Once noncommittal, Massachusetts officials say they’re exploring the addition of express commuter train service between Boston and Providence — one in a series of potential changes designed to speed travel on the Northeast Corridor and pull motorists from the region’s traffic-clogged roads.
The concept, while long pushed by Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, appeared to gain sudden life when she and Governor Charlie Baker said Tuesday that it was part of the two states’ ongoing talks to upgrade rail service between their capital cities.
Officials have also discussed leasing one or more electric locomotives for a potential pilot program on the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s Providence Line, already the system’s busiest route with more than 25,000 daily riders.
“Number one is figuring out how would we run an express train,” Baker said inside a Fairmont Copley Plaza ballroom, where he, Raimondo, and others had gathered for a National Governors Association-sponsored forum on addressing congestion.
The region’s transit woes have loomed as one of the most persistent challenges of Baker’s tenure, from derailments, delays, and other failures on the aging MBTA to motorists’ frustration with uneasing congestion.
Baker has laid out several proposals, from allowing drivers to pay their way out of traffic by using still-to-be-built toll lanes on the state’s highways to offering tax credits to spur more telecommuting. But it’s only recently that discussions with Rhode Island appeared to gain more public traction.
MBTA trains from Providence to South Station can take up to 74 minutes. And while Amtrak trains on the Northeast Corridor can make the trip in as little as 35 minutes, they run less frequently and one-way tickets can range from $17 to $73 — far above the $12.25 cost on the commuter rail.
“We need more of it, and it has to be faster,” Raimondo said of rail service. “Having just driven up here this morning, I can tell you the traffic is brutal.”
The proposal of a Providence-to-Boston express train that makes no or fewer than normal stops has long faced hurdles and skepticism, including from within the MBTA. When Raimondo floated pursuing express trains in 2017, the T warned that without expanding South Station — a project that has yet to happen — it would be difficult to make room for trains to arrive and depart.
A more “immediate” challenge, MBTA officials said Tuesday, is simply finding room in the schedule to add service. Currently, there is no available “slot” to add a rush-hour express train between others that must make local stops, meaning the first available window would be some time after 9 a.m., said Joe Pesaturo, a T spokesman.
“Express [trains] sounds good when it comes off the tongue. But having express trains actually ends up having a detrimental impact on the type of schedule frequency you want for everyone else,” said Jim Aloisi, a former Massachusetts secretary of transportation who now sits on a Department of Transportation advisory board focused on improving commuter rail service. “If you can magically build a dedicated new rail right-of-way, then it wouldn’t be an issue.”
Currently, the MBTA runs one morning rush-hour express train from the end of the line into Boston on just one route, its Worcester line.
The agency, however, would likely change the Providence schedule if it’s able to launch a separate pilot using electric trains, which accelerate faster than their diesel counterparts. But Pesaturo indicated that even then, it wouldn’t be a nonstop train.
The possible pursuit of electric trains has been a months-long discussion within the T. The MBTA uses an all-diesel fleet, but unlike other commuter rail lines, the Providence route has the overhead wires needed to power electric trains.
The T has explored leasing one or more electric trains from Amtrak, where officials told the T they would let them know in September if any are available. Should the T reach a lease agreement, it would “maximize” the speedier, more efficient electric trains by changing the existing schedule to include trains that “make a limited number of stops between Rhode Island and Boston,” Pesaturo said.
“In other words,” he said, “a faster train making fewer stops.”
Raimondo said the so-called electrification of the Providence Line is just a portion of the project, but stressed the need to find a solution.
“Traffic is at a tipping point,” she said, echoing a phrase used in a Baker administration congestion study released this month. “It’s an issue for Rhode Island, it’s an issue for Massachusetts.”
Rhode Island transit advocates applauded what they called progress in addressing service on the Providence line. But they also urged officials to go beyond scheduling express service and aggressively pursuing electric trains as well.
“If they really want to do an express, it’s a baby step,” said Peter Brassard, chair of the Rhode Island Association of Railroad Passengers. “They really should focus on a more extensive regional rail system. And it would have to be electrified.”
John Flaherty, deputy director of GrowSmartRI, said the T stands to draw even more riders on the Providence line if it pursues better service, though how it ultimately will play out remains an “unknown.”
“There seems to be a lot of unanswered questions that have to be grappled with,” he said.