Could rail help Rhode Islanders get out and about much easier? A detailed report released last week by TransitMatters, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit organization dedicated to improving transit in and around Boston, suggests so.
The report, “Regional Rail for Metropolitan Boston,” which the group hopes will be used by policymakers, envisions a world where trains in the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority system run more frequently, using faster and cleaner self-propelled electric cars that make service more convenient, dependable and friendly to the environment.
A ride from Providence to Boston, which now takes about 70 minutes, could take just 40. And the trains could leave Providence Station every 15 minutes, making them much more convenient and useful.
“With traffic congestion worsening with each passing month, the need for fast, flexible, and affordable mobility alternatives is more apparent than ever,” the report states. To provide those alternatives, the region needs train service that runs “at frequent intervals,” so that “passengers won’t be burdened by multi-hour waits.”
In focusing on the needs of Greater Boston, the 46-page report includes Providence and the State of Rhode Island in its vision, along with other cities within commuting distance of Boston. In fact, it argues that the “first priority” of this $2 billion to $3 billion plan should be to make changes on the line that runs from Boston to Providence.
The reason: The line is already electrified for Amtrak trains, with the exception of “a small number of yard tracks and sidings.” Completing that electrification process and adding high platforms would let the MBTA replace its diesel locomotives with self-propelled electric cars that are more reliable and stop and start more quickly.
Long-term, the report also argues that the MBTA service area should be expanded down to Kingston and Westerly.
From Rhode Island’s perspective, there is much to like in these proposals. The problem of slow train service between Providence and Boston was highlighted two years ago in a $1.3 million Brookings Institution report on Rhode Island and its path to greater economic development. Rhode Island should make it a priority to establish “new express commuter rail service between Providence and Boston and the expansion of intercity rail service to destinations such as T.F. Green Airport,” the report recommended.
The state has much to gain from more convenient high-speed train service. It could change the way thousands of people commute, and open up new possibilities for economic growth. Among other things, it would surely boost development around a new commuter train station in the works for Pawtucket-Central Falls, in the midst of one of the most densely populated stretches of real estate in New England.
As Central Falls Mayor James A. Diossa wrote on these pages (“New train station would energize region,” Commentary, May 25, 2016), the presence of the station and more rail options would “reinvigorate the area with people and businesses once again occupying these magnificent buildings … the results would be great for our cities and great for the state.”
There are, of course, many questions mentioned in the new report, including costs and the capacity of the existing rail lines to handle the increased traffic. But TransitMatters is getting people’s attention, and any ideas that are feasible should be part of a serious discussion about improving the region’s mass transit system.