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‘Transforming’ the T commuter rail: The Disney version

We’ll never be Paris, but there’s no reason not to aim for a rail system so efficient commuters will leave their cars behind.

An inspector stands in front a train at the Montparnasse railway station in Paris.JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP via Getty Images

It’s Disney meets commuter rail.

Somehow Cinderella’s pumpkin — the state’s current lumbering, diesel-spewing system — will be transformed into a golden carriage. Well, not right away mind you — maybe in two to four years. But then again maybe in 15 to 20 years, depending on whose estimate you believe.

The vision is of an electrified system, running every 15 to 20 minutes, so attractive to commuters coming into Boston and so very affordable they wouldn’t even think of getting in their cars. Something like, if you’ll pardon the expression, Paris.

Yes, the City of Light, a gazillion cheeses and cafes where people linger for hours over teeny-tiny cups of coffee, has been whisking its commuters into the city from its suburbs — and tourists in from Charles de Gaulle Airport — for years on just such magical vehicles. In fact, the system is currently embarked on yet another refurbishing effort.

But, hey, Massachusetts wouldn’t want to rush into anything, right?


Earlier this month the T’s Fiscal Management Control Board passed a “resolution” that directs the MBTA “to transform the current commuter rail line into a significantly more productive, equitable and decarbonized enterprise.”

OK, well “decarbonized” doesn’t exactly sing in a Fairy Godmother bibbity-bobbity-boo way, but you get the idea. Someone needs to wave a magic wand and somehow transform those ancient, hulking diesel engines into sleek electric trains.

The Control Board said it “expects that the assets of the commuter rail system of the future will be more similar to rapid transit providing all-day service at intervals on its most dense corridors at 15-20 minute headways and appropriately scheduled additional service on all of its lines (herein referred to as regional/urban rail).”

So now it has a name — again, it doesn’t exactly sing, but who cares as long as you don’t have to wait an hour for the next train to Canton Junction.


The three-pronged effort envisioned as the vanguard of the new system would be the Providence/Stoughton Line, the Fairmount Line, and a section of the Newburyport/Rockport Line connecting Boston to Lynn, Revere, Chelsea, and Everett, sometimes called the environmental justice line.

Oh, and “the MBTA shall . . . prioritize pursuit of the estimated $1.5 billion required,” the Control Board resolution noted.

There will even be a “regional/urban rail transformation office,” which would also be involved in the rebidding effort for the current commuter rail system, due to expire in 2022.

MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak estimated it could take two to four years to acquire electric trains for the targeted routes. Governor Charlie Baker said he thought “significant portions” of the commuter rail system should be electrified “over the course of the next 15 or 20 years,” but only if the electric grid could handle the increased demand.

OK, do we get to pick? Does this happen in a couple of years or another generation?

So back to Paris — and really now, who wouldn’t want to go back to Paris? Light rail in France has cost anywhere from $40 million to $100 million a mile to construct — a relative bargain compared to, say, the 4.3 mile Green Line Extension, last estimated at $2.3 billion. Ridership in Paris and its surrounding burbs also beats out the per capita ridership for nearly all American cities.


The Parisian equivalent of commuter rail — the RER — is getting a redo (31 refurbished cars already in process), but it’s also scheduled for new double-deck cars by 2025.

Nor has Paris neglected its Metro. Two subway lines, including the famed Line 1 — which hits all the tourist high spots from the Arc de Triumph to the Louvre and beyond — are now completely driverless. And, yes, it’s worth the trip just to try it out. When Parisian transit operators staged a one-day hissy fit last September to protest pension reforms by President Emmanuel Macron, guess which trains kept running?

More than 1,000 such cars are on order for three additional Metro lines. Yep, you can see the Boston Carmen’s Union just loving that, right?

OK, we’re not Paris, never will be. Besides, who needs coffee in teeny-tiny cups anyway?

But if we want to get people out of their cars, the T needs to come up with something visionary. The Control Board’s “resolution” points the way — that is, if the end game isn’t two decades away.

Rachelle G. Cohen is a Globe opinion writer. She can be reached at rachelle.cohen@globe.com.