Join Date: Jan 2007
Riders demand more commuter rail service
Rail-riding commuters want more service, soon
Increased demand highlights need for added trains to Boston
By John C. Drake, Globe Staff | August 12, 2007
SOUTHBOROUGH -- It's a beautiful sound for morning commuters in Southborough, one that comes around not nearly often enough: Clank-i-ty, clank-i-ty, clank-i-ty, clank!
When those bells toll in the commuter rail parking lot, it means the next sound will be the roar of a purple-trimmed MBTA train, set to cart workers off to Boston for jobs in the Financial District, on Beacon Hill, in the Longwood Medical Area, or at any number of other centers made accessible to residents in suburbs west of Boston by public transportation.
There's another sound to which commuters here have become accustomed: Promises from politicians for more trains, to relieve the overcrowding and inconvenient scheduling that have curtailed the convenience of commuter rail. But despite hundreds of thousands of tax dollars on studies and numerous commitments from Beacon Hill, not one new train has been added between Framingham and Worcester in the last six years.
Right now there are 10 round-trips per day to South Station from Worcester, Grafton, Westborough, Southborough, and Ashland, only one of which reaches Boston before 8 a.m. There are twice as many between Framingham and Boston, plus one extra midday train running inbound to the city.
"The time is past due for additional train service to Worcester," said state Representative Karyn Polito, a Shrewsbury Republican. "This population in the central area of the state has increased, and more people are commuting to Boston for work."
Since the MBTA added four commuter rail stops between Framingham and Worcester in 2000 and 2002, the trains have quickly become overburdened. Additional parking was recently added at the Grafton and Westborough stops to accommodate the crush of commuters.
"I wouldn't have this job" if not for the commuter rail, said Alice McCabe, who lives in Hudson and works for an executive search firm in Boston's Financial District. But she's frustrated with train delays that she says have topped an hour and with the lack of an afternoon train from Boston.
She has heard the talk of increased service.
"I'm not very optimistic," said McCabe, 60, after arriving in Southborough Monday from Boston on the 6:31 train, which on this day was about five minutes late.
In addition to added convenience for passengers, the economic development of towns along the Worcester-Framingham line depends in part on getting more trains on the schedule.
"Expansion of service west of Framingham to include more train runs could be a significant boon to the region if handled appropriately," said Paul Matthews, executive director of the 495/MetroWest Corridor Partnership, a regional group of politicians and business leaders.
There is a unique challenge to adding more trains between Worcester and Framingham. The 24 miles of track between the two communities is the only stretch of the commuter rail system serving Boston and its suburbs that is not owned by the MBTA. It is owned by CSX Corp., the huge railroad company that runs a lot of freight along that stretch. Officials note that the Worcester-Framingham line has suffered from the worst on-time performance in the MBTA commuter rail system.
State officials say talks with CSX Corp. aimed at clearing the way for more trains are "progressing." Negotiations have been going on in fits and starts for at least six years. Several observers say talks have picked up in recent weeks. A group of Western and Central Massachusetts legislators met with CSX officials Wednesday, but officials insist they can't say much else because it could hurt negotiations.
"We are hopeful we will be able to reach a resolution in the near future," said John Lamontagne, spokesman for the Executive Office of Transportation.
Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray said talks between the state and CSX have been "very aggressive" over the last two months. Murray, formerly mayor of Worcester, made expanding commuter rail service a cornerstone of his 2006 campaign and has been heavily involved in the administration's commuter rail efforts.
Murray set expectations high, telling his hometown weekly newspaper Worcester Magazine in December that if "within a couple of years, we don't have several more trains, then we haven't done our part." Last week, he said he still believes that time frame is plausible.
"Like everybody else, I wish we were done yesterday," said Murray. His own chief of staff, former Worcester state legislator James Leary, arrived late for work Wednesday because of delays on the commuter rail.
"There is an urgency to it, and it's something that is a priority within the administration," Murray said.
He said commuter rail expansion was included in both the recently passed $1.5 billion bond bill for transportation and the governor's five-year capital needs plan. But he would not say how much money the administration was willing to commit to acquisition of the Worcester-Framingham line.
"We're not going to negotiate the contract in the public," he said. "We understand CSX is going to expect to be compensated for any acquisition. Obviously, we wouldn't be negotiating if we didn't feel we could deliver."
Meanwhile, Susan Abladian, chairwoman of the Westborough Board of Selectmen, said she has heard nothing to indicate an increase in service is imminent.
"We know the chances of that happening are not great," Abladian said, saying she doubts CSX is willing to give up control of the rail line. "We know it isn't about to be sold, because it's the only profitable piece of this railroad's business. If there was a way they could do it, they would already be making plans to do it."
Her colleague on the board, Lydia Goldblatt, isn't optimistic either. Goldblatt rode the commuter rail daily to Beacon Hill for five years as an official in the administration of then-governor Mitt Romney.
"It was brought up all the time, but nothing ever came to fruition," said Goldblatt, who went back to work as manager of Harry's Restaurant on Route 9 after resigning as Romney's civil service chairwoman last year. "I'm assuming CSX won't give more track time to the commuter rail."
CSX spokesman Gary Sease said he could not discuss the progress of negotiations.
"Beginning in 2005, Massachusetts officials expressed interest in acquiring some of our rail assets in the eastern part of Massachusetts," he said. "Since that time, we have been in talks with the commonwealth that would further support expansion of the Massachusetts economy and best meet the needs of freight and passenger transportation in the commonwealth."
The longstanding negotiations with CSX have compelled towns like Framingham and Ashland to prepare for more trains passing through their already congested downtowns.
A railroad crossing task force in Framingham -- a town with a street-level railroad crossing that brings downtown traffic to a standstill every time trains barrel through -- is expecting to hear from a consultant on Aug. 20 a series of possible solutions for mitigating the impact of increased trains.
"We know what's coming," said Ted Welte, president of the Framingham-based MetroWest Chamber of Commerce. "We know there are more trains coming."
In 2004, a $500,000 commuter rail study considered the cost and feasibility of adding more Worcester-to-Boston trains. The state has allocated at least $1 million for studies on improvements to the railroad crossings in Framingham and Ashland, in preparation for such an increase.
State Senator Karen Spilka, an Ashland Democrat, said the studies are essential to preparing for increased service. "I keep on trying to point out that it would benefit everybody to have increased rail service, however it cannot be at the expense of downtown Framingham and Ashland," she said.
Murray said the recent round of negotiations has included either having the state acquire the rail line outright or allowing the MBTA to take over train dispatch rights from CSX.
"The idea is to improve reliability and look at increasing frequency, and we're looking at the various ways to do that under existing ownership structure or by us taking ownership as well," Murray said.
He said once an agreement is reached, limited expansion of service to Worcester -- perhaps two additional round trips a day -- could occur "fairly soon." The long-term goal of officials has been to double the number of trains serving communities west of Framingham.
Meanwhile, Southborough commuters like Jeff Redding, a 49-year-old vice president at State Street Corp., cling to a train schedule that doesn't always keep up with the pace of business.
"A lot of my colleagues are in the office at 7:30," Redding said. "It's difficult to make early meetings."
As for Murray, on whose influence many local leaders are pinning their hopes, he's got both political and personal motivations for expansion of the rail line.
Murray says he takes the train to work from his home in Worcester "every couple of weeks," as his schedule permits.
"I'd much rather be taking the train every day than driving," he said.