commuter bus service from New Bedford to Boston South Station. Scheduled bus times range from 75 to 110 minutes depending on time of day. Plain old driving directions put it at 70 min without traffic. By comparison, the South Coast Rail project has published a table of vital statistics about train service, and also a bus alternative, which I am going to analyze in this section:
The numbers I am drawing from the table are based on the fact that the Stoughton line has been selected for the route, and it is highly likely that the MBTA will continue to employ diesel locomotives, so I think it is fair to say that the projected travel time from New Bedford to South Station is 85 minutes. The Rapid Bus alternative considered is within the range of existing service, at 103 minutes. However, the planned headways for peak service are 40 minutes for rail and 15 minutes for bus. Waiting time is an important part of overall transit time, and it makes a big difference here. With these numbers, your average trip is going to take 105 minutes by commuter rail, and 110.5 minutes by rapid bus. The worst-case trip time is 125 minutes by rail, and 118 minutes by bus. For New Bedford commuters, South Coast Rail is a terrible value proposition. It may save them 5 minutes on average but will cost the state in excess of $1.4 billion.
Off-peak the situation is even worse for rail. The table shows 38 daily trips to/from New Bedford and Fall River combined, meaning 19 for each separately. Suppose you wanted to ride the train inbound from New Bedford off-peak. Of the possibly 10 trips, 3 are peak, so that leaves you with 7 departures to choose from. Those 7 trips must be distributed throughout the off-peak period, so let's generously presume that means 9am - midnight, or 15 hours. That means there is an average headway of nearly 130 minutes in between off-peak trains inbound from New Bedford.
On the other hand, there would be 218 Rapid Bus trips per day, so 109 for New Bedford, and let's say 55 inbound. Of those, 8 are peak, therefore 47 are off-peak. Having 47 trips in the 15 hour off-peak span means an average headway of 20 minutes. Also, judging by the existing bus schedule, the trip should be faster off-peak, maybe taking as little as 75 minutes. The buses would probably not be able to serve points in between as effectively, as they would have to exit and re-enter the highway for each stop. But the average trip time could be as little as 85 minutes, and the worst case off-peak would likely be 120 minutes. Compare that to the average off-peak rail trip of 150 minutes, and the worst case of 215 minutes, if you just miss the train. It simply can't compete against the bus, even when using the numbers provided by South Coast Rail planners. This table summarizes the analysis:
|Mode||Time||Headway||Duration of travel||Average overall trip time||Worst-case overall trip time|
|Rail||Peak||40 min||85 min||105 min||125 min|
|Bus||Peak||15 min||103 min||110.5 min||118 min|
|Rail||Off-Peak||130 min||85 min||150 min||215 min|
|Bus||Off-Peak||20 min||75-103 min||85-113 min||120 min|
The only category in which rail comes out ahead is average trip time during peak travel, and then, only by 5 minutes. The bus alternative is superior otherwise.
Here is the cost breakdown from the Plan For Action:
|Economic Development and Land Use Planning||$2,000,000|
|South Station Capacity||$31,400,000|
|Midday Layover Facility||$52,100,000|
|Total Project Costs||$1,435,200,000|
The MBTA estimates that the annual operating cost for the South Coast Rail will be approximately $26 million (in 2017 dollars) and that the new annual revenue associated with the new rail line will be approximately $5 million. This will result in an annual shortfall of approximately $21 million that will need to be funded from other sources.These costs have sky-rocketed from previous estimates by the MPO. Those numbers look positively quaint, in fact, by claiming a construction cost of $670 million, even assuming that was given in 2004 dollars. And they expected 8,700 riders to use the thing? That's $77,000 in capital costs per customer, a pretty high amount, even by U.S. standards. New York's Second Avenue Subway is clocking in at about $25,000 per expected rider. And now with South Coast Rail expected to cost over $1.4 billion, that puts it at a ridiculous $160,000/rider. And we can't really trust the ridership projections of the MPO. Since that document was written, one of their projects was actually built: Greenbush Commuter Rail. How did their numbers pan out? Well, they claimed that it would cost $470 million to build Greenbush, and it would attract 11,400 riders, of which 4,600 were completely new to transit. In fact, it cost $534 million to build Greenbush, and ridership is approximately 3,000 per weekday, largely siphoned away from the ferries. It seems that the MPO was overly optimistic about Greenbush, and it is likely that they are overly optimistic about South Coast Rail, especially given the fundamental failures in its planning. A more recent projection of South Coast Rail ridership puts it at 4,070 riders for the diesel alternative, which equals an astounding $340,000 / rider in capital costs.
I have been assuming diesel locomotive service so far, and the $1.4 billion number cited above is for diesel trains. If they actually choose to electrify, as the EPA says they should, service will be improved somewhat, but then the cost will go up to over $1.8 billion. And that probably doesn't include all the changes the MBTA will have to make to accommodate electric locomotives. Although, if that is the spur which pushes them to electrify their other lines (besides Providence), that could be a good thing in the long run. But it would not be cheap up-front.
I've said a lot of negative things. Is there any positive side? Taunton, New Bedford and Fall River do seem to have sufficient density to support stations. It is possible that rail could stimulate development. But, the plans call for
[Estimating] future station parking demand for a period of 25 years following South Coast Rail’s completion date, incorporating a reserve of 15% to 20% additional capacity. Conduct a legal assessment on whether the Commonwealth can bank land for future parking demand and, if so, identify the mechanisms and parameters for banking. If land banking is implemented the South Coast Rail project team should design and landscape such banked properties, providing opportunities for passive open space.It looks like the MBTA is just going to implement its usual one-size-fits-none plan of plopping down humongous parking lots at taxpayer expense and then subsidizing their operation. Serving such peak-direction-only riders and using parking lots to block off pedestrian access to the station will never produce much revenue; the system will be on life-support from day one and forever onward.
The plans for South Coast Rail are extremely dependent upon spurring future development in faraway places such as Freetown, and industrial highway wastelands such as Whale's Tooth. Although it is conceivable that such development would be a good thing, it is just words on a piece of paper right now. In the meantime, we have actual people and existing neighborhoods in places like Somerville that have been promised better service for decades. Finishing the Green Line extension may not sound as flashy as a new commuter rail extension, but it is a much more sound proposition from the standpoint of transportation economics. There is also a multi-billion dollar backlog in repairs and renovation which desperately needs to be tackled.
Is there a way to do SCR right? Maybe if they cut the costs severely. No lavish stations, just basic service. Build in stages, first to Taunton, with connecting buses, and then consider matters from there. The trains also have to be significantly faster in order to attract enough ridership. That means electrification; but the MBTA isn't about to electrify a single line and create unique maintenance headaches for itself. After all, they still run diesel trains on the Providence line. In the future, if the MBTA ever gets serious about rail service, they will need to electrify all their lines to improve performance and reduce operating costs. At that point, it may be worthwhile to look at providing no-nonsense service to Fall River and New Bedford with travel times of 60-70 minutes and reasonable headways throughout the day. Until then, it's just a losing proposition.