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East-West rail comes with very high price tag

February 6, 2020
In The News

A LONG-AWAITED ANALYSIS of East-West rail service indicates passengers could travel between Boston and Springfield in as little as 79 minutes at speeds up to 150 miles per hour, but the cost would be high – with a low-ball estimate putting the price tag at $25 billion.

The analysis by consultants working for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation examined six alternatives containing different options for conveying passengers between Boston and Pittsfield. The 79-minute option to Springfield (two hours and 18 minutes all the way to Pittsfield) would require electrified trains operating on new tracks roughly following the path of the Massachusetts Turnpike.

The other five options would utilize diesel locomotives and existing freight track owned by CSX or new track built on the CSX right-of-way. Some of the options call for bus service between Pittsfield and Springfield or use of the existing commuter rail line between Worcester and Boston.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said she intends to work with the public and an advisory group to develop three alternatives for further study. She said the three selected for additional study could mix and match elements of all six alternatives.

Pollack made no commitment on whether rail service will eventually be launched to Springfield or Pittsfield, but she indicated significant federal funding would be needed to make it happen.

“There’s going to have to be a federal partnership,” said Pollack. “Investing at this level is very difficult for a state like Massachusetts to do on its own.”

As Pollack said, “the costs get sobering,” primarily because projected passenger traffic is relatively low and construction costs are high. The analysis hinges on estimates of passengers and construction costs, yielding a cost per passenger trip that can be compared from one option to another or to other projects around the country. One complication: the passenger estimates in the East-West analysis are for 2040 while the cost estimates are in current dollars and don’t include the cost of locomotives and passenger cars. That means the real cost would probably be significantly higher.

Passenger estimates assumed 64 percent of those using the line would be travelers making occasional trips for personal reasons, such as tourism or shopping. Another 26 percent would be workers making trips to worksites in Boston or Worcester a couple times a month. Only 10 percent would be regular commuters to Boston or Worcester.

The high-speed option, the most attractive one from a passenger standpoint, would generate an estimated 247,700 annual riders (820 weekday boardings) at a cost of roughly $51,074 per trip. The least attractive option from a passenger standpoint, going from Boston to Springfield by rail and by bus from there to Pittsfield, would attract only 11,140 new riders at a cost of $90,689 per trip.

In between are four options that either use the existing freight lines between Pittsfield and Worcester or build new track adjacent to those lines. Laying new track on the CSX right of way would deliver a trip from Boston to Springfield in one hour and 47 minutes or go all the way to Pittsfield in just under three hours. Upgrading the existing freight track and sharing it with CSX would yield trip lengths eight to nine minutes longer.

Annual ridership is estimated at 117,100 (387 weekday boardings) with the new track option and 72,250 (238 weekday boardings) for the option that relies on upgrading the existing freight track. The construction cost per passenger ranges from $17,311 with the new-track option to $21,868 with upgrading the existing freight track.
Those costs are very high when compared to other rail projects, according to a handout from the state Department of Transportation. The capital cost per new rider on the other projects ranged from a low of $540 for the $1 billion South Coast Rail project to $834 for upgrades on the Amtrak Downeaster to a high of $6,953 for a rail line running through Oregon and Washington.

The MassDOT analysis uses existing projections of population and employment growth, but it also suggests providing the rail service may induce more riders to use it. Even with assumptions of 10 percent to 35 percent induced demand, the projections for the per-passenger cost of East-West rail service remain very high relative to the other projects. The high-speed option, assuming induced demand of 35 percent, would still carry a construction cost per passenger of $40,136.