MBTA Commuter Rail

The MBTA Commuter Rail (reporting mark MBTX) system serves as the commuter rail arm of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority's transportation coverage of Greater Boston in the United States. Trains run over 398 mi (641 km) of track to 141 different stations, with 58 stations on the north side and 83 stations on the south. It is operated under contract by Keolis, which took over operations on July 1, 2014, from the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Company (MBCR).

As of the third quarter of 2019, average weekday ridership of the system was 119,800,[4] making it the sixth-busiest commuter rail system in the U.S., behind the three New York-area systems, the Chicago-area system, and the Philadelphia-area system.[4] The line's characteristic purple-trimmed coaches operate as far south as North Kingstown, Rhode Island, and as far north as Newburyport and as far west as Fitchburg, both in Massachusetts.

Trains originate at two major terminals in BostonSouth Station and North Station—with both transportation hubs offering connections to Amtrak, local bus, intercity bus via South Station Bus Terminal, and subway lines. Currently the only rail infrastructure directly connecting them is a single track only used to move equipment, however, the is studying the possibility of an underground tunnel to unite the two halves, the North-South Rail Link.

The following lines terminate at South Station (listed from southeast to west):[5]

The following lines terminate at North Station (listed from west to northeast):[5]

The northside and southside lines are a legacy of their roots in separate railroads. The lines terminating at South Station were once part of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad and New York Central Railroad, while the lines terminating at North Station were once part of the Boston and Maine Railroad. No lines feed into both the North and South Stations.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts's involvement with the operating facets of commuter rail began in 1967 when the Boston & Maine Railroad (B&M) petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to discontinue all passenger services.[6] Service north of the state line was discontinued, but most service in Massachusetts was preserved through a contract between the Commonwealth and the B&M, at this time still an independent railroad company. The Commonwealth and MBTA began to purchase several lines, like the Lowell Line between Somerville and Wilmington, from the B&M.

In 1969 the B&M transported 24,000 passengers every weekday on four separate routes. Its yearly deficit was $3,200,000 (equivalent to $22,582,940 in 2020). A pool of 86 Budd Rail Diesel Cars provided the service.[7] B&M filed for bankruptcy protection in 1970. All remaining B&M commuter assets, with the exception of yard tracks and freight-only branches, were sold to the Commonwealth on December 14, 1976, though B&M was contracted to operate the service using its existing fleet of diesel railcars.[6]

The New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad (NYNH&H), the long-time operator of most South Station commuter trains, filed for bankruptcy for the last time in 1961.[8] Two years earlier in 1959, the railroad had discontinued passenger service on the Old Colony division in southeastern Massachusetts. On July 28, 1965, the MBTA signed an agreement with the New Haven Railroad to purchase 11 miles (18 km) of the former Old Colony mainline from Fort Point Channel to South Braintree in order to construct a new rapid transit line along the corridor. The line was expected to be completed within two years. The agreement also provided for the MBTA to subsidize commuter service on the railroad's remaining commuter rail lines for $1,200,000 (equivalent to $9,854,699 in 2020) annually.[6][9]

The NH was included in the Penn Central Transportation Company (PC) merger in 1968, which itself filed bankruptcy in 1970.[10] MBTA purchased many PC southside commuter lines on January 27, 1973, including the Providence/Stoughton Line as far as the Rhode Island border plus the branch to Stoughton, the Franklin Line and Needham Line and the Framingham/Worcester Line from Riverside to Framingham, as well as a number of abandoned lines and lines without passenger service including the Old Colony mainline from Boston to Braintree and the Plymouth/Kingston Line (which were later restored).[6] PC merged into Conrail on April 1, 1976; the MBTA bought the equipment but Conrail took over operations of the southside lines. The MBTA also purchased the Fairmount Line to restore it for passenger service as a bypass during Southwest Corridor reconstruction.[6]

The Framingham/Worcester Line, historically part of the Boston & Albany Railroad (B&A), was merged into the New York Central Railroad (NYC) and its ownership subsequently passed to PC in 1968. As part of the Massachusetts Turnpike Boston Extension's construction in the 1960s, the Worcester Line's roadbed between Route 128 and Boston was sold to the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, with the provison that the control of the railroad remain with NYC. Conrail inherited the line which formed a vital freight artery between Boston's Beacon Yard and Conrail's Selkirk Yard. The Riverside-Framingham section was sold to the MBTA in 1976 as part of their larger acquisition of PC commuter assets, but the section past Framingham remained in Conrail control.[6] In September 2009, Conrail successor CSX Transportation and the Commonwealth finalized a $100,000,000 (equivalent to $120,629,750 in 2020) agreement to purchase CSX's Framingham to Worcester tracks, as well as the Grand Junction Railroad plus lines which will be part of the South Coast Rail project, to improve service on the Framingham/Worcester Line.[11] After several years of construction and negotiations, ownership of the line was transferred to the commonwealth on October 4, 2012, with increased service on the outer section of the line beginning several weeks later.[6][12]

The Penn Central combined the operations of the New Haven and the New York Central in 1968. Conrail succeeded them 1976, but would only operate the south-side lines until March 12, 1977.[13] B&M won the contract for the southside lines; for the first time, all Boston commuter service was operated by one entity. After bankruptcy, B&M continued to operate trains under the protection of the federal bankruptcy court, in the hopes that a reorganization could make it profitable again. It emerged from the court's protection when Timothy Mellon's Guilford Transportation Industries (GTI) bought it in 1983.[6] GTI let the contract expire in 1987, after a bitter strike had shut down most of the northside lines in 1986.[6]

Amtrak won the contract for the MBTA Commuter Rail network in 1987, and held it for 16 years.[6] While MBTA observers saw Amtrak as a reliable operator and manager, the relationship between MBTA and Amtrak was often rocky. Quibbles centered on equipment failures, crewing issues about the number of conductors per train, and responsibility for late trains. Because of these issues, and Amtrak's repeated statements that the MBTA contract was unreasonable, few were surprised at Amtrak's decision not to bid again when the contract expired in 2003.[14]

Two tenders were submitted, one from GTI and another from the newly formed Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Company (MBCR), a partnership between Connex (later Veolia), Bombardier Transportation and Alternate Concepts, Inc. MBCR won the contract, and took over the MBTA Commuter Rail operation from Amtrak in July 2003. The MBCR contract originally expired in July 2008 but had an additional five-year option; it was later extended three years to July 2011 and then another two to July 2013.[14][15] After concerns about on-time performance, the 2011 extension increased the fine for late trains from $100 to $300.[16]

Logo of Keolis Commuter Services, the current operator of MBTA Commuter Rail. This logo appears on employee uniforms and public timetables.

In August 2012, MBCR and Keolis were the two bidders for the contract. On January 8, 2014, the MBTA awarded Keolis the contract for $2.68 billion over eight years, with the possibility of two two-year extensions that could bring the total price to $4.3 billion.[17] Keolis took over the operations on July 1, 2014. Keolis lost $29.3 million in its first year of operation.[18] In June 2020, the MBTA extended the contract through at least 2025.[19] The final segment of the system to have Positive Train Control activated was the inner Worcester Line on August 15, 2020.[20]

Weekday service was substantially cut on March 17, 2020, due to reduced ridership during the COVID-19 pandemic.[21] On June 22, service was increased to 85% of normal weekday levels.[22] Changes effective November 2 reduced peak service and increased off-peak service, providing more consistent midday headways on some lines; Foxboro pilot service was suspended.[23]

In November 2020, as part of service cuts during the pandemic, the MBTA proposed to close six low-ridership stations.[24] On December 14, the MBTA Board voted to enact a more limited set of cuts, including indefinitely closing five stations.[25][26] That day, temporary reduced schedules were again put into place, with four of the five stations (Hastings, Silver Hill, Prides Crossing, and Plimptonville) not served.[27]

On January 23, 2021, reduced schedules based on the December 14 vote went into place, with no weekend service on seven lines.[6][28] Service changes on April 5, 2021, increased midday service on most lines as part of a transition to a regional rail model.[29] Weekend service on the seven lines is scheduled to resume on July 3, 2021.[30]

Several significant improvements have been made during MBTA's period of stewardship which started circa 1973. However, the Commonwealth's support for rail operations began in the 1950s with contracted operations and subsidies to railroads providing commuter service, and more so in 1964 with the advent of MBTA.

A typical Commuter Rail train, consisting of one diesel locomotive and five coaches, at Auburndale station in 2012.

All MBTA commuter rail service is provided by push-pull trains powered by diesel locomotives with a cab car on the opposite end. Trains typically have four to eight coaches (with six the most common) and seat between 400 and 1400 passengers. Approximately 65 trainsets are needed for weekday service.[38]

The primary heavy maintenance facility is the MBTA Commuter Rail Maintenance Facility, located in East Somerville on the former site of the Boston and Maine's Boston Engine Terminal. It is also used for midday and overnight storage of trains on the northside lines. Southampton Street Yard and the Readville Interim Layover facility are used for light maintenance and layover service. Various other layover facilities are used for midday and overnight storage; most are located near the outer ends of the lines.

As of June 2016, the MBTA owned 125 locomotives. Of these, 85 were in active passenger service, four used for work service, and 36 inactive for various reasons.[38] The current fleet of diesel locomotives comprises a mix of purpose-built passenger locomotives (such as the EMD F40PH) and freight locomotives rebuilt for passenger use (such as the GMD GP40MCs, which were originally GMD GP40-2LWs). All passenger locomotives are equipped with head end power (HEP), though some locomotives exclusively used for non-revenue work service are not.[38]

#1800 arrives at Malden Center on the first revenue round trip of the new BTC-4D and CTC-5 coaches

As of June 2016, the MBTA owned 481 coaches. Of these, 420 were in active service and 61 inactive for various reasons.[38] Coaches whose designations start with BTC (Blind Trailer Coach) are conventional coaches, while those starting with CTC (Control Trailer Coach) are cab cars. Cab cars will occasionally also appear in the middle of a consist. Coaches acquired before 1990 were single-level cars with 88 to 127 seats; those since are bilevel cars with 173 to 185 seats.[38]

Various coaches are equipped with electronic doors for use on the Old Colony Lines and Greenbush Line, which have full-length high-level platforms at all stops. All BTC-3, CTC-3, BTC-4C, and BTC-4D coaches have restrooms.[38] Trains usually have one of these cars adjacent to the locomotive, as that car will be platformed at all high level platforms regardless of length, and thus handicapped riders will be able to access the restroom car.

During winter months, a Ski Train serving Wachusett Mountain runs on the Fitchburg Line, using a coach car which is equipped for carrying bicycles or skis.[38][41] During summer months, some Newburyport/Rockport Line trains to Rockport include one of two cars equipped to carry bicycles.[38][42] The CapeFLYER uses car 224, which has been modified as a cafe and baggage car.[38]

In January 2019, the MBTA issued a Request for Qualifications to design additional bilevel coach cars.[43] The agency approved a $279 million contract (total project cost of $345 million) for 80 additional Rotem bilevel coaches in September 2019, with delivery expected from September 2022 to June 2024. The MBTA plans an additional procurement of 100 bilevel cars, delivered from 2024 to 2027.[44]

An EMD FP10 locomotive with rented GO Transit coaches at South Station in 1978

As the Commonwealth assumed the control of the Commuter Rail during the 1970s, it inherited various non-standard equipment from predecessor railroads. These included:

Two coaches in 2012 with wraps indicating that they are Wi-Fi enabled. This 2008-built system will be replaced with a new system.

Free Wi-Fi internet service with limited bandwidth is provided on all trains. A two-tiered model where riders can pay extra for faster service is in planning.[46]

The program started with a $262,000 (equivalent to $314,926 in 2020) pilot in January 2008 on the Worcester Line, where 45 coaches were fitted with routers which connected to cellular data networks. This was the first Wi-Fi available on a commuter rail service in the United States.[47] The Worcester Line was chosen for the pilot phase in part to compensate for low on-time performance, as well as to test the service across the line's varied terrain.[48] The program was considered successful; in December 2008, the MBTA announced that Wi-Fi would be available on all trains by mid-2009. Of the 410 coaches then owned by the MBTA, 258 would receive Wi-Fi equipment at a rate of about 30 per month.[49]

In July 2014, the MBTA announced that a private company would be building a new $5,600,000 (equivalent to $6,731,252 in 2020) network to replace the 2008-built network. The MBTA is not paying for the new network; instead, the company expects to recoup its investment by providing a two-tiered offering. Free limited-bandwidth Wi-Fi will continue to be provided, along with local television broadcasts; a monthly fee will be charged by the company for access to higher bandwidth and other broadcasts, with 7.5% of the fee returned to the MBTA.[50] The new system was to be completed in 2016, with the revenue agreement lasting until 2037.[50][51][46]

By December 2016, the new system was still in permitting and design, except for enhanced Wi-Fi at Back Bay, South Station, and North Station expected to be complete by the end of the year.[52] In August 2017, the MBTA canceled the $140 million plan due to local opposition to the erection of 320 monopoles, each 70-foot (21 m) tall, as well as the need to focus on more critical projects like the Green Line Extension.[53]

Commuter Rail tickets in the form of CharlieTickets purchased at fare vending machines and ticket booths (left) and paper tickets purchased on-board (right).

The MBTA Commuter Rail uses a fare zone policy whereby origin and destination stations are not individually priced, but assigned a zone based on distance from Boston.[54] There are a total of eleven zones (1A, then 1 through 10) with an increasing fare to or from Boston the higher the zone number. Most stations in inner Boston, as well as stations in Cambridge, Chelsea, Malden and Medford, are located in zone 1A; trips from this zone are the least expensive and cost the same as rapid transit ($2.40), while the highest priced Zone 10 fares are $12.50 per ride.[54] Travel between suburban zones without going to Boston is charged an "interzone" fare based on the number of zones traveled.[54] Seniors, those with a disability, and middle and high school students with proper identification receive a 50% discounted rate; children under eleven travel free with a paying adult.[55] Fares are collected by train conductors; while fare evasion is explicitly illegal, it is not criminal.[56][57]

Tickets may be purchased at automatic vending machines located in principal stations and at suburban stations from nearby businesses and vendors.[58][59] Passengers joining at stations without ticketing machines or vendors can purchase tickets on board.[56] Alternatively, riders can use the MBTA mTicket app to purchase tickets on iPhone and Android devices, which allows them to display their tickets on their mobile phone screens rather than presenting paper tickets or passes.[60] Travelers can purchase tickets as a one-way, round trip, ten ride (no discount), or monthly pass (discounted over daily round-trip purchase).[54]

Ridership levels on the Commuter Rail have grown since the MBTA's involvement began in the late 1960s, with overall average weekday ridership growing from 29,500 in 1969 to 76,000 in 1990 and 143,700 in 2008. This was accomplished by a series of rationalizations, such as closing lightly used lines, concentrating service on heavily utilized lines, and re-opening formerly abandoned branches with high traffic potential, such as the Old Colony Lines. A general growth of transit usage in the Northeastern United States also contributed. Growing ridership in this way required substantial capital investment, which was provided by a mixture of Federal mass transit funds and Commonwealth transportation bond issues.[citation needed]

Like most commuter railroads in the Northeastern United States, MBTA is a member of the Northeast Operating Rules Advisory Committee (NORAC) and uses the rulebook promulgated by that organization.[61] Much of the MBTA Commuter Rail system is governed by NORAC rule 251, as the tracks are signalled for movement in one direction of travel only. During the 1990s, parts of the system, such as the Framingham/Worcester Line, were re-signalled to allow a more advanced mode of operations known as NORAC rule 261, which allows trains to operate in either direction on both tracks where double track is available. During the morning rush hour, both tracks can be simultaneously used for inbound traffic, allowing one train to make local stops while an express train overtakes the local train.[62]

On each train, the cab car is attached at the end closest to the downtown Boston terminal station for the particular line (either North or South Station), and the locomotive is attached at the end farthest from the terminal station. On each train serving the North Station lines, the "ADA" coach used to carry mobility-limited persons is attached next to the locomotive, allowing level boarding at all suburban stations featuring mini-high platforms. On the other hand, on each train serving the South Station lines, the cab car also serves as the "ADA" coach. (The "ADA" coaches support compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.)

Trainlined doors that open automatically via central control are available on some equipment, but at low level platforms the conductor in each car must manually open a trap to allow passengers to descend via stairs onto the platform.

Positive Train Control is scheduled to be implemented on the entire system per a federal mandate, which requires installation by the end of 2018 with the possibility of a two-year extension. As of November 2015, the MBTA expects to complete PTC on the southside lines by December 2018, on the northside lines by March 2020, and an overlay for freight on the sections of Pan Am Railways' Freight Main Line which overlap MBTA territory by August 2020.[63] In August 2020, the MBTA reported the system was deployed and undergoing a calibration phase until full operation begins in December 2020 (in time to meet the twice-extended federal deadline).[64]

In November 2019, the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board voted to back plans to further electrify the Commuter Rail system and increase service along key corridors. The resolution in which the board passed instructs the MBTA to prepare to launch a pilot service along the Fairmount line and a portion of the Newburyport/Rockport line where Commuter Rail service would be increased and fares reduced to that of a rapid transit ticket. Both of those lines, as well as the Providence/Stoughton line, are also to be electrified under the plan. The projected cost of such plans were not immediately clear at the time of the board's vote, but projections range from $10.6 billion to $28.9 billion, depending upon the results of the pilot program and future possible expansion.[65]

The MBTA plans to convert the system from diesel-powered commuter rail – which is primarily designed for Boston-centric trips at peak hours – to an electric regional rail system with frequent all-day service. Initial steps were taken in fall 2020 when some peak service was moved to midday, and in April 2021 when 9 of the 15 lines were moved to clock-face scheduling. As of April 2021, the MBTA aims to pilot electric multiple units on Providence service (on the Northeast Corridor, which is already electrified for Amtrak service) in 2024, with the Fairmount Line and the inner section of the Newburyport/Rockport Line electrified later in the decade.[66] A previous attempt at regional rail service was made in 2013–2014 with a procurement for diesel multiple units for the Fairmount Line, new Track 61 service, and several other lines.[67] That procurement was cancelled in 2015.[68]

No direct connection exists between the two downtown commuter rail terminals; passengers must use the MBTA subway or other modes to transfer between the two halves of the system. (For non-revenue transfers of equipment, the MBTA and Amtrak use the Grand Junction Branch.) The proposed North–South Rail Link would add a new rail tunnel under downtown Boston to allow through-running service, with new underground stations at South Station, North Station, and possibly a new Central Station. A feasibility study was conducted in 2018.[69]

Construction of Freetown station for the South Coast Rail project in 2020

The South Coast Rail project is under construction to extend service to the South Coast cities of Taunton, Fall River, and New Bedford, which were last served by commuter service in 1958. A full planning process was held from 1990 until its suspension in 2002. Planning restarted in 2007, with environmental documentation completed in August 2013. Plans were modified into two phases in 2017 due to an increase in costs.[70] Phase I is under construction to run diesel service beginning in 2023 as an extension of the Middleborough/Lakeville Line via the Middleboro Secondary. Phase II, planned for 2030, would extend the Stoughton Branch of the Providence/Stoughton Line over a reactivated line with electric service.

A one-year pilot of service to Foxboro station began in 2019. It operated as a branch of the Franklin Line, with most service operated as extended Fairmount Line trains rather than diverted Franklin Line trains. The pilot was suspended in due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Work to double-track the Franklin Line mainline is also underway.

Extensions of several lines are proposed, though none are funded or under construction:

Several infill stations on existing lines are under construction or proposed:

Several station renovations for accessibility or expanded service are under construction or planned:

On the North Side lines, as part of the original sale agreement, B&M and its successor Pan Am Railways (formerly Guilford Transportation Industries) retains "perpetual and exclusive" trackage rights for freight service. Pan Am provides freight service on those lines.[75]

Boston Sand and Gravel has an agreement with Pan Am to operate its shortline New Hampshire Northcoast Railroad trains from Ossipee, New Hampshire to just north of Boston's North Station to supply aggregates to its plant on the Boston/Cambridge border.[76] An occasional move occurs with run-through power from Norfolk Southern Railway to supply coal the Merrimack Station power plant in Bow, New Hampshire, over the Fitchburg Line. The Haverhill and Fitchburg lines also host four to six Pan Am manifest freight trains per day.

On the South Side lines, CSX Transportation retains trackage rights over much of the former New Haven territory. Limited service is also provided by the Providence & Worcester Railroad on the Providence Line, principally from Central Falls (the intersection with its main line to Worcester) through Providence towards New Haven (although some freights go as far east as Attleboro before leaving the corridor).[77] The Bay Colony Railroad provides a limited amount of service on some lines.

CSXT used to provide intermodal, autorack, and general merchandise over the Worcester Line, a part of CSXT's Boston Line.[78] This part of the Commuter Rail network could host over 12 mainline freight trains per day, including descendants of Conrail's expedited intermodal Trail Van trains. Currently most freight service terminates in Framingham, and a trainload facility in Westboro, with limited freight service east through Beacon Park Yard in Allston to a few local customers. In 2013 CSX moved its intermodal service from Beacon Park to an expanded yard in Worcester.[79][80]

On its former Old Colony division, the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad (NYNH&H) essentially vacated its right of freight operations by abandoning the tracks in 1959. As MBTA rebuilt the tracks, it gained freight service rights, and those rights were franchised to Conrail (predecessor to CSX), which provided freight service on the former Old Colony division.[citation needed]

As parts of their Arts on the Line program, the MBTA has public art at certain commuter rail stations. Large sculptures and murals are present at South Station, Back Bay, and Lynn, while a number of other stations include historic information panels on station signs.[81]