We need to train ourselves to think ahead

May, 2018

Failure to make a small investment now can lead to serious problems later that can take a long time to fix and cost a lot more money.

The rail line from Framingham to Boston is an excellent example of this failing.

in the early 50s, when I was around ten, my father, in one of the very few times he took us anywhere, walked my younger brother and me ten blocks to the large stone HH Richardson-designed building that was the Allston train station on the Framingham-Worcester line.

We didn’t have to wait long, even on the weekend, for a train to take us four stops to Riverside in Newton. There, on the banks of the Charles River was a canoe-rental service and a large, spring-fed pool with a sandy beach where my brother and I swam and played for an hour or two before taking the train home.

Not long thereafter, they built the Mass Pike, which became the eastern end of Interstate 90, the longest interstate road in the country. Initially, the Pike ended right near Riverside in Newton, but they wanted to extend it the last ten miles to Boston Harbor, and there was a lot of debate about how to do that.

To placate the people of Newton, the Pike Authority offered to put an electrified rapid transit line right next to the Pike to offer speedy commuting into Boston. But there was a serious NIMBY group in Newton that turned down every offer.

In the end, they lost, and in the mid-60s the railroad tracks into Boston were ripped up and the Pike was built. There was no electrified rapid transit. Two tracks were run along the side of the road to serve the freight trains that came in and out of the Allston yards.

Commuter service from Boston to Framingham and Worcester was reduced to three trains a day each way, weekdays only. One went to Worcester. Some stops, including Allston, were eliminated.

Within a few years, the railroad was petitioning the government for permission to cut even the three trains, claiming lack of ridership.

Since I sometimes took the train to work, I went to the public hearing. One guy stood up and said it all: “Of course, ridership is down. It used to take an hour to drive into Boston from Framingham, and a half hour on the train. Now it takes an hour on the train and a half hour to drive. And you can do it only three times a day, weekdays only.”

Fast forward forty years and we have a whole different attitude. The Pike is crowded and slow during rush hours and the demand for the train is much greater. The virtues of an electrified rapid transit are now obvious, but it is too expensive.

They have done the next best thing, added trains and stops. There are now about 34 total trains in both directions every weekday, and 18 on weekends. The old Allston train station is a restaurant, but they built a new station west of it next to New Balance’s headquarters. And Harvard, which is developing a good chunk of Allston, is contributing $58 million to another station a bit east of the original.

Total cost of all this is hard to calculate, but it’s a huge amount more than it would have cost to improve the line 50 years ago, and it’s still not electrified.

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