Legislators making strong push for rapid transit pilot on Fairmount Line

A conductor walked along the platform at the Morton Street station on the Fairmount Line in May 2017. Chris Lovett photo

Several amendments filed to the state Senate budget seek to bring the Fairmount Line closer to a subway standard of service, complementing a set of House and Senate bills that would establish a two-year pilot program for the line.

State Sen. Nick Collins filed a Fiscal Year 2020 Senate budget amendment calling for $2 million for the pilot program, which would begin no later than Dec. 1, 2019. The amendment states that on-peak service along the line should be at least every 15 minutes. It also would fund pilots laid out in more detail in bills filed in the House and Senate.

Both are twists on an earlier proposal, filed by former Fifth Suffolk state Rep. Evandro Carvalho in an earlier session, though the 2019 bills include tweaks to the language borne out of conversations with transportation advocates.

Twelfth Suffolk state Rep. Dan Cullinane’s bill, H.2985, co-sponsored by state Rep. Liz Miranda of the Fifth Suffolk, notes the inequities of transit service for those along the Fairmount Line. The 9.2-mile branch serves mostly communities of color along a corridor where incomes are less than the city average.

“Service on the Fairmount Branch is ill-suited to the travel needs of [city] neighborhoods and compares poorly to the service levels enjoyed by other Boston neighborhoods, based on frequency, span of service, reliability, fare policy, and connectivity to the rest of the transit network,” the bill reads.

Both the House bill and the version filed by Collins, S.2046, call for a two-year “Indigo Line Project” to bring the line up to a rapid transit model of service. At least three marked and dedicated train sets would be assigned to the line, consisting of no more than one locomotive and three coaches “to minimize acceleration/deceleration time.”

The service would run every 30 minutes during off-peak hours, and no longer than 15 minutes during peak hours. “Bus service at Fairmount/Indigo line stations are synchronized with train schedules to the maximum extent feasible,” the bills read.

“It needs to be rapid transit, plain and simple,” Cullinane said. “This is not to take away from having all the stops finally complete on the line, but our obligation to the community is to keep that conversation going forward.”

Although the Fairmount Line is a commuter rail line, those living on it treat it as their subway extension between South Station and Readville. To make connections easier, the pilot bill calls for fare collection through Charlie Cards, M7 Passes, S-Cards, Youth Passes, and other discounted fare medium available to people with disabilities, seniors, and students. The fares would be the same as the standard subway rate.

This is important not only as a legislative priority but also in the context of conversations with the MBTA and Keolis, which manages the commuter rail, on how to make the line more accessible, Cullinane said.

“In order to make that a first option for folks that live around the line, we need to make it as convenient as possible for them to make that choice,” he said. “If they could use their Charlie Cards, which we’ve heard from Keolis is a possibility… it takes away one more step, taking away the paper card, to use the commuter rail.”

Along with setting requirements for ridership, demographic, and reverse-commute data collection during the pilot, the bills also lay out marketing requirements, pushing for a campaign “in close coordination with community groups in the corridor” that includes information about fares and increased service.

The Fairmount Line would be added to the MBTA map as a distinct “Indigo Line,” a new name for the line that transportation advocates have pushed for over the years.

Both bills sit in the Joint Committee of Transportation, and debate is proceeding this week on the Senate budget.
City of Boston officials have said they support the pilot bills and are exploring options for improved service.

According to a statement from Mayor Martin Walsh’s office, “The city is advocating for improved service on the Fairmount Line. In the near-term, this could include added service in the early morning, late evening, and during the day. In the long-term, the city is working with MassDOT on the Commuter Rail Vision process to advance 15 minute frequencies on the line.”

A sweeping report by the non-profit TransitMatters in 2018 called for a long-term overhaul to the regional rail system, with electrified rail, raised platforms, faster service, and other changes that would cost billions of dollars.

It highlighted the Fairmount and Providence lines as primed for electrification and speedier service. All but two of the Fairmount’s eight stations have high platforms and the short line, with its closely-spaced stations, makes the high acceleration rates of electric multiple units, or EMUs, “especially useful.” Its connection to the Providence Line means it could make use of the existing electrical substations, reducing costs, and “should be the top target for electrification.”

Collins takes aim at these possibilities in another amendment – “Clean, Green, Rapid Transportation Machine” – which calls for a study to explore electrification of the Providence and Fairmount Lines.

The secretary of transportation and the MBTA’s Fiscal management and Control Board would need to prepare a plan analyzing the options of electric locomotives or electric multiple units, design and construction of high level platforms along the lines, cost estimates of both maintaining existing equipment, and transitioning to electric, benefits of the transition, an a detailed project schedule.

A schedule should include “all necessary procurement activities, leading to completion of design, construction and commencement of passenger operations not later than April 30, 2023,” the amendments reads. It would need to be made publicly available on the MassDOT website by March 1, 2020.

“The most important thing is the electrification of the line and making a case for that,” Collins said. “We’re pushing for the study on feasibility and cost for the electrification of the Fairmount Line in advance of the transportation bond bill debate,” he said, as the pilot would certainly need investment.

Pushing for electrification at the same time as the pilot and feasibility study would “show the T the need is there for the increasingly frequent trips while we’re simultaneously trying to make it more environmentally sustainable,” Collins said.

Jennifer Smith is the Reporter’s News Editor. She may be reached at jennifer.smith@dotnews.com and on Twitter @JennDotSmith.