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ElectriciT: MBTA looks at possible electric trains for next-gen commuter rail

Rendering from Stadler, whose trains, however, are not currently compatible with the T's existing "high level" station platforms.

Who knows if it will ever happen, but MBTA planners are currently reviewing replies from several train makers to a T request for information on what it would take to begin converting the current diesel-powered commuter-rail trains to trains powered by overhead electric wires.

In a presentation this week, planners highlighted the responses to the currently hypothetical question of the T buying "electric multiple units" (EMUs), in which the train motors would be built into at least some of the passenger cars, rather than using dedicated locomotives to pull the cars.

One premise of these cars - similar to subway cars or the old Budd diesel cars the T inherited from the Boston & Maine - would be to give the T more flexibility for running more frequent service on some lines, for example, on the Fairmount Line, by letting it run trains with as few as two cars.

Some companies proposed dual diesel/electric locomotives that would let the T take its time converting lines to electric, or that would let it run electric trains in the denser inner core of the system, while continuing to use diesel to reach more remote locations that might not have enough riders to justify the cost of installing overhead power lines.

Several of the designs also show coaches with some doors designed for both "high level" platforms - where passengers don't have to climb stairs to get into and out of trains - and the "low level" platforms currently found at most MBTA commuter-rail stops. High-level platforms typically help shorten commutes because passengers can get on and off trains much faster.

Bombardier proposed units that could be connected to existing MBTA coaches rather than requiring all new cars. Bombardier said if it made a formal bid, it would like be based on bi-level cars it's built for New Jersey Transit.

Also making proposals: CRRC, the company currently building the T's new Red and Orange Line cars, and Hyundai Rotem, which built the bi-level coaches now used on commuter-rail lines, and which has built electric commuter-rail EMUs for SEPTA, which serves the Philadelphia area. However, Hyundai Rotem's trains do not have toilets.

Planners hope to have a final report ready sometime this summer - and to incorporate possible future electric service in contract terms the T is now writing for its next generation of bi-level coaches.

The earliest the T could likely hope to see its first electric train would be in 2025 or 2026 - based on the need for 18 months of detailed specification writing and then 3 to 3 1/2 years to design and build the actual cars. Also, the T would need to figure out how to pay for overhead wires, new signaling systems and the equipment and facilities needed to service the new trains.

Via Franklin Matters and Transportation for MA.

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Comments

Please do it. We should have switched to electric years ago. People are tired of slow trains and choking on toxic diesel emissions.

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Voting closed 58

So, you are cool with new natural gas power plants being built in Boston, Somerville, and Cambridge to provide power to these trains, correct?

This will avoid diesel emissions, yes, but since the commuter rail's core mission is to bring people to Boston and Cambridge to provide those cities with tax revenue so they can have nice parks, newish schools, and social services, etc, therefore, those cities must logically share a greater burden of the infrastructure since electric trains don't run on love and hope.

If anything Corona has shown us is that people can get their jobs done without having to leave their houses as much. The Financial District is a ghost town, thus so are the businesses that depend on commuters which means in turn that there is less tax revenue for bike lanes and traffic calming.

Next time that everyone has a thrombo concerning a natural gas line being replaced because a quarry blast might nuke all of West Roxbury or a gas regulation station will incinerate all of Weymouth, just think where your juice comes from. Wind and solar are still to expensive to compete, and oil is in the toilet. You need power and just putting it way away somewhere makes you get the benefit whilst others have the burden. That's greedy and immoral.

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Voting closed 14

The cost of solar has plummeted since the 70s.

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Voting closed 28

Price never should have been the only factor taken into consideration, but your argument that natural gas is cheaper than renewables is no longer true anyway.
https://rmi.org/insight/clean-energy-portfolios-pi...

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Voting closed 41

If price isn't a factor, these plants still produce more than rainbows and unicorns, if Boston, Somerville, and Cambridge benefit the most, then from environmental justice standards, these cities should share in fair power generation burden.

Mystic Station (in Everett I know), as reported here, will be going away soon. New Boston has been off line for years. Kendal (1/10 the capacity of Mystic) and the Chinatown steam plant still operate but they are way below what this area need if they are to share the power generation burden. MASCO does their own thing.

Why does Weymouth, Lynn, Bellingham, Sandwich have to supply Boston and Cambridge with their power? When Mystic goes away, Boston and Cambridge put their power burden on the backs of others.

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Voting closed 12

Huh? I'm not really even sure what you're saying here, but it's definitely not tied in any way to my point that you're assertion that natural gas is cheaper than solar and wind is not true.

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Voting closed 36

Why does Weymouth, Lynn, Bellingham, Sandwich have to supply Boston and Cambridge with their power? When Mystic goes away, Boston and Cambridge put their power burden on the backs of others.

Why does Boston/Cambridge/Somerville/etc have to be the economic engine of the state and provide the income tax base for towns like Weymouth, Lynn, Bellingham, and Sandwich, along with jobs for all their residents to commute to?

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Voting closed 42

Wow.

Money talks, I guess.

just wow.

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Voting closed 10

When someone makes an asinine argument like:

Why does Weymouth, Lynn, Bellingham, Sandwich have to supply Boston and Cambridge with their power? When Mystic goes away, Boston and Cambridge put their power burden on the backs of others.

Then, yeah, sure.

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Voting closed 15

So John, are you saying you'd rather have diesel emissions than natural gas emissions?

Oookay... I wouldn't.

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Voting closed 38

What I am looking for is the Boston core to step up on local electric production if they are to benefit from these trains.

Electric trains - Great. They speed up faster, stop faster and are far more efficient. The power to supply them? Let's not bring that up.

It is like the Tesla drivers who think that the power to move their cars only comes from really nice things like wind and solar. Hate to break it to you, but your overpriced car moves mostly on dirty carbon.

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Voting closed 14

Hate to break it to you, but your overpriced car moves mostly on dirty carbon.

Wouldn't that depend on when you charge the Tesla? Charging during peak hours might marginally burn more carbon, but perhaps the grid is saturated with wind power at night when the wind is still blowing while everybody's lights are off.

But besides that, even a coal-powered Tesla still comes out ahead in wheel to well efficiency, because the internal combustion engine is so inefficient at burning fuel compared to large turbines at power plants.

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Voting closed 19

John do you think electricity works like vegetables? There's no such thing as local electricity, you can put the power plants wherever you want.

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Voting closed 9

Imagine a person typing all of that out and thinking that yes, this will be understood as a cogent, good faith argument, and that they will consequently be seen as more intelligent than a goldfish.

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Voting closed 32

This will avoid diesel emissions, yes, but since the commuter rail's core mission is to bring people to Boston and Cambridge to provide those cities with tax revenue so they can have nice parks, newish schools, and social services, etc, therefore, those cities must logically share a greater burden of the infrastructure since electric trains don't run on love and hope.

The commuter rail benefits suburban commuters who come into the city for work, from as far away as Rhode Island, Worcester, and Lowell/NH. The City of Boston is funded by property taxes, and, the people commuting in aren't paying those. In fact, they pay them to their suburban towns, which the CR allows them to live in and then work in Boston for the day and go home. Boston/Cambridge would do just fine as it is now - shitty CR service and choking traffic is a great incentive for people to move back into the cities, and thus expand the city's actual tax base.

In fact, the diesel fumes of the current trains that suburban office warriors ride into the city adversely effect way more Bostonians just by out great population density, and the fact that most of the train corridors go through poorer neighborhoods adding to even more air population wealthy suburbanites to have their big yard and picket fence.

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Voting closed 39

When companies gravitate back to the suburbs for cheaper real estate and less public transportation taking, thus lowering the value of office and retail properties downtown?

It will be 1975 - 1985 in Boston allover again with the residential burden for tax revenue increasing.

Don't give me the trains only go through poor neighborhoods crap. The train lines in Dorchester, Cambridge, Allston, West Roxbury, Hyde Park, Roxbury, and other neighborhoods were all built when those areas were agrarian or small village clusters. They were there first. Development came later.

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Voting closed 11

It will be 1975 - 1985 in Boston allover again with the residential burden for tax revenue increasing.

Wake me up when the city starts urban renewal back up, the banks start redlining again, and the realestate agents start block busting. I'll wait, I need a good nap.

Don't give me the trains only go through poor neighborhoods crap. The train lines in Dorchester, Cambridge, Allston, West Roxbury, Hyde Park, Roxbury, and other neighborhoods were all built when those areas were agrarian or small village clusters. They were there first. Development came later.

Development happened and was spurred by train stations and infrastructure - either RR or subway. I also never claimed that which came first, so no idea what you are even trying to say in your new rant. Bottom line: The commuter rail, as-is today, greatly benefits wealthier suburban riders and towns to the detriment of the urban environments. Do you want to get into how commuter rail fares have the highest per side subsidy in the entire system, excluding the Ride? Or how Boston already pays a disproportionate large amount of money to the MBTA, which most of its neighborhoods are left with inferior service?

Should we point out that Electrified Regional Rail most benefits the suburban commuters by significantly reducing their commuting times, and the increased frequencies allowing vastly more capacity for people to take the train into work, which will also directly reduce traffic on 93/128/95/Route 3, etc?

Bottom line: the commuter rail serves the suburbs, and the suburban towns have by far the most to gain by electrification and increased service.

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Voting closed 22

A gas power plant is much cleaner than a diesel locomotive. Have you ever been down to the platforms at Back Bay?

Also, you know what happens if we make the Commuter Rail faster, more frequent, and less prone to breakdowns? Fewer people drive to work.

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Voting closed 9

Presumably the electricity in your house isn't provided by an on-site diesel engine, nor exclusively by a power plant in the town where you live. Because having a regional power grid with large power plants is efficient and clean and stuff.

Why should it be any different for transportation, when the passenger demand for rail exists?

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Voting closed 9

Trains are already energy-efficient. Diesel-electric hybrid is the most practical way to save fuel and reduce fumes at South Station without the expense of going all-electric.

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Voting closed 8

Although the request for information the T put out for these cars did ask about that.

But the issue is more flexibility: You can't really run trains at near subway levels of frequency with traditional train sets, whether diesel or electric, not at a sustainable cost or with the current constraints of tracks and station space (speaking of which, there's still the issue of the lack of sufficient track space at South Station, which was supposed to be solved by the Post Office moving out, which, of course, it isn't).

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Voting closed 23

Transit Matters had a pretty interesting study on how to greatly increase capacity at South Station with just operational changes, so, hey, maybe the T/Keolis will take a look at that since it seems pretty certain the Post Office isn't moving any time soon for the South Station Expansion, and, it doesn't look like the North South Rail Link is coming before 2050.

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Voting closed 20

Where is the funds to pay for these new trains going to come from? We could start by having conductors actually collect fares on the commuter rail instead of letting passengers ride for free.

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Voting closed 10

The same place as the funds for all the diesel locomotives and coaches the T keeps buying every few years. The ones that keep breaking down even though they're new.

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Voting closed 7

Good to hear about thoughtful planning for the future.

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Voting closed 10

This 1985B timeline is a real doozy. Its almost unbelievable.

First Biff becomes president
We're all working from home using Zoom (video conferencing)
We now have alfresco dining
We're removing car lanes, adding bike and bus lanes without alot of pushback
The MBTA is fixing the T faster

And now they want to switch to electric trains?

I'm worried now that Marty and the Doc will come back from 1885 too soon before we actually get to the good parts.

Quick, someone go move Jennifer off the sleeping porch...

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Voting closed 18

Having grown up in Philadelphia, I was shocked that Boston was still running its commuter rail by diesel. SEPTA's electric regional rail has much better frequency and is a better experience.

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Voting closed 18

Then you are in downtown Philly when you get out at 30th or Surburban. So, Advantage - Boston.

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Voting closed 14

SEPTA got to all electric service by closing all the lines that the Reading and the Pennsylvania didn’t electrify before World War II.

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Voting closed 12

Yep. And post-closure of those diesel lines (AND a couple electric lines to boot, let's also remember) SEPTA Regional Rail expended so much energy destroying itself with labor battles that it took them 30 years to recover ridership back to 1979 levels. "1979 levels" being just about the national nadir for commuter rail mode shares, so where they are now as North America's 7th busiest commuter rail system (a hair higher than the T) is arguably way lower than where they have any right to be were they a mildly-competent operation most of these past 4 decades. As is, Mexico City Tren Suburbano has already grown from zero to bigger than SEPTA in ridership in only 12 years since starting operations (with EMU's on Day 1) and the T is on-pace to likely surpass them in the next couple years strictly on incremental/existing growth...but blow past them in a rout if any of the Rail Vision service plans are enacted.

Moral of the story: never evar invoke SEPTA as an aspirational example of how to run a transit system. Their so-called "frequent" EMU service is almost laughably not-so by any real-world measure--including by what the T's own Rail Vision "Regional Rail" and "Urban Rail" service tiers aspire to be. Save for the Amtrak co-running lines their network is depressingly compact...as if nearly all of our 13 lines barely stretched to Route 128 in all directions and "F*** you!" if you live in Philly's equivalent of the inside-495 'burbs. And things like ADA compliance, "dwell management" from level boarding, and "basic repair and upkeep" might as well be fighting words for what passes for platform accommodations around Philly.

We can do way better. Even without a North-South Rail Link equivalent to SEPTA's Center City connection. Not running hot-garbage ops is a choice we thankfully can make here, while SEPTA continues staggering about without any real will to take out its own trash on Regional Rail self-inefficiency. For one, Rotem doesn't even have a U.S. assembly factory anymore to satisfy "Buy America" regs...so nobody's practically buying any more of those Silverliner V lemons. Including SEPTA itself, who are taking parasitic options from NJ Transit for the Bombardier MLV self-propelled units because their Silverliner experience has been so traumatic.

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Voting closed 9

So what? They still have more than a dozen electric lines, running much more frequently than ours. And we closed lines as well.

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Voting closed 6

...they electrified before World War II...

I grew up on Long Island where Penn helped LIRR electrify in the first decade of the 1900s.

Massachusetts had an opportunity to modernize and electrify off the momentum of the highway revolts in the 1970s. That's when SEPTA built its Center City Tunnel at the heart of the Regional Rail system. Instead, the zeitgeist in Boston focused on rapid transit expansion and then was laser focused on the Big Dig as its core transportation project that it missed out on the wave of regional rail modernisation and construction that built SEPTA Regional Rail, Paris' RER, DC's Metro, San Francisco's BART... etc etc

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Voting closed 7

wouldn't they? I just don't see that happening in a timely manner. To the best of my knowledge those things are solid concrete and rebar.

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Voting closed 7

Why would they? Just design the cars to allow boarding at either height, exactly like the current ones and tons of other railways.

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Voting closed 10

New Jersey Transit (NJT) has a fleet similar to that of the MBTA and their choice was to purchase ALP-45D locomotives from Bombardier. These units can operate under the electrical catenary when available or they can switch to diesel power where electric lines are not installed.

https://www.railwayage.com/passenger/commuterregional/njt-upping-alp-45dp-fleet/

They were not without some issue when first installed but those have been worked out for the most part. This would allow the MBTA to phase-in the overhead catenary on its various branch lines. As it stands any purchase of trainsets that are electric only would be initially limited to the NEC corridor between Boston and NYC. Electrification also requires power injection points where power can be "plugged-in" to the system. Even AC power needs injection points, so along with stringing overhead power for the trains you also need to obtain real estate for power stations that are near existing high voltage lines from the local power companies. Some railroads are currently in process of paying for new supply lines to be added because when an existing power supply one fails, the trains stop. There is a lack of redundancy in the electrical catenary system on most electric railroads.

Another stepping stone may be "gen-set" diesel locomotives. The MBTA has a couple of these that were purchased several years ago when the technology was new, and are used only for yard moves or maintenance trains. The Gen-Sets have 3 or 4 smaller diesel engines that cut-in as the demand for electric current increases, such as when a train starts up. Once speed is attained the current demand drops and the additional diesel engines roll back to idle or shut off. The T already saw major drops in emissions from these units and also major fuel savings, but at the time they purchased them, then a new technology, they only generated about 2100 horse power, whereas the average train with passengers needs 3000 to 4000 HP.

That said, Europe's train market is currently moving toward gen-sets for its non-electrified lines. Since initially developed,, their ability has improved to the point that these types of diesel engines are now feasible.

The MBTA has been talking to Siemens to see if they can lease (temporarily) one or more of the electric locomotives they build for Amtrak's Regional Service between Boston & NYC as a test unit to see how they would work, thus allowing them to use the existing stock of coaches.

While electric multi units (EMU - not the bird) may be a preferred system, the MBTA has no place to store such trains or service them. This would mean the need to also obtain real estate where they can maintain and service them as well as store them when not in use. Worth noting that the MBTA is already short on places to service and store trainsets and recent new line restorations had to include lay-over space at the end of the line for train storage. Pawtucket and Kingston are examples.

The T will be losing their Rockport lay-over yard for about 3-4 trainsets shortly as the line north of West Gloucester is shut to complete the work on the Annisquam bridge. They had hope to do this weekends and evenings but recent turn of events will require a full closure of the last few stops to allow for total construction.

While the overall plan would be to electrify, the T may have to employ interim choices to get there.

Worth noting, when the NEC from Boston to NYC was initially electrified, there were multiple grass-roots groups that emerged against the plan out of fear of the high-voltage lines. There was even an active group in Boston-Roslindale. The fear was that the electric lines would impose a magnetic field that would cause cancer as well as other safety issues.

Also worth noting that the steel plates you see on RR bridges along the pedestrian sidewalks where the current NEC runs is a federal mandate that is not negotiable. So your bridges become a sort of trench-tunnel effect and will need improved safety lighting.

Electrification will also require quite a few bridges to be raised in electric territory to meet federal standards for clearance. So this won't be just stringing wires. There are many variables to meet and it can take many years to accomplish.

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Voting closed 10

to look at for comparison would be the diesel-electric conversion of Caltrain, which runs from San Francisco to San Jose, which incidentally uses a similar Bombardier set of trains (very comfy, I might add, I lived out there for a bit.) It's involving not only wiring the length for electricity, but grade separations of every spot where the tracks cross the road.

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Voting closed 8