Let me make this clear: I don't work in MBTA Commuter Rail Railroad Operations nor do I work for Keolis, and I haven't had a chance to connect with anyone in RROps lately, so this blog post is truly not based on any recent inside info. As always, this blog is my own personal opinion and nothing written here is an official position or statement by the MBTA. Just want to make that clear up front. As we'll see, I know a lot about P586 and the history behind it...and all of that is stuff that I've previously blogged about - before I started working at the T. Although I'm no longer in Capital Delivery, I'm still at the MBTA and involved in implementing capital projects. You can read more about my initial role when I started at the MBTA here.
As many of you are aware, the On-Time Performance ("OTP") of P586 has been less than ideal for a while. But a little notification on Friday 12/13/2019 about an operational change may mean that things might get a little better for us.
First, there are some important things to remember as baseline conditions for this discussion:
1) All of the train sets used on the Framingham-Worcester line start the day either in Worcester (4 sets) or Boston (5 sets). There is no place to have a set stay in Framingham for an overnight "layover."
2) The Framingham-Worcester line has 54 scheduled trips on weekdays. Although there is some sharing of equipment with other lines later in the day, it is generally true that those 54 trips are made by using just those 9 train sets. Point being: there isn't a yard full of an unlimited number of train sets that can be used at will. The entire south side (everything in and out of South Station) has a planned "equipment cycle" which describes how the available equipment is rotated and cycled through the schedule to provide service on all south side lines. There's a little more about that in the Turn Table page.
3) The equipment cycle gets very complicated very quickly: not only does the timing have to work, but the correct SIZE train sets need to be assigned to the correct trips. Since not all train sets are the same size, it is not possible to substitute or move set assignments around at will. This further constrains the options available to help fix the On-Time Performance of P586.
4) Generally speaking, it takes a minimum of 10 minutes for a train to "turn" from one direction to the other (either at South Station, Framingham, or Worcester). In other words, if an outbound train arrives at Framingham at 10:15 AM, it won't be scheduled to go back inbound until about 10:25 AM. This is due to a number of factors, including the safety checks and operational setup that the train crew has to perform to change the direction of the equipment. Ideally the schedule will allow for more than 10 minutes for a turn in order to serve as some cushion in case of delays.
5) The Framingham-Worcester line has a tight express-local-express inbound pattern during the morning peak hours. Take a look at the schedule and notice two things:
a) At Framingham, the local trains depart about 10 minutes after the express trains come through. This is true for 4 pairs of trains from about 6 AM to about 8 AM.
b) At Lansdowne, the express trains arrive about 10 minutes after the local trains come through. This is true for 5 pairs of trains (or even six, if you include P552, the bullet "Heart to Hub" train) from about 6:15 AM to about 9:00 AM.
Ten minutes is roughly the closest that trains can get to each other given the current signaling system - any closer and they will have to slow down for less than clear signals as trains get stacked up behind each other. Ten minutes also gives some cushion for minor delays. In other words, our AM schedule is packed as full as it can get. If you were to change the time of any one of those trips, it would cascade to all the other trains - and the time for every train would have to be changed. So the answer to the question of "why not just change the times of P586 to make it better" is, in the immortal words from Top Gun: "Negative Ghost Rider, the pattern is full."
So given all of that, let's take a closer look at what's happening with P586. As described on the handy Turn Table, the equipment for P586 starts the day in Worcester and is the first inbound trip of the day. This set follows this schedule pattern:
Start AM in Worcester yard
Depart Worcester as P500 at 4:45 AM
Arrive South Station 6:20 AM
Depart South Station as train number 6585 at 6:30 AM
Pass west through Framingham at 7:00 AM
Depart Framingham as P586 at 7:15 AM
After arriving at South Station at 8:11 AM, it is scheduled to be used as outbound P509 and then inbound P514, but that's not really relevant to the OTP of P586.
You'll notice that you can't find train "6585" on the schedule. Train trip 6585 is a non-revenue / deadhead move of the equipment from South Station to Framingham, meaning it is a direct express trip carrying no passengers. You can see where it slots between P505 and P587 on the outbound schedule.
There are a lot of critical moves on that equipment rotation pattern for the P586 set:
A) If P500 is late getting to South Station, 6585 might be late leaving South Station, potentially jeopardizing the on-time departure of P586 from Framingham.
B) Outbound P505 is scheduled to depart Framingham at 6:55 AM. If it is delayed, 6585 right behind it will probably be delayed, potentially jeopardizing the on-time departure of P586 from Framingham.
C) Inbound P506 is scheduled to depart Framingham at 7:02 AM. If it is delayed, the on-time departure of P586 from Framingham is jeopardized.
D) If there is any glitch or delay for any of the turns of the P500-6585-P586 set, then the on-time departure of P586 from Framingham is jeopardized. The 6:20 AM to 6:30 AM turn from P500 to 6585 and the 7:00 AM to 7:15 AM turn from 6585 to P586 are both very tight with not a lot of room for error.
Up until today, the standard practice for the 6585 to P586 turn had been this:
1) Outbound 6585 passes west through Framingham station on track 1 without stopping at about 7:00 AM.
2) 6585 goes west through CP 22 near the Fountain Street bridge in Framingham and stops on track 1 to make the "turn."
3) Once the crew is ready, the equipment is now inbound P586 and moves east from near the Fountain Street bridge passing into CP 22 and switching from track 1 to track 2 within CP 22. [Look at Google Maps and you can see the switches that are used, if you're really curious.]
4) P586 is now on track 2, the "usual" track for inbound trains at Framingham in the AM.
5) P586 can now stop at Framingham station on track 2 and board passengers, departing at 7:15 AM.
6) P586 proceeds inbound on track 2, the usual inbound AM track.
["CP 22" is the interlocking just west of Framingham station where trains can switch from tracks 1 to 2 and vice-versa. Read more about "interlockings" in the glossary. And be sure to read the "which track is which" blog post and the "why do Framingham-Worcester trains switch tracks" blog post also.]
Obviously that's a lot to happen within 15 minutes.
This notification from Friday hints that that there may be a new operational practice for P586, which may help us.
NOTE: Keolis Customer Service uses these descriptions:
"Outbound" track at Framingham = track 1 = northern track, closest to the new "infield" parking lot
"Inbound" track at Framingham = track 2 = southern track, closest to Route 135.
So what does this tweet mean? It looks like the six step "turn" from 6585 to P586 described above will be simplified to this procedure:
1) Outbound 6585 STOPS at Framingham station on track 1 at 7:00 AM. This doesn't interfere with P506 since it is on track 2.
2) The crew of 6585 / P586 can "turn" the set while it is waiting at the Framingham station - and passengers can simultaneously board the train for the inbound trip as P586.
3) At 7:15 AM, P586 can depart Framingham station from track 1, crossing over to track 2 at CP 21 which is just east of Framingham station (it's actually between Concord Street and Bishop Street).
4) P586 proceeds inbound on track 2, the usual inbound AM track.
This new procedure can potentially shave off a few minutes from the original procedure, for a number of reasons:
1) 6585 doesn't have to go all the way west of Fountain Street and then back east to the station.
2) The switching from track 1 to track 2 will now happen after P586 departs Framingham at 7:15 AM. That potentially can help with on-time departure from Framingham, and since the speed limit on track 2 moving east from Framingham is slow anyway, having the switching happen during the revenue service movement of P586 shouldn't result in any delay vs. having P586 just go straight on track 2 through CP 21.
3) The crew can perform the work needed to "turn" 6585 from an outbound trip to an inbound trip at the same time that passengers are boarding. This is potentially a big improvement - the previous procedure had 6585 stop west of Fountain Street and then P586 had to make a separate station stop in Framingham for passenger boarding. It appears they've consolidated those two "stops" into one "stop."
It does have a couple of downsides:
1) P586 now boards on a different track than every other AM peak inbound train at Framingham. This is potentially confusing for passengers and not really a best practice. Good news is that most passengers on P586 are commuters taking the same train every day. If you're a regular P586 passenger, perhaps speak up and help out if you see confused people looking for their train?
2) There are a number of passengers that make the forced transfer from P506 to P586 so they can get from the far western stations to Natick Center, the Wellesleys, the Newtons, or Boston Landing. These passengers typically get off P506 at Framingham and board P586 on the same platform. If they want to make that transfer under the new scheme, they will have to cross over on the pedestrian bridge from track 2 to track 1 at Framingham. But they have a better option: they can stay on P506 to West Natick and make the switch to P586 there, since both P506 and P586 will continue to use track 2 at West Natick.
So what have we learned today?
1) It is probably difficult to assign a different set to be used as the 6585-P586 set. Everything is being used at that point in the AM commute and there isn't a stable of spare equipment available to deploy on a different schedule.
2) Our AM peak schedule is tight, and changing departure or arrival times of P586 would cascade to potentially affecting every other train on the AM schedule.
3) The set used for P586 has tight constraints for its AM usage. It's difficult to squeeze better performance from this set given the equipment cycle.
4) Keolis and/or RROps appears to have come up with a creative idea to try and make the OTP of P586 a little better. Only time will tell if it's enough to get P586 back on track for on-time departures and arrivals.
Appendix / Epilogue:
As I hinted in the beginning of this blog post, I've got a long history of involvement with P586. Prior to May 2017, P506 operated as a full local train making all stops from Worcester to Boston and P586 didn't exist.
As a result of some advocacy and through the efforts of the Worcester Working Group, the schedule in May 2017 took P506 and broke it into two trips: P506 as an express keeping basically the same departure time from Worcester but going express from West Natick, and the new P586 local service departing from Framingham at 7:15 AM and making all stops to Boston.
I first blogged about the potential to make this schedule change in this blog post, although I was building off a draft schedule that RROps had published when the original "Heart to Hub" train was proposed. So although I advocated for the P506 - P586 split to happen, I didn't really "invent" it. But I certainly had something to do with it happening.
The outcome of the collaborative Worcester Working Group process used to come up with the May 2017 schedule is described in a number of my blog posts over the fall and early winter of 2016 and the final draft schedule was summarized in this blog post. The Worcester Working Group was my first real formal involvement with the MBTA and definitely led to me deciding to apply for a position and join the MBTA later in 2017.
The Worcester Working Group continues to meet occasionally, and is primarily now a formal way for various elected officials to meet with MBTA Railroad Operations staff, Keolis officials, and other MassDOT officials for updates on issues related to the Framingham-Worcester line. I'm grateful that I've been allowed to stay involved with the Worcester Working Group and I'll continue to advocate for the "passenger perspective" as long as they'll let me!