Amtrak, Fairmount, and the NEC

Commuting Boston Student

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Let me start by laying out some facts as I understand them. If any of this is wrong, please correct me:
  • The final approach of the Northeast Corridor ROW into South Station utilizes the Providence/Stoughton, Needham and Franklin Lines ROW, forcing both Regional and Acela trains to stop at Back Bay, and then contend with the BOS-BBY curve. Due to the high traffic demands created by the aforementioned commuter lines and curve geometry, Back Bay is a de facto mandatory stop for all trains - and worth an extra 5 minutes minimum, on a service with a vested interest in cutting travel time wherever it can.
  • The Fairmount Line, while presently to become a DMU service with frequent headways, stands to benefit far more from electrification.
  • Constructing passing tracks or 3-tracking/4-tracking the entirety of the Fairmount Line would be easier/cheaper than constructing bypass tracks at Back Bay, and carry an added benefit to the Fairmount Line.
As I understand it, essentially, there's a gigantic loss to efficiency on the Acela Express because it must contend with that routing. The Acela is electric powered - it MUST operate on an Electrified ROW, and the Fairmount also greatly benefits from switching to EMUs if it can. Ergo, both services benefit if the Northeast Corridor is redesignated onto the Fairmount.

So, what obstacles exist to making such a move, and what are the chances we would see a serious proposal for it - short or long term?
 

Ron Newman

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I think there's a strong demand for Amtrak service at Back Bay. The station is more conveniently located than South Station for many travelers.
 

Matthew

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Hmm, this idea has been bouncing around the interwebs for a couple of days. It's not a terrible idea, it may be worthwhile. But I do agree with Ron that BBY is a heavily used station. Besides the bus, Orange and Green line connections, it's in the middle of a densely populated part of town.

Even if they do not use Fairmount, it is possible to save 1-2 minutes by skipping BBY. Is that worthwhile? Maybe? I'd have to see a deeper analysis.

P.S. Franklin sometimes uses Fairmount.
 

kz1000ps

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Having taken Amtrak dozens of times out of BBY, I'd say that the number of people using it versus South Station are just about equal, or at the very least are not an order of magnitude apart.
 

F-Line to Dudley

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Let me start by laying out some facts as I understand them. If any of this is wrong, please correct me:
  • The final approach of the Northeast Corridor ROW into South Station utilizes the Providence/Stoughton, Needham and Franklin Lines ROW, forcing both Regional and Acela trains to stop at Back Bay, and then contend with the BOS-BBY curve. Due to the high traffic demands created by the aforementioned commuter lines and curve geometry, Back Bay is a de facto mandatory stop for all trains - and worth an extra 5 minutes minimum, on a service with a vested interest in cutting travel time wherever it can.
  • The Fairmount Line, while presently to become a DMU service with frequent headways, stands to benefit far more from electrification.
  • Constructing passing tracks or 3-tracking/4-tracking the entirety of the Fairmount Line would be easier/cheaper than constructing bypass tracks at Back Bay, and carry an added benefit to the Fairmount Line.
As I understand it, essentially, there's a gigantic loss to efficiency on the Acela Express because it must contend with that routing. The Acela is electric powered - it MUST operate on an Electrified ROW, and the Fairmount also greatly benefits from switching to EMUs if it can. Ergo, both services benefit if the Northeast Corridor is redesignated onto the Fairmount.

So, what obstacles exist to making such a move, and what are the chances we would see a serious proposal for it - short or long term?
Fairmount's not possible to 4-track all the way. SW of River St. its fine...there were so many freight sidings and extended leads into Readville Yard that you could probably bring the Red Line down from Mattapan right next to it and make it a quad-track ROW. But north of there it's densely abutted, and expanding it would require taking dozens upon dozens of backyards because the railbed was never 4-track not even in the old days. Some of the NIMBY's were hard enough to deal with on the new stations. That's a rather large battle to wage for some very minor trip-time improvements. There's much better transit improvements worth expending that level of energy. Wasteful amount of infighting required for this to wash on cost/benefits.
 

Commuting Boston Student

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The ultimate goal for me is to allow for the elimination of BBY as an Acela stop. Select Northeast Regionals could still use BBY, or the BOS-BBY trip could be made completely free in both directions (or free with the presentation of a valid Amtrak ticket.)

Having taken Amtrak dozens of times out of BBY, I'd say that the number of people using it versus South Station are just about equal, or at the very least are not an order of magnitude apart.
How many of those boardings were Acela boardings versus Regionals, though? We can absolutely pull one and not the other if it comes to that.

The ultimate would be upping the four Commuter lines through Back Bay to 20 or 30 minute headways (potentially on short-turns e.g. to Route 128 or Framingham) and spacing it out so that, combined with a stated-free ride between BOS and BBY, you could have trains going from one to the other every 5 to 10 minutes.

Yanking the Regionals out of that corridor also solves the first overtake that needs to happen if a Providence/Wickford/Stoughton train departs before the Regional/Acela can, without forcing extra dwell times at Back Bay.

Fairmount's not possible to 4-track all the way. SW of River St. its fine...there were so many freight sidings and extended leads into Readville Yard that you could probably bring the Red Line down from Mattapan right next to it and make it a quad-track ROW. But north of there it's densely abutted, and expanding it would require taking dozens upon dozens of backyards because the railbed was never 4-track not even in the old days. Some of the NIMBY's were hard enough to deal with on the new stations. That's a rather large battle to wage for some very minor trip-time improvements. There's much better transit improvements worth expending that level of energy. Wasteful amount of infighting required for this to wash on cost/benefits.
Okay, so 4-tracking north is ambitious.

What about 3-tracking the sections where 4-tracking is impossible, or pushing back some of the new stations onto passing tracks?

I imagine pulling the Acela off of the Back Bay approach routing opens the door for expanding the number of Regionals and Commuter Rail trains that go through there. I'd need to see some studies, but even if it's just forcing electrification of the Fairmount, there's more potential benefit in this than just shaving a couple minutes from the Acela travel time.
 

davem

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,
The ultimate goal for me is to allow for the elimination of BBY as an Acela stop.
Why?

Taking amtrak out of BBY is a terrible, terrible idea. The reason they don't use the fairmount is specifically because of the demand for BBY service. The difference in travel time on the acela is neglible, and most conductors call out remaining time to Boston as Back Bay anyway, not South Station.

There are literally ten thousand better places to speed up the Acela. The biggest holdup to its travel time is the bottleneck through Metro North. Get them to stop putting their local commuter trains in front of an Acela, and to upgrade their track to allow the tilt mechanism to be on through the curves. I'm not sure but I'm also under the impression at least one of the four tracks is constantly down for maintance and rebuilding. The entire line south of Penn is also a mess. The only good part of the acela is north of new haven. Cutting off BBY to save 5 minutes would do nothing but decrease ridership.

How often do you ride the regionals and the acela? If the answer is more than twice you should see this as well. As mentioned above, the boarding is split about 50/50 between BBY and BOS, especially because both stations, despite being physically close, serve drastically different areas.

In addition if you pull amtrak out of Back Bay you loose its connection to the orange line (thereby allowing an easy transfer to and from the downeaster) as well as tourists going to back bay hotels, etc.


The rest of your ideas I like. An electrified and upgraded fairmount would allow for faster service and pave the way for an express from Providence, and allow for commuter trains to have a better alternative routing.
 

Commuting Boston Student

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,

Why?

Taking amtrak out of BBY is a terrible, terrible idea. The reason they don't use the fairmount is specifically because of the demand for BBY service. The difference in travel time on the acela is neglible, and most conductors call out remaining time to Boston as Back Bay anyway, not South Station.

How often do you ride the regionals and the acela? If the answer is more than twice you should see this as well. As mentioned above, the boarding is split about 50/50 between BBY and BOS, especially because both stations, despite being physically close, serve drastically different areas.

In addition if you pull amtrak out of Back Bay you loose its connection to the orange line (thereby allowing an easy transfer to and from the downeaster) as well as tourists going to back bay hotels, etc.


The rest of your ideas I like. An electrified and upgraded fairmount would allow for faster service and pave the way for an express from Providence, and allow for commuter trains to have a better alternative routing.
I've been taking the Regional about two or three times a week now for the summer as I look for a place to live and work when my school picks back up in the fall since I don't want to be Commuting Boston Student anymore. Yes, I see a significant number of people boarding/alighting at Back Bay - I am, however, convinced that most of these people would tolerate a front-end or back-end transfer at South Station. (And, again, yanking the Acela from BBY doesn't necessarily mean the Regional has to go too.)

I don't think I've ever gotten off at Back Bay, personally. That, however, is because the air quality down there is horrendous and I leave myself enough time to get breakfast somewhere along the Red Line anyway.

EDIT:

There are literally ten thousand better places to speed up the Acela. The biggest holdup to its travel time is the bottleneck through Metro North. Get them to stop putting their local commuter trains in front of an Acela, and to upgrade their track to allow the tilt mechanism to be on through the curves. I'm not sure but I'm also under the impression at least one of the four tracks is constantly down for maintance and rebuilding. The entire line south of Penn is also a mess. The only good part of the acela is north of new haven. Cutting off BBY to save 5 minutes would do nothing but decrease ridership.
And I'm not saying 'don't make any of those fixes, just cull Back Bay' - yes, the entire line is a mess, and there should be top-to-bottom, end-to-end fixes. Right now the Acela is barely faster than the Regional it competes with - even with no new hardware, track fixes and stop elimination like BBY and RTE should be enough to get BOS-WAS total travel time down another hour, and that's huge.

DOUBLE EDIT: To clarify, all Regionals should continue to stop at RTE. While I'm still up in the air on whether they should stop at BBY, there's no question that they should continue to make the Route 128 stop. Acela shouldn't, however.
 
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czsz

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Uh, 128 was basically built for Acela, to funnel 128 suburb-dwelling or working professionals who would appreciate a quicker connection than the rest of Logan to the rest of the NEC. Relinquishing it to Regionals would incentivize these people (for whom the Regional not ony seems like a greater waste of time, but more importantly, looks like a dated, substandard product) to look to other means of transport again. No way it's getting removed as an Acela stop.
 

Commuting Boston Student

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Uh, 128 was basically built for Acela, to funnel 128 suburb-dwelling or working professionals who would appreciate a quicker connection than the rest of Logan to the rest of the NEC. Relinquishing it to Regionals would incentivize these people (for whom the Regional not ony seems like a greater waste of time, but more importantly, looks like a dated, substandard product) to look to other means of transport again. No way it's getting removed as an Acela stop.
There's no reason that the Regionals need to continue to look like a dated, substandard product. That aside, how many people are boarding the Acela at RTE anyway? If it's a gigantic number I'll reverse my position, sure, but anything less than 400 daily boardings is an acceptable loss, and I'm going to tentatively peg the number at somewhere closer to 200.

We can also look at an NLC-type situation where only two Acelas out of the ten each way actually stop, and the other eight sail through, especially if most of those daily boardings are happening at one specific time.

(It'd be really nice if Amtrak bothered to report out total passengers by service in addition to by year, but apparently this is unknowable information.)
 

F-Line to Dudley

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Okay, so 4-tracking north is ambitious.

What about 3-tracking the sections where 4-tracking is impossible, or pushing back some of the new stations onto passing tracks?

I imagine pulling the Acela off of the Back Bay approach routing opens the door for expanding the number of Regionals and Commuter Rail trains that go through there. I'd need to see some studies, but even if it's just forcing electrification of the Fairmount, there's more potential benefit in this than just shaving a couple minutes from the Acela travel time.
It's more complicated than that. Fairmount starts weaving after the Neponset River, and does a big S-curve past Morton St. Speed penalty for each curve where trains would slow then have to accelerate, and given the residential density there's no way to make it arrow-straight without blowing up houses. Which is an obvious nonstarter. I doubt you could upgrade that track enough to get >80 MPH at the curves. Maybe 90 tops in some stretches, but the accel/decel around curves is going to blunt that. And I don't think 3-track is possible either between Blue Hill Ave. and Norfolk Ave. just north of Uphams Corner without land-taking. The residential property lines go right up to the ROW cut. This is the stretch that was always residential and never had much in the way of freight sidings like south-of-River St. and north-of-Uphams Corner did.

The NEC is arrow-straight from 128 all the way to Forest Hills curve, and Amtrak has plans to get the 3rd track restored from Canton Jct. to Readville (that's probably going to get a funding appropriation in 2-3 years) and a later project to restore the 4th track from Readville to Forest Hills. Those projects grade separate slow commuter rail trains (esp. the Franklins and Stoughtons) from Amtrak and would allow Regionals and Acelas to accelerate to 125 MPH from FH to 128 without having to pace themselves behind CR trains. That's 6-1/2 miles of track-speed straightaway vs. 5 miles of meh from FH to South Station. That's a significant improvement and zippier trip inside the city. Plus they are due to install center passing tracks at Mansfield and Sharon (again, probably in next 2-3 years after they finish doing the same to Kingston and Westerly in RI) that would allow Amtrak to blast past the stops at full track speed without slowing up at all for safety on abutting platforms. South Attleboro will get the same treatment later with 2 full passing tracks (requires a partial station rebuild, so that may be late in decade). AND...they're requiring the T and Shore Line East to raise all of their platforms to full level boarding by 2020 to reduce station dwell times. AND they want some assurances that CR speeds to Providence are going to increase to reduce congestion and the need for Regionals to pace themselves behind Providence trains (doable with the new locos and bi-levels that are rated for 90 MPH...remains to be seen if MBCR will give enough a shit about putting together consists not hobbled by a mix of 80 MPH coaches).

Taken together all of these improvements--all inexpensive busywork that Amtrak is pushing to complete within 8 years--achieve that 2-4 minutes of trip-time improvement that any tinkering with Fairmount or Back Bay would *maybe* (but not a lock) do at 5x the price. And then throw on top of that improvements the whole length of the NEC: the work being done in Delaware to increase track speeds, de-clogging the Shore Line East intermingling, overhead replacement south of NYC which will open up a few more small stretches of 100+ MPH, maybe finally eliminating the damn grade crossings in CT, and maybe finally giving Metro North an ultimatum to stop blocking improvements that would allow tilting trains and >90 MPH. A few minutes here, a few minutes there. All a lot more meaningful than fussing with the last 5 miles in Boston and money better spent.

Really, it's missing the forest for the trees to micro-focus on the last-mile stuff. That draws resources away from the other miscellany that'll pile up much more trip-time savings and better throughput. Plus it's no guarantee on the engineering side that Fairmount is going to be faster, or worth the community opposition. The biggest trip-time improvements in MA are already well-planned by Amtrak, and heavily dependent on simply reducing interference from slow-ass commuter rail trains (and getting the T to engage brain on following through with that).
 

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If I had to guess, I'd say most people who ride regularly (and know what they're doing, where they are) get off at Back Bay when coming inbound to Boston. That's what I did on my trip to NYC. Boarded at SS to NYC, but got off at BB on the return.
 

BostonUrbEx

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Fairmount's not possible to 4-track all the way. SW of River St. its fine...there were so many freight sidings and extended leads into Readville Yard that you could probably bring the Red Line down from Mattapan right next to it and make it a quad-track ROW. But north of there it's densely abutted, and expanding it would require taking dozens upon dozens of backyards because the railbed was never 4-track not even in the old days. Some of the NIMBY's were hard enough to deal with on the new stations. That's a rather large battle to wage for some very minor trip-time improvements. There's much better transit improvements worth expending that level of energy. Wasteful amount of infighting required for this to wash on cost/benefits.
What if you used vertical retaining walls to widen the ROW, instead of land taking to make more embankments?
 

F-Line to Dudley

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What if you used vertical retaining walls to widen the ROW, instead of land taking to make more embankments?
Again...$$$$ for dubious trip-time improvements because that doesn't solve the speed penalties at each curve. This would be eleventy-seventh on the priorities list for making the NEC better, which is why Amtrak isn't considering it at all. There is so much more downstream that would make more meaningful impact, and so much more that reducing CR interference would do to speed up the Amtrak trip.

If we want to get trains skipping BB, we need a North-South Link that's got a rapid-transit half and a sanely-designed Silver Line Phase III as light rail so there's not so much intercity dependency on the Orange Line connection. Those are projects worth fretting about long-term. This isn't.
 

BostonUrbEx

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I was thinking more along the lines of a quadruple tracked "Indigo" RT line, for expressing and local. Though perhaps unnecessary if only going out to RT 128 via Readville? I supposed there wouldn't be enough stops to warrant express?
 

F-Line to Dudley

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I was thinking more along the lines of a quadruple tracked "Indigo" RT line, for expressing and local. Though perhaps unnecessary if only going out to RT 128 via Readville? I supposed there wouldn't be enough stops to warrant express?
Not going to be doable on the center portion where it is pinned to 2-track because of property lines. However, they could with a short stretch of subway from Mattapan Sq. bring the Red Line alongside it. That wouldn't exactly be one of the highest-priority RT extensions, but cut-and-cover under River St. or Porter-Davis type as-crow-flies deep bore tunnel under property lines would do it. For the length and lack of street-abutting building foundations it would be one of the least expensive subways to do inside the city. Then they can 4-track it to Fairmount and Readville, put a large maint facility at Readville that'll allow them to close and redevelop Codman Yard, and do a choose-your-adventure from Readville to either 128 or Dedham Ctr. (I'm thinking Dedham's probably the better bet since Neponset Reservation wetlands will make it hard to plunk down 2 RT tracks next to 3 NEC tracks...there's a pinch point in the middle third where the ROW embankment is between the river and a small stream where 5 tracks ain't gonna be a very feasible fit.) CBTC signaling would make a significant-size extension of the Ashmont branch doable and bring it at or close to parity with the Braintree branch for 128 access.

That's a higher-return bet for bringing rapid transit to Hyde Park than the 1970's choose-your-adventure proposal for the Orange Line past Forest Hills (as alternative to the Needham Line alignment). That would've cannibalized 2 of the 4 NEC track berths and had intermediate stops at Mt. Hope and Cummins Hwy. that were too much locational 'tweeners to really draw a lot of prime Rozzie or Franklin Park ridership. And it is feasible despite the need for some subway construction to bridge the Mattapan Sq.-Fairmount ROW gap. But >30 years out for even a study. Let's talk Red Line for reals to Mattapan first.
 

HenryAlan

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I think there's a strong demand for Amtrak service at Back Bay. The station is more conveniently located than South Station for many travelers.
A lot of people take the Acela directly from work either for business purposes or weekend getaways to New York. I've always found Back Bay to be the easier boarding location for this train, and it appears to me that nearly half of Boston riders board there, maybe more. I agree, this wouldn't work well, inconveniencing such a large proportion of riders to save a few minutes for the group that boards at South Station.

I want to reemphasize that last point. A Midlands re-routing of Acela would only save time for the people who already board at South Station. For everybody else in Boston, it would mean a longer trip, and for everybody outside of Boston it would make no difference at all. This isn't justifiable based on ridership patterns.
 
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AmericanFolkLegend

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I want to reemphasize that last point. A Midlands re-routing of Acela would only save time for the people who already board at South Station. For everybody else in Boston, it would mean a longer trip, and for everybody outside of Boston it would make no difference at all. This isn't justifiable based on ridership patterns.
Right, this is the important point. CBS thinks of Back Bay as a delay because he boards in South Station. But eliminating BBY would not reduce trip times between Boston and NYC. It would reduce trip times between his station and NYC.
BBY is arguably a "better" station location-wise (not just because it's more geographically centered vis a vis Cambridge and the rest of Boston, but also because it's closer to more hotels and the Back Bay has emerged as every bit as much a CBD as the FinDist).
 

bbfen

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I think the only time I boarded the Acela at SS was the first time I rode it. There are thousands of businessmen in the Pru area. I have an acquaintance from NH who takes the CR to NS, Orange to BBY, then Acela to NY. Tying another half hour of my time up with transfers and the Park St/DTX clusterfuck would be discouraging.
 

Commuting Boston Student

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If I had to guess, I'd say most people who ride regularly (and know what they're doing, where they are) get off at Back Bay when coming inbound to Boston. That's what I did on my trip to NYC. Boarded at SS to NYC, but got off at BB on the return.
I'll have to take your word for it. I've never had an opportunity to ride the Acela.

Right, this is the important point. CBS thinks of Back Bay as a delay because he boards in South Station. But eliminating BBY would not reduce trip times between Boston and NYC. It would reduce trip times between his station and NYC.
BBY is arguably a "better" station location-wise (not just because it's more geographically centered vis a vis Cambridge and the rest of Boston, but also because it's closer to more hotels and the Back Bay has emerged as every bit as much a CBD as the FinDist).
I also think of it as a delay in part because I'm convinced that Back Bay is much closer to its capacity demands than South Station is and is in far more desperate need of an overhaul, and because I'm thinking of it exclusively as a front-end proposition rather than a back-end one - skipping Back Bay on the departure affects the times for every other segment of the trip.

Maybe I should've posted Design a Better Back Bay instead?

I will concede that it's not worth skipping if the train is forced to stop at Route 128, because otherwise the acceleration gains are just as quickly lost by having to brake into RTE.

My vision of the Acela is one that makes eight stops total, blasting out of South Station and not stopping again until Providence, then New Haven, New York, Newark, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore, Washington. Slower trains would service the intermediary stops, with timed transfers to allow for people going to places like Route 128, New London, Stamford or Metropark.
 

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