Sunday, May 31, 2015

Boston Globe Supports Bike Path and Rail Service on Grand Junction

CSX freight train crossing the Charles River into
Cambridge, destined for the produce market
in Chelsea.
An editorial in today's Boston Globe recommends the underutilized Grand Junction branch corridor could accommodate both a new passenger rail service and the long-proposed Grand Junction Community Path for bicyclists and pedestrians.

While the editorial frames this in the context of transportation improvements to support the possible 2024 Olympics in Boston, clearly this lower-cost transportation option could be implemented independently and long prior to the Olympics.

The good news for transportation advocates is the strong support of both the path and rail service.  Over the last 15 years, I have worked on both aspects of this proposal, so I am glad to see support for the "inclusive" vision of both the path and passenger rail.

The Grand Junction corridor is narrow as
it crosses Main Street.  The path will be built
to the right, on City-
owned land.
The "inclusive" vision was somewhat in jeopardy in light of the vision of Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) put forth in recent years that any path project in the corridor not preclude a future double-tracking of the Grand Junction.  Given the tight constraints of the corridor, particularly as it passes through the MIT campus, this position had the potential to splinter rail advocates and path advocates.

In April 2015, I was contacted by a reporter from the Globe to discuss my knowledge of the corridor.  Perhaps that conversation, at least in part, may have influenced their decision to support the "inclusive" vision of rail and path.  This vision is supported by my own rail operations analysis over the years (for projects sponsored by the MBTA, Harvard University and MIT) that has demonstrated that passenger rail service can be provided on the existing mix of single and double track.

Current Rail Operations
The rail line may see about 2 to 4 trains a day, including a CSX freight train to Chelsea and movements of passenger equipment by both the MBTA and Amtrak, which both operation out of both North and South Stations.  The next westerly connection between north and south side rail lines is over 50 miles away, between Worcester and Ayer.

MBTA (left) and Amtrak (right) passenger equipment moves pass through Cambridge daily on the
Grand Junction rail line.
The Proposals
The Path:  Back in 2001, while a member of the Cambridge Bicycle Committee, I led the effort to produce a proposal in the form of a feasibility report putting for the vision of a multi-purpose path (bicyclists, pedestrians, runners, roller-bladers, dog-walkers, etc.) following the Grand Junction corridor.  As written in a Cambridge Chronicle article, April 18, 2014:

"Rachel Burckardt has a dream.
"The Cambridge resident and bicycling advocate heard of a vision for a path that would take cyclists and pedestrians from the Twin City Plaza in Somerville to the Charles River at MIT in Cambridge. The route would cut through the fastest growing region of the city, connecting thousands of residents to the economic engine of Kendall Square and adding green space in areas that have long been dominated by industrial buildings and cement parking lots.
"That was 15 years ago."
The Grand Junction path would connect with other regional paths, including the Charles River paths and the Community Path in Somerville. This year the first section of the path will be built between Main Street and Broadway by the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority.

The Grand Junction path would connect with other regional paths, including the Charles River paths and the Community Path in Somerville.

Passenger Rail Proposals:  In recent years, MassDOT has presented two options for possible passenger rail on the Grand Junction branch.  The first, dating from 2011, called for redirecting some trains on the Worcerster Line from the crowded South Station to North Station via the Grand Junction and Fitchburg Line, with a possible stop near Kendall Square in Cambridge.  After considerable local opposition to this proposal, MassDOT put the proposal "on hold."

Two rail proposals:  Left: Proposal to divert some Worcester Lines  to North Station.
Right:  Proposal for rail shuttle between a new West Station in Allston to North Station. 
In 2014, the MassDOT website included a visionary map of possible rail system expansion, including a service between a new West Station (proposed to be built in the former Beacon Park freight yard in Allston) to North Station via the Grand Junction, with a stop near Kendall Square.

This service is often described as being operated by "DMUs" (diesel multiple units), which would be short trains of self-propelled rail cars operating frequent service.  The last local example of DMUs was the rail diesel cars (RDCs) used into the early 1980s on the commuter rail lines around Boston.
Examples of EMUs (left, on MetroNorth in Connecticut) and DMUs (right: artist view
of car being built for a west coast commuter operation).

The advantage of this equipment would be the use of shorter trains (say 3 cars) which would require shorter platforms, which would be easier to accommodate along the Grand Junction corridor.

While the proposal of "through service" where trains from Worcester would pass along the Grand Junction were locally opposed, a "local service" might have better acceptance among the abutting communities.

The other issue with diesel services is air quality.  To eliminate the mobile emissions source that DMUs are, one could consider the use of EMUs (electric multiple units).  EMUs operating on Northeast commuter systems including MetroNorth, Long Island Railroad, NJ Transit and SEPTA.

A shuttle service between West and North Stations
could include three local stations:
Cambridgeport, MIT/Mass. Av., and
Broadway/Kendall Square.
My Analyses
With the concern over the possible "rail vs. path" binary that the "double-track" vision could create, I ran additional analysis of a possible DMU/ EMU type shuttle service between West and North Stations.

My work for MIT providing an inde-pendent analysis of a possible Worcester Line service on the Grand Junction in-cluded consideration of where stations could be sited.  We looked at both a station for a full-length commuter rail train (requiring a platform 850 feet long) and a DMU/EMU service (requiring a platform of 300 to 350 feet).  Obviously, it was easier to site a shorter platform, and we found three locations, as indicated in the figure at right.  (For the full-length commuter rail train, the only place the platform could be accommodated would be at Massachusetts Avenue.)

My analysis indicated that a rail shuttle service between North Station and West Station via the Grand Junction Branch could be operated at headways in the range of 15 to 30 minutes without completely double-tracking the line.

Therefore, there does not have to be any split among transportation advocates in regards to rail service vs. the path.  Both are possible.

The vision for the Grand Junction must be inclusive of both the path and a possible local rail service.

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