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Commuter rail every 15 minutes? That’s one group’s vision

A MBTA commuter train passied a grade crossing as it made its way toward Newburyport Station. Jonathan Wiggs /Globe Staff/Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/file

As the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority embarks on a rethink of how it operates the commuter rail, a group of transit activists is offering up some pretty ambitious ideas.

In a report released Tuesday, the nonprofit TransitMatters imagines a commuter rail system that runs trains every 15 minutes between downtown Boston and nearby stations, and every 30 minutes from more distant stops. The idea is a system more like a regional rapid transit network, compared to the traditional commuter service that caters to suburbanites headed to and from work during peak hours.

“The commuter rail runs in a very 1950s, ‘Mad Men’ sort of way, where the father went into town in the morning and came back in the evening,” said Jarred Johnson, a member of the advocacy group. “We need to think about a system that runs all day both in to the central business district and out.”

TransitMatters has some standing on the subject. A small group of self-described transit enthusiasts who bring a heavy planning and data analysis bent to transportation, the group has gained some measure of credibility with state officials in recent years with well-researched proposals. The group convinced the MBTA to start some bus routes earlier and forced ongoing discussion of an overnight bus route. But those were far more modest than what the group proposed Tuesday — nothing less than a rethink of the entire commuter rail system.


Achieving that vision would be a heavy lift. The group suggests electrifying the entire commuter rail system and replacing the existing diesel fleet with new electric train cars, and raising the height of platforms across the system. These actions could speed up trip times by up to 40 percent.

Longer term, TransitMatters called for eliminating the Needham line to cut down on congestion along the railroad network leading in and out Boston, replacing it by extending the Orange Line to West Roxbury and the Green Line to Needham.


The starting price for this is $2 billion to $3 billion, TransitMatters says, but that doesn’t factor in the cost of the Needham line replacement, or buying new trains, which the T will have to do anyway, the group says.

Yet the transit activists are trying to take advantage of an opportune moment, with the state in the midst of a broad reevaluation of the commuter rail while actively seeking to lower carbon emissions from transportation, which could include more electric vehicles.

In December, officials suggested the commuter rail system could add express trips from distant locations or more frequent service between stations in and near Boston, with a new commuter rail model in place by 2030.

Joe Pesaturo, a spokesman for the T, said the idea is to finish the study next year, before selecting the agency’s next commuter rail contractor in 2022. He said the agency is conducting the study because it shares some of TransitMatters’ goals.

Johnson said TransitMatters hopes to influence some of the public discourse around the T’s study.

“We’re trying to set the conversation before it even starts,” he said. “We want to make sure they’re getting the full vision and not the watered-down version.”

The report proposes the state introduce the plan incrementally, electrifying one line at a time, starting with the Providence Line, on which Amtrak already runs electric trains.


The group said its ideas would not require the North-South Rail Link, the proposed tunnel under Boston that would connect North and South stations, but still supports the idea.

It’s also unclear whether the T would have enough room for all these trains. TransitMatters suggested the T could boost capacity at an already crowded South Station by turning trains around every 13 to 20 minutes. The T says it is already hitting that turnaround rate during peak periods with most trains, but TransitMatters believes there’s still room for improvement.

Adam Vaccaro can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.