Massachusetts Commuter Rail Expansion Plans


The MBTA has one of the most expansive commuter rail networks in the country – only behind New Jersey Transit and Metra (somehow the MBTA and Metrolink in LA are tied for 3rd place… they both have 388 track miles exactly.)  Like its subway network, mentioned in my previous post, its a radial system that’s designed to take people into and out of downtown Boston.  It’s current service pattern heavily favors people taking working 9-5 jobs in Beantown and living in the suburbs.

Transitmatters has an awesome plan, called Regional Rail, which addresses the service patterns issue and transitions it into a frequent, all-day service.

The map I designed focuses on strengthening system connectivity, and expanding the network do reach more parts of the state than it currently does.

The Map

Infrastructure Upgrades:

Northeast Corridor upgrades

With all of the new commuter rail lines originating out of Providence, regular Foxboro branch service past Mansfield, and expanded Acela, Northeast Regional and Amtrak Metropolitan services, the Northeast corridor needs to be widened to 4 tracks through Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

Adding a 4th track from Westerly Rhode Island to Forest Hills would be easier said than done, but this stretch has no major obstructions that would make expanding the right of way tough by any means.  The only major obstructions I could find was the ramp at Pawtucket / Central Falls and one building near Mansfield – otherwise, it would be fairly easy. 

The part from Forest Hills north to Ruggles would require expanding into the Southwest Corridor park and pushing back the eastern retaining wall.  Not impossible, but significantly tougher than the rest of the line.  Past Ruggles, there’s little space to expand, requiring tunneling; this could be integrated into the tunneling already required to construct the North South Rail Link, mitigating some speed restrictions heading into Back Bay.

Old Colony and Middleborough / Lakeville line double tracking.

The Old Colony lines (the branches splitting off from Braintree) in their current form are at their maximum capacity, despite operating some of the least frequent commuter rail lines.  It’s so crowded that the new South Coast Rail project will only run three round trips per day… to some of the largest cities in the entire state.

One of the main limiting factors as to how many trains can operate on the Old Colony lines is the 11 mile, single-tracked stretch between Braintree and South Station.  There have been many, many proposals to mitigate this stretch, but none have progressed as far as I’d like.

My proposal would be one of the more expensive versions (it would be cheaper to absorb the red line into the commuter rail and operate a 3-track regional rail trunk, but that would cut off Braintree & Quincy from direct subway transfers and stations in Cambridge.)  If you merge the Ashmont and Braintree branches before Savin Hill, rather than after JFK, the only stretch where widening the right of way would pose issues is the 1 mile stretch between Quincy Center and Quincy Adams – Eminent Domain on a few buildings or tunneling would be required.

Double tracking the Middleborough Lakeville line would also be a worthy project, since its responsible for carrying the Capeflyer (I’ll get back to that later) and the South Coast Rail lines to Fall River and New Bedford.  I’d say it should be taken a step further and triple tracked, allowing for some trains to run express, stopping only at Middleborough and Brockton.  To my knowledge, there haven’t been concrete proposals to double track this line.

Capeflyer Year-round service

Currently, the Capeflyer only operates on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays during the summer-peak season.  Operating year-round commuter rail service to Hyannis would be a game-changer for the Cape, and would make commuting much easier (ever tried driving over the Bourne bridge during the summer?).  

To do this, something would need to be done about the Cape Cod Canal Railroad bridge – whether that’s restricting boat traffic through the canal to overnight windows, building a new bridge thats tall enough to clear over ships, or building a new tunnel under the canal.

Line Extensions & New Lines

Finally, onto the fun stuff.

Fall River branch extension to Providence.

I think this is the most unique proposal on the entire list.  To see why this project makes sense, imagine you live in Fall River, the 10th busiest city in the state, and you are trying to get to New York City, or even just Providence.  You physically can’t get between those cities without using Peter Pan, which just isn’t a great option for regular commutes or spontaneous day trips.  It can also be used as an alignment for a line between the 7th largest city in Rhode Island (Newport) and the 5th & 1st largest cities (East Providence and Providence).  According to the NASA population estimation tool, roughly 340,000 people live in the area that those 2 lines would serve!

The alignment from Fall River, over the Sakonnet River, to Portsmouth doesn’t exist, and would have to be built from scratch at a cost.  The remaining alignment to Providence could run parallel (Note, it wouldn’t replace or narrow it!!) to the amazing East Bay bike trail, which I’ve personally biked before.

Lowell line to Concord.

This is one of the many proposals on this map that has been on the table for YEARS.  The only reason this service doesn’t currently exist is because of Rhode Island Nimby’s who claim it will bring “those people” to New Hampshire, or that it will be a boondoggle.

If New Hampshire finally agreed to construct the line (mind you, the tracks already exist) it would be a huge step forward towards connectivity in the region!

The Blackstone Branch.

You know how I mentioned earlier that the commuter rail is designed to bring people into downtown Boston and nowhere else?  Nowhere is it clearer than if you try commuting between Providence and Worcester.  A trip between the cities takes over 3 hours, while driving it takes just 50 minutes; largely because you have to take the Providence line into downtown Boston then backtrack on the Worcester line.

The right of way already exists.  It just needs to be upgraded to Passenger Rail standards; seems like a no-brainer to me.

Franklin line and RailRhode to Woonsocket.

RailRhode is a project idea proposed on Heli’s Providence Planner blog (bring it back!) and Eliot’s Based on Transit blog (both co-authors on this site).  The idea is that Rhode Island should operate a line filling in the gap between MBTA commuter rail service and Shore Line east service in New London, allowing you to take commuter rail down the entire Northeast corridor, and improving transit access to the smallest state in the country.  My proposal slightly differs – it eliminates the Attleboro station in exchange for increased providence line service.

The Franklin line ends just 8 miles from Woonsocket, which under my plans would become a major transit hub; extending it to Woonsocket to meet up with RailRhode and the Blackstone Branch would make a lot of sense.

East West Rail & Worcester line extension to Gardner

East-West rail is one of the most important & talked about commuter rail projects, linking Pittsfield and Springfield to Worcester, Framingham and Boston.  Such an extension (using existing tracks that Amtrak already uses) would be a game-changer for traveling to Western Massachusetts.

But wait… my crayon shows the Worcester line going north to Gardner instead of ending at Worcester Union station… why?  To increase connectivity between northern and central Massachusetts counties, making the northern tier project all that more useful.

Northern Tier Rail

Like East-West rail, this long-proposed project involves upgrading old & slow freight-owned track up to commuter rail standards and connecting Eastern Massachusetts to Western Massachusetts.  This time, it would extend the Fitchburg line from its current terminus, Wachusett, to a new terminus in North Adams.  While this project would see significantly lower ridership than East-West rail, it’s still important to expand rail access to the middle of nowhere (sorry, not sorry, Western Massachusetts).  It makes the case for MBTA expansions anywhere stronger, since the agency would serve a much larger chunk of the state.

Kingston line to actual Plymouth

Last year, the original Plymouth station suspended operations under the disguise of the pandemic.  This station was shut down alongside other low ridership stations like Plimptonville, Hastings and Silver Hill.  The reason this station was so low ridership was because of how the station was built: its on a different branch than the Kingston station, which has most of the bus transfers and all of the siding tracks.  To service Plymouth, trains would need to reverse out of Kingston to just past the interlocking, change directions again, and drive forward into the Plymouth station.  To add insult to injury, the Plymouth station was inexplicably built 2 miles north of downtown Plymouth, making it largely useless.

To fix this, one of my crayons is to build a new Plymouth station that, A: is in the middle of somewhere, and B: doesn’t require reversing to service the new station.

Newburyport line to Hampton Beach

Just to stick it to New Hampshire NIMBYS, another proposal is to extend the Newburyport / Rockport line over existing track to Portsmouth via Hampton Beach.  The population of the area served by the line isn’t exceptionally high, however Hampton Beach and Portsmouth are both huge summer tourist destinations, so ideally that would help grow ridership on the line.

CTRail Hartford line to Greenfield

This extension would be another connecting point between Northern Tier Rail and East-West Rail.  Combined with Amtrak’s Valley Flyer and Vermonter which operate down the same track, this line would provide more frequent service to all of the cities along its route.

North-South rail link

This map doesn’t show the North-South Rail Link project, despite it being the most transformative planned Commuter Rail upgrade projects… why? 

As mentioned on the map, it does exist, however mapping out a balanced through running service would be a complete mess.  Most proposals fall into the (in my opinion) “trap” of sending all Old Colony line trains to the surface South Station, only sending the branches that run through Back Bay through the city.  Personally, I think it would be wiser to end a few trains from each branch at the surface South Station, and give commuters from each line an opportunity to travel through the rail link.  Mapping out that service pattern and trying to merge a few south side lines into a single north side lines would be a complete mess, so I opted to omit it from the map. 


Hopefully this post isn’t too crazy long or boring!  I’ve had alot of ideas for expanding the commuter rail that I wanted to throw into a map & write about.

As always, let me know your feedback in the comments and if you have any suggestions for future posts, feel free to drop them below.

Thanks for reading all the way through, I appreciate it.

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