A Vision for Better Commuter Rail Service and Connections


We all know Rhode Island benefits from its proximity to Boston, which provides our residents and businesses access to markets, jobs, entertainment, medical services and schools. But we are held back by problems related to getting there and back.

The roads are increasingly congested, and that slows buses too. There are accidents, and parking can be tough. Highway improvements are sometimes environmentally destructive and very expensive. For example, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation may spend about $300 million just to redo less than a mile of I-95 in central Providence. And we know we should reduce gasoline consumption that drains money out of the local economy and contributes so much to greenhouse-gas emissions.

Amtrak Acelas are quick, but also expensive. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) commuter trains provide access and we are “on track” to add a Pawtucket-Central Falls station so those communities can better access Boston and the rest of the state. The MBTA also brings Massachusetts folks to Rhode Island, including a significant number of “reverse commuters” without clogging our roads and Massachusetts folks also use it to get to our airport.

But the trains are relatively slow, often taking about 70 minutes to go the 44 miles from Providence to Boston. Though there are 20 trains each way weekdays, and there can be inconvenient gaps between trains, more than 2 hours apart at times. And the service isn’t very reliable about being on time.

So a regional group called Transit Matters has developed a vision for how the commuter rail could better serve the region’s economy and environment. After looking at best practices elsewhere, notably Philadelphia and Paris, its main recommendations include: electrification; high-level platforms at all stations; more frequent service; free transfers to local buses and subways; infrastructure improvements at a few bottlenecks.

On the Providence line, where there already are electric wires used by Amtrak, we would need additional wires in just a few stretches, notably the Pawtucket layover yard. That would make those nearby happy not to have diesel-engine pollution or noise. Electric engines are quieter and cleaner, and accelerate quicker, speeding up trips. They are more reliable and last longer than diesel. After startup capital costs they have lower operating costs.

High-level platforms, missing in eight of the current 15 stations on our line, also speed trips by quicker boarding at stations, especially for those with disabilities. The time to get to Boston could be reduced to about 46 minutes. Speedier trips use equipment and labor more efficiently and would also generate more revenue by attracting more passengers.

Long term, Transit Matters recommends a rail tunnel connecting North and South stations in Boston. This would have many operational advantages, avoid the need for an expensive expansion of South Station, and connect Rhode Island to the North Shore and northern New England, and connect them to us!

There are obstacles, including finding the capital funds to do all this, harder with the Trump administration hostility to both our region for not voting for him and to trains with their highly unionized workforce.

The environmental community, though interested in promoting electric cars, has mostly ignored electrifying our commuter rail. It’s also a challenge to get two states, the MBTA and the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) to all work together and coordinate. But, there are a lot of benefits.

Barry Schiller, a transit rider and longtime transit advocate, is a former RIPTA board member.