Saturday, February 16, 2013

Maine and Rhode Island Extend Passenger Services in 2012

Last year, 2012, saw two incremental extensions of passenger service here in New England.   None of these were earth-shattering or worthy of national attention.  But, it is a sign of moving forward, after decades of retreating. 

Two ceremonial trains marked the service extensions.  On the left, Nov. 1st  saw the inauguration of Downeaster service to Freeport and Brunswick, ME after a 50-year absence.  On the right, April 23rd the inaugural MBTA train waits at Wickford Junction while the ceremonies proceed inside the station garage..
Spring saw the April 23rd opening of Wickford Junc-tion south of Providence in Rhode Island, along Amtrak's Northeast Cor-ridor. Along with a station at Warwick (serving TF Green Airport), this day marked the completion of Phase 1 of the state-sponsored South County Rail extension project, returning service after a 40-year absence.   The table above and to the right chronicles the timeline for this retreat of service and for its restoration.  Note that through it all, Amtrak provided intercity service over this line, but only the the major stations, and not the local commuter stops that lost service.

Meanwhile, way up north, a fifty-year passenger service drought ended this fall with the return of service to Brunswick and Freeport, Maine. Ten years after the return of passenger service to Portland, Maine, Amtrak’s Downeaster’s inaugural run pulled into these communities, accompanied by bands, crowds, and speeches.  In this case, the retreat involved all passenger service, and, for a few years, it meant no passenger service on this route beyond the near surburbs of Boston. 

The How’s and Why’s of the Service Retreats and Extension

Part 1: Why the Service Retreats: A Tale of Two Bridges

Here you can see two bridges, side-by-side crossing the Thames River in New London, Connecticut. They represent two approaches to funding and owning transportation infra-structure.  The smaller, lower bridge on the left is older and was private-ly built by the New Haven Railroad, without tax-payer funding. That represented the era of privately-funded transportation infrastructure.

Now, contrast that with the two larger and higher (read: more costly) bridges on the right, built entirely at taxpayer expense. They are part of Interstate 95 which was part of a massive highway construction undertaking in the US, beginning in the 1950s. Call it the public option for transportation infrastructure. While the interstates are partly responsible for the strength of the US economy, they also the privately-owned railroads at a financial disadvantage. Essentially, the federal government created competing public infrastructure that starved the private infrastructure of revenue.

The result was that many US railroads fell into bankruptcy in the 1960s and 1970s. They could not compete with traffic on the interstates.

The first to go in the decline was passenger service. With the advent of buses, privately owned cars, and finally the popular use of air transportation (also using government funded infrastructure), rail passenger service lost its advantages of speed and convenience.  Simply put became no longer profitable to carry passengers.  This resulted in a downturn spiral of cutting services, which reduced ridership, which reduced revenue and lead to more service cuts.  This lead to the creation of government-funded Amtrak in 1971 to run the intercity services, while local commuter services were transferred to local agencies.

This was the backdrop for the loss of passenger rail service to Maine and the retreat of commuter rail services in Rhode Island.

Part 2: Restorations – Tales of Visions, Plans, and Persistence

Each of our examples can be attributed to visionaries and government officials who responded to their vision.  Government spending caused the retreat in passenger rail serivce, and government spending helped restore passenger rail services.

The efforts of the grassroots
TrainRiders/ Northeast lead to the
start-up of the Downeaster in 2002.
In Maine, the vision dates back to 1989, when Wayne Davis and a group of citizens got together to talk about a return of passenger rail to Maine. The effort led to the creation of the grassroots organization of TrainRiders/Northeast. The group, which included interested people from as far away as Bangor in Maine and several coastal New Hampshire towns, explored the feasibility of Amtrak’s extending the Northeast Corridor passenger trains from Boston through New Hampshire to Portland, Maine, as a first step toward expanding service to other areas of northern New England.

Working with elected officials, their efforts lead to  the Maine State Legislature creating the Northern New England Rail Passenger Authority (NNEPRA) in 1995 to develop and provide passenger rail service between Maine and Boston and points within Maine. With much persistence and political support, federal and state funding was obtained to rebuild the track in New Hampshire and Maine to passenger rail standards after years of seeing only freight service.   Service to Portland, ME was restored in 2002.

Continued efforts lead to the planning, funding, and construction of the service extention to Freeport and Brunswick.  November 1, 2012 marked the inaugeration of this service.  The train was greated by crowds, high school bands, and speaches in both communities.

In Rhode Island, the restoration of service can be traced to two similar visions.  On the public side, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) in 2001 put out its operational feasibility study about extending commuter rail service from its termination at Providence to Westerly on the Connecticut state line.  At the time, Amtrak was planning the initiation of its Acela high speed rail service.  The study considered how expanded commuter rail service could share track time with Amtrak's Acela and Regional services, as well as freight service operated by the Providence & Worcester Railroad.

All the while, a local businessman and developer, Bob Cieo, was planning a multi-use development he called Wickford Junction.  Part of Bob's vision was restoring rail service to Wickford Junction.   As a young man, Bob traveled to Boston by rail many times for work and while attending Wentworth Institute.  His property included a parcel abutting the tracks, just the right size for a station with a parking garage.

Fast forward to December 2009, with RIDOT official and Bob joining dozens dozens of contractors assembled for the opportunity to qualify for RIDOT's first  time using the design/built (D/B) procurement method.  The D/B method can save significant time in delivering a project.  Rather than wait for a complete design before the contractor is selected, the contractor hires the designers (engineers and architects) who design the project with interim milestones that enable construction to begin before all design details are finalized.

Next step:  April 23, 2012.  Commuter Rail service by MBTA began with the first scheduled service train leaving in the wee hours of the morning.  Later, a ceremonial train carried dignitariesand others from Providence to the celebration of the station opening at Wickford Junction.  This was a proud moment for me, as Design Manager for the D/B Team.  (For a video of opening day, click on video and scroll down to link for "Wickford Junction Station."


Two extensions, each of two new stations, opened in 2012 here in New England.  Each is the different story, but they share the same elements of passenger rail service retreating in the face of highway expansion, and restoration of service come to fruition by the efforts and vision of both private citizens and state agencies.  This year, 2013, will see at least one more passenger rail extension, with the restoration of scheduled service from Boston to Cape Cod.  Other extensions are in design, construction or planning, including Fitchburg to Wachuestts, Worcester to Springfield, Springfield to Greenfield and beyond in Vermont, and possibly Pittsfield to New York City.

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