TransitMatters pushes ‘regional rail’

Would transform commuter rail into subway-like system

TRANSITMATTERS, a nonprofit known for delving into the nitty gritty of very specific transportation issues, went in a different direction on Tuesday, releasing a sweeping report calling for a multi-billion-dollar overhaul of the state’s commuter rail system over the course of a decade or more.

Dubbed regional rail, the ambitious proposal calls for transforming a rail network designed primarily to deliver people at peak travel times each weekday to and from Boston into a subway-like system offering frequent, faster service throughout the day – every 30 minutes in the suburbs and every 15 minutes in denser neighborhoods.

The report calls for electrifying the entire network and replacing existing locomotives and coaches with self-propelled electric vehicles called electric multiple units, or EMUs.  The report also recommends raising all station platforms to allow for direct boarding onto trains and allowing free fare transfers between regional trains, subways, and buses.

Regional rail would represent a huge leap into the future for a system that is currently struggling with antiquated locomotives and coaches and having a tough time making the trains run on time. The current system is technologically backward, lacking the capacity to even say how many riders it has. It has also been slow to target new markets, only recently laying plans to target weekend riders and reverse-commuters.

Regional rail would leapfrog that slowly emerging discussion and take it in a whole new direction. As TransitMatters board member Jarred Johnson said: “The answer isn’t less transit, it’s more service.”

The electric trains could accelerate and decelerate much more rapidly, speeding up travel times. Raised platforms would allow quicker boarding and ease handicap access. With faster trains and slower dwell times at stations, TransitMatters said more stations could be added to existing lines with no increase in travel time for riders. More frequent service could also spur development in Gateway Cities served by rail line, including Lowell, Lawrence, Haverhill, Fitchburg, Worcester, and Brockton, the report said.

“Commuter rail is stuck in a ‘chicken-and-egg’ dilemma today,” the report said. “Trains running every two hours off-peak are not reliable enough for people to choose to depend on them, so people drive when they might otherwise use transit. Regional rail solves this dilemma.”

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Bruce Mohl

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