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Commuter-rail operator looks to run battery-powered trains for more frequent Fairmount Line service

Streetsblog Mass gets the scoop that the MBTA and Keolis are going to try to get battery-operated trains running on the Fairmount Line within 3 1/2 years in a pilot aimed at increasing the frequency of trains, shorten trip times and replace some antiquated old diesel-powered trains.

Last week, the T solicited possible bids from other railroad operators that might want to try to match Keolis's proposal. Would-be Fairmount Line battery-powered train operators were given until April 12 to submit proposals.

Keolis says it would run battery-powered "electric multiple units," in which every car would have its own batteries and motors, like subway cars, but unlike the T's current fleet of commuter-rail trains, in which a single diesel not only pulls or pushes coaches, but provides power for their lighting and ventilation.

Keolis says that with the new cars - and charging stations at either end of the line - it could increase increase the frequency of trains to one one every 20 minutes on weekdays, offer quicker trips to and from downtown and help begin "decarbonizing" commuter rail.

The Fairmount Line, which has subway-like fares - except for people going to the end of the line in Readville - currently has trains running once every 45 minutes during the week and 90 minutes on weekends. Although 20 minutes would still be painfully infrequent compared to subway service in many world-class cities, it would get the line closer to what now passes for rapid transit on the T's subway lines.

According to the T's fact sheet for operators who want to try to drop everything and prepare and submit a proposal by April 12, Keolis has assured the T it can have the brand-new cars and related equipment ready to roll by the end of 2027, a speed that would prove amazing to riders of the Red and Orange Lines, who have had to endure rides on increasingly superannuated cars as the manufacturer selected by the T missed one delivery deadline after another.

Transit advocates have long advocated electrification of the only commuter line that runs exclusively in Boston as a way of providing subway-like service, but the problem has been that the MBTA absolutely hates the idea of overhead power lines anywhere but on the Green Line and part of the Blue Line.

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Comments

So exciting. Battery EMUs and railcar shuttles are widespread around the world, and many systems install small sections of third rail/catenary just at stations so the trains can recharge at every stop.

Not that anybody is talking about actually doing this, but these trains may also make it feasible to run shuttle service between JFK and Drydock Ave. via Track 61 with almost no new buildout.

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Where's the switchover?

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When they were talking about buying EMUs or DMUs, they discussed a possible shuttle between the Seaport and Back Bay via Track 61 (along with running more frequent service on the Fairmount Line). The proposed route seemed to include a lot of track switching in the South Station area.

Then Charlie Baker got elected, and one of the first things his administration did was cancel all the planning to buy MUs of any variety and that was that.

And now Track 61, at least a good part of it, is used to test new Red Line cars, which, at the rate they're currently being delivered, should keep it closed to other uses for the next century or so.

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It would board on the CR platform at JFK, not the Red Line. Track 61 meets the Old Colony track just north of Southampton St.

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Isn't/Wasn't Track 61 being used as a Red Line test bed?

I frequently use CR between JFK/UMass and South Station, and there's a place where a track splits off to the right and used to go under an underpass to connect to what I believe is Track 61. However, it's been severed, and some Red Line trackage appears to connect to it instead.

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Track 61 was commandeered by the MBTA to use as a test track for the new Red Line trains. It now has a 3rd rail and a rebuilt track bed that conforms with FRA standards for lighter rail (subway) trains.

Also CSX still has an easement on that track so if they ever want to use it at some point they can force access.

As to places to store your trains and charge them, over a year ago the MBTA started a process to do that in Readville but not off Wolcott Street where they service regular commuter rail coaches now. They are seeking to build out on a set of tracks closer to where the old Stop & Shop warehouse was off Meadow rd. CSX uses that for freight shunting now for stuff that will go down the NEC at night or be moved out to the diamond at Walpole to run the inland Framingham Secondary that connects Framingham to Mansfield on a north-south run. This area is well-removed from homes so hopefully there will be little opposition.

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It's just gathering weeds.

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widespread around the world, and many systems install small sections of third rail/catenary just at stations so the trains can recharge at every stop

"Widespread" is doing a lot of work here. Overhead electrification is widespread around the world. Battery EMUs have had a few implementations in a few parts of the world, an discontinuous electrification is generally a solution in search of a problem. BEMUs are generally used on low-frequency branch lines, not to deliver subway-like service.

The break-even for whether it makes sense to use EMUs or batteries is somewhere on the order of 8 cars per hour, which this would easily surpass, but the added benefits of having a redundant electrified route between Readville and Boston would help mitigate the costs further. Plus, a lot of the infrastructure is already in place, this would probably only need a single paralleling station to be added to the existing electrification to energize the section between Southampton and Transfer. Actual overhead electrification is pretty cheap when a lot of the infrastructure is already in place. Batteries add cost to the vehicles and reduce operating efficiencies (by reducing acceleration and by requiring longer dwell times for recharging).

The scuttlebutt here, I've heard, is that the T can get in on an option for Caltrain's BEMU order and get cars more quickly than they otherwise could. (Caltrain is using BEMUs for their Gilroy extension, which has three trains per day which seems like a good use case for BEMUs.) That seems somewhat reasonable. Although it does lead to a couple of questions, notably: if the T can so easily get BEMUs for the Fairmount Line, what would it take for them to get EMUs for the Providence Line?

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Battery EMUs are not widespread around the world. Most places that have tried them stopped using them. They are used in regular service exclusively on the periphery of a branch line in Japan. What countries around the world actually have is overhead electrification, which is cheaper in the long run, makes trains lighter and faster because they no longer must carry around heavy batteries, and removes the issues of having to charge them.

India has electrified 45% of its large train network in 5 years. The US is an extreme and wild outlier in terms of how much it trails the rest of the world in electrification. Buying into BEMU schemes only delays the actually necessary work.

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Wikipedia suggests you are wrong that only one line in Japan uses them:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battery_electric_multiple_unit

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The US is an extreme and wild outlier in terms of how much it trails the rest of the world in electrification.

Major reason, were also THE extreme outlier of what it cost to build new rail.

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I'm skeptical the State could electrify any line for less than $1 Billion + the cost of new rolling stock. That's a non-starter.

It shouldn't cost this much but it does. It's not the cost of materials or labor that's the problem, it's all the other stipulations that are mandated by law.

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None of that changes with BEMU which will need infrastructure for storage, charging, and maintenance and which are even more bespoke than EMUs.

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I see the word "widespread" is distracting to some people, so just pretend I said "used in a wide variety of locations around the world" instead.

Yes, real electrification is superior, and using BEMUs could be seen as a delay... or it could be seen as a way to provide service to the public quickly while the fraught politics of electrification are worked out. Once electric service starts, people will start to rely on it and true electrification will become slightly easier politically. The trains and charging facilities are not cheap, but diesel traction and reduced service levels that force more people into cars aren't cheap either.

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...is electrified. It's the longest railroad in the world, running from Moscow, Russia, to Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan.

It took them decades to do it, though. Electrification is expensive. The parallel Baikal-Amur Main Line (BAM), built in the 1970s and 1980s, is still diesel.

Here in the northeast, the New York New Haven and Hartford Railroad electrified their line from Grand Central Terminal to New Haven by 1914, but ran out of money, and the line between New Haven and Boston wasn't electrified until 2000.

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I have to bike along the tracks every weekday morning and the stench produced by the CR is just foul.

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Has someone told them that modern batteries can charge quicker than 3&1/2 years?
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Seriously, though....
45 minute frequency down to 20 minutes?
That line had 30-minute headway 20 years ago. It's double-tracked. There's no extended single-tracking like when they rebuilt & added stations 15-20 years ago. I doubt there's any technological reason they couldn't do 15-minute headway right now, with the existing trains.
They might not have enough rolling stock or operators, but that's priorities and finances, not technology.
There might be platform/track space issues at South Station, but again that's priorities and finances, not technology.
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...and again the talk of similar-size trains (five or six coaches)! They should have gone to singles or doubles, running every ten minutes, 10-15 years ago! They're so resistant to electric, but they could have put DMUs out to bid and been using them for years, now.
Are they still saying that one- or two-car consists are incompatible with the signaling systems? All the money that has been put into signals the last decade or two, and they didn't spec that??

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Note the same but when DePaola was GM (RIP) there was a plan to take some of the mothballed locomotives and re-gear them for shorter starts and stops. It would still have been diesel but the improvement to a subway-like potential was there and they could have run shorter trainsets more frequently.

Unfortunately, the HSP46 units from Motive Power were problematic and started to be routed into service too often creating equipment shortages. This led to the rebuild of the F40 class units in storage (except the early models, the "screamers") to the F40PH3C status they now have. They also needed them for the South Coast rail.

A shorter train with a Genset locomotive with about 2100 HP could easily move 2-3 coaches at a decent speed between stations. The T already has 2 gensets but never embraced them for people moving and only use them for yard moves and maintenance of the way service. As it is those 2 were not enough and they grabbed a GP40 for that need as well. You see it all the time moving stuff on the Grand Junction and out to Readville.

The re-geared locomotives would have been started and tested on Fairmount, then be expanded to run subway like service with more frequency to places like Lynn and similar. Sadly that project was shelved and may never get revived.

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Will Duracell be bidding on this project?

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Battery technology has advanced quite a bit in recent years:

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And very interesting it's being announced at the beginning of the 6-9 month time period of the Streets and Squares community planning sessions are happening as a way to try and entice residents of neighborhoods along that line to vote for the S&S option that allows higher density in each clustered area that will be getting S&S zoning overlays....

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$7 from Readville?

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No, it will still cost $6.50. But only on the roughly one out of four trips that tickets are actually checked.

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Also, as someone who take the train regularly, i would say they are checking tickets 3/4 of all trips.

You get lucky typically on a inbound train where they cant physically get down the aisle to check tickets on Wednesday. That would not apply to the Fairmount line which is never that packed.

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Would more frequent service on the fairmount line cement Milton's status as a rapid transit community per the MBTA communities act? As the line passes through a small portion of the town

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It passes through so probably not.

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Does that qualify as rapid transit?

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A small part of the tracks skirt Milton where the old paper mill used to be. There is no station there so one has to wonder if that would count. As to the Mattapan Trolley. there are 3 stops in Milton; Valley Road, Central, and Milton (at Lower Mills). The rest are in Boston. Same here... the Neponset River is the town boundary line.

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Yes, since it has its own right-of-way with very few grade crossings, and hence road traffic doesn't slow it down (except possibly at those handful of crossings). In contrast you have the parts of the Green Line that run in the street, although if I remember correctly there is very little of that left.

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Of course, the ideal vehicle for that line would be one that can charge while it's under catenary.

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I suddenly have an opinion on the Fairmount line and like this change (even if it's not the best technological solution to the problem).

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