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IDEAS

A key to a better Boston, hiding in plain sight

Want a cleaner, more prosperous, more equitable region? Upgrading commuter rail would unlock all those benefits.

The MBTA Commuter Line at the Upham's Corner station in May 2020.
The MBTA Commuter Line at the Upham's Corner station in May 2020.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

We’re fortunate in Greater Boston to have the foundation for a strong regional transit system — a subway system in the city, well-established bus lines, and an extensive commuter rail network covering everything from diverse midsize cities to tony suburbs.

The system yearns for a range of improvements, however, like more regular service outside rush hour so that it better serves residents who don’t work traditional 9 to 5 schedules. Here we’ll focus on one exciting model for change: the promise of transforming our commuter rail system into a “regional rail” system. That is to say, a more equitable, modern, fast, zero-emissions rail network that responds to how people live today and will live in the future.

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To have an established commuter rail network at all is something most US metro areas would envy. But our system has become expensive, slow, infrequent, and unreliable. Our failure to modernize the operations of this mid-20th-century system has meant that it primarily serves white-collar rush hour commuters, leaving low- and moderate-income residents behind. And it has contributed to increased dependence on single-occupancy vehicles and some of the worst traffic in the nation. Our struggling rail system was a drag on our region prior to the pandemic, and building it back better is now absolutely essential for a just and equitable recovery.

This map, created by the advocacy group TransitMatters, envisions the first phase of improvements that could turn our existing commuter rail network into a “regional rail” system. It expands on a plan for upgrading commuter rail that the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board approved in 2019. TransitMatters’ executive director, Jarred Johnson, says regional rail would function more like a subway system does, with shorter trains that run more frequently and at higher speeds. Some stations and tracks would need to be added.
This map, created by the advocacy group TransitMatters, envisions the first phase of improvements that could turn our existing commuter rail network into a “regional rail” system. It expands on a plan for upgrading commuter rail that the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board approved in 2019. TransitMatters’ executive director, Jarred Johnson, says regional rail would function more like a subway system does, with shorter trains that run more frequently and at higher speeds. Some stations and tracks would need to be added.TransitMatters

One very real short-term challenge is that commuter rail ridership has dropped over 90 percent during the pandemic, as many of the riders for whom the current system was designed have been able to shift to remote work. Importantly, though, lines running through communities such as Haverhill, Lynn, and Brockton have had some of the highest shares of pre-pandemic ridership in recent months. While these communities never had the greatest absolute ridership levels — due in large part to high fares and infrequent service outside rush hour — this suggests that the system nonetheless provides a baseline public good that has real potential to expand.

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Recent improvements to the Fairmount Line serve as an example of small steps already taken toward the regional rail vision. The Fairmount Line runs south out of downtown Boston and serves some of Boston’s lowest-income neighborhoods, which have historically been worst served by public transit. Starting about 10 years ago, the state, with lots of support from neighborhood advocacy and outside philanthropy, made a series of infrastructure improvements to an existing rail line, added several new stations, and now runs trains more frequently and at lower fares than most other segments of the commuter rail do. There are many improvements still to make, but increased off-peak frequency along the Fairmount Line led to a tripling of ridership over a five-year period. The Fairmount experience offers a proof of concept for future efforts.

A well-functioning regional rail system includes five key components:

▪ Frequent service all day: roughly every 30 minutes in the suburbs and every 15 minutes in denser neighborhoods. The schedule has traditionally been focused on weekday rush hours, making the system impractical to use for work commutes at other times of day, school trips, medical appointments, and other ad hoc travels. Just recently, the MBTA and Keolis, the company that operates the commuter rail trains, took some steps toward this model with a new spring schedule that has more regular intervals and increased midday and evening service.

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▪ Systemwide electrification. A shift to zero-emissions electric trains would have the dual benefit of dramatically reducing the system’s carbon footprint and allowing trains to accelerate much faster than diesel locomotives can, enabling the system to more closely mirror the experience of a modern subway.

▪ Free transfers between regional trains, subways, and buses, and lower fares overall. Just as transit riders can currently transfer across modes of public transportation in Boston, passengers should be able to get on a bus in an outlying city like Worcester or Lowell, take it to the train station, ride a train to Boston or another city, and connect to their final destination by bus or subway, all on one fare. The cost of commuter rail should be much more competitive with driving, which is helped out by cheap gas and few tolls.

▪ High platforms at stations, providing universal access for people with disabilities and anyone else challenged by climbing up stairs onto trains — parents with young children, someone with an injury, older adults, or just someone with a lot of bags. These platforms also speed up boarding for everyone.

▪ Strategic infrastructure investments to relieve bottlenecks. Adding passing tracks and new sections of double tracks will allow for more consistent speed between stations, reducing trip times for all.

Recent developments have made a transformation to regional rail all the more urgent.

First, during the pandemic, rents and home prices have increased everywhere in the region other than downtown Boston. This suggests increased demand for living outside the urban core, partially driven by shifts to remote work that are likely to remain in place to some degree even after widespread vaccination.

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Second, the Legislature just enacted a requirement that all cities and towns with an MBTA station (including commuter rail stations) allow multifamily housing developments in at least one district near that station. If implemented thoughtfully, this could lead to an increase in much-needed diverse housing options that would in turn increase demand for high-quality transit service like regional rail.

And, third, without proactive interventions, there’s reason to be concerned about pre-pandemic traffic levels returning very soon. Improving the experience and perception of our region’s commuter rail system is one key strategy for nudging people out of their cars.

The Morton Street stop in Mattapan, one of the many parts of Boston that would benefit from upgrading commuter rail.
The Morton Street stop in Mattapan, one of the many parts of Boston that would benefit from upgrading commuter rail.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

A regional rail transformation is ambitious, but it’s absolutely within reach. The MBTA’s Fiscal Management Control Board itself endorsed a vision for regional rail back in late 2019, and many such regional rail networks run successfully in other parts of the world. “The Transportation Dividend,” released by A Better City, the Barr Foundation, and the Boston Foundation in 2018, estimated that our full regional transit system generates roughly $11 billion in economic benefit every year. While implementing regional rail would require real front-end investments, these would be paid for over time in several ways. Higher ridership would lead to operational efficiencies. Shortened travel times would have indirect economic benefits. Increasing numbers of local businesses around more-active train stations would generate increased taxes. And the new residential development that would follow would increase property tax revenue.

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Additionally, President Biden’s economic recovery efforts will include new transportation funding for states and localities, and having plans for shovel-ready infrastructure projects like those central to regional rail would position us well to receive that new funding. If the MBTA immediately started design work for the first phase of regional rail, it would increase the likelihood that we can use this once-in-a-generation opportunity.

Greater Boston faces a massive challenge: What will our future look like? Will it be a region hamstrung by gridlock with electric vehicles stuck in mind-numbing traffic? Will our once vibrant and diverse Main Streets see their small businesses replaced by giant chain retailers that can better handle delivery costs? Will our gateway cities continue to see disinvestment and brain drain? Regional rail alone won’t fix all of these problems, but it can be a significant catalyst. We can shape a cleaner, more equitable future if we make the critical plans and investments today.

Jarred Johnson is executive director of TransitMatters, an organization devoted to improving transit in and around Boston. Luc Schuster is director of Boston Indicators, the research arm of the Boston Foundation.

A version of this article is part of the Seizing the Moment series from Boston Indicators, featuring 15 papers on sectors including transportation, housing, business equity, food security, philanthropy, and workforce development. On Wednesday at 9:30 a.m., Boston Indicators and the Boston Foundation will host a webinar on the series, featuring presentations by and discussions with many of the authors. Details at TBF.org/events.