It’s Time to Replace the Commuter Rail with an All-Electric “Regional Rail,” Transit Activists Say

It's slow. It's outdated. It has to go, says TransitMatters.

Photo by C Hanchey on Flickr/Creative Commons

Let’s face it. Nobody loves the commuter rail right now. It keeps thousands of people heading into Boston off the road every day, which is good for everyone. But its schedules are rigid, it moves relatively slowly, and in some cases trains arrive only once every several hours.

But what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if we changed the way we use the eight rails that connect the city to the suburbs, and instead of loud, slow, infrequent, diesel-chugging trains, we had faster, electric ones—like a super-charged subway that could take you all around the state?

That’s the vision of a plan released Tuesday by the advocacy group and think tank TransitMatters. The nonprofit calls its idea Regional Rail, and says it’s how the MBTA should update its service to better reflect the needs of a modern workforce, make it easier for people to live in more affordable areas outside Boston, and create a system that encourages more people to take public transit in lieu of driving and clogging up highways.

“Our current Commuter Rail system is a vestige of mid-20th Century thinking, based on an antiquated assumption about the kind of mobility choices people expect to have,” TransitMatters president Marc Ebuña said in a statement. “Many people today do not have 9 to 5 jobs; they require more flexibility from their transit system. Regional Rail offers that flexibility.”

The plan would involve replacing the current diesel-fueled system over the next 10 years with one that uses electricity-powered trains, which would arrive at suburban stations every 30 minutes at most, and every 15 minutes or fewer in denser communities. New electric trains would accelerate, decelerate, and travel more quickly than their diesel counterparts, they say, cutting commuting time by as much as 40 percent.

The report calls for stops to be added to communities’ walkable centers—the system has many stops in more remote areas with large parking lots. It proposes overhauling the fare system and allowing riders to transfer fares, so someone who travels on the rail, plus a bus and/or a subway train, would have to pay only once.

Regional Rail wouldn’t be cheap. The report’s authors estimate a price tag of between $2 and $3 billion to make the conversion, which would require the costly work of raising platforms of a number of rail stops so they’re flush with train doors. That estimate does not include the cost of brand-new electric trains, as the report’s authors note that the T will have to replace its diesel ones eventually anyway.

But they say the investment would pay off long-term, as electric trains are less expensive to run and maintain than diesel ones. What’s more, they say, Regional Rail would make the proposed $1.6 billion expansion of South Station unnecessary: New trains would be able to turn around more quickly, the report says, saving precious minutes of wasted time and freeing up more space inside the transit hub.

TransitMatters has opposed the expansion project in the past and favored the North-South rail link, a proposal for an underground tunnel between North and South Station. Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration agreed to spend $1.5 million to study the proposed link, but has been skeptical about it and expressed a preference for the South Station expansion. The proposal released Tuesday does not include the North-South Rail Link, but it says the project “would be a highly useful enhancement.”

If TransitMatters’ plan became reality, Boston would be a “pioneer” in intercity transit in the U.S., the report says, although the concept has been implemented elsewhere. As a model, they point to Paris’ Regional Express Network and also Munich’s S-Bahn. Philly’s SEPTA system, they say, is the closest equivalent in the U.S., although their report is critical of SEPTA and says it “doesn’t come close to its full potential.”

The report comes as the MBTA conducts a 2-year “vision study” on the commuter rail, which is looking at infrastructure and schedule updates and will consider whether to electrify parts of the system.

TransitMatters has proposed other bold solutions for transit problems in the past and has had success at getting the ear of state transit officials. One such idea is NightBus, a proposal that the T should provide late-night public transit after the subway closes with a network of buses. The T in January announced plans to launch a late-night bus pilot program, although it was different from the one TransitMatters proposed.

Read the full report on the TransitMatters website.