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.


  1. Some of that money should be put into Ayer. That station is a mess. There is no platform. Commuters have to stand on broken cement next to trash strewn rail tracks. The lighting is terrible, there is no cover from bad weather and drunks stumble out of the local tavern to hang out in the parking lot.

  2. I think removing Waltham tower from service is a big mistake that tower works fine, and to remove it from service is a big safety issue. For years the employees that work the tower saved many of lives at the crossings of Moody and Elm Street.

  3. Thanks for sharing! This page was very informative and I enjoyed it. Boston by rail


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