Categories
Little Compton Landscapes

South Coast Rail: Passenger trains will return to Fall River and New Bedford sometime in 2024

The last passenger trains between Boston and the southeastern Massachusetts cities of Fall River and New Bedford rolled out of the railroad stations of each city about 65 years ago, in the late 1950s. Resurrection of passenger-rail transportation to the two largest southeastern Massachusetts municipalities was being debated and discussed since the 1980s, as a means of easing traffic congestion on the region’s increasingly crowded highways and boosting economic activity. By the early 1990s, Massachusetts politicians and transportation planners were making bold pronouncements about and committing modest funds to the reinstatement of passenger-rail service to the region. But prospects for such a revival rose and fell in response to a variety of factors: changing priorities of a series of Massachusetts governors; fluctuating economic conditions; environmental and technical issues; daunting cost estimates; and the always controversial finances and operations of the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA), which operates commuter rail service throughout the eastern part of the state.

The plan finally reached critical political mass in 2019. That year the administration of Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker secured regulatory approval for elements of the plan from the federal government and included $1.1 billion in the state’s capital budget to fund the first phase of a multi-year (or multi-decade) project called “South Coast Rail.” Contracts were soon awarded to move the undertaking from the design stage to the construction and implementation stage. At a groundbreaking ceremony in July 2019 at an East Freetown worksite along the rail line’s route, Stephanie Pollack, then the Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation, announced that “we look forward to Phase 1’s start of service in 2023.” As it happened, the MBTA has missed that target—but not by much.

Completion of the project’s Phase 1 is imminent. Last September 28, the MBTA’s chief officing operator, Ryan Coholan, reported to the agency board that South Coast Rail service would begin sometime in the summer of 2024. “This change in targeted launch date is necessary to complete rigorous testing in order to meet safety certifications and qualifications requirements,” the MBTA states at its South Coast Rail website.

Compared to some major public infrastructure projects, such a delay does not appear to be particularly unexpected—especially a project that has been substantially executed during the COVID era. Nor have there so far been reports of significant cost overruns or construction snafus during the South Coast Rail rollout. Recent MBTA recent public statements emphasizing the testing and implementation of the project’s safety and operational features may reflect well-publicized accidents, slow-downs, and construction screw-ups occurring elsewhere in the agency’s complex and far-flung system.

The scope of the South Coast Rail project

Here’s how the MBTA summarizes the overall South Coast Rail project:

The South Coast Rail project will offer a reliable transit connection between southeastern Massachusetts and Boston. Riders will be able to take a one-seat trip—no transfers needed—for the first time since the late 1950s.

Taunton, New Bedford, and Fall River are the only major cities within 50 miles of Boston that do not currently have Commuter Rail access to Boston.

The project will be rolled out in phases:

      • Phase 1: Extends a secondary line west from the existing Middleborough/Lakeville Line, and create[s] the New Bedford and Fall River lines
      • Full Build: Extends the Stoughton Line south to connect more communities to the New Bedford and Fall River lines
Phase 1
Map of “South Coast Rail Phase 1”: The project currently being completed and that will begin service in 2024 consists of the rail lines, stations, and layover areas along the broken purple lines at the bottom of the map. (MBTA/MassDOT; https://cdn.mbta.com/sites/default/files/media/2020-05/SCR_Middleborough_Phase%201.jpg)

Contracts awarded by MBTA to two construction companies in 2020 to complete most Phase 1 work totaled more than $560 million. Additional contracts and funds encompass other elements of the project, including a $21-million pedestrian bridge in New Bedford and a new Route 24 bridge over the rail route in Taunton.  A curious explorer can catch glimpses of the progress of the project’s Phase 1 while driving along the network of roads in a southeastern Massachusetts area roughly bounded with corners at Middleborough, East Taunton, Fall River, and New Bedford. On my occasional recent tours of this terrain, much of it previously unfamiliar to me, I’ve observed: upgraded tracks; new grade crossings and signaling; refurbished or replaced bridges, overpasses, and culverts; wetlands and stormwater mitigation infrastructure; stations completed and in progress; parking lots; and “layover” yards. Some of this work along rail lines is invisible and remote from roads; other worksites remain off limits to the public behind gates and chain-link fencing.

Each southern terminal city will eventually have two stations. The Fall River Depot station, south of President Avenue and west of North Main Street, is essentially finished. A second Fall River station, planned for the project’s “Full Build” phase, would be built a mile or so further to the south at Battleship Cove. In New Bedford, the Church Street Station in the northern part of the city and the New Bedford Station along the waterfront downtown are nearing completion. As noted, a substantial new pedestrian bridge currently under construction across Rte. 18 will provide access by foot to New Bedford’s downtown.

The stations themselves will be modest. Basically, they are protected open shelters, of modern and somewhat stark design, adjacent to boarding platforms. The stations offer few other passenger services or facilities. “All stations will comply with MBTA standards and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements, which include high-level platforms for ‘all-doors’ boarding,” explains the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDot), at its South Coast Rail website. “Other amenities will include benches, canopies, bicycle storage and parking.”

The main feature of these stations, in fact, will be substantial parking facilities. A fact of long-distance commuting life is that a traveler, to reach their destination, necessarily pursues a hybrid approach, involving several modes of transportation. When a high percentage of commuters live in rural, exurban, and suburban locations, they often begin and end their commutes in their own automobiles. They need places to park those automobiles when they transfer to public transportation such as trains and buses. The South Coast Rail railroad stations are located and designed to accommodate this contemporary reality.

MassDOT describes the projected frequency of rail service connecting Boston’s South Station to New Bedford and Fall River as follows:

The MBTA plans to operate three morning peak trains and three evening peak trains to both New Bedford and Fall River. There will be up to six morning and evening trains to Taunton and Middleborough because all the trains will pass through these communities. During off-peak periods, three trains will likely operate on a 3-3 ½ hour frequency. However, these schedules are subject to change as the MBTA begins operations and continues to assess the Commuter Rail needs for this region.

Projected Phase 1 travel time between the two cities and Boston is about 90 minutes, although concerns have been expressed by some transportation activists about potential delays on sections of single-track closer to Boston that South Coast Rail trains will share with other MBTA commuter rail lines.

 

“Full Build”

Map of “South Coast Rail Full Build (Stoughton Electric): The projected second phase of the South Coast Rail project would shift the northern section of the route to the MBTA’s Stoughton commuter rail line and connect to a reconstructed rail line with new stations in Easton, Raynham, and Taunton. The plans would replace diesel-powered trains with electrified trains. (MBTA/MassDot; https://cdn.mbta.com/sites/default/files/2020-05/SCR_FullBuild_CorridorMap_2020.pdf)

Most of the new services, facilities, and investment represented by Phase 1 of the South Coast Rail project south of its new Middleborough and East Taunton stations will remain intact and in use during the projected second “Full Build” phase of the project. But in some important respects, Phase 1 is a placeholder for a significant transformation of South Coast Rail service if and when the planned Full Build is implemented.

The Phase 1 plan employs the current MBTA Middleborough/Lakeville commuter rail route from Boston’s South Station. A new Middleborough station and a rebuilt east-west “Middleborough Secondary” (now a freight line) will connect to the new East Taunton station at a junction with the rebuilt New Bedford Main Line and Fall River Secondary Line connecting to those two cities. The trains along the Phase 1 routes will all be diesel-powered MBTA commuter coaches.

South Coast Rail service in the “Full Build” phase would, in its northern section, shift to the Stoughton MBTA commuter rail line to the west of the Middleborough line. From Stoughton, the route would follow a reconstructed rail line that would return passenger-rail service to Easton, Raynham, and downtown Taunton, connecting at the East Taunton Station to the Fall River and New Bedford lines. In addition, the Full Build project calls for electrification of the entire Stoughton/South Coast Rail route. Such changes, it is predicted (or at least hoped), will cut the travel time from Boston to Fall River and New Bedford.   

In some respects, the 2030 date once floated for the completion of the Full Build second phase of the South Coast Rail project appears to be vaguely aspirational at this point. Perhaps understandably, many of the funding, planning, and technical complexities of that phase have not yet been substantially addressed or determined by MassDOT and MBTA officials. 

Potential regional impacts of South Coast Rail

Some Massachusetts newspapers and other media have provided regular coverage of the status of the South Coast Rail project. (Notable among the journalists following the story is Dan Medeiros, who has provided detailed, even-handed reporting for the Fall River Herald News.) 

For decades, advocates of the South Coast Rail initiative have emphasized its potential to “reconnect this region to jobs and economic development” for southeastern Massachusetts, as MassDOT explains. The region’s relative economic isolation and neglect, the agency notes, is revealed by the fact that its major municipalities—Fall River, New Bedford, and Taunton—”are the only major cities within 50 miles of Boston that do not currently have commuter rail access to Boston.”

In a region with limited public transportation options, the availability of a new energy-efficient public transportation option for travel to and from Boston and its surrounding region may be beneficial for environmental reasons and as a relief to all travelers from stressful highway driving. Time will tell whether the train option will in fact reduce traffic congestion and travel times. But anyone who has had reason to travel regularly between the South Coast region and the Boston area over recent decades can attest to the ever-increasing intensity, volume, and unpredictably of automobile travel along Rtes. 24, 140, 95, 195, 93, and other busy highways.

Public support of Fall River and New Bedford for the South Coast Rail project was put to the test in the November 2022 state election. Residents that year voted on a referendum question asking whether the cities should officially join the MBTA, a prerequisite under state law to receive that agency’s transportation services and related funding.   

“New Bedford voters overwhelmingly endorse South Coast Rail,” read a post-election headline in the New Bedford Standard-Times, reporting that “more than 16,00o voters said yes to the ballot question, ‘Shall the City be added to the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority?’ while a little less than 4,000 said no, or 80.43% to 19.57%.” Fall River voters were equally enthusiastic about the restoration of passenger-train service, according to the Standard-Times report, as “nearly 13,000 [77.68%] voters approved the question, with just under 3,700 [%%] rejecting it.”

New Bedford and Fall River thus joined with what are now 177 Massachusetts municipalities—just over half of the state’s 351 total number of cities and towns—to become an MBTA community, as defined by state law.

There was some dissent expressed at the time from residents of both cities about the possible impacts on their neighborhoods from traffic near the new rail stations, train noise, and possible increases in local real-estate costs and rents. In fact, such citizens’ concerns are not necessarily reflections of pure NIMBYism. Rather, they may reflect obligations and restraints MBTA communities like Fall River and New Bedford incur as a result of enactment of the MBTA Communities Act in 2021.  Regulations that are now taking effect under the provisions of that law are now roiling many Massachusetts MBTA communities, which are required to amend local zoning ordinances to permit at least some area in each municipality for denser multi-family housing development. This can be a particular challenge for some suburban and exurban communities, many of which are predominantly zoned for single-home residential development and lack public water and sewage-treatment systems. The compliance requirements of the new Massachusetts law appear to be quite rigorous and technical. I have no clear idea how they will affect New Bedford and Fall River, cities categorized as “Commuter Rail” communities under the law and that already permit considerable multi-family residential development within their bounds.

Map of “MBTA Communities: Community Category”: (https://www.mass.gov/info-details/multi-family-zoning-requirement-for-mbta-communities)
Transit Oriented Development (TOD)

Initiatives such as the MBTA Communities Act reflect the efforts and ideas of urban planners to promote “Transit-Oriented Development” (TOD), which one standard source (Wikipedia), defines as “a type of urban development that maximizes the amount of residential, business and leisure space within walking distance of public transport.” Such approaches often include zoning “overlay” districts that permit higher-denser multiple uses—residential, commercial, recreational, and others. New Bedford has created such an overlay district in the vicinity of the new downtown MBTA station. In my informal reconnaissance of the Fall River and New Bedford stations, I have observed a glimmer of recent construction suggesting that some private developers have been willing to invest in new buildings near such stations consistent with TOD principles. Two examples:

In March 2022, I took the above photograph of “Residences at River’s Edge”, a 49-unit apartment building, then under construction, near the MBTA Fall River Depot, at the corner of Davol and Turner streets. It is advertised to emphasize the fundamental principle of real-estate marketing: location, location, location: “Ideally situated in the area’s most up and coming neighborhood, these spacious apartments are just steps from an eclectic mix of waterfront dining and shopping, pedestrian walkways, bike paths and beautiful urban parks. What’s more, living here means you’ll also be a short stroll from the new, highly anticipated Fall River Depot (opening in 2023) offering direct commuter service to and from Boston.” The developer, “a joint development between Robert Karam and BayCoast Bank,” advertises the building as “currently 100% leased.”

A recently constructed building at the corner of Purchase and Pearl streets in New Bedford, overlooking the new MBTA New Bedford Station. The building appears to serve mixed residential and retail/commercial uses.
“Commuter Rail” or “Regional Rail”?

Some Massachusetts public transportation activists argue that the emphasis MBTA and MassDOT place on expanding “commuter” rail service represents too narrow a view of the region’s current transportation needs and potential passenger-rail users. Among the initiatives promoted by the Boston-based advocacy group TransitMatters is an emphasis on what it calls “Regional Rail” as an alternative. “Regional Rail envisions a new business model for Commuter Rail centered around a modern, electric network and fleet of vehicles,” the group declares, “to bring rapid-transit-like frequent & reliable service to the entire Metro Boston region.”

TransitMatters asserts that the traditional justification for “commuter rail” is obsolete:

MBTA Commuter Rail operates as a mid-20th century service with a mid-20th century business model. It reflects out of date biases about where people and jobs are located, and about how people desire to get from one place to another. Many people no longer work on a strictly 9 am to 5 pm weekday schedule, and many more want convenient and frequent train schedules that respond to the needs of their daily lives.

Our current approach to Commuter Rail, as a business model, fails to offer its rider/customers the service they want and need. As a result it contributes to the region’s worsening traffic congestion, keeps Gateway Cities isolated during most of the day, and exacerbates income inequality since the inadequate service compels many to drive – for lower income people, the high cost of owning, maintaining and driving an automobile can have a crippling effect on their ability to make ends meet.

Public transit must be frequent all day, not just at rush hour. A Regional Rail system would have trains running at least every half hour all day in the suburbs and at least every fifteen minutes in Boston and other Inner Core communities.

TransmitMatters explains its ambitious Regional Rail proposal in detail in a June 2023 report, “Turning Vision into Reality: The Moment for Regional Rail is Now.”

The view from Little Compton

Much of this political and construction activity concerning South Coast Rail has taken place outside the view or notice of Rhode Island residents and officials, who have exercised little political or decision-making influence over the design, funding, and implementation of the project. For better or worse, and in ways that may not be predictable, Rhode Islanders will be affected by the significant and quickly approaching return of direct passenger-rail service between Boston and the cities of Fall River and New Bedford.

But concerns about the impact of the railroad’s return to the region as a transportation option have also been expressed, and for some time, in smaller communities in the region. Where I live, in Little Compton, Rhode Island, almost equidistant from the Fall River and New Bedford terminals, the prospective development of the train has provided an impetus and rationale for accelerating the pace of land conservation efforts, as a response to the potential development that may be triggered by the new option for convenient access to the Boston area.  In its autumn 2013 newsletter “AgTrustNEWS,” the Little Compton Agricultural Conservancy Trust, a municipal conservation agency funded by a real-estate conveyance tax, in an article headlined “Development Pressure Intensifies Throughout Our Region,” identified several initiatives at the time that could spur residential and commercial development in our small, relatively rural town. Among these were a possible casino in southeastern Massachusetts, a proposed 62-acre retail/office/hotel project in abutting Tiverton, and the planned South Coast Rail project.

Article from Little Compton Agricultural Conservancy Trust newsletter, “AgTrustNEWS,” Autumn Equinox 2013 edition.

The Massachusetts casino has not been built, at least yet, but a casino did open in Tiverton. The Tiverton commercial project did not proceed, but other smaller projects in that town have been pursued or are being proposed. (That town recently approved a temporary moratorium on development.)

As for the South Coast Trail project, “Commuter train stations planned for New Bedford and Fall River,” the LCACT newsletter warned, “could turn Little Compton into a bedroom community for Boston.” The article quoted from a website advocating the South Coast Rail effort, which predicted that the project would “enable residents of the South Coast to access jobs and services in the Boston Area . . . and allow Boston-area workers to more easily take advantage of affordable housing in the South Coast.”

The potential impact of the new passenger-rail link to the Boston area, the LCACT urged, thus justified an intensified effort to protect the town’s substantially undeveloped landscape. “Accessibility and economic development mean more people and a greater demand for housing,” the LCACT 2013 article concluded. “If we are going to protect Little Compton’s rural character, the time is now.” [emphasis in original article]

In the decade since that article appeared, real estate prices have soared in Little Compton. Whatever the causes, the shortage of “affordable” housing in the town had arrived well before the first trains from Boston to Fall River and New Bedford.

* * *

Evidence on the ground suggests that the MBTA’s recent prediction of a summer 2024 start date for South Coast Rail service between Boston and the cities of New Bedford and Fall River is literally on track and on time. Questions linger, however:

  • Do previous predictions of commuter ridership remain reasonable in the aftermath of COVID, as employees and employers have become accustomed to remote work?
  • As downtown business districts, including Boston’s, have hollowed out from the impact of COVID, has there been a decline in the number of potential commuters for whom rail transportation between city centers is attractive?
  • Not least important, how will the MBTA and MassDOT secure the revenue and funding to sustain this new transportation service into new terrain? According to recent reports, MBTA officials anticipate an $182-million deficit in its operating budget for next year to maintain current and projected service, with possible deficits of $600 million and $859 million in the next two succeeding years. And in November 2023, the MBTA estimated that it needs $24.5 billion to bring its current physical assets–tracks, stations, buses, subways, trains, signal systems, and more–up to the “state of good repair” that is the standard for safe and efficient operation of a public transit system.

Or one can take a more optimistic, or at least hopeful, view. We live in an era of unnerving uncertainty, encompassing a range of inter-related concerns—political, technological, economic, military, environmental, and more. It is somehow reassuring, and perhaps a little unexpected, that the state of Massachusetts, through its public officials and public purse, is addressing at least some of these concerns by revitalizing a technology and a public infrastructural resource that has persisted, with ebbs and flows, for nearly two centuries as an element of this region’s landscape.

* * *

A South Coast Rail tour

I recently took a brisk tour of the South Coast Rail stations under construction in Fall River and New Bedford. Over the course of the last few years, I have made other similar excursions of South Coast Rail worksites throughout the region encompassed by the project. It has not always been easy to get a close look at the work in progress, as many of the sites, especially the stations, have been fenced off for understandable safety and security reasons.

It is worth noting that the four stations under construction or planned for Fall River and New Bedford are on or near the locations of previous railroad stations serving those cities, dating back to the arrival of railroads in the region about 1840. Where available, I have included photographs of those historic former buildings below. Unless otherwise credited or captioned, photographs below were taken by me on February 12, 2024.

Church Street Station, New Bedford
The Church Street Station is about 2 1/2 miles mile north New Bedford Station on the soon-to-open South Coast Rail route to Boston.
The new Church Street railroad station and parking lot in north New Bedford, looking northward along the tracks toward Boston.
Looking southward along the tracks toward downtown New Bedford. A portion of the long platform of the new Church Street MBTA South Rail Commuter Rail station is visible across the tracks.
The parking lot of the Church Street station, viewed from Church Street. The shed-roof station shelters are visible across the parking lot.
Acushnet Station once stood just north of the new Church Street Station in north New Bedford, at the intersection of Kings Highway and Tarkiln Hill Road. Rail service at this station, according to some sources, ceased in the 1930s. (Wikimedia Commons)
Daniel Ricketson sketch of Henry David Thoreau. On Christmas Day in 1854, writer Henry David Thoreau traveled by train from his home in Concord, Massachusetts to visit for the first time his friend Daniel Ricketson in New Bedford. Ricketson, a well-known New Bedford figure of many interests, maintained “Brooklawn,” a rural retreat in northern New Bedford in what is now Brooklawn Park. Ricketson’s compound, including a “shanty” similar in size and character to the cabin Thoreau built at Walden Pond, was a short walk from the Acushnet/Tarkiln Hill railroad station at which Thoreau arrived. The notation on Ricketson’s sketch reads: “H. D. Thoreau as he presented himself at the door of Brooklawn Dec. 25th 1854–Age 37.” (Sketch from Daniel Ricketson and His Friends, eds. Anna and Walter Ricketson, 1902)
New Bedford Station
New Bedford station from MacArthur Drive/Herman Melville Blvd., December 2023. (Photo by Wikipedia Commons user Pi.1415926535; Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Public License)
New Bedford Station from the east end of Pearl Street, looking south.
View, looking north along Rte. 18, of new pedestrian bridge under construction from Purchase Street on the left to the New Bedford Station on the right. An older pedestrian bridge (green) is visible beyond the steel lattice temporary supports for the new bridge.
Architect’s rendering of pedestrian bridge across Rte. 18 connecting the New Bedford Station to Purchase Street. (MBTA)
View of New Bedford Station and parking lot, looking east across Rte. 18 from Purchase Street.
New Bedford Station parking lot entrance on Acushnet Avenue.
Old Depot
First New Bedford railroad station, Pearl Street Depot, built by Russell Warren, in 1840. New Bedford historian Bruce Barnes states that the station “was located on the north side of Pearl Street, east of Clasky Park, just before or on the site of the Rte. 18 downtown connector,” not far from the new station. (New Bedford Public Library)
Pearl Street Railroad Station
Another view of the Pearl Street Depot. (New Bedford Public Library)
The original Pearl Street Depot was replaced by a new station for the Old Colony Railroad in 1886. designed by Boston architect Henry Paston Clark. The new station, according to historian Bruce Barnes, “was constructed closer to the waterfront” to serve the important steamboats arriving nearby. “The site was part of the harbor that was filled in. It was at the foot of Pearl Street and on the harbor side of Acushnet Avenue.” (Postcard, early 20th century; Public Domain)
Fall River Depot
The pedestrian entrance to the Fall River Depot Staton on Pearce Street.
The Fall River Depot Station, looking east along Pearce Street to the passenger entrance and across the parking lot to the station shelters along the train platform.
“In 1874, the Bowenville Station, located between Turner Street and Old Colony Avenue was built and remained in use until the present depot was opened in the early nineties. The name Bowenville was discarded, and the new station was finally designated as the Fall River depot. At one time there were four stops for some trains within the city limits Somerset Junction, Steep Brook, Fall River and Ferry Street.” [Quote from Phillips, Arthur Sherman, The Phillips History of Fall River: Fascicle II (1945), p. 177] (Postcard c. 1912, Fall River Public Library)
Battleship Cove (planned for the future “Full Build” South Coast Rail phase)
The planned site of Battleship Cove Station, seen in October 2020, looking toward the Fall River Depot about a mile to the north. Rte. 138 is to the right, the Fall River Maritime Museum, Ponta Delgada Park, and Battleship Cove are to the left behind trees and other vegetation. (Photo by https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Pi.1415926535; Creative Commons license by-sa/4.0)
From its inception in 1847 until the early twentieth century, the fastest and most comfortable means of travel between Boston and New York was on the Fall River Line. Trains from Boston arrived at wharfside in Fall River, where passengers transferred to the large, well-appointed steamboats for the trip to New York City via Narragansett Bay and Long Island Sound. The Fall River Line ceased operations in 1937, by which time a shoreline rail route to New York and then the automobile offered more convenient and economical travel alternatives. The caption for the lower picture reads “Vestibuled Steamboat Train. About to leave Fall River Wharf for Boston (49 miles). Early morning.” (From Fifty Photographic Views of the Steamers of the Fall River Line [1902]; Claire T. Carney Library, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth)
Fall River Line steamship “Pilgrim,” c. 1883. (Print by Currier & Ives. Library of Congress)
The Fall River Line’s Ferry depot at Pier 14 on the Hudson River in New York City, photo by Berenice Abbott. (New York Public Library Digital Collection, https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-4fa9-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99)
Freetown Station
According to the MBTA, the Fall River Depot and Freetown Station were completed by early 2023, as part of the South Coast Rail contract for the Fall River Secondary Line. An MBTA commuter rail coach arrived at Freetown Station for a December 2022 ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating that project benchmark. (MBTA photo)