Monday, February 3, 2014

Rail Rhode Island

Where we last left off, we discussed the infrastructural challenges associated with bring regional rail to southeastern Rhode Island. This was precipitated by a consideration of Providence alignments.
New Haven map of Boston and Providence rail networks
Now I'd like to come full circle, and pare the New Haven alignments maps down to a good state network for Rhode Island.
New Haven alignments from Providence
Why a state network?

Rhode Island is perhaps unique in a couple of core attributes. First, it is dominated by a single city, Providence. This in itself is not unique. But second, it is such a size that the state is very nearly ringed by natural destinations--and a system serving these destinations would have approximately the same dimensions as a typical commuter rail system. That is, what makes Rhode Island unique, from a transportation planning standpoint, is that its state needs are fulfilled by what is essentially a large commuter system.
Natural destinations from Providence--cities and places surrounding, but not far, from Rhode Island. At right, Cape Cod.
The actual commuter elements are concentrated in a far smaller part of the network: to Bristol, to Fall River, to Woonsocket, to Kingston, to Mansfield, to West Warwick. The greater system is built on a series of "Lancaster Model" regional links.

The Lancaster Model

Consider the city of Lancaster, PA. It is a small city of only about 60k--a third of Providence's. It is linked, however, to Harrisburg, Philadelphia, and New York with regular (almost hourly) trains. And this regularity drives ridership both to the east and west. So, despite Lancaster and Harrisburg's small sizes--the latter is 50k--regular service drives outsize ridership.

Actually, what makes Lancaster a useful model is that, globally, it is typical. A midsize city with good rail service realizes good ridership, much better than what most American examples have been capable of. The small cities along the Empire Corridor--Rochester, Syracuse, Schenectady, Utica, Albany--likewise realize outsize ridership. So do the smaller cities on the San Joaquin in California. And so do New Haven and New London. So an optimal regional model strings services between these cities.

This, in turn, allows us to see natural termini at
  • Worcester
  • Framingham
  • Putnam
  • Norwich
  • New London
  • Newport
  • New Bedford
  • Boston
  • Cape Cod
in addition to the tighter belt of commuter services.
Rail Rhode Island
And from New Haven lines from Providence to these natural termini flows this nine-line network. From northwest counterclockwise:
  1. Blackstone Line. Service to Worcester via Woonsocket and the Blackstone Valley.
  2. New York-New England Line. Splits from Blackstone Line at Blackstone; heads to Putnam via its eponymous right-of-way.
  3. Thames River Line. Follows the old New York-New England Providence branch to Plainfield, and the Thames Valley subdivision (New London-Worcester) from there down to Norwich. It would be reduced back to Plainfield in the presence of Connecticut regional rail.
  4. Mystic Line. Follows the Northeast Corridor to Waverly; there meets Shore Line East trains. (Extension of the latter is already on the drawing boards.)
  5. Narragansett Bay Line. Dubbed "Bristol-Newport Line" last post, renamed after the bay it runs alongside.
  6. Mount Hope Bay Line. Formerly dubbed "Fall River-New Bedford Line", likewise renamed after a bay it passes.
  7. Cape Cod Line. Extends from Providence to Middleborough via Attleboro and Taunton. Formerly route of the Cape Codder. You may note it doesn't actually reach the Cape; more on this later.
  8. Providence Line. Existing MBTA alignment along Northeast Corridor.
  9. Patriot Line. Service to Framingham via Foxborough. Named for the fact it passes Gillette Stadium.
Services on these lines would run hourly, while services from the commuter termini run fifteen minutes.

What's the Deal with Cape Cod, Anyway?

Cape Cod is a resort area, and a bit different than the type of service Rail Rhode Island is geared to offer. In fact, service to the Cape mainly needs to target weekenders, with vacationers and Cape denizens both being secondary categories. For this reason, peak service needs to be Friday-Sunday, rather than the workweek core of the commuter networks feeding into the Cape. And because a weekending population is less transfer-sensitive, it makes sense to run (or franchise) service from Middleborough on separately. (That said, a good connection is still self-evidently necessary.)
Cape Cod route/franchise
An Operations Agency

While Rail Rhode Island by itself is essentially built to offer service indistinguishable from other commuter/regional rail services in the United States and abroad, it does also have the potential to connect into a broader regional network. Most of New England can, in fact, be united by such a network. So a further avenue of exploration of development of a larger New England rail network, which large chunks of proposed Rail Rhode Island would be subsumed into.

A Providence Pickle

Providence has a bit of a pickle. Its track alignment only allows for through-running from all other lines onto either the Mystic or Thames Valley lines. This is untenable. Among other considerations, the Blackstone Valley and Mount Hope Bay Lines have, between them, the highest ridership potential; a through-routing for them must be found. Expect further discussion on this matter soon.

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