When Massachusetts opened the Southeast Expressway to drivers in 1959, state officials cut off subsidies for the railroad that had served Bostons South Shore for a century, bringing passenger train service to a screeching halt. After a key bridge burned down the following year, the prospect of any revived rail service fell victim to the eras booming car culture and the national passion for highway building. Freight traffic continued to lumber over some of the rail routes, but weeds grew up over other stretches, as commuters enthusiastically embraced the mobility and freedom of auto travel.
Twenty years later, thousands of commuters who had been lured to the South Shore by the Expressways easy access were spending hours every day stuck in traffic. Suddenly, it was the drivers who were demanding relief. By the late 1970s, the states transportation planners had resurrected the idea of commuter passenger service on the tracks of the former Old Colony rail line.
Now, the trains have come full circle. When service was finally restored to two branches of the revived commuter rail line in 1997, ridership increased so rapidly, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) was forced to expand parking lots at many stations after the first year. Commuter rail extensions to Worcester and the North Shore have been just as popular, and a rail link between Bostons North and South Stations has been proposed.
While commuters were flocking to the Boston trains, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont began shaping rail proposals of their own. Amtrak has finally made headway on a decade-old effort to run high-speed trains between Boston, New York, and Washington. There are also plans to extend regular train service north of Boston to Portland.
Why, after decades of decline, are we seeing expanded rail lines and ridership? The answer depends, it seems, on who is traveling.
BOSTONS DAILY COMMUTE
The expansive commuter rail network that fans out from Bostons North and South Stations like a spider web is New Englands only real commuter train system. Operated by Amtrak, under a contract with the MBTA, the systems 12 lines serve more than 122,000 riders each weekday, up from seven lines and 40,400 riders each day in 1984.
The commuter lines attract riders primarily because of Bostons highway congestion. With their dedicated rights-of-way, trains avoid the traffic back-ups that drivers encounter in cars or buses particularly in bad weather. Traffic problems created by Big Dig construction, downtown parking rates as high as $24 per day, and a federally imposed freeze on the number of downtown parking spaces have also helped fuel the boom. So has increased employment in densely packed Boston/Cambridge up 54,000 jobs between 1980 and 1990, according to the Census, along with relatively slow growth in the supply of city housing. The trains are conveniently connected to city transit, and riders can buy passes that incorporate both modes.
Recent line expansions were facilitated by some key political decisions. In 1976, the state bought all of the rail rights-of-way for just $35 million, avoiding the costly and time-consuming fights with freight railroads that have plagued other projects. By the time the Central Artery-Tunnel project was proposed in the 1980s, environmentalists threatened to block the Big Dig unless the state made specific commitments to transportation alternatives. The Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) eventually negotiated a deal with the MBTA to build several commuter rail extensions to mitigate the impact of the massive road project. Two lines on the Old Colony and an expanded North Shore line were recently completed, with a third (to Scituate) still tied up in a fight over impacts on Hinghams historic district and other environmental issues. Another commuter rail extension west from Framingham to Worcester not required by the CLF deal was also opened because of heavy demand from west of Boston.
In addition to its initial capital investments (including about $752 million so far for the new lines), the MBTA pays Amtrak $153 million per year to run and maintain the trains. While riders can pay up to $9.50 per round-trip, or $136 for a monthly pass, ticket revenues only offset about 38 percent of Amtraks fee with the state picking up the rest. Although there are periodic calls to cut costs and raise fares, no one has suggested scrapping the trains. Giving commuters an alternative to driving relieves road congestion and the pressure for more highway building, added lanes, and repairs. Its not cheap to build highways in this country, says Douglas Foy, head of the CLF.
NEW ENGLAND CONNECTIONS
Unlike commuter rail, which owes its existence to highway congestion, the push for regional passenger rail comes from efforts to boost tourism, revitalize urban centers, relieve truck traffic, and provide an alternative to driving. Unlike commuter rail, which primarily attracts riders heading in and out of a center city, regional train service generally connects cities in a region with one another. But over the years, the number of lines and passengers in New England has seen significant declines.
Whether introducing passenger rail service increases an areas overall level of economic activity is difficult to prove studies on the subject are inconclusive but a rail line can certainly influence the geographic distribution of businesses and jobs by promoting development in its path. Thus, it was a coalition of local business people, economic development officials, and environmental groups that convinced Amtrak to restore passenger service between Boston and Portland, along a route that last served riders in 1965. Just in the nick of time, says Wayne Davis, who as founder of TrainRiders/Northeast, supported the revival. The line is scheduled to begin service by the fall of 2000, following years of negotiations over track improvements that would allow trains to make the trip in about the same time as a car. Even so, critics of the project have suggested that so long as gas is cheap, the train will have few riders.
But supporters point to Vermonts experience with The Vermonter, which carries passengers from Washington and New York to St. Albans, and the even more successful Ethan Allen Express to Rutland. When Amtrak threatened to discontinue service in 1996, the state stepped in and agreed to pick up part of the operating cost and reopen the line to Rutland after a 43-year hiatus. With help from environmental groups and the ski industry, state officials then began an aggressive marketing campaign. Ridership on The Vermonter dipped slightly last year, but the number of passengers on the Ethan Allen Express climbed 11 percent and the service is close to covering its operating costs. Moreover, Rutland officials credit the train with helping to revitalize their downtown.
Some have argued that the regions passenger rail service should be considered as a system, since as the number of lines and possible destinations increases, the number of riders will increase even more. Thus, supporters of the Portland line argue that extending service to Brunswick and Freeport, the outlet mecca or even further north to Lewiston and Montreal may well boost riders and bring additional business to the area. In Vermont, studies have predicted that riders would double if the line were extended north to Burlington.
when south station opened in 1899, it was the largest railroad station in the world. By 1913, 38 million passengers a year were passing across its platforms, more than New Yorks Grand Central Station.
As Amtrak finishes work on the countrys first high-speed train route, the Northeast Corridor is once again in the national spotlight. Under Congressional mandate for the entire system to reach operating self-sufficiency by 2002, Amtrak officials project Northeast Corridor trains will bring in more than enough revenue to cover operating costs after two years, and churn out a healthy surplus after that date.
The flashy new 150 mph, state-of-the-art Acela service is designed to lure air travelers tired of airport delays and congestion, high air shuttle prices, and weather problems. Electrification of track north of New Haven and other rail and signal improvements are expected to shave 1.5 hours off the current 4.5-hour trip between Boston and New York, giving Amtrak its first real shot to compete with air shuttle operators Delta and USAirways. Ticket prices at least 30 percent lower than the standard $200 one-way air shuttle fare are also designed to woo business travelers.
But airline executives are not trembling in their boots, according to Adam Pilarski, an economist at Avitas, a Virginia-based aviation consulting firm. Because air fares on the Boston-to-New York route are unusually high at $1 per travel mile, instead of the 10 cents to 15 cents per mile more typical of long-distance flights the airlines will have plenty of room to slash prices if high-speed trains start cutting into business, Pilarski argues.
Amtrak, which has based its revenue projections and ridership forecasts on remaining lower-cost than the air shuttles, has less room to drop prices, says Ron Mauri, an economist for the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, a research arm of the federal Department of Transportation. And based on the New York-to-Washington market, which already has both air shuttles and three-hour train service, he thinks its unlikely that Amtrak and the airlines will engage in a fare war death spiral as they split the market. He also thinks that increased ridership may come from bus riders and car drivers who will take advantage of the reduced travel time.
FILLING THE GAP
Train travel is still far from what it was at the turn of the century, when hundreds of miles of track crisscrossed the region carrying passengers between cities, to the seashore, and even up into the mountains. Our love affair with cars, which began in earnest in the 1920s and continues to this day, resulted in fewer riders, shuttered stations, and abandoned railway lines. Trains may never regain their lost dominance, but they are laying claim to a niche in the transportation system opened up by popular demand, political support, and public investment.
Laura Brown covers transportation issues for the Boston Herald.