The North South Connect

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Tlcooper93

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In some other threads, there's talk about this, but in my brief foray into the archives, I didn't find a thread solely on this topic, so I figured its high time to start one.
For those who are unaware, Boston has two major rail terminals, both of which are terminus stations. For a number of reasons, this poses many hurdles, not least of which is the lack of connectivity between the two stations.
The proposed fix would be to connect the two stations with a large (4 track) underground rail tunnel, and build a substantial "central station" or "union station" somewhere close to the Blue Line's aquarium stop (in the Rowes Wharf neighbourhood). Moreover, both NS and SS would have below ground platforms to compliment their above ground platforms.
There are various incarnations of this plan which include or exclude different aspects, effecting the price points. Most of the information can be found here.

Firstly, I admit that if this could get built in a timely manner, and money was no object, I'd love it. Boston would become the rail city it was always meant to be, and we'd probably see a rail renaissance that may make Biden's "rail revolution" words true.

However, I am very cynical. I grew up with the Big Dig as a reality. Much the way the CHSRA is criticized now, the Big Dig was back then. While the final product is undeniably prettier, its hard to tell whether traffic is any better for it.
This project, I dare say, will be bigger than the big dig, and the public opposition would be huge, let alone the fatigue caused by gargantuan construction time (probably in the 10-15 year range).

So then, what should be done?
Is there a better way to the spend the likely 20-40 billion this may cost? Are there better fixes to the NS-SS problem? Is this much of a problem at all, given that Amtrak only has one train out of NS, and Back Bay's Orange Line can get their pretty easily. Would it be better to upgrade Grand Junction Railroad (which is no small task)?

I look forward to reading thoughts on this!
 

jis

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NS connection is primarily an MBTA issue, not an Amtrak issue. There is zero justification of doing it just based on Amtrak traffic.

Incidentally this is also very true for a lot of the developments on notionally Amtrak property in New York and New Jersey. Amtrak by itself does not need the additional Hudson Tunnels or the complete reconstruction of Harold Interlocking based on its traffic needs. It is mostly NJT and LIRR that needs it. That is the reason many of these projects are actually funded via FTA and not FRA.
 

MARC Rider

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As a frequent visitor to Boston and user of the Big Dig (aka I-93), I find it to be very useful and a lot of the traffic backups seem to have their origins outside the tunnel. Also, I have a few dim memories of what that part of Boston was like when I-93 was an elevated expressway, and as I recall, it wasn't pretty at all. Putting the highway underground has allowed that part downtown Boston to completely redevelop and rejuvenate, and I suspect that the resulting increase in property values (and increase in property tax revenue) may make up for the cost of building, even with the corruption and cost overruns.

As for the train connection, the connecting tunnel seems to be a "no-brainer" for me, as it would allow a lot more operational flexibility for MBTA commuter trains, in a manner similar to what the Center City Philadelphia rail tunnel did for SEPTA. It would also improve connections between many MBTA commuter routes and Amtrak Northeast Corridor trains and the Lakeshore Limited. Not to mention permit Amtrak through service north of Boston. However, I don't see the value of building a whole new station in between South Station and North Station. That in itself might cut project costs substantially, as they won't need to excavate a giant cavern for the platforms and build an expensive headhouse in an area of very high property values.
 

jis

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To keep costs constrained, they should just do a single platform two track station under South Station. Such a thing can be built without building massive caverns, just a double or triple dia tunnel segment. It may be an interesting challenge digging it using ground freezing techniques perhaps, depending on how deep it is. Such a station would be connected to South Station above via elevators and escalators. It would be a station where trains top briefly. This would be an extension to South Station like the new underground station at Tokyo Central.
 
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Cal

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However, I don't see the value of building a whole new station in between South Station and North Station. That in itself might cut project costs substantially, as they won't need to excavate a giant cavern for the platforms and build an expensive headhouse in an area of very high property values.
I agree with this. I don't know if South Station would continue to be used if a new station happened, but I hope it would continue to be in use as I thought it was a very nice station when I was there. Unfortunately I didn't get to spend too much time in there.
 

John Santos

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NS connection is primarily an MBTA issue, not an Amtrak issue. There is zero justification of doing it just based on Amtrak traffic.

Incidentally this is also very true for a lot of the developments on notionally Amtrak property in New York and New Jersey. Amtrak by itself does not need the additional Hudson Tunnels or the complete reconstruction of Harold Interlocking based on its traffic needs. It is mostly NJT and LIRR that needs it. That is the reason many of these projects are actually funded via FTA and not FRA.
Amtrak has to share facilities with local transit in Boston and New York (and everywhere else) and this is A GOOD THING.

Amtrak DOES very much need the Hudson River tunnels. The current tunnels may well become permanently flooded by the next 100 year storm, which now occur every ten years or so. The salt water from the flooding, even if it can be pumped out (i.e. the salt water doesn't corrode away the tunnel walls so much the leaks can't be overcome), will structurally damage the tunnels enough to make them unsafe. The only way to fix this is to shut down the tunnels for several years while repairing them. Could the NEC survive with a 5 to 10 year "service disruption" and New York no longer directly connected to Washington? The new Hudson tunnels need to be built as soon as possible so the existing tunnels can be repaired and refurbished. Only when that is complete can capacity (the busiest rail tunnel in the US) be increased.

The direct connection from the NEC to North Station is from Back Bay Station, not South Station. Back Bay is not a good place for passengers destined to continue on trains north of Boston (including the Downeaster (five times daily) and numerous MBTA commuter lines) to get off the train. It's one thing to walk up the stairs with at most a brief case or small backpack, deal with a separate fare on a separate transit system, go down the stairs to the Orange line, (fortunately, level boarding), board a T train (hopefully not a packed to the gills rush-hour train), ride to North Station (and hopefully get off at the right stop), and up the stairs to North Station. (There are escalators at both ends, but about a week ago there was a horrible accident on the one at Back Bay, where the up escalator suddenly reversed and dozens of people were injured, some seriously. It's shut down for who knows how long.) Escalators are fine if you don't have luggage but are problematic for people, especially with mobility impairments of small children or elderly people. The elevators are small, slow and often out of service.

The connection from South to North Station is worse. You do have high-level boarding at South Station and on the Red Line, but the MBTA escalators don't go all the way to the tracks; there is at least one flight of stairs. Then you have to change trains in one stop (Orange line) walking through a very long pedestrian tunnel and up a flight of stairs with confusing directions (as bad as NY Penn), or go two stops to Park Street and the Green Line. The Green line is street cars (LRV) with steps to board the trains, but the connection is much closer, just up an escalator to the Green line platform. (Make sure you don't accidentally exit to the street or go to the wrong platform!) So you either have to wrestle your bags up the stairs onto a crowded streetcar or drag them a long way in an unfamiliar subway station.

Or you can walk either over or around Beacon Hill, if the weather is nice... Or take a cab.

The North-South Link would fix these problems. Even a direct subway shuttle line (which would have cost essentially nothing if Charlie Baker hadn't cancelled the rail tunnel that was originally part of the Big Dig to save less than 5% of the planned cost, or about 2% of the final cost) would be much better than the current situation. No direct trains from the NEC to Maine (or someday not too far off, New Hampshire and Canada), but a very quick, direct connection. They could have run the shuttle trains directly between the stations with no additional stops.

In the long run, when everything is electrified (this is a WHEN, not an IF, it will have to happen), a subset of the NEC trains could run through to Maine and other destinations, and some of the T commuter trains could do so as well. There would have to be frequent shuttle service (every 15 to 20 minutes, more often during rush hours) to accommodate through passengers from other Amtrak trains and commuters.

The N-S link is only an MBTA issue for train commuters who live on the south shore but work near North Station (or in the northern suburbs) and for commuters who live in the north but work near South Station or in the southern suburbs. These are relatively small groups, though of course both would grow if the connection was easier. Trying to dump the N-S link onto the T because "Amtrak doesn't really need it" is short-sighted and a way to guarantee nothing ever happens.
 

jis

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The N-S link is only an MBTA issue for train commuters who live on the south shore but work near North Station (or in the northern suburbs) and for commuters who live in the north but work near South Station or in the southern suburbs. These are relatively small groups, though of course both would grow if the connection was easier. Trying to dump the N-S link onto the T because "Amtrak doesn't really need it" is short-sighted and a way to guarantee nothing ever happens.
I was stating purely from the level of usage it will see. Strictly speaking if only Amtrak was operating between NJ and NY there would be no need for new tunnels since one tunnel could be taken out of use for extended period for refurbishment. Amtrak does not have enough traffic to require both tunnels at present. But the major user NJT definitely requires the new tunnels since it is NJT that has traffic demand growing in leaps and bounds, way more than Amtrak, what with their attempts to discount Hoboken and try to move as much traffic as possible to NY Penn Station. I am actually very familiar with the situation having been a Director of NJ-ARP for a decade or two before moving to Florida. I still co-moderate their Facebook presence, and manage their domain registrations.

I am less familiar with the situation in Boston, but my RUN friends tell me that for the foreseeable future Amtrak would probably not need more than 4tph each way through an NS link. I have no reason to disbelieve them since Amtrak can actually live with 8tph each way across the Hudson for the time being.

It is not a question of dumping anything on anyone. Usually the agencies cooperate and decide to do the most feasible and hopefully close to rational thing - weell ... sometime with some considerable arm twisting by the politicians to overcome the fiefdom issues implicitly existing. Like in case of New York area, the Portal Bridge has been given to NJT to manage, and is federally funded through the FTA. The Harold Interlocking reconstruction assigned to LIRR and funded through the FTA as part of ESA, The new Hudson Tunnel project is managed by the Port Authority of NY and NJ since it was part of their original charter. How the feds will actually fund it through which federal agency is yet to be fully settled. It could be the FTA or the FRA, but either way the funding will go through PANYNJ.

I am sure something feasible and close to rational like that will happen in Boston. It really should be simpler in Boston since afterall it is a single state one is dealing with.
 
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Danib62

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I don't think a north-south rail link will cause such a huge difference in rail travel in the Boston area. I think the effects would be similar to the Center City Commuter Connection in Philadelphia. Definitely a useful project but not something that fundamentally altered how people get around.
 

Deni

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Imagine if all the money spent on the Big Dig had been used for transit instead. Increase access that way and still tear down the viaduct, get rid of the freeway going through the city center altogether.
 

Nick Farr

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MBTA would definitely stand to gain a lot by this project, while it would open up a few more options for Amtrak.
 

neroden

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I don't think a north-south rail link will cause such a huge difference in rail travel in the Boston area. I think the effects would be similar to the Center City Commuter Connection in Philadelphia. Definitely a useful project but not something that fundamentally altered how people get around.
It would help the MBTA a lot. Improves equipment utilization, cuts costs, allows higher-frequency operations, and allows them to focus on storing equipment at out-end terminals, freeing up the extreme pressure currently being faced by the downtown railyards (which can't be expanded and are actually contracting). Also frees up the overcrowding on the Red and Green Lines from North to South station transfers. It's all sort of behind-the-scenes improvements, but they are significant, just as they were in Philly. It unlocks a bunch of capacity, basically, which can then be used to improve service without spending much money.
 
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Nick Farr

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Well, they did get rid of the freeway (helped by plate tectonics), but it's not like they built a lot of new transit.
The embarcadero freeway was also pretty useless. The idea was to link the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate bridge, but it was never completed. It was essentially a spur freeway whose traffic was easily absorbed by the city streets. Most of the travel going north of San Francisco would just take the freeways around the bay on the east side.

San Francisco actually has pretty decent public transit.
 

Nick Farr

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It would help the MBTA a lot. Improves equipment utilization, cuts costs, allows higher-frequency operations, and allows them to focus on storing equipment at out-end terminals, freeing up the extreme pressure currently being faced by the downtown railyards (which can't be expanded and are actually contracting).
Actually, you're really on to something here. The MBTA could probably fund the dig just by closing Southampton Yard and ground leasing the land to the right developers.
 

Tlcooper93

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I don't think a north-south rail link will cause such a huge difference in rail travel in the Boston area. I think the effects would be similar to the Center City Commuter Connection in Philadelphia. Definitely a useful project but not something that fundamentally altered how people get around.
I respectfully disagree.
A NS link would indeed improve the MBTA a lot, and in doing so, would improve connectivity of public transit not only between two stations, but for all those towns north of Boston in their connectivity to Amtrak.

There are, however, other solutions to the current MBTA question, some which I feel are better:
-fix the red and orange lines, and electrify all commuter rail lines. Ultimately, this is better than a NS connect, and would have a greater impact on ridership and usefulness of the grearer boston rail network.
-Upgrade Grand Junction Railroad ROW beyond a mere transfer track for rolling stock. This would be a massive project (especially regarding the grade crossing as Mass Ave), but certainly not as massive as the NS connect, and may actually achieve the same goal, especially with the eventual construction of West Station where the old CSX Beacon St. yard used to be. This could tie in quite well to the i90 Allston interchange project, which will include West Station, and the southern side of GJR anyways.
 

John Santos

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I respectfully disagree.
A NS link would indeed improve the MBTA a lot, and in doing so, would improve connectivity of public transit not only between two stations, but for all those towns north of Boston in their connectivity to Amtrak.

There are, however, other solutions to the current MBTA question, some which I feel are better:
-fix the red and orange lines, and electrify all commuter rail lines. Ultimately, this is better than a NS connect, and would have a greater impact on ridership and usefulness of the grearer boston rail network.
-Upgrade Grand Junction Railroad ROW beyond a mere transfer track for rolling stock. This would be a massive project (especially regarding the grade crossing as Mass Ave), but certainly not as massive as the NS connect, and may actually achieve the same goal, especially with the eventual construction of West Station where the old CSX Beacon St. yard used to be. This could tie in quite well to the i90 Allston interchange project, which will include West Station, and the southern side of GJR anyways.
1) What do you mean by "fix the Red and Orange lines"? Do you mean the relatively poor transfer between them at Washington St/Downtown Crossing? Or something else? (The transfer involves a fairly long walk through an inadequate tunnel with stairs.)
2) Electrify the commuter lines would be a huge benefit. For N/S connections, they would need to electrify the Framingham/Worcester branch at least as far as West Station, the Grand Junction, and at least one line to North Station first. (If they electrified the Haverhill line, they would have the beginnings for electrifying the Downeaster.)
3) Even so, if they used GJR to interconnect South and North Stations, an NEC train continuing north would have to:
  1. Arrive in South Station as normal
  2. Back up through Back Bay, switching to the Framingham branch along the way, as far as the GJR tracks
  3. Move forward on the GJR, over the Charles River Bridge (currently single track, but it looks like it was originally a double track.)
  4. Continue on through Cambridge/MIT and cross Mass Ave.
  5. Merge with the north bound tracks north of North Station
  6. Back down those tracks to North Station
  7. Finally, proceed north to its final destination. (Switching engines at some point if the northern lines have not yet been electrified.)
For south bound trains wanting to continue down the NEC, they would have to do all this in reverse.

I think it would be much faster for through passengers to take the Orange Line between Back Bay and North Station, or even the Red and Orange or Red and Green Lines between South and North Stations (switching lines at Downtown Crossing or Park Street), as they do now. And all the backups (it is essentially a giant wye) would be in the heart of a very heavily trafficked area with full passenger loads, not empty and somewhere out in the sticks.

For any sort of reasonable performance, they would have to electrify the whole thing, double-track the GJR, and build some sort of overpass at Mass Ave. I also don't know if the ROW through MIT is wide enough to double-track. It would also require multiple pedestrian crossings in Cambridge.

But they did save several hundred million dollars (out of $15 billion) by not building the originally planned rail tunnel. Thanks, Charlie!
 

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Actually, you're really on to something here. The MBTA could probably fund the dig just by closing Southampton Yard and ground leasing the land to the right developers.
Bingo! Have to acquire larger yards at the far ends of pretty much every line first though. Some of these aren't that hard, some of them (Worcester) actually are hard.
 

Tlcooper93

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Bingo! Have to acquire larger yards at the far ends of pretty much every line first though. Some of these aren't that hard, some of them (Worcester) actually are hard.
they already claim some space and time at the Framingham yard for layovers of Framingham only trains, so it may be possible to use that for Worcester trains too
 

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Worth noting that electrifying all or most of the commuter rail lines is an absolutely required component of the N-S rail tunnel.

There have been some attempted cost-cutting variations in the tunnel plan which basically exclude one or more lines from the tunnel. The full version needs three or four portals on the south side (Worcester, Providence/NEC, Fairmount, and Old Colony -- with the possibility of combining the latter two) and two on the north side (Fitchburg / everyone else).

Everyone agrees that the Providence / NEC line would go into the tunnel. The Fitchburg portal isn't that much extra work given that it's all cut-and-cover in the same railyard. But the Old Colony/Fairmount and Worcester portals each add a lot of trouble. However, I think it would be short-sighted to omit either of them.

Current proposals are to build the new underground South Station *in* the Fort Point Channel (with the west half blocked off and drained) which makes it fairly straightfoward to tie in the Old Colony/Fairmount tunnel, but it's still extra tunneling underneath other tunnels. The Worcester and Providence/NEC tunnels would have to start just east of Back Bay, and the main issue is that of running trains during construction, due to the MassPike taking up so much of the right of way.

The Grand Junction Line is a problem for more-than-infrequent moves due to the excessively cramped overbuilding which MIT has done around it. It's going to be a pain to double track and a pain to grade separate and it's basically MIT's fault. If MIT would cooperate and rebuild half its university buildings, something very nice could be done with it, but if they won't, there's no good option.
 

Tlcooper93

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Worth noting that electrifying all or most of the commuter rail lines is an absolutely required component of the N-S rail tunnel.

There have been some attempted cost-cutting variations in the tunnel plan which basically exclude one or more lines from the tunnel. The full version needs three or four portals on the south side (Worcester, Providence/NEC, Fairmount, and Old Colony -- with the possibility of combining the latter two) and two on the north side (Fitchburg / everyone else).

Everyone agrees that the Providence / NEC line would go into the tunnel. The Fitchburg portal isn't that much extra work given that it's all cut-and-cover in the same railyard. But the Old Colony/Fairmount and Worcester portals each add a lot of trouble. However, I think it would be short-sighted to omit either of them.

Current proposals are to build the new underground South Station *in* the Fort Point Channel (with the west half blocked off and drained) which makes it fairly straightfoward to tie in the Old Colony/Fairmount tunnel, but it's still extra tunneling underneath other tunnels. The Worcester and Providence/NEC tunnels would have to start just east of Back Bay, and the main issue is that of running trains during construction, due to the MassPike taking up so much of the right of way.

The Grand Junction Line is a problem for more-than-infrequent moves due to the excessively cramped overbuilding which MIT has done around it. It's going to be a pain to double track and a pain to grade separate and it's basically MIT's fault. If MIT would cooperate and rebuild half its university buildings, something very nice could be done with it, but if they won't, there's no good option.
Personally, I don’t see the NS connect being a reasonable or wise choice for the money available (even with a possible cash infusion).

Right now, the MBTA is the only transportation entity on the NEC which has none of its routes running electric.

However much money could be spent on a connector, or GJR or any of the options people have said, it would be best to spend any number of billions of $$$ on electrification and new rolling stock. That alone would transform the commuter rail, and maybe even help Amtrak or any future intercity train. Then, expansion of South Station to accommodate more Acelas, and NER (especially when the new fleets arrive) would also be nice. There is already a plan in place to demolish the post office building next to South Station, and rebuild the 10 or so tracks and platforms that used to occupy the site.

This combined with electrification would really open possibilities, and encourage ridership.
 

Tlcooper93

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Are the plans for the N_S connect set to use much of the Big Dig or a separate alignment ?
the tunnels for the NS connect have to be quite a bit deeper than i93 and subsequently cross underneath to get to North Station, so I think it would be a separate alignment
 

AmtrakMaineiac

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I agree with Tlcooper93. There are lots of cities that have multiple RR terminals and require people connect by metro - NYC, London, Paris, Moscow to name a few. This is not like Philadelphia where the 2 systems were already electrified and one end was already underground so connecting via a tunnel was a lot easier.
 

Danib62

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Personally, I don’t see the NS connect being a reasonable or wise choice for the money available (even with a possible cash infusion).

Right now, the MBTA is the only transportation entity on the NEC which has none of its routes running electric.

However much money could be spent on a connector, or GJR or any of the options people have said, it would be best to spend any number of billions of $$$ on electrification and new rolling stock. That alone would transform the commuter rail, and maybe even help Amtrak or any future intercity train. Then, expansion of South Station to accommodate more Acelas, and NER (especially when the new fleets arrive) would also be nice. There is already a plan in place to demolish the post office building next to South Station, and rebuild the 10 or so tracks and platforms that used to occupy the site.

This combined with electrification would really open possibilities, and encourage ridership.
Isn't shoreline east a diesel operation (though I know GCT direct trains are supposedly coming). MARC is using fewer and fewer electric locos it seems. I think once the HHP-8s are gone they're going to just be 100% diesel too.
 
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