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!
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.
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."