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High Costs, Few New Riders In Massachusetts East-West Rail Study

A chart produced by MassDOT shows the existing conditions and physical constraints to increasing east-west rail service across the state.

Supporters of a high-speed rail connection between Boston and western Massachusetts have long argued the service would attract scores of riders who are tired of traffic or high housing prices, but a new Department of Transportation study projected an expansion would only draw several hundred new riders per day.

The report from MassDOT estimated that six potential options, ranging from adding a track alongside existing freight lines to building an entire new Boston-to-Pittsfield route, would draw between 36 and 820 new daily boardings at costs ranging from about $2 billion to almost $25 billion.

Travel times also vary widely depending on the type of option pursued, with a four-hour trip from Pittsfield to Boston possible under the lowest investment and the same trip possible in two-and-a-quarter hours with the most significant expansion.

The department has been studying a potential MBTA commuter rail expansion beyond the current western terminus of Worcester, long sought by advocates and lawmakers from the region, since late 2018. Project officials planned to present detailed estimates of the costs, ridership, environmental impacts and more on the six alternatives to the East-West Passenger Rail Study Advisory Committee at a Thursday afternoon meeting in Springfield.

On a conference call explaining the report, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack acknowledged some stakeholders will find those ridership projections lower than expected. She said the numbers — hundreds of new daily riders in 2040 on an expansion to the Worcester Line, which averaged roughly 18,000 trips per day in 2018 — do not assume any population or employment changes as a result of new rail service.

The consultants who drafted the estimates, for example, expect only about 10 percent of riders on an east-west rail connection to be daily commuters heading from western Massachusetts to Boston for work.

Supporters, however, have said they believe a viable commuting option from western Massachusetts could attract new residents, reshape the region and offer a more appealing alternative to congested eastern Massachusetts.

The cost options also do not factor in the price of acquiring trains for the new service options.

The alternatives all require about 150 miles of track work.

Five of the six expansion options have estimated capital prices below $10 billion, significantly less than the most dramatic alternative explored. But Pollack said the numbers are "sobering" because the capital expenses would work out to tens of thousands of dollars per new rider added, several times higher than other projects around the country offered as comparison.

Pollack said she will be in touch with the state's congressional delegation because "federal funding will clearly be needed" for an east-west rail connection, unlike the $1.05 billion South Coast Rail first phase entirely paid for by the state.

"The costs, particularly for some of the faster alternatives, are sobering and the ridership estimates are lower than some have thought, but we will continue to work with the Advisory Committee," Pollack told reporters.

Using existing infrastructure, passengers have virtually no options for commuting from west of Worcester to Boston on a train other than a single Amtrak train daily, despite tracks already running through Springfield and Pittsfield.

The six options on the table fall broadly into three categories. The first three, which require the lowest level of investment, would use CSX-owned tracks as a foundation. MassDOT would upgrade those tracks to accommodate passenger travel in both directions and either run a bus from Pittsfield to Springfield or trains all the way with stops in Chester and Palmer.

Those three options carry capital costs between $1.99 billion and $3.21 billion and would see daily ridership increases of 36 to 238, according to MassDOT's estimates.

Two other alternatives would build all-new tracks within the existing CSX property, which Pollack said would prevent conflict with freight train schedules, and either run trains all the way to Pittsfield or use a bus connection between Springfield and Pittsfield.

The report projected capital costs for those two options at $4.13 billion and $5.18 billion and daily passenger increases of 387 and 381.

The most extensive option, Alternative 6, would see the state construct all-new track along the Interstate 90 corridor, allowing it to run electric high-speed trains as fast as 150 miles per hour. That option would be costliest, with a projected capital price tag of $24.9 billion, but would also prompt more than twice the growth in ridership as any other option with 820 new commuters per day expected.

"Travel time drives a lot of the ridership, so with long travel times you're going to see very low ridership," Pollack said. "The longer the travel time on the train is compared to driving, the more the model assumes you don't get on the train."

Using the CSX corridor in Alternative 1, for example, a passenger could get from Springfield to South Station in two hours and 46 minutes. The all-electric, high-speed track option would cut that projected time down to one hour and 19 minutes, MassDOT estimated.

Over the next few months, the Advisory Committee will select three alternatives for additional study to be included in a final report.

This report was originally published by State House News Service.

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