PROVIDENCE — After living in Providence for a decade, Nicholas Mohamed landed a job as global accounting director at Converse in Boston. But then he faced a question familiar to many Rhode Islanders who commute north: How do I get to work?
Driving was “out of the question,” he said. “It could be two hours each way.”
Likewise, Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority commuter trains just weren’t fast enough. “My wife and I both work,” Mohamed said. “We drop off and pick up the kids.”
And Amtrak’s high-speed Acela train? “Not frequent enough,” he said.
So in 2016, the Mohamed family moved to Belmont, Mass.
“We would have been content to stay in Rhode Island if we could have made the trains work,” Mohamed said.
Now, Rhode Island and Massachusetts officials are looking at ways to make the trains work better and faster — including proposals to replace the MBTA’s old diesel trains with more reliable electric trains on tracks that already have the advantage of being electrified.
While questions of cost and political will remain, transportation experts say the need for more rapid regional transit is obvious on both sides of the border.
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker’s administration just declared that Boston-area traffic is at a “tipping point,” with near dawn-to-dusk gridlock. The Globe reported recently that Boston’s higher housing prices are driving home buyers to Rhode Island. Meanwhile, Rhode Island is eager to tap into Boston’s high-powered economy, and Rhode Island Governor Gina M. Raimondo is making faster rail service a top priority in her second term.
To help spur action on long-discussed ideas, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation commissioned a preliminary economic impact study with the goal of gauging the impact of speedier, more frequent rail service between Providence and Boston.
That study, the results of which DOT shared with the Globe, found that improved rail service would create an estimated 1,195 to 2,035 jobs over the next decade in Rhode Island and Massachusetts — including jobs in “growth industries” such as health care, scientific services, and other “knowledge economy” sectors.
“Enhanced rail service that creates more and better connections between these two cities may have positive effects on hiring, commuting patterns, and business collaboration — especially among growing industries that are already driving employment (and real estate) growth in both cities,” it concluded.
The study, conducted by VHB and RKG Associates, is based on a 45-minute train trip from Providence to Boston, with stops in Providence, Route 128, Back Bay, and South Station. One scenario involved offering six round trips per day, while a second scenario included nine round trips.
For some, the math of Providence-to-Boston train travel does not add up. MBTA commuter trains from Providence to South Station are somewhat affordable at $12.25 for a one-way ticket, but they can take up to 74 minutes. Amtrak trains can get there as quick as 35 minutes, though departure times are less frequent, trains can sell out, and one-way tickets range from $17 to a whopping $73.
Transit experts say the MBTA could slash the trip time if it replaced its old, unreliable diesel trains with electric trains and raised all station platforms, so no time is wasted as passengers climb stairs.
Unlike other MBTA train tracks, the Providence-to-Boston line already has the overhead electrical wires needed to power electric trains. Amtrak uses electric trains, and advocates want the MBTA to follow suit — first with electric locomotives pulling train cars, and eventually with self-propelled electric train cars. The tracks are owned by the MBTA in Massachusetts and by Amtrak in Rhode Island, and both would have to be on board with any changes.
Raimondo, who has talked about improved rail service for years, raised the issue during a summit in July with Baker and Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont. “More frequent and rapid rail service between Boston and Providence would be enormously beneficial to those who live and work in both our states,” Raimondo press secretary Josh Block said.
DOT director Peter Alviti Jr. said Raimondo has asked the Department of Transportation to talk with the MBTA and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to find ways to make the trip “faster, better, and cheaper.”
MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said, “The MBTA has been exploring the possibility of obtaining some electric locomotives to operate on the Providence Line as a pilot or trial program.”
During a meeting this month, “Amtrak indicated [it] would get back to the MBTA next month on whether there will be an opportunity for the MBTA to lease some spare electric locomotives for a pilot program,” Pesaturo said.
Baker’s office referred questions to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, and spokesman Patrick Marvin said the department is “carrying out a comprehensive Commuter Rail Vision study to evaluate current service and potential alternatives that could better support mobility and economic competitiveness throughout the region.”
As part of that study, Massachusetts officials are looking at seven alternatives, including one that calls for a regional rail system using the self-powered electric trains favored by Rhode Island advocates.
The benefits of those electric trains would include “faster, more frequent service,” the Rail Vision document says. The down side would include “significant capital investment.”
Alviti said the amount and source of funding for electric trains needs to be worked out. Experts say self-propelled electric train cars cost about $2.5 million apiece.
Meanwhile, John Flaherty, deputy director of GrowSmartRI, said the Providence-based group has collaborated with Boston-based TransitMatters to propose improvements for the busy MBTA line to Providence.
Tufts University political science professor Eitan D. Hersh, who grew up in Rhode Island, said improving the Providence-to-Boston rail line make sense, but it seems to be a higher priority for Rhode Island than for Massachusetts. He noted Baker is dealing with MBTA delays and derailments. “Forget suburban areas, he can’t get people into downtown Boston from the outer neighborhoods of Boston,” he said.
Steve Janiak — CEO of Harmonix, a video game development company in downtown Boston that has produced huge hits such as “Rock Band” and “Guitar Hero” — said it’s not news to him that Boston traffic is at a tipping point, and he’s glad the Baker administration recognizes the problem.
“It’s really congested here,” Janiak said. “I am a huge fan of fast rail because I’d like my employees to have access to the office.”
Harmonix employs about 100 designers, engineers, and computer programmers, including some who deal with long commutes from Providence, he said. It’s a highly competitive industry, and Boston’s transportation woes and pricey parking can make it tough to attract talented people, he said.
Marc Dunkelman, a fellow at Brown University’s Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy, said among the biggest beneficiaries of improved train service between Providence and Boston would be the Massachusetts drivers who’d see fewer Rhode Island license plates heading to Boston.
Dunkelman, who lives in Providence, said, “If we could for a fraction of the price of the Big Dig take a huge number of Massachusetts and Rhode Island cars off of Routes 95, 93, 128, and the Massachusetts Turnpike, what could be better for the metro Boston economy?”