dramatically affecting the schedule.
I'm sure there will be those of you who claim that the Rapid Action Group is just making changes that should be normal operational corrections, and there is an element of truth to that. But regardless of how it's happening, they are trying to make changes to improve on-time performance.
There are probably a combination of factors at play, but on-time performance has improved over the past few weeks. Those factors include:
1) End of slippery rail season;
2) Better equipment cycles with the new 11/21/2016 schedule (even though they didn't change our schedule, the changes to other lines allows for better equipment rotations);
3) Better equipment availability (apparently); and
4) the work of the Rapid Action Group.
Specifically, here is the on-time performance for peak trains for the following weeks:
11/21/16: 65% (Thanksgiving week)
We're still a long way from 90%, but at least the numbers are going in the right direction.
Not an MBTA employee, not a Keolis employee, just a regular commuter (with a scanner and some knowledge of railroad operations). Everything here is my speculation, so up to you to judge the accuracy.