City leaders see new use for old South Boston railroad track
The rail line into the Seaport stands forlorn and unused, a lone vestige of a bygone era when freight trains packed an industrial South Boston waterfront.
Plans have been floated over the years to revive the track for shipping service, or to convert it to whisk passengers from the waterfront area to the Back Bay.
Now, city leaders are offering a new vision for this empty track, affectionately known as Track 61, that runs from the railyards at South Boston’s western edge north to the waterfront.
They have proposed building a connection to the existing Fairmount Line and running some trains from that line along Track 61 and into the Seaport. The idea, still in its conceptual phase, would essentially create two northern endpoints for the Fairmount Line — South Station and the Seaport — much like the Red Line splits to go to the Ashmont and Braintree stations today.
This notion of extending the cancellation-plagued Fairmount Line into the South Boston waterfront was floated when Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s administration released its proposed master plan for the city, Imagine Boston 2030, last month. City officials want to explore the possibility as part of a broader effort to ensure residents of lower-income neighborhoods can easily get to job centers.
The track isn’t mentioned in the city’s report by name. But it’s the only way to get a train into the Seaport, and its path is traced on a map of proposed transit connections included in the report.
Supporters of the concept say they know it’s complex but point out that it addresses two major urban goals. For one, it would give greater access to underserved neighborhoods, ferrying commuters from Hyde Park, Dorchester, and Roxbury to a waterfront teeming with glass-walled offices and swanky restaurants.
At the same time, the new route could alleviate some of the traffic congestion that often chokes the Seaport area, where the Silver Line service to South Station is already overburdened.
“That would be great if you could connect to two different employment centers, downtown and the Seaport, on the Fairmount Line,” said Rafael Mares, an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation who specializes in transit issues.
But plenty of significant hurdles remain.
The state Department of Transportation would need to reduce the size of its locomotive-powered commuter train sets for the Fairmount Line so they can move with more flexibility and frequency. More frequent train service might also increase ridership on the existing line, which has struggled to gain commuters because it doesn’t run often enough.
It’s unclear how tough it would be to connect the existing Fairmount Line to Track 61 through the tangle of train tracks between South Boston and the South End.
And then, of course, there’s the issue of costs: procuring the trains, refurbishing the track, and subsidizing the day-to-day service.
Chris Osgood, Walsh’s transportation chief, said turning Track 61 into a second terminus for Fairmount Line riders is just one of several ideas city officials are considering for that corridor. Others could include expanded bus service or improved access to car-sharing services.
A MassDOT spokeswoman said the state agency supports city officials’ interest in considering Track 61 for future transit use, although it doesn’t have any money committed to the project.
State officials under Governor Deval Patrick’s administration had proposed buying a new kind of train for the MBTA, one that could run more often than a traditional commuter rail train.
The new trains would have been purchased for the Fairmount Line, and to connect the Seaport with the Back Bay via Track 61.
But the Baker administration jettisoned those plans in 2015, citing the costs and the complexity related to adding a new kind of transit technology to the system.
The consequences have not gone unnoticed by residents who are frustrated by infrequent service or canceled trains during rush-hour times on the Fairmount Line. The MBTA is working with Keolis, the state’s commuter rail operator, to test smaller train sets that could run more frequently than the existing ones that require at least four cars.
Mela Miles, an organizer for the Greater Four Corners Action Coalition, said the Silver Line in Roxbury is essentially “a bus stuck in traffic,” Miles said, and there are no immediate plans to build out its third phase, an ambitious project that would connect the Roxbury bus line to the Seaport via a tunnel under downtown.
But Miles remains hopeful the MBTA can come up with a way to run Fairmount trains along the corridor at 15- to 20-minute intervals, instead of 45 to 60. And she said she was encouraged to learn last week that city officials want a spur to connect riders to the Seaport.
“It would be a boon for people that live on the Fairmount Line if there’s more access to jobs, and we could take the train to get there,” said Miles, a Dorchester resident. “We want this line to be a lifeline for our communities.”