Call it the curse of the Framingham/Worcester line.
For years, westbound commuter rail passengers have suffered from summertime speed restrictions, a precaution that is taken when high temperatures cause the steel tracks to expand and potentially buckle — a situation that could cause a derailment. For passengers, the restrictions can mean a doubling of their commute time.
But there is relief in sight: Work will begin in two weeks to fix the rail line, and it is expected to bring the heat restrictions to an end in 2016.
“There’s hope on the horizon,” said Mac Daniel, spokesman for the commuter rail operator Keolis Commuter Services, “though I know that’s no comfort to the folks that are getting home late this summer.”
The bulk of the work is scheduled to take two summers to complete, a disappointment to riders who had hoped that the state’s recent purchase from CSX Transportation of the train tracks along on the Framingham/Worcester Line would mean an immediate end to the summer speed restrictions.
“I know this is a safety issue, so we’re all supposed to accept this . . . but the delays ripple through the whole afternoon and evening commute once they start,” said Carl Licence, an Ashland resident who rides the train every day. “We were told that once the T gained control over the line that these instances would be reduced, but over the past two weeks it seems like an everyday occurrence.”
For years, the freight rail company CSX owned the tracks between Boston and Worcester. After a July 2002 train derailment on CSX-owned tracks in Maryland that injured 100 people, the company imposed warm-weather speed restrictions on all its East Coast tracks. If temperatures exceeded 90 degrees anywhere in the region, trains headed to Worcester had to cut their speed by 20 to 30 miles per hour.
When MassDOT completed a $50 million purchase of the CSX tracks between Boston and Worcester, the agency promised a significant reduction in heat-related speed restrictions. But so far, that has not happened. Instead, speed restrictions have occurred nearly every day for the past week, though most days the temperature has not hit 90 degrees.
“These ‘heat’ restrictions make for a long and miserable commute home!” wrote one Shrewsbury woman, who asked for her name not to be published, in an e-mail last week. “I get off at Grafton, and with the heat restrictions it tacks on another hour! Yes, I am stuck on the express train for two hours!”
Daniel said that commuter rail officials must remain cautious during warm weather because the tracks have not undergone the same process of “destressing” that has been performed on all the other lines in the commuter rail system.
While the air temperature has not reached 90 degrees most afternoons, maintenance workers walking along the tracks measure the temperature of the metal tracks soaking up the sunlight.
The first stage of the destressing project to fix the rail line on the 7 miles between Worcester and Grafton is occurring this summer and will cost $1.2 million, said Joe Pesaturo, spokesman for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.
One by one, each quarter-mile-long segment of steel track on the rail line is heated to mimic extreme hot weather. If the track expands too much, causing a kink where the bar is welded to adjacent pieces of track, the steel bar is separated from the rest of the track, trimmed at either end, then welded back into place.
Workers must get it just right: Trim enough steel from the ends to allow room for the steel to expand, but not so much that the welded spot snaps in extreme cold.
Starting in April 2015, MassDOT will hire work crews to complete the process on the rest of the line. After that, Pesaturo said, a few repairs will be made in summer 2016, but by then, there should be few places still subject to heat restrictions.
Daniel said officials hope passengers’ frustrations will be eased.
“We know this is a problem that makes the trip out to Framingham or Worcester very, very slow and frustrating for passengers,” Daniel said. “But we think there’s an end in sight.”
Martine Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.