It doesn’t have the big-ticket cachet of the proposed North-South rail link, with high-profile supporters like former governors Bill Weld and Mike Dukakis and Salem Congressman Seth Moulton. But that doesn’t mean the more modest proposal — creating an East-West link of already existing commuter rail lines north of Boston — doesn’t have merit.
In fact, it’s an excellent idea that could transform transportation on the North Shore and in the Merrimack Valley.
The notion is simple: Tie the Newburyport and Rockport commuter lines to the Fitchburg line, connecting cities like Newburyport, Gloucester and Salem to Cambridge, Somerville and other communities west of Boston.
Not coincidentally, thousands of North of Boston commuters work in those communities surrounding Boston, climbing into their cars every morning for the hours-long drive down — and back — routes 93, 95 and 128. A rail link would let those workers make the trip without adding to the clot of cars on the highway. It would also make the regular train ride into Boston easier. As state Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said last year, “the idea of better connections means that more people who aren’t riders today could become them.”
The need for innovation is real.
“Not a day goes by without someone contacting my office about overcrowded trains, slow service and fares not being collected,” said state Rep. Paul Tucker, D-Salem. “People are paying more than $245 a month for a pass from Boston to Salem, and justifiably they are infuriated when there are so many people on the train that conductors can’t even collect fares.”
If the Newburyport and Rockport lines, which merge in Beverly, were linked with the Fitchburg line, many commuters could bypass Boston’s North Station altogether, allowing the state to add more daily trips. That would allow some folks to get closer to work without leaving the train while also clearing some of the congestion on the already overstuffed Beverly-Boston train.
“Under this concept, all existing trips on each line would continue to terminate at North Station, state transit planner Scott Hamwey told The Boston Globe late last year. “But, since capacity at North Station becomes a limiting factor in adding more peak period service, some trips would avoid the downtown terminal altogether.”
The state is currently studying the issue, with a report expected sometime over the next several months. But transportation planners are intrigued, and for good reason. The rail lines needed to tie into the routes already exist; and while turning them into commuter routes will require a substantial investment, it pales in comparison to the $9 billion-plus cost estimate for the North-South link, which would burrow under Boston to connect North and South stations.
Chris Dempsey, head of the advocacy group Transportation for Massachusetts, said the commuter rail system is the state’s most underutilized transportation asset.
“We have the benefit of being in a region that at one point was very well-connected by rail,” Dempsey told Statehouse reporter Christian Wade. “In the 1860s, the way people were getting around was by jumping on a train and traveling between cities and towns. And a lot of those lines are still in place and form much of the commuter rail system we have today. But we’re not using them effectively.”
Here’s hoping the state gives more than lip service to the idea.
“We obviously need a long-term vision for the commuter rail, but there are things like this that we can do now,” Tucker said. “Something needs to be done.”