In R.I., there’s excitement about frequent Providence-to-Boston train trips, but logistical questions remain

Commuters boarded the 7:30 a.m. MBTA train in Providence, bound for Boston.
Commuters boarded the 7:30 a.m. MBTA train in Providence, bound for Boston. Glenn Osmundson for The Boston Globe

PROVIDENCE — Key questions about funding and logistics remain before electric trains would begin providing faster, more frequent trips between Providence and Boston.

But that goal is in sight now that the MBTA oversight board has called for using electric trains on three lines, including the Providence Line, and providing train service every 15 to 20 minutes on those busy corridors.

Governor Gina M. Raimondo and Rhode Island transit advocates Tuesday applauded the series of resolutions that the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board approved a day earlier.

“It’s encouraging that the MBTA board has signaled its support for improvements,” Raimondo said. “This is a complex process, and much work remains. I look forward to continuing to work with all of the parties to bring about these improvements.”


Raimondo said faster and more frequent train service between Providence and Boston would boost the regional economy and improve the quality of life in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

On Monday, the MBTA board passed resolutions saying it “expects” a revamped commuter rail system to run trains every 15 to 20 minutes, and it “expects” the system to be “largely electrified.”

While setting those expectations for the whole MBTA system, the board directed the agency to first put electrified trains on three lines — the Providence/Stoughton Line, the Fairmount Line, and a section of the Newburyport/Rockport Line.

The source of the funding still needs to be determined. The resolution states: “The MBTA shall prioritize pursuit of the estimated $1.5 billion required for this three-pronged effort.”

Transit experts say the MBTA could slash the trip time on the Providence Line if it replaces its old, unreliable diesel trains with electric trains and raises 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.


“I think it’s a great step in the right direction,” said John Flaherty, deputy director of GrowSmartRI.

Given the price tag for the proposed improvements, the MBTA will need to explore how to best secure the funding, but a big chunk is likely to come from the federal government, he said.

The region hadn’t done its homework when the Obama administration made billions of dollars available on a competitive basis for transportation projects in 2008, he added.

“So the key here is the region will be ready to act when a transportation bill eventually makes its way through Congress,” Flaherty said.

He acknowledged that the MBTA resolutions contain “aspirational” language as opposed to detailed plans.

“But it means the region will be in a good position to qualify for what we hope will be a substantial federal investment in transit,” Flaherty said. “For Rhode Island, it’s great we are in that Phase 1 recommendation. That means we should see faster, more frequent trips between Providence and Boston in the early stages, which is very positive.”

Jan A. Brodie, executive director of the Pawtucket Foundation, noted a new commuter rail stop for Pawtucket and Central Falls is scheduled to open in 2022, and she said having faster, more frequent rail service would help local residents commute to Boston and Providence, to jobs and to schools.


“There are 2 million square feet of historical mills in Pawtucket and Central Falls that are poised for development once the trains start to bring people in,” she said.

Rhode Island is too small to have a subway system, Brodie said. “But by having this MBTA line to Boston, Providence, and T.F. Green Airport, it can operate like an interstate rapid transit system. We are very excited about it.”

Marc Dunkelman, a fellow at Brown University’s Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy, said he is glad to see Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker’s administration taking the need for rail system improvements seriously.

“The most expeditious way to break up the mind-numbing traffic on Routes 95 and 93 is to get a big portion of those automobile commuters to take the train,” he said.

People living in places without ready access to the rail system, such as those in Southeastern Massachusetts, will be able to drive in more quickly, he said. And faster, more frequent rail service will also help Boston businesses, which are trying to recruit talent but face steep housing prices or impossibly long commutes, he said.

Dunkelman said it makes sense to make the Providence Line one of the first priorities because it already has the overhead wires needed for electric trains. “This is the lowest of the low-hanging fruit,” he said.


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.