When Boston was on track

Commonwealth Pier

It's hard to imagine how many miles of train tracks used to exist within Boston city limits (let alone how few will be left once Harvard gets around to ripping out the Allston yard). Here we see the train yard in front of Commonwealth Pier in South Boston, sometime shortly after World War I. Today, the pier is better known as the World Trade Center and the tracks have mostly been replaced by highway ramps, parking lots and surface roads. Nearby is Fan Pier, named for the way the train tracks there fanned out toward the water.

The Back Bay used to have its own large train yard - since replaced by the Prudential Center and the Massachusetts Turnpike:

Back Bay train yard

The Back Bay yard used to end at the Lenox Hotel and Boylston Street:

Boston and Albany yard

And take a look at the tracks leading to South Station, which once extended almost completely to Fort Point Channel (yes, that's South Station in the photo, back in the days when it had a giant "shed" atop the tracks):
South Station tracks

Here's what it was like inside the shed:

Inside South Station shed

South Station yard photo from the Library of Congress. The rest from the BPL railroad photos collection; posted under this Creative Commons license.



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Boston and the state made a

Boston and the state made a very big mistake getting rid of all the rail yards in the city for suburban office park grade development. The city and the port will be worse off for the loss of rail freight service and the highway system will never be capable of handling the same tonnage of freight or overall traffic trains could have.

You have it backwards

The city didn't decide to destroy the rail yards and thus destroy the ports - they rail yards were abandoned and died out with the port traffic and then became a blight.

The port wasn't suitable for modern modes and resisted containerization. Also, trade with Europe declined and increased trade with Asia and led to the rise of West Coast ports like LA and Sea-Tac.

Please get your history straight - the redevelopment followed abandonment and abandonment followed decline in trade to East Coast ports - the same decline that scuttled the shipyards.

Good and Bad

It's bad that we've lost our capacity to handle urban freight rail, however, we wouldn't need nearly as much these days. Rather than using boxcars as we did back in the hey-day of rail yards, we use intermodal cars (I can't remember what they're called right now) which can double stack intermodal containers provided they're running a route with the vertical clearance to handle it.

The need for yard space is incredibly diminished. Along with fewer railcars to move more freight, cars are used more efficiently with less downtime.

If there's something we should save, it should definitely be the Readville Yard, the small yard parallel to Dorchester Ave for the branch to the Seaport, and the space about to be consumed for the Green Line maintenance facility. Everything else is a bit of excess. A small facility could potentially be established within MassPort property at the Moran Terminal (easiest) or Conley Terminal (more expensive, but better for ships).

Double Stack Clearance

Not many. The Boston & Albany mainline was recently cleared all the way into Worcester, which is where CSX pulled back to when they left Beacon Park in Allston. From there, that's the primary distribution center.

I know Pan Am Railways, in conjunction with Norfolk Southern, want to somehow expand the Hoosac Tunnel to allow for doubel stacking, but that is a huge undertaking. That could theoretically open up double stacking all the way to Portland, Maine via Gardner, Ayer, Lowell, Lawrence, Haverhill, and Dover NH. That's a pretty big deal! It would, of course, also allow tall freights down the designated "clearance" routes to Boston: the Fitchburg and Lowell lines.

Boston's Sad and pathetic shipping port.

The one rail track in the seaport that was put in after the Ted Williams and the Bypass was built has never been used. Not even once.
They must have spent millions on building this empty gesture track.
The container ship facility across the channel has no rail to it. It is sad and pathetic.

It's exactly what it should

It's exactly what it should be, considering international trade patterns. To the degree that Boston has any need of port facilities at all today, Boston serves New England. Sometimes. Nothing is shipped to Boston to be moved on to the rest of the United States. That boat sailed long before you were born.


No. That seems to be looking North, from Huntington Avenue. The BPL would be to the right (in the picture), toward Dartmouth Street.

Back of the Lenox

You're looking at the back of the Lenox Hotel. Huntington Ave. is in the foreground; Exeter St. is the street at the right margin. The BPL would be off to the right, half a block away.

Great stuff!

1. Fantastic photos! Beyond their historical interest, they're beautiful, especially the last one of the South Station shed. I'm going to look into making a good print of it to hang.

2. Trains take up a lot of room. I've seen maps which depict the sprawling Boston train yards but these photos show the sprawl more dramatically. I tend to be nostalgic for the days when people and goods moved mostly by train but that's a lot of real estate under those tracks, and I bet they were noisy and dirty neighbors.