Sunday, November 20, 2011

Fitchburg Commuter Rail Line Upgrade

The state's oldest and currently worst performing Commuter Rail line will soon be getting a face lift. The Federal Transit Association announced last month that they will be providing $75 Million in funds to the MBTA/MBCR in order to make improvements to the Fitchburg Commuter Rail Line.

 The line, which runs from North Station through Acton to Fitchburg, is constantly plagued by issues. The line's track record (no pun intended) is terrible compared to other commuter rail lines. It has the highest rate of late arrivals in the entire Commuter Rail system. Nearly 20 percent of the line consists of single trackage, and its maximum speed is only 60 miles per hour. A total of 35 revenue service trains run daily on the Fitchburg Commuter Rail Line, but only 25 of those provide service to Fitchburg and the other western end communities. Only five daily inbound trains arrive at North Station before 9 AM,and none arrive at Fitchburg before 10:15 AM. Only sixteen daily trains operate on weekends, with eight each Inbound and Outbound.

Thankfully, this is all about to change. With this newly added investment by the state and federal government the Fitchburg line will soon become one of the most up to date lines on the North Side of the Commuter Rail system. Although the Fitchburg Commuter Rail Line has the poorest operating characteristics in the MBTA system, it has great potential to attract new riders if quality service were to be provided. Along the Fitchburg Commuter Rail Line there exist several significant infrastructure issues which greatly contribute to the delays and the overall poor performance of the line. Most significant of these constraints are the presence of single-tracked segments and constant interaction with freight service on the line. 

Waltham Tower! You can still see the old semaphore signal!
Two significant stretches of the Fitchburg Line are presently single tracked: an 8.8 mile stretch between South Acton and the Willows Freight Yard in Ayer and a 1 mile stretch near Waltham Station. The speed on single-tracked sections is currently restricted to 30 mph in Waltham and 40 mph between South Acton and the Willows. The new upgrades call to add new double trackage to the stretch between South Acton and Ayer and also a small section in Waltham making most of the line double tracked. A good amount of pre-made track is already set along the line ready to be put into place. Other track improvements on the line will also be done during the upgrade. A plentiful amount of track will go through a horizontal and vertical alignment process which will make for a much smoother ride. Also, 13 grade crossings will be renovated and replaced, six bridges will be replaced or repaired, and much of the lines right of way will be renovated for improved drainage. All of these improvements will increase the top speed on the line to around 80mph which in turn will help to decrease trip times.

"Darth Vader" Signals proposed for
Fitchburg Line 
Currently, the line has one of the oldest switching and signaling systems in the state. The system is so old that MBCR personnel sill operate the line's signaling and switching out of a control tower in Waltham. The tower has been in continuous use since it was erected in 1928. Once the line is upgraded, however, this tower, which is the only one sill in operation in Massachusetts and one of a handful in New England, will become obsolete. The upgrades call for  a complete replacement of the current signal and switching system between Cambridge and Acton. The signal upgrade is still currently in design phase, but will hopefully be put out to bidding soon.

 The Fitchburg Commuter Rail Line is also an extremely active freight corridor, with most freight traffic controlled by PanAm Railways.The majority of freight traffic on the line operates between Fitchburg and Ayer, and in the Willows Freight Yard. Daily freight operations on the line are significant and typically include 3 East Bound, 3 Westbound, 2 Local trains out of Fitchburg and 2 local trains out of Ayer. With improvements to signaling and the addition of double trackage there will be less interference with freight traffic allowing for more commuter trains to travel on the line.

Proposed Littleton/Rt. 495 Station
Station renovations are also a large part of this project. Due to the new double trackage some stations along the line will need to be rebuilt. Proposed renovations are set the South Acton, Wilmington, and Littleton/Rt. 495 stations. Currently the only station out of those three that is in the design phase is the Littleton/Rt 495 station. The plan calls to relocate the station, build high level platforms, and a new enclosed ramp from the parking lot. The line will also be extended west to a new terminus. The new station, which will be called Wachusett Commuter Rail station in Fitchburg, will be located 4.5 miles west of the current Fitchburg Station. The station is currently in the design phase, but there is really no information on it. The plan calls for a new layover facility right past the station that will replace the current facility which is very decrepit. The station is set to be completed by the end of 2013.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

How the MBCR is planning to tackle Old Man Winter!

Commuters who regularly utilize the MBTA to get from point A to point B usually dread the winter months. The winter here in New England is much longer than just a couple of months. It can run anywhere from October all the way to April! Last year was one of the worst winters I have seen in quite a while and it was also one of the worst winters on the commuter rail for the MBTA and MBCR. Last year the MBCR, the company which operates the Commuter Rail for the MBTA, was plagued by numerous mechanical failures (which ranged from broken air hoses to locomotive failure), signal problems, trackage issues, and many other problems leaving commuters stranded on platforms in the cold or stuck on trains for hours. The most famous incident that occurred last year was when a train bound for Worcester had its locomotive breakdown in Newtonville  turning a regularly hour and a half ride into a four hour nightmare.

This year however the MBCR says they are more than prepared to take on Old Man Winter! I was lucky enough to recently be invited to the MBCR's headquarters in downtown Boston, and I learned a lot! I met with Ed Motte, the MBCR's Transportation Chief, who informed me of the many plans they have set in place to ease the difficulties brought upon by our fierce New England winters. I was also given these wonderful photos! Currently  the MBCR's largest obstacle for the winter months is keeping its fleet of aging locomotives, many of which are over 25 years old, in working order. Currently the agency has 76 active locomotives plus 5 ex-MARC units being leased from Motive Power. During an average rush hour the MBTA needs exactly 60 locomotives to efficiently run service. According to iRidetheT the MBCR also has 5 locomotives receiving top deck repairs out of state and more than 10 are having minor work done, on sight, at the BET. This leaves very little room for error.

The MBCR and MBTA have a plan for this however! This year, when extreme and severe weather hits the area, the MBTA will be implementing an emergency snow schedule. This schedule, which will have the commuter rail running less trains on each of their lines, will help the MBCR free up space on the tracks to allow for more crews to clear snow and debris. Less traffic on the rails will help crews get tracks cleared quicker so that trains can return to full service as fast as possible. The reduction of trains will also free up locomotives to serve as rescue trains. The leased MARC locomotives will also give the MBCR a little bit of flexibility when it comes to mechanical failures, but according to Ed Motte they will only be used in extreme emergencies.

The MBCR has also invested quite a bit into new and used snow equipment for the winter ($500,000 to be exact). The MBCR recently purchased two (one new and one used from PanAm Railways) high powered and self propelled jet blowers. These jet blowers, similar to the MBTA's "Snowzilla", use a high powered jet engine to clear and melt snow that accumulates on rails and switches. In addition to the two self propelled jet blowers, the MBCR has also acquired a new ogger (a gigantic snow blower) and two smaller non-propelled jet blowers, all of which can be attached to a front end loader.
The New Ogger
The 2 smaller jet blowers
Self propelled Jet Blower
Protective sleeves 

The MBCR has also invested in new protective sleeves that cover air hoses and couplers on locomotives and coaches. These new sleeves will ensure that this sensitive equipment dose not receive any water damage. It will also make it easier in the event of a mechanical failure for a rescue train to attach to a disabled train. Additional personnel have also been hired by the MBCR for the winter months to help with snow removal around switches. This extra help will ensure that frozen switches won't wreak havoc on the morning or evening commutes.

Most of you know that last winter wasn't the greatest for both the MBTA and the MBCR but I feel that with this new added investment by the MBCR, Old Man Winter is going to be getting a run for his money! Although unpredictable failures can still cause major delays, the MBCR seems very well prepared to tackle any type of failure when and if it happens. For a commuter rail system that still uses locomotives that are way over their estimated life expectancy on a daily basis they are doing pretty good. Let's just hope this winter is going to be MUCH different than last year!

For more information on how the MBTA and MBCR are preparing for winter check out:

Also, if you're on Twitter, Tweet your questions and concerns to @MBCR_info or @MBTAGM

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