Fantasy T maps

JeffDowntown

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No...it's pretty crazy. It's a rehash of this Crazy Transit Pitches post from last year that went off-roading in a tunnel under Western Ave. on a circuitous route through most of Lynn at dubious benefit (the supposed big ridership catchments on the detour don't really exist). None of the official proposals ever strayed from the Eastern Route ROW, which is graded for 4 tracks throughout Lynn + Swampscott.

It's basically a God-mode pitch.
Ah, I missed it not following the Eastern Route ROW.
 

Riverside

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Prompted by @Teban54's question a few weeks ago, today's blog post gives a brief overview of software one can use for making transit diagrams and maps. There's a lot more to say on the overall topic of crayon mapmaking, but I figured a intro post to get curious minds thinking about what software to use would be helpful starting point!

As mentioned, I primarily use Paint.NET these days -- for me there is a nice WYSIWYG sweet spot here that gives me more power than MS Paint, but without as much overhead as Inkscape. I also can't overstate the value of sketching maps/diagrams by hand -- it by no means is going to look pretty, but will give you a very tangible grasp on what the tricky parts are in your visualization.

I think this topic will be part of a recurring series, but I don't plan for the next post to be on this particular area -- weighing a few different options for that one...
 

Riverside

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Today’s post is about the challenges of branches on a rapid transit system.

For me, it was a real lightbulb moment when it finally clicked that adding more branches actually meant reducing the number of trains on each branch; far from expanding service the way I had imagined when first drawing a branch-heavy crayon, I was actually proposing expansions that would be worse for everyone.

This post offers tips for amateur crayon mappers. These include:
  • Two branches max on HRT lines
  • Frequencies decline fast as you add branches
  • Your trunk line is the whole pie – each branch is only going to get a piece; trunk lines therefore are high-frequency, branches are mid/low-frequency
  • Look for short-turn services when trying to add branches
  • Be cautious with reverse branching
  • Remember that junctions are always complicated
  • Some further comments about applying these rules to LRT, BRT, and mainline rail systems
This post is the first in a series. Subsequent posts will do a deeper dive on the fast decline of frequencies as branches are added, and then discuss clever ways that rail systems have ameliorated the problems branches pose.
 

Teban54

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Today’s post is about the challenges of branches on a rapid transit system.

For me, it was a real lightbulb moment when it finally clicked that adding more branches actually meant reducing the number of trains on each branch; far from expanding service the way I had imagined when first drawing a branch-heavy crayon, I was actually proposing expansions that would be worse for everyone.

This post offers tips for amateur crayon mappers. These include:
  • Two branches max on HRT lines
  • Frequencies decline fast as you add branches
  • Your trunk line is the whole pie – each branch is only going to get a piece; trunk lines therefore are high-frequency, branches are mid/low-frequency
  • Look for short-turn services when trying to add branches
  • Be cautious with reverse branching
  • Remember that junctions are always complicated
  • Some further comments about applying these rules to LRT, BRT, and mainline rail systems
This post is the first in a series. Subsequent posts will do a deeper dive on the fast decline of frequencies as branches are added, and then discuss clever ways that rail systems have ameliorated the problems branches pose.
This reply probably belongs in the Green Line Reconfiguration thread, but it makes me wonder how the GL system would deal with all the proposed or fantasized new branches, especially to the south: Grand Junction (BU), Harvard, Watertown, Boston College, Cleaveland Circle, Riverside, Needham, Heath St, Nubian, and Seaport.

While the northern branches aren't nearly as congested and can be paired with southern branches, there are still several of them proposed: Grand Junction (Kendall), Union Square, Medford/Tufts, Everett/Chelsea.

Obviously not all of these will materialize, nor do they all have to go through Park St, but the problem still exists in the long term.
 

Brattle Loop

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This reply probably belongs in the Green Line Reconfiguration thread, but it makes me wonder how the GL system would deal with all the proposed or fantasized new branches, especially to the south: Grand Junction (BU), Harvard, Watertown, Boston College, Cleaveland Circle, Riverside, Needham, Heath St, Nubian, and Seaport.

While the northern branches aren't nearly as congested and can be paired with southern branches, there are still several of them proposed: Grand Junction (Kendall), Union Square, Medford/Tufts, Everett/Chelsea.

Obviously not all of these will materialize, nor do they all have to go through Park St, but the problem still exists in the long term.
It's definitely an open issue, though with some potential solutions floated with the various proposals.

Grand Junction Green (aka the northwestern quadrant of the Urban Ring) is generally conceptualized as being fed from the GL at both ends; in some proposals from a northeastern quadrant eating the SL3 via Sullivan, where not everything from either branch/quadrant is necessarily fed into the Central Subway at all. Most of the GL-GJ proposals I've seen also tend to rely on the B being buried under its reservation from the portal to the BU Bridge, which helps with capacity in that stretch.

Needham being inherently a branch off of the D means that it'd never see full-branch-scale headways. The Highland Branch would be carrying more trains than it does now, but not to the extent of doubling like if it were a whole-new branch off the subway.

Nubian and Seaport effectively require reactivation of the currently-underutilized spare capacity of the outer tracks from Boylston-Park.

Apart from upgrades to the signal system and other capacity changes resulting from the adoption of the Type 10s, the simplest way to squeeze more capacity out of the Central Subway is to return to more historical practices of overlapping services and away from the more recent focus on maximizing one-seat rides. We'd probably see significantly greater use of the Park Street Loop (avoiding the difficult-to-modify twin-track tunnel between Park and GC), increased use of my namesake Brattle Loop for cars coming from the northern branches, and possibly greater use of the Kenmore Loop to maintain branch headways without overburdening the tunnels.
 

Riverside

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And indeed that is the long term direction of where this series is going: the past and future of the Green Line. @Teban54 I have a giant spreadsheet of Green Line branches and how to serve all the different legs we toss around here. A lot of it has already been laid out in the Green Line Reconfiguration thread. But one of the key pieces will be recognizing that not everything needs to go through Park Street. You may recall that in the Green Line Reconfiguration thread I recently posted a new iteration of a junction south of Boylston; a key feature of that junction is the ability to support traffic patterns from each side of a triangle: Boylston, Back Bay, and the Seaport. This design is how you get around the problem of decreasing frequencies I describe — Boylston trains get split between Back Bay and Seaport, but then get supplemented by Back Bay-Seaport trains. When balanced right, it can mean that all three legs are able to operate at full capacity.

This still leaves you with trouble on what I call the “Kenmore Division” — Beacon, Commonwealth, Watertown, Allston/Harvard, Grand Junction (and Heath/Hyde/Arborway on my maps). Unlike the Seaport subway, which can get fed from Park St and Back Bay, the Kenmore Division can largely only be fed from Park St. And here you do hit those decreasing frequencies very quickly. But here’s a quick rundown of potential solutions we’ve come up with over the years:

-Brookline Village/Heath/Hyde/Arborway: under the assumption that the Huntington Ave Subway is extended and the D rerouted to Huntington, the segment north of Brookline Village still needs service. Here you can leverage Huntington to use the Seaport as an alternative faucet, with Heath/Hyde/Arborway being served both from Kenmore and from Back Bay/Seaport. Depending on preference, you could actually make Kenmore your terminus: Kenmore-Brookline Village-Huntington-South Station-Seaport.

-Cleveland Circle: as mentioned, you can supplement through trains with short-turns at Kenmore. This becomes easier to justify if you have a Blue Line connection, but I think the short-turns are not as useful as they seem.

-Boston College: this one is hard for lots of reasons, and there isn’t a great way to supply trains to Commonwealth, other than from Park St. (The Commonwealth Branch can’t access the Kenmore Loop.) You might be able to build some sort of connection to the Grand Junction — some have suggested a junction at the BU Bridge, but I actually think going via the new West Station could be a better solution. And then an additional possibility is to build a short stretch of surface track and short-turn some trains at surface level at Kenmore. (I think I’m in a minority on that proposal, but I believe it can form part of a larger solution.)

-Watertown (Brighton): similar to Commonwealth, but you have a couple extra advantages. First, it would be a bit easier in this case to feed via West Station and therefore from GJ. Second, there hasn’t been a one-seat ride to downtown for several generations, which means rider patterns have become accustomed to transferring at Kenmore. That means that even modest improvements would be beneficial.

-Harvard: will be fed both by Park/Kenmore and by Grand Junction. However, I think it’ll be important to keep Harvard-Kenmore frequencies high, to enable transfers to south side circumferential buses at Kenmore. To me this points again toward building a surface stop at Kenmore to short turn LRT trains.

-Grand Junction: basically the same as Harvard. This one is a little tricky to plan for, as I suspect rider behavior will be heavily driven by minor factors. For example, this branch would provide a one-seat ride from Kenmore to Kendall. But what if you are traveling to Kenmore from someplace else (eg Coolidge Corner)? Then it becomes a two-seat ride and the question becomes, change at Kenmore or change at Park? At which point frequencies and travel times will become paramount. This branch will definitely be important, but the exact spread of services might still be a bit more up in the air. (Again, a Kenmore surface terminal could help here.)

Today the Green Line handles 4 branches. Can we make that number work on the routes above?

Treat both Beacon and Commonwealth as full branches. Treat Watertown and Brookline Village as half-branches, supplemented from Huntington, GJ, and short-turns. You’ve got one full slot left. Do you run Harvard trains through and send all GJ trains to the surface? Do you run them each at half-frequencies? Or do you drop all “full branches” from 10 tph to 8 tph (6 min to 7.5 min headways) and squeeze in a fifth “full branch” to serve both?

I don’t have all the answers (some of which need a crystal ball), but I’m reasonably confident that there is a solution floating around somewhere in here.
 

Riverside

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Or to put it another way — you solve the high number of southern branches by adding additional trunk lines. That’s what a lot of this boils down to.
 

Riverside

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Today’s post follows up on my previous post about the pitfalls of branching, and does a deep dive into the surprisingly rapid decrease in frequencies per branch you see as you add more and more branches.

For something so mathematical and obvious, I’m embarrassed to admit how long it took me to really wrap my head around this concept: not only do more branches mean fewer trains for each branch, but the character of service shifts shockingly fast as you add branches, even when just going from two branches to three.

In the post, I included a couple of charts to visualize the drop-offs in frequency. I think it’s really interesting to consider what goes in to choosing the “sweet spot” for stations like JFK/UMass, where it’s workable to drop from <5 min headways to 5-10 minutes. Aside from the Riverside Line, I’m not sure that any other legs of the system have even reached their equivalent inflection points.
  • Blue Line north: I think Lynn would still need full frequencies. Perhaps an extension north could split (if there were anywhere worth splitting to, which there really isn’t), but I think there’s an argument that full frequencies are merited all the way to Salem.
  • Orange Line north: Malden potentially could be a split point (again, if there were anywhere worth splitting to) – I don’t think Oak Grove-Reading requires full <5 headways, at least not for a while. South of Malden (including Malden Center itself) definitely need the full frequencies, though.
  • Green Line north: this one’s a bit more apples to oranges. Both the Union and Medford branches would probably benefit from 1.25x to 1.5x the initial single-branch frequencies they’ll get, and (assuming the Brattle Loop gets used) the Central Subway would have capacity to accommodate that. Probably I’d wager that Route 16 or West Medford would be reasonable inflection points on that branch, after which split frequencies could be reasonable. The Union Branch is trickier, in part because it depends where you go after Porter (or if you go beyond Porter). These days, I’m partial to a Waltham extension, maybe with a branch to Watertown and/or Arlington/Lexington/points north, and I think all of those would merit service equivalent to the current Riverside Line
  • Red Line north: the likeliest extension here is to Arlington Center. Based on bus ridership, I’d argue you’d want full frequencies if you go this way. Once upon a time, Harvard might have been the inflection point, but I think those days are long gone. I used to see Alewife as a logical branchpoint (e.g. one branch to Lexington, the other to Waltham), but I’m much less convinced of that than I once was; Belmont/Waltham might be feasible with HRT half-frequencies, but I think Arlington is a harder sell – if you are going to invest in that infrastructure, I think you’d want to maximize its throughput
  • Green Line west (B & C): I’d argue that both of these branches terminate at the logical inflection point on this side of the city. However, it’s not like anyone is going to want to extend these branches!
  • Green Line west (D): Like I said, I think Reservoir/Chestnut Hill Ave is a reasonable inflection point, and I think that hold true on the D as well; branching at Newton Highlands to head to Needham seems reasonable for LRT
  • Orange Line south: once upon a time, I figured “send half the trains to West Roxbury and the other half to Readville” (yes, I know, NEC throughput requirements preclude Orange Line to Readville, that’s not my point). Nowadays, having seen the ridership on the 35, 36, and 37, I’m much less convinced. In another universe where it was possible, perhaps West Roxbury would be a reasonable split – half to Needham, half to Dedham – but as it stands, I think there’s a good argument for full frequencies all the way
  • Red Line south: truth be told, I think JFK/UMass is closer to the core than a branching point for HRT should be. Both Ashmont and Quincy likely have enough demand to merit full frequencies. (One reason why I’m such a fan of F-Line’s Red-X proposal.)
All of which is to say – it’s surprisingly difficult to find a place where branching HRT lines actually is a right fit. You have to have just the right combination of “<5 minute territory” adjacent to a pair of “5-10 minute territories”.

So this is why I’m pretty skeptical of crayon maps that branch…
  • Orange at Sullivan
  • Orange at Back Bay
  • Blue at Maverick
  • Blue at Charles/MGH
  • Red at Central and arguably Harvard
  • Red at Broadway to convert Fairmount to Red
All of those branchpoints consign their branches to a lower tier of frequencies, and most of those branchpoints would reduce service to current corridors that already are near or at capacity with current frequencies.
 

luobo

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I have two heretical thoughts regarding the above list:

1) Branching Orange not at Sullivan, but at Wellington (for the sake of hopping east to Everett's Broadway corridor).

While Malden Center is a big bus hub, quite a bit of that bus traffic is people transferring to the Orange Line from Everett and eastern Malden. If Orange went to Everett and eastern Malden directly, would there be the same demand for buses to Malden Center?

2) Branching Blue at Maverick to serve the Chelsea/Revere Broadway corridor.

Very similar issue. Maverick is a big bus hub, but a lot of those buses are people trying to get to the Blue Line from Chelsea and Revere! If these folks had the Blue Line in their neighborhood, they wouldn't get on a bus to Maverick (or Wonderland).

I agree that watering down frequency to Lynn as a result of this branching is an issue, though that could be helped with better RR frequency to Lynn so downtown riders take RR and the BL serves specifically the Lynn to Eastie crowd.

Again, I know it's heresy and requires a crystal ball to answer the mode shift questions involved but it does seem like a fairly direct solution to the "two Broadways" problem.
 

Teban54

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Today’s post follows up on my previous post about the pitfalls of branching, and does a deep dive into the surprisingly rapid decrease in frequencies per branch you see as you add more and more branches.

For something so mathematical and obvious, I’m embarrassed to admit how long it took me to really wrap my head around this concept: not only do more branches mean fewer trains for each branch, but the character of service shifts shockingly fast as you add branches, even when just going from two branches to three.

In the post, I included a couple of charts to visualize the drop-offs in frequency. I think it’s really interesting to consider what goes in to choosing the “sweet spot” for stations like JFK/UMass, where it’s workable to drop from <5 min headways to 5-10 minutes. Aside from the Riverside Line, I’m not sure that any other legs of the system have even reached their equivalent inflection points.
  • Blue Line north: I think Lynn would still need full frequencies. Perhaps an extension north could split (if there were anywhere worth splitting to, which there really isn’t), but I think there’s an argument that full frequencies are merited all the way to Salem.
  • Orange Line north: Malden potentially could be a split point (again, if there were anywhere worth splitting to) – I don’t think Oak Grove-Reading requires full <5 headways, at least not for a while. South of Malden (including Malden Center itself) definitely need the full frequencies, though.
  • Green Line north: this one’s a bit more apples to oranges. Both the Union and Medford branches would probably benefit from 1.25x to 1.5x the initial single-branch frequencies they’ll get, and (assuming the Brattle Loop gets used) the Central Subway would have capacity to accommodate that. Probably I’d wager that Route 16 or West Medford would be reasonable inflection points on that branch, after which split frequencies could be reasonable. The Union Branch is trickier, in part because it depends where you go after Porter (or if you go beyond Porter). These days, I’m partial to a Waltham extension, maybe with a branch to Watertown and/or Arlington/Lexington/points north, and I think all of those would merit service equivalent to the current Riverside Line
  • Red Line north: the likeliest extension here is to Arlington Center. Based on bus ridership, I’d argue you’d want full frequencies if you go this way. Once upon a time, Harvard might have been the inflection point, but I think those days are long gone. I used to see Alewife as a logical branchpoint (e.g. one branch to Lexington, the other to Waltham), but I’m much less convinced of that than I once was; Belmont/Waltham might be feasible with HRT half-frequencies, but I think Arlington is a harder sell – if you are going to invest in that infrastructure, I think you’d want to maximize its throughput
  • Green Line west (B & C): I’d argue that both of these branches terminate at the logical inflection point on this side of the city. However, it’s not like anyone is going to want to extend these branches!
  • Green Line west (D): Like I said, I think Reservoir/Chestnut Hill Ave is a reasonable inflection point, and I think that hold true on the D as well; branching at Newton Highlands to head to Needham seems reasonable for LRT
  • Orange Line south: once upon a time, I figured “send half the trains to West Roxbury and the other half to Readville” (yes, I know, NEC throughput requirements preclude Orange Line to Readville, that’s not my point). Nowadays, having seen the ridership on the 35, 36, and 37, I’m much less convinced. In another universe where it was possible, perhaps West Roxbury would be a reasonable split – half to Needham, half to Dedham – but as it stands, I think there’s a good argument for full frequencies all the way
  • Red Line south: truth be told, I think JFK/UMass is closer to the core than a branching point for HRT should be. Both Ashmont and Quincy likely have enough demand to merit full frequencies. (One reason why I’m such a fan of F-Line’s Red-X proposal.)
All of which is to say – it’s surprisingly difficult to find a place where branching HRT lines actually is a right fit. You have to have just the right combination of “<5 minute territory” adjacent to a pair of “5-10 minute territories”.

So this is why I’m pretty skeptical of crayon maps that branch…
  • Orange at Sullivan
  • Orange at Back Bay
  • Blue at Maverick
  • Blue at Charles/MGH
  • Red at Central and arguably Harvard
  • Red at Broadway to convert Fairmount to Red
All of those branchpoints consign their branches to a lower tier of frequencies, and most of those branchpoints would reduce service to current corridors that already are near or at capacity with current frequencies.
To add some more context on how hard <2 minute headways can be achieved:
  • Shanghai has at least 2 lines with <2 min peak frequencies under regular schedule: Line 9 (1:50), and Line 7 (1:55). Both lines have regular short-turns on both ends.
  • Beijing had a temporary post-Covid schedule in April 2020 with 11 lines operating at <2 min headways, with Line 9 and Line 10 achieving 1:45. I can't find anything on whether these schedules are still in place. Not all of them had short-turns on both ends (Line 9 certainly didn't).
I don't know if 1:30 headways for HRT is even achievable at all.
 

F-Line to Dudley

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I have two heretical thoughts regarding the above list:

1) Branching Orange not at Sullivan, but at Wellington (for the sake of hopping east to Everett's Broadway corridor).

While Malden Center is a big bus hub, quite a bit of that bus traffic is people transferring to the Orange Line from Everett and eastern Malden. If Orange went to Everett and eastern Malden directly, would there be the same demand for buses to Malden Center?
It's 13 routes, which is a real lot (more than Harvard, only 2 fewer than Nubian). That's a very big terminal. No singular rapid transit branch is going to displace demand for such an enormous quantity of local routes. In this case the frequency reduction is absolutely the greater harm.

2) Branching Blue at Maverick to serve the Chelsea/Revere Broadway corridor.

Very similar issue. Maverick is a big bus hub, but a lot of those buses are people trying to get to the Blue Line from Chelsea and Revere! If these folks had the Blue Line in their neighborhood, they wouldn't get on a bus to Maverick (or Wonderland).

I agree that watering down frequency to Lynn as a result of this branching is an issue, though that could be helped with better RR frequency to Lynn so downtown riders take RR and the BL serves specifically the Lynn to Eastie crowd.
Maverick is not a big bus hub. Only 5 routes, 3 that go to Chelsea and 2 that don't. Wonderland has 13 routes, Lynn 10. It's absolutely the greater harm to halve Wonderland's frequencies, and Regional Rail cannot possibly hope to compensate for that because all 10 Lynn routes already have to continue to Wonderland because the skew towards Blue and Revere is so incredibly pronounced.


The metrics point pretty clearly to a line in the sand at Malden Center and Lynn before any mainline frequencies get vultured.
 

737900er

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This discussion of branching got me thinking about the relative merits of Orange vs. Green to Chelsea. I know the general sentiment on this board is “no Orange, maybe Green” but just how bad would an Orange branch to Chelsea be?

The Orange Line today has service every 6 to 7 minutes at peak (assume 6.5). If we assume that OLT increases service by 20%, that’s a train every 5.2 minutes. Split between two branches, that’s a train every 10.4 minutes. For reference, Ashmont/Braintree service is every 9 to 10 minutes at peak today, so these branches would not have significantly different headways than Ashmont/Braintree, and service could almost certainly be increased to today’s Red Line branch levels.

The problem is that Orange north of Sullivan has higher ridership (as of 2019) than the either of the Red branches south of JFK/UMass.

1651522541490.png


The next question would be: how much usage might a Chelsea branch get (whether it was Green or Orange)?

If we look at the services provided to Chelsea today and guess estimate how much of their current ridership would be taken over by a new branch to Sullivan from Airport via Chelsea (in a best-case scenario) we see the following:

1651522561045.png


Chelsea only has a population of about 41,000 whereas Quincy has a population of 102,000 and Malden has a population of 66,000. Some riders from Everett might switch from the Malden Branch to the Chelsea Branch too or change their bus connection to Sweetser Circle from Sullivan. , but I doubt that many new ones would be generated.

HRT or LRT would certainly increase ridership beyond what’s seen today, but I have a hard time envisioning that it would triple the current bus ridership and get to the level of the Malden Branch of the Orange Line. Even with doubled ridership of the current bus service and a 3,000 rider per day P&R facility off Route 1, it still would be more significantly more unbalanced than the current Braintree and Ashmont lines.

Basically, an Orange branch to Chelsea isn’t going to get enough ridership to justify the downsides to the existing ridership base. Extending beyond Chelsea, there are more corridors that are worthy of better infrastructure, but they would almost certainly be better served by Blue or LRT.
 

737900er

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It's 13 routes, which is a real lot (more than Harvard, only 2 fewer than Nubian). That's a very big terminal. No singular rapid transit branch is going to displace demand for such an enormous quantity of local routes. In this case the frequency reduction is absolutely the greater harm.
My counterpoint to this is that Quincy Center served 16 routes in 2019, had 16% more trips than Malden, and 13% fewer passengers than Malden. No one was complaining that this was a five alarm fire.
 
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KCasiglio

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My counterpoint to this is that Quincy Center served 16 routes in 2019, had 16% more trips than Malden, and 13% fewer passengers than Malden. No one was complaining that this was a five alarm fire.
I think a big part of that is that Quincy never had 6 minute frequencies, so it was never a case of making existing service worse
 

roy_mustang76

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My counterpoint to this is that Quincy Center served 16 routes in 2019, had 16% more trips than Malden, and 13% fewer passengers than Malden. No one was complaining that this was a five alarm fire.
Quincy never lost service because of a branch (Ashmont came much earlier than the Braintree extension), but now that you mention it, yes actually the bus hub at Quincy Center could use better peak frequencies (and Red X would help with that). And Ashmont, with its 11 routes + BAT + MHSL could definitely use better peak frequencies as well.
 

Riverside

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From the studio that brought you “Project Blue-Lace”, now presenting the Milford-Medway-Millis-Medfield-Mattapan-Ashmont High-Speed Line (or “MMMMM Line” for short):



(As the image says, to be clear, this is not a serious proposal. This is another exercise in crayoning gone awry, a lesson in not knowing when to stop.)

Heading west from Mattapan, the MMMMM Line tunnels under River St (as we’ve discussed when proposing Red Line extensions to Fairmount and Dedham) and joins the Fairmount Line’s ROW where it is wider and supports four tracks. At Readville, it flies over the NEC to pick up the abandoned Dedham Branch to run to Dedham Center.

From Dedham Center, the MMMMM Line enters a reconfigured VFW Parkway with dedicated transit lanes or a median, and heads north. Just south of the Needham Line ROW (converted to Orange Line), the MMMMM Line leaves the parkway and hooks into a Millennium Park transfer station to provide connection to the Orange Line.

Then we head west along the Hersey cutoff, now abandoned from mainline usage, to meet the Green Line at Needham Junction. (This also gives the MMMMM Line access to the Green Line maintenance facilities, albeit at some distance.)

From here, we turn southwest on to the abandoned Milis Line. Long stretches without stops finally give the “High-Speed” Line a chance to live up to its name. The view is gorgeous, as our trolley flies through the forest. Frequencies south of Needham Junction are significantly lower, meaning that there are some stretches of single track along here, which helps accommodate a mixed use trail alongside.

In some saner version of this “proposal” (a term I use here very loosely), the MMMMM Line terminates in Medfield, either at the historic Medfield Jct location, or a mile or two to the southeast in downtown Medfield, traversed either by street-running or by running alongside (not replacing) the Framingham Secondary tracks. But that would just make this the MM Line – why stop at two M’s when you can have five?

(Again, to be clear, I am not – in this post – seriously advocating running light rail from Ashmont to Medfield, to say nothing of Milford.)

We continue on southwest on the abandoned ROW until we hit West Medway, at which point this “proposal” required a little bit of creative planning, since the only ROWs to Milford from here are very roundabout. Thus we shift to street-running again, hopping over to Route 109 and riding it all the way in to Milford. In Milford proper, we make a couple of stops in town once the density picks up, before terminating at the Milford Medical Center. (Which I suppose could warrant calling this the MMMMMMM Line if we add “Milford Medical” at the front.)

End to end, the line runs around 30 miles.

~~~~~

So, as with “Project Blue Lace”, this is what you get when you take individual segments that each seem vaguely reasonable in isolation, and then keep stringing them together without recognizing when too much is too much.

And I think it’s worth recognizing that, if you were to pick any set of two or three sequential paragraphs from above, they would make a vaguely reasonable route – maybe not a good enough route, but not necessarily something to reject on sight.

I see this basically as three ideas on top of each other:
  1. Mattapan to Readville/Dedham/West Roxbury
  2. West Roxbury/Needham Junction to Dover or Medfield
  3. Interurban to Milford
Idea 1, especially if only to Readville or Dedham, is probably the most “conventional”, in that it would mostly use existing ROWs and, insofar as ArchBoston is “mainstream”, does reflect mainstream ideas that we’ve been batting around for how to bring rail to Dedham.

Is it a particularly compelling idea? I would not rank it high on my list, no. It’s pretty circumferential, and somewhat circuitously so, and not really along a corridor that seems to be screaming for it. Perhaps if Dedham wants some sort of rail service but doesn’t want Red Line heavy rail (and can’t justify siphoning away mainline trains), this could be a viable option, though I think if one was to create a “Dedham High Speed Line”, it might be better to feed it from Needham Junction: Needham - West Roxbury - Dedham - Readville.

Idea 2, if Dover got really excited about it, could be interesting. Light rail does not actually have to be “rapid transit” per se, and it would have the advantage of a smaller footprint. 30-minute headways could be perfectly reasonable here. Given the length of the line, I’d say it would be better to avoid through-running to downtown Boston most of the time, but perhaps a couple of peak runs could be scheduled inbound in the mornings. Hopping over to West Roxbury could help mitigate the lack of one-seat-rides by offering direct transfers to both the Green and Orange Lines.

Ironically, the relationship between the town of Milton and the current Mattapan Line makes me think that a low frequency light rail line could pass muster with the NIMBY crowd – it’s relatively unobtrusive, it can have a small footprint, and it can maintain some of the charming bucolic territory of those suburbs (which are amazingly rural, given their proximity to Boston).

Idea 3, even on its own, is a huge stretch. That is a very long route, and unlike Idea 2 would certainly require street-running, and street-running at 30 mph no less. (There is an alternate route that is more roundabout, but mostly reuses old ROWs, plus a powerline ROW.) I’ve written before how Milford is tough: it’s actually not far from Boston at all, but because of the enormous density cavity between it and Needham, it’s very hard to propose a direct commuter rail route – you have to go via Franklin, which makes it a significantly longer ride.

Light rail potentially could offer a compromise, offering low-footprint service to the low-density towns in between, while still providing direct service between Milford and the rapid transit system. The availability of a hook-in node at Needham Junction, combined with the lack of active railroads but presence of historic ROWs, opens up some unusual options.

One of the biggest drawbacks of an LRT interurban to Milford would be all the wiring you’d need to set up. There are a handful of diesel-powered light rail vehicles out there… and then at that point we’re literally just talking about restoring Budd Car service, but on light rail tracks rather than mainline tracks. And while the infrastructure impact would then be lower, the impact of the individual vehicles would be much more pronounced – louder and dirtier.

(If battery-powered light rail ever takes off successfully, then the calculus on this changes.)

And it’s worth asking what the benefit of a Needham-Milford LRT line would be over a commuter bus route, or a feeder bus route to a commuter rail station like Framingham (especially if timed to transfer to trains that run express on the mid and inner B&A). Given potential slowdowns from automobile traffic, perhaps an interurban line with a transfer could be faster?

Let’s assume that an extended Orange Line to Millennium Park takes 40 minutes to reach downtown. From Millennium Park to Milford, it’s about 20 miles. Google estimates about 30 min (on a bad day) to reach the Southborough commuter rail station by driving from Milford. Pre-covid, an express train from Worcester took just under an hour from Southborough, so our “time to beat” is 90 minutes. From Millennium Park, our interurban would need to traverse 20 miles in 50 minutes – an average speed of 25 mph.

That doesn’t sound too difficult, but let’s do some comparisons:
  • Riverside - Park St (18 stops): 11 miles in 44 min = 15 mph
  • Framingham - South Station (local, 12 stops): 21 miles in 55 min = 22.5 mph
  • Mansfield - South Station (local, 6 stops): 25 miles in 46 min = 35 mph
In my map here, I’ve (not very carefully) placed 12 stops after leaving Milford, though probably some of those could be eliminated. The stop spacing is around 3-5 miles, closer to the Providence Line’s 4-6 miles than the Framingham’s 1-3. The top speed of a light rail vehicle is lower than a mainline commuter rail train, although because it’s lighter and electric it’ll reach that top speed quickly, possibly faster than the train.

So… maybe? If all the variables work out just right, an interurban to Milford could provide competitive service? But it would indeed need to be just right.
 

Riverside

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Ultimately, the MMMMM Line is a silly idea, composed of only slightly less silly ideas.

To me, though, there is a more serious takeaway: the FRA is unlikely (as far as I know) to change its prohibition on light rail and mainline rail sharing tracks any time soon. (And not without good reason.) However, an expanded Green Line would bring Boston’s LRT network out to the 128 boundary in multiple locations, potentially providing “jump off” points – like Needham Junction was here – for light rail service that is more like commuter rail than rapid transit, and offers a potential alternative to mainline rail.

There are a number of abandoned but largely intact ROWs across New England. Light rail is better able to leverage those because it has more flexibility for things like brief stretches of street-running, and better friendliness to grade crossings integrated with traffic lights – all of which potentially create opportunities where mainline rail would simply be too unwieldy to deploy.

Riverside, Needham Junction, Ashmont, Mattapan, Weston/128 via Waltham, and potentially Woburn could all be launch points for modern light rail to serve Greater Boston’s suburbs and exurbs – possibly even contributing to a gradual shift away from car-centric living, even in suburbia’s autotopia.
 

HenryAlan

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Let’s assume that an extended Orange Line to Millennium Park takes 40 minutes to reach downtown.
I think you can shave 10 minutes from this estimate. It's 18 minutes and five miles from Forest Hills to Downtown Crossing. Millenium Park via Needham ROW is another 3.5 miles, which should be about 10 minutes if operating speed is similar to the existing service. That might make the idea of the complete MMMMM Line more viable. There are existing examples of much longer LRT lines working in this country, particularly in Los Angeles. It could work here, too.

Riverside, Needham Junction, Ashmont, Mattapan, Weston/128 via Waltham, and potentially Woburn could all be launch points for modern light rail to serve Greater Boston’s suburbs and exurbs – possibly even contributing to a gradual shift away from car-centric living, even in suburbia’s autotopia.
I have often thought this would be an excellent approach. LRT lines in abandoned ROWs are more compatible with mixed use paths than restoration of FRA type regional rail. Probably more viable with ridership demand, too. Maybe fantasy today, but as sensibilities change and particularly if we decide to actually address sustainable transit, this could potentially move in to a more likely category.
 

Riverside

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I think you can shave 10 minutes from this estimate. It's 18 minutes and five miles from Forest Hills to Downtown Crossing. Millenium Park via Needham ROW is another 3.5 miles, which should be about 10 minutes if operating speed is similar to the existing service. That might make the idea of the complete MMMMM Line more viable. There are existing examples of much longer LRT lines working in this country, particularly in Los Angeles. It could work here, too.
Good catch on the time estimate -- the 40 minute number came from an overly simplified mental calculation of "5 miles = ~20 minutes, and 3.5 miles is about 4 miles, which is about 5 miles 😜 so about another 20 minutes". Which is very clearly wrong, and I should've caught that, so thank you!

It is true -- reducing the Orange Line travel time to 30 minutes gives us an hour to traverse the 21 miles, dropping our necessary average speed to 21 mph. That's still a bit aggressive, but could be more feasible.

In terms of "the complete MMMMM Line", I don't think it makes sense to actually try to do it as a single line. The longest iteration I could vaguely imagine would be Milford-Needham-Dedham-Readville. If we're actually talking about running all the way to Milford, Millennium Park is probably the best terminus. However, we could layer other services on top of that -- a "Dedham High Speed Line" could run between Needham Junction and Readville, for example. (Assuming that the VFW Parkway were rebuilt.)

As tempting as it is, I don't know that there's any "screaming loud" extensions available for the Mattapan Line itself. The only one I can think of, assuming rebuilds of Blue Hill and Morton, would be an extension to Forest Hills; it looks like there would be decent demand between Mattapan and Forest Hills (based on the 31), though it's less obvious that there is strong demand for through-run service from Milton to Forest Hills, so terminating everything at Mattapan for transfers might be a better way to ensure reliability.

(Well, I suppose one extension would be a short one to connect directly with the Fairmount Line at the Blue Hill Ave station. But that's a separate ballgame.)

I have often thought this would be an excellent approach. LRT lines in abandoned ROWs are more compatible with mixed use paths than restoration of FRA type regional rail. Probably more viable with ridership demand, too. Maybe fantasy today, but as sensibilities change and particularly if we decide to actually address sustainable transit, this could potentially move in to a more likely category.
Yes, and this goes back to your point about longer light rail lines in the rest of the county. (Am guessing you're thinking of LA, San Diego, and Dallas?) I agree that it would require a culture change though -- suburbia doesn't need to disappear, but it would need to contract/densify a bit in order for this to work.

The challenge -- at least in Boston -- is how to connect these suburban light rail corridors with a larger network and/or with downtown. Even if you aren't through-running, you still probably need access to at least some centralized maintenance facilities. Needham, Riverside, Weston, and Woburn, (and perhaps Lexington/Bedford if the Minuteman saw LRT again) are decent enough jump-off points, but it's hard to the south, southeast, and pretty much the entire northwest quadrant -- you need a combination of "low-freq light rail density" corridor lined up next to a "high-freq light rail density" corridor, which does limit our options.

I'm working on a similar post for Crazy Transit Pitches (because I think it actually makes for a stronger candidate) that would create a light rail line from Weston along the Central Mass to Sudbury, turning south to Framingham Center and terminating at Natick via Route 9, the Natick Mall, and the Saxonville Branch. But other than that and the vague "something out of Needham Junction" idea discussed here, I've struggled to find corridors where all of the following are true:
  • not served by existing (rail) transit
  • reasonable running distance
  • reasonable "far anchor" with at least nominal reverse commute potential (or horseshoe to achieve the same)
  • connected/connectable to the within-128 LRT network
The only other particularly "plausible" corridor I could see was something centered around Burlington -- either connecting to Woburn to the east or something like Lexington/Arlington/Alewife/Porter to the west/south. There aren't a lot of abandoned ROWs to leverage, but there are some power line paths and a few extra-wide boulevards.
 

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