How hard could it really be for the MBTA to run trains between Boston and Providence in 45 minutes?
After all, Amtrak makes the same trip, on the same tracks, in as little as 35 minutes — so clearly the corridor has the wherewithal to handle trains much faster than the T, which take more than an hour to amble the same 43 miles between the two capital cities.
Slashing rail travel times to Boston has become a major transportation goal of Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, and a recent consultants’ report to the Rhode Island Department of Transportation touted all the potential economic benefits: job growth in both states, more tax receipts, better access to Rhode Island’s cheaper housing for Boston workers.
Raimondo was making the case for the commuter trains again this week at the National Governors Association infrastructure summit, which was held in Boston.
“We need more of it, and it has to be faster,” she said of the rail service.
Before Massachusetts residents wonder what any of this has to do with them, remember: Every worker the two states can coax onto the train is also one fewer commuter adding to the region’s dystopian traffic.
What makes achieving the 45-minute goal difficult is, no surprise, the cost. Either in money or convenience, both states are going to have to pay to make the trip quicker.
Broadly speaking, there are only three ways to speed up the Providence Line’s commuter schedule.
The first two are straightforward: The trains could make fewer stops, or they could spend less time at the station during each stop.
Skipping stops doesn’t add any new costs, and that’s how the T achieved the once-daily express round trip that zips between Worcester and Boston. The nonstop trains take nearly a half-hour less than trains that make stops at the intermediate stations on the Worcester Line. The 8 a.m. morning train averages 266 passengers daily, while the evening train averages only 70. Nonstops are what Raimondo initially proposed for the Providence Line back in 2017.
But that strategy would have had downsides. Converting current trips to nonstops from Providence would mean fewer train options for riders in Attleboro, Mansfield, and Sharon.
The second option would require building high-level platforms at more stations, which allow passengers to get on and off trains faster, without climbing up or down steps. Retrofitting stations with high-level platforms is also a key part of making the transportation system more accessible to passengers with disabilities.
But those would be long-term changes, and right now that’s on hold while the T forms a long-term strategy for commuter rail through its ongoing Rail Vision study. “No major station infrastructure changes on the Providence Line are planned before the Rail Vision process is complete,” said T spokesman Joe Pesaturo.
That leaves the third — and best — option for speeding up service in the near future: The T could acquire some faster trains for the Providence Line, with an appropriate financial contribution from Rhode Island taxpayers, to test out faster service using electric locomotives instead of the diesel locomotives it uses now.
According to Pesaturo, the agency has been in talks with Amtrak, which operates electric trains on the corridor, and is “exploring the possibility of obtaining some electric locomotives to operate on the Providence Line as a pilot or trial program.
“Following a meeting earlier this month with MBTA staff,” he continued, “Amtrak indicated they 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. If spares are available, the MBTA would have more conversations with the Rhode Island DOT about next steps.” He said acquiring electric locomotives would allow the T to offer more trains and faster trains without cutting any existing service.
A spokesman for Amtrak confirmed the railroad was in discussions with the T.
The railroad should find a way to make it happen. And the states should proceed with a trial. The schlep to Providence on the T is just long enough that it “psychologically increases the mental distance between the two markets,” as the Rhode Island report put it, dampening the potential synergies between the two cities. Changing that perception is a worthy economic-development goal, and to do that, every minute counts.