By William Lindley, Guest Commentator; December 2, 2023
Brightline in Florida has refuted the naysayers of profitable intercity trains. As we await its ongoing results from the winter tourist season and the next year of full operation, one might well pose the question: Is Florida unique? Or might the conventional wisdom be wrong elsewhere as well, and do opportunities now present themselves in almost every state of the Union?
Having looked ahead and south, then, let us look northward and dispel a few myths about New England, formerly thought by some to be the only place where intercity passenger trains would work. Consider:
- Boston is thirty-five miles further east of New York (about 150 miles) than it is north (about 115 miles).
- There are (and have been) ways to get a train from New York to Maine without running into one of Boston’s stub-end terminals.
- Despite poet Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.’s 1858 assertion, geographers have failed to reach a consensus that Boston is the Hub of the Universe.
The railroad industry prior to Amtrak’s formation did not view New England as having a single main line at all. What we today think of as the Northeast Corridor was assembled more by accident than design. Today’s NEC is a combined result of the fall of the Penn Central Railroad, the belated addition of the New Haven Railroad to P.C., and the ultimate transformation of the Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail).
Boston’s South Station, built in the 1890s, is now the northernmost terminus of the electrified district which extends to Washington (D.C.) Union Station. The station was built as, and remains, a stub-end terminal: a not uncommon situation is many cities at the time.
This posed little operational difficulty, as each of the various railroads ran their own passenger trains, and as in New York City, having two terminals a few miles apart within a city was viewed as a competitive feature of one road over another. In Boston, the Boston & Maine Railroad operated North Station, with its trains serving west-central Massachusetts and states to the north, while South Station served the other lines: New York Central-controlled Boston & Albany Railroad, and the New Haven road.
A brief aside on downtown passenger terminals: The April 1959 Trains Magazine featured a now-renowned article by Editor David Morgan, “Who Shot the Passenger Train.” Regrettably, Morgan’s assessment of train stations includes:
“The old 1900-era structure… handled more than 100 trains a day as late as 1929… today traffic is down to 40 trains a day and most of them are through schedules. Both building and track layout are vastly overbuilt. Being pre-automobile in origin, the station is inconveniently planted in downtown traffic congestion, therefore lacks adequate parking space.”
The unfortunate proposed solution was to move the station out of the downtown area, as a small pre-fabricated structure behind a vast parking lot. This was one of Morgan’s few blunders in his many years of writing about the railroad industry. In this he understood the railroad implications, but failed to consider the ramifications of an emphasis on automobiles, not persons.
Cities and towns that promote walking and bicycling are accessible, human-scale, and amenable to strolling: all of which corresponds to a vitality both social and economic. “Sustainable” is the contemporary buzzword that represents this simple old-fashioned truth.
If you wish to experience the results in action, compare Florida’s edge-of-downtown Jacksonville Terminal (and its adjacent, if curious, monorail station) with Amtrak’s “modern” little structure out in the suburbs. Arriving at Amtrak’s station today leaves you in the middle of nowhere, relatively speaking; although not quite as far from civilization as Maricopa, Arizona, a wide in the road thirty miles of desert south of Phoenix. Indeed, the removal from Phoenix Union Station to Maricopa represents the most egregious example to date of taking Morgan’s somewhat ill-advised advice to its logical extreme.
The remainder of Morgan’s assessment of the problems confronting the passenger, mail, and express business reflect his generally sage understandings and are well worth reading; fortunately Trains.com has reprints available for a few dollars. The subject was also revisited in the July 2023 TRAINS issue, possibly still available at a newsstand near you.
Look back to Morgan’s time and see what can be learned about New England that applies today. The Pennsylvania Railroad, having been effectively shut out of New England by the New York, New Haven & Hartford (NYNH&H) Railroad, did regard that road as a connecting, or feeder, railroad for services beyond New York City.
PRR’s solution to the Boston dilemma is worth revisiting.
The Bar Harbor Express ran three times weekly, via Putnam, Connecticut to Worcester, Ayer (Fort Devens), and Lowell, Massachusetts, then splitting (Saturdays only) for a branch to Manchester, Concord, and Plymouth, New Hampshire; with the rest of the train continuing to Portland, Maine where it divided again into branches: to Bath and Rockland, Maine; and to Waterville, Bangor, and Ellsworth (with a bus connection to Bar Harbor).
Much has changed in Boston since the 1950s, but unchanged is the fact that Boston still has two stub-end passenger terminals, separated by the downtown area. Even the “Big Dig” relocation of Interstate 93 failed in the original grand plan to connect the railway spokes on either side of the “Hub.” The only direct rail link is a back-alley, street-running freight connection through Cambridge (diagram: shown in dark green).
Growth of passenger rail in New England will depend not just on improving what is now thought of as the Northeast Corridor to South Station, but on looking back to how the Pennsy and the New Haven ran their train-to-Maine, and beginning to think of all New England as truly part of the national system — not just a appendage of North Station.
Given this, the single biggest impediment to a New England passenger rail system is the inability to traverse New Hampshire east-to-west. This forecloses direct service between Boston and Montréal. Deactivation of all rail lines north and west of Concord, NH was a mistake and ought to be reconsidered, before costs and development make future connections even more prohibitive.
From Bellows Falls, a B&M branch once ran through Keene, New Hampshire to Winchendon and Gardner, Massachusetts, where today one can ride the MBTA into Boston. See the PRR map above. Today, that line, as all others traversing the Granite State, has been removed.
Even without rebuilding the missing connections or creating new rights-of-way, however, we can look to MBTA to provide connecting trains for the new Maine through services: to Boston at Lowell, Ayer, and Worcester. Metro-North, Connecticut’s CT Rail, and MBTA’s “purple line” regional trains then become feeders and distributors for the through trains, not unlike how PRR viewed the New Haven lines. The network connections would work like this:
Shown is a service, either originating at New York City’s Pennsylvania Station or at points south and west, through New Haven, New London, Worcester, Mass., Lowell, Dover, New Hampshire, and Portland, Maine. In Maine, there has been consideration over the years of extending Amtrak’s Downeaster to Bangor, and trains from North Station through Lowell to Nashua, Manchester, and Concord, New Hampshire. These are shown on the Train-to-Maine map here. The postulated service, however, is shown as serving Bath, famous for its historic and current shipyard, and Rockland, a popular tourist destination and growing cruise ship port.
This approach illustrated with New England can be replicated anywhere regional rail services exist, connecting new intercity routes to existing transit systems like city buses, streetcars, and subways.
Former Administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration Gil Carmichael, who founded the Transportation Institute at the University of Denver in 1996, was an early proponent of this “Intermodal” approach. When your railroad station is an easy taxi ride from home, and when your hotel is likewise easily accessible from your destination station, it becomes possible to vacation without an automobile: a truly relaxing time. You can travel for business or to visit family without the hassle and expense of driving. Conversely, when rail systems are built only to appeal to motorists — such as we see with Minnesota’s Northstar Line, or with Los Angeles Green Line stations placed in the unappealing median of a loud, noisy, polluted superhighway — the appeal is vastly reduced. If you are already driving, you might as well stay in the car.
A next step would be a unified pool of equipment, operators, and staff among the various rail operators in a region. Pullman, who ran almost all the nation’s sleeping cars, was expert in providing a wide enough variety of railcars and onboard amenities to satisfy Americans’ far-flung tastes and needs, while maintaining a relatively small number of standards to keep training and operating costs low.
Today, especially with the advent of Positive Train Control (PTC) and other simplifying technological advances, there is little reason the MBTA, CTRail, Metro-North, Amtrak, and any other operator in the Northeast should not share at least some of their equipment and personnel, not to mention stations and tracks.