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Cape train breaks pattern of slow, costly transport projects

The Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority’s popular new CapeFlyer train service might average barely 30 mph, but it has still set at least one kind of speed record. The weekend train, connecting South Station and Hyannis in a little over two hours, went from idea to reality to success in breathtaking time: It was announced in December, started running in May, and has already carried 9,000 passengers this summer, surpassing ridership projections.

In fact, the transit authority’s head, Thomas S. Cahir, said it could have started the service in 2012. But since the deal relies on using MBTA commuter-rail equipment, and the T’s leadership was in flux last year, he chose to wait.

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So how did the Cape train exceed the enervating pace of most other transportation projects in Massachusetts, where missed deadlines and interminable studies are the norm? Other regions looking to expand transit options can take some pointers from Cahir, who offered three explanations: The Cape service was a partnership among agencies; it used tracks and bridges that already existed; and it started on an experimental basis, without having to negotiate a lot of long-term commitments.

The rails to Hyannis were already in place, but in recent years carried only garbage trains and tourist excursions. “If there were no existing infrastructure, I would probably say forget about the Cape,” Cahir said. “But there was an underutilized state asset here.” Massachusetts is crisscrossed by little-used railroad lines, at least some of which are already in good enough condition for passenger traffic. For instance, the state is in the midst of federally funded upgrades to the rail route along the Connecticut River between Springfield and East Northfield, but only once-a-day service is planned after repairs are finished. Making full use of existing corridors should be a priority.

The CapeFlyer also didn’t require the time-consuming and costly purchase of new equipment. Instead, the agency reached a deal with the T to use its coaches over the weekend, when the commuter rail system has lower ridership. The partnership gave the Cape authority quick access to trains it could never buy on its own, while letting the T wring a bit of extra value out of equipment it already has.

Finally, Cahir notes that the authority launched the Cape train as a pilot program. It doesn’t represent a massive commitment. And rather than engage in a glacial planning process, replete with costly consultants, the Cape agency is studying its new service the old-fashioned way: trial and error. More transportation projects should follow this model.

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