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The Argument for Electrifying the Commuter Rail

One advocacy group says investing in electrifying the commuter rail could mean a faster, more reliable ride and a cleaner environment

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If you take the commuter rail, you know one delay can cause a ripple effect. Now, there’s a new push to speed up the trains and make them more reliable by going electric.

"Having more options, having more trains more often would be great," said commuter Alex Mulcahy.

Jarred Johnson with the advocacy group TransitMatters said he wants to see the commuter rail move away from diesel and covert the trains to electric power.

"Faster trains, far more reliable trains and that’s the biggest part," said Johnson. "We’re standing here in Roxbury. We’re standing here in an environmental justice community where they have higher asthma rates and you see that same thing across the system."

TransitMatters issued a lengthy report this fall. It says the MBTA could electrify the entire commuter rail network for between $800 million and $1.5 billion.

See the full report below.

"One, we think about it as an investment," said Johnson. "When you create travel time savings, that’s putting money back into the economy."

A section of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor already has overhead lines. Those tracked are shared with the commuter rail. Johnson said that would be a good place to begin electrification.

The MBTA said that they are looking to reduce its carbon footprint by moving away from diesel locomotives.

"The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) is evaluating options for transforming parts of its Commuter Rail operations from diesel-powered push-pull service to electric multiple unit (EMU) service with headways more similar to rapid transit. MBTA is issuing this Request for Information (RFI) to gauge market interest and the capabilities of potential Transit Vehicle Manufacturers (TVM) to supply EMU vehicles for the envisioned operations. Additionally, MBTA is seeking information about the range of EMU vehicle configurations available, the type of operations supported by each vehicle configuration, and any constraints imposed on the vehicle by the existing Commuter Rail infrastructure," according to a statement from the T.

Finding the funding is key, said Johnson.

"Unless the legislature steps up to fix that, we’re going to have a hard time getting federal money," he added.

State Senator Brendan Crighton represents Lynn. He has been pushing to electrify the Newburyport/Rockport line, something he said the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board committed to in 2019.

"We need to make sure the commuter rail is working for everyone," said Sen. Crighton. "We have a tremendous once in a generation opportunity with the infrastructure bill that just passed."

Massachusetts is expected to receive about $9 million from that bill, but it’s not clear exactly where all of the money will be spent and if electrification would even be funded.

Johnson thinks the benefits would be long-term. Commuter rail passenger traffic is on the rise, but it’s still nowhere near where it was before the pandemic.

He thinks this could help boost ridership.

"I think so," said Johnson. "If you knew that you would have a much faster travel time into Boston and if the train came every 15 minutes, that would be a huge game changer."

TransitMatters Regional Rail Electrification Report

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