CCRTA Pushes For Passenger Rail Revival In 2012

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By: Michael C. Bailey
Published: 03/18/11

The Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority (CCRTA) is ready to take its shot at reviving rail-based transportation on Cape Cod, but the transportation agency’s success could hinge on an unlikely resource:

Garbage.

“If Mass Coastal was to go away, you’d lose the host railroad that maintains the track,” said Daniel J. Wahle, vice president of marketing for Massachusetts Coastal Railroad, which runs the Mass Coastal Energy Train—also known as the “trash train”—that carries solid waste off Cape Cod to the SEMASS trash-to-energy facility in Rochester.

Such a loss could prove a setback for local and state efforts to revive passenger rail service to the Cape, something the region has not seen in 15 years.

There is little left of the railway infrastructure that, between 1848 and 1976, connected the entire Cape from points as far west as Buzzards Bay and Woods Hole to Provincetown (see sidebar). Scattered segments of abandoned, unusable track may still be found on the Upper and Mid-Cape.

 

A brief history of railroads on Cape Cod:

 

  • 1848: The first railroad tracks on Cape Cod, connecting Middleboro to Sandwich, are laid by the Cape Cod Branch Railroad
  • 1854: Track infrastructure expands to reach as far east as Yarmouthport; Cape Cod Branch Railroad becomes the Cape Cod Railroad
  • 1865: The Cape’s railway is extended from Yarmouthport to Orleans
  • 1868: The Yarmouthport-to-Orleans railway is acquired by Cape Cod Railroad
  • 1872: Tracks are extended into Woods Hole and Provincetown, connecting the entire Cape by rail for the first time; Old Colony Railroad takes over Cape Cod Railroad and Newport Railroad
  • 1887: Spurs to Harwich and Chatham, the last tracks to be laid on Cape Cod, are completed
  • 1894: Old Colony Railroad is leased to the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad
  • 1910: Construction of the original Buzzards Bay Railroad Bridge, connecting Cape Cod to the mainland over the Cape Cod Canal, is completed
  • 1935: The new vertical-lift Buzzards Bay Railroad Bridge, at the time the longest bridge of its kind in the world, is completed
  • 1938: The advent of the automobile and a poor economy cause regular passenger train service to Provincetown to be suspended, marking the start of the decline of rail on Cape Cod
  • 1957: Rail service to Woods Hole is discontinued
  • 1959: With the completion of the Mid-Cape Highway, allowing greater access to Cape Cod by car, train ridership plummets, bringing about an end to year-round passenger rail service
  • Circa 1965: Freight trains to Cape Cod stop running on a regular basis
  • 1969: Ownership of Cape Cod’s rail infrastructure is traded to Penn Central, which then goes bankrupt
  • 1976: The Massachusetts Department on Conservation and Recreation purchases the Cape’s rail infrastructure; tracks connecting Provincetown and Dennis are dismantled and later converted into the Cape Cod Rail Trail; tracks connecting Falmouth Center to Woods Hole are dismantled and replaced by the first stage of the Shining Sea Bike Path; CONRAIL is formed to provide freight service
  • Circa 1980: Passenger rail service returns in the form of the Cape Cod & Hyannis Railroad, a state-contracted service connecting Boston to Falmouth and Hyannis, but a recession forces the state to terminate the service after a few years
  • 1982: Bay Colony Railroad provides freight service to Cape Cod; the Cape Cod and Hyannis Railroad begins seasonal and scenic passenger service
  • 1986: The Cape Codder, a weekend-only summer train run by Amtrak, under contract with the state, carries passengers between New York City and Hyannis
  • 1988: A second Cape Codder train connecting New York City and Falmouth is offered, but is quickly discontinued when state subsidies dry up; Cape Cod and Hyannis Railroad goes under
  • 1989: Cape Cod Railroad formed to provide tourist passenger service; the SEMASS trash-to-energy facility in Rochester starts accepting waste, which is carried off-Cape by train
  • 1995: The Cape Codder adds a transfer point in Providence, Rhode Island, which leads to a 75 percent decrease in ridership
  • 1996: The Cape Codder service ends
  • 1997: Cape Cod Railroad goes out of business
  • 1999: Cape Cod Central Railroad is formed to provide scenic tours by rail
  • 2003: A $30 million overhaul of the Buzzards Bay Railroad Bridge by the US Army Corps of Engineers is completed
  • 2011: The Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority issues a request for proposals in an effort to restore passenger rail service to the Cape
  • Information courtesy of the Cape Cod Commission, Cape Cod Metropolitan Planning Organization, Cape Cod Central Railroad
  •  

There are branches in Barnstable and Falmouth that remain in active use today—the remnants of the Hyannis and Woods Hole branches, respectively—and both connect to the largest remaining piece of the region’s original railway system, a 32-mile stretch of track identified as the Cape Cod Line.

The line, which is owned by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT), runs from western Dennis to the mainland side of Buzzards Bay, where it connects to the rails leading to the SEMASS facility in Rochester and, beyond that, the Middleborough/Lakeville MBTA commuter rail station.

The Cape Cod Line’s primary user is Mass Coastal’s energy train, which makes daily runs to Rochester six days a week, and in doing so eliminates approximately 12,000 truck trips from Cape Cod roads.

According to Mr. Wahle, speaking last week to the Upper Cape Board of Transfer Station Managers, that function is crucial to keeping the door open to expanded future rail projects as Mass Coastal—part of Cape Rail Inc., along with Cape Cod Central Railroad—leases the state-owned tracks and is directly responsible for their maintenance and improvement.

In a phone interview this week Mr. Wahle—along with John F. Kennedy, president and CEO of Cape Cod Central Railroad—explained that if the energy train were to go away, “Mass Coastal’s reason for being on the Cape goes away.”

“The vast bulk of our freight business is the energy train,” Mr. Wahle said. “If that energy train went away, then Mass Coastal’s visibility on the Cape goes away.”

The infrastructure would, of course, remain, he added, but there would be no entity on-Cape maintaining and managing the rails. “It would be even more difficult to get any other passenger service down here, whether it was the MBTA or anything else, because the tracks would not be maintained,” Mr. Kennedy said.

Thomas S. Cahir, executive director of the CCRTA, disputed the notion that the loss of the energy train could impede future passenger rail projects, stating that if Cape Rail’s lease expires, the state would simply assume full responsibility for the tracks.

“I actually was the one who negotiated the contract with Mass Coastal and Cape Cod Central” in his capacity as the state’s deputy secretary of rail and intermodal programs, Mr. Cahir said, “and I didn’t want to preclude the possibility of the MBTA coming to Hyannis,” should Cape Rail lose its lease.

He was quick to add that Mr. Kennedy has been a key player in the effort to keep rail alive in southeastern Massachusetts. “Everything positive that’s happened with rail in southeastern Massachusetts has John’s fingerprints on them.”

Mr. Kennedy did not provide exact numbers, but said Mass Coastal has invested “several million in the last few years” on rail infrastructure maintenance and improvement on Cape Cod and southeastern Massachusetts. “The amount of work we’ve put into that has been fairly Herculean,” he said.

Towns that contract with SEMASS for solid waste disposal will soon review those contracts, which are set to expire in 2015.

Mr. Wahle said Mass Coastal is hoping “for the Cape towns to re-up their contracts with SEMASS in a way that enables trash to continue to roll off the Cape.” He declined to go into detail, but Mr. Wahle said that goal could be thwarted if a more economically viable alternative were to present itself.

“There are other players that are coming out of the woodwork,” he said, adding, “we’re going to fight to get solid waste railed off the Cape somehow, because our survival depends on it.”

The energy train starts its daily journey at the Yarmouth Regional Transfer Station, which is dependent on rail access to dispose of the 70,000 tons of waste it accepts annually. According to Robert B. Angell, station superintendent, its operational permit through the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection “says rail haul facility. We have to use rail when rail is available,” and transporting waste by truck is allowed only in emergency situations that make rail service unavailable.

The train follows the Cape Cod Line to the Woods Hole Branch and then to the federally-owned Otis Branch, where it accesses the Upper Cape Regional Transfer Station on the Massachusetts Military Reservation. It then proceeds north and, once over the US Army Corps of Engineers-owned railroad bridge in Buzzards Bay, proceeds to Rochester along tracks that Mr. Cahir hopes to utilize for full-fledged passenger rail service as soon as next summer.

2012: Passenger Rail Returns?

The CCRTA last month issued a request for qualifications (RFQ) for a consultant to study “all the obstacles, all the bureaucratic impediments, all the funding issues” associated with reviving passenger rail to Cape Cod, Mr. Cahir said.

The CCRTA hopes to launch a seasonal weekend passenger rail service, which would run for 13 weeks, beginning Memorial Day weekend in 2012. According to Mr. Cahir, the CCRTA is looking at two runs to Hyannis, one from South Station in Boston, the other from New York City. Inbound trains would leave Friday night and/or Saturday morning, and the return trip would be on Sunday afternoons or evenings.

The CCRTA as of Tuesday had received 13 responses to the RFQ, and will continue to accept responses until April 6. Three finalists will be asked to submit proposals, and a consultant is scheduled to be selected by June 15. A firm timeline for completing the report has not been set, but Mr. Cahir said the report would be due “well in advance of Memorial Day 2012.”

“We still have a long way to go,” Mr. Cahir said, but he added that recent discussions with state transportation officials have been positive. “They are initially supportive of what we’re trying to do.”

“I think it’s very feasible,” he said, and Mr. Cahir is speaking with an insider’s knowledge of public transit systems, and rail-based systems in particular. In addition to his work with what was then the Massachusetts Executive Office of Transportation (now MassDOT), Mr. Cahir was, as a state representative, involved with the brief revival of New York-to-Cape Cod rail service in 1986.

Those trains would run between Penn Station in New York City and what is now the Hyannis Transportation Center, much like the envisioned new New York-to-Cape Cod service would.

“It would come in on Friday nights and leave on Sunday,” he said of the original “Cape Codder” train. That service, which operated under a state contract, was terminated after a few years due to an economic downturn—the same factor that led to the downfall of a similar service that ran in the early 1980s.

Mass Coastal last February proposed weekend train runs to Hyannis, an extension of a proposed commuter train route connecting the Cape to the Middleborough/Lakeville Line that company officials had hoped to launch in March 2010.

Mr. Cahir said reviving rail service and, perhaps more importantly, seamlessly connecting rail service to other modes of public transportation, such as the CCRTA buses, carries the double benefit of sustaining the region’s tourist economy while also reducing motor vehicle traffic.

“My objective is to get people to Cape Cod without their cars” to help alleviate congestion along the Cape’s roadways, he said. “The roads were never really built to accommodate the volumes they’re having to deal with now all throughout the year.”

Clay Schofield, transportation engineer with the Cape Cod Commission, said Mr. Cahir’s goal is more viable now than it was even a decade ago, thanks to an improved “multi-modal” public transportation system that includes the CCRTA’s four year-round public bus routes and three seasonal routes.

“I always said there was no point in trying to get weekend service here because once people got here, they had no way to get around easily,” Ms. Schofield said, “but I’ve since changed my mind. People can get around better than they could in the early part of the decade.”

Commuting From The Cape

The path to establishing full-blown commuter rail service to Boston is a bit bumpier, and not necessarily high on everyone’s list of priorities. Mr. Cahir said he was generally not supportive of establishing a “feeder service” from Cape Cod to the MBTA system.

“I never really felt the ridership would support that,” he said, instead believing success lies with “getting people to the Cape as opposed to getting people off-Cape.”

Past proposals, including from Mr. Kennedy, envisioned a commuter rail station in Sandwich or Bourne, where Cape residents would park their cars before hopping a train to Boston.

That particular model was a sticking point for Mr. Cahir. He pointed out that any commuter rail leaving the Cape would carry people over the Buzzards Bay Railroad Bridge and connect with the existing Middleborough/Lakeville Line. That train shadows Route 24, carrying passengers back to the South Shore area before heading north to Boston’s South Station.

“If I wanted to take a train to Boston, I wouldn’t drive to Buzzards Bay to get on a feeder service and go to Lakeville for a platform transfer and go to Boston,” he said, “I’d drive 16 miles north to Kingston and jump on the train” that follows the more direct Kingston/Plymouth Line.

According to a 2005 study by the Cape Cod Commission, using federal census data from 2000, approximately 15,000 Cape Cod residents commuted off-Cape to get to work; 78 percent of those come from Barnstable, Bourne, Falmouth, Sandwich, and Yarmouth—all towns that have direct rail access. Boston was the most common in-state destination, with 20 percent of Cape commuters heading into the city to work.

Mr. Schofield said a new study will be prepared once full 2010 census data has been released.

“Ordinarily, 3,000 daily commuters is not a very hard high market base” for a true commuter rail service, Mr. Wahle said, but that is less of an issue for what Mass Coastal is proposing: a “feeder service.”

“That would not be a true commuter service,” Mr. Wahle said, explaining that the train would drop passengers off at the Middleborough/Lakeville station for a transfer, rather than carrying them all the way to Boston.

“The entire premise behind it, the feeder connection service, if you will, was that it could provide the necessary seats available at a dramatically reduced cost than commuter rail” because of reduced infrastructure upgrade costs, Mr. Wahle said.

To bring the Cape’s infrastructure up to MBTA standards would run $75 million to $200 million, “while we believe, quite strongly, it would take less than $10 million…in order to rehabilitate the tracks to a standard high enough to operate at 60 miles an hour off-Cape, 40 miles an hour on-Cape.”

Fiscal constraints led to the MBTA’s decision to forego formal commuter rail expansion into the Wareham area. A few years ago Wareham town officials lobbied the state to extend the MBTA commuter rail line that currently terminates at the Middleborough/Lakeville station, but that proposal was passed over in favor of extending the commuter rail to the Fall River/New Bedford area.

Last year the state committed $32.5 million for the South Coast Rail expansion project. That funding was part of a $160 million grant through the Federal Railroad Administration High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail program.

Mr. Schofield, who thinks commuter rail service is, in concept, “a great idea,” said Cape communities may balk at the possibility because of the cost to them.

“Their one fear is getting onto the MBTA assessment distribution,” he said, referring to the MBTA State and Local Assistance Fund. All communities served by the MBTA—meaning towns with immediate access to MBTA services, not just depot host communities—are required to contribute to this $150 million fund, with each town’s weighted share based on its population.

Mr. Cahir said the assessment piece of the puzzle “is not an issue” in establishing short-term weekend only service, and would likely not be an issue should the state later explore commuter rail service to the region.

“If we find it to be very successful and want to expand service, we can revisit that issue,” he said, “but this isn’t any kind of expansion” that would warrant the assessment since expanded service to the Cape would not involve building new infrastructure.

Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Wahle agreed that the assessment would not be an issue, because Mass Coastal and not the MBTA would operate the feeder service. “It wouldn’t need an assessment” because of the much lower capital costs, Mr. Wahle said.

Other Uses

Although the Cape Cod Line no longer carries passenger trains per se, it has for the past 12 years served as host to the Cape Cod Central Railroad, a scenic passenger service that runs between May and October, taking passengers on a round-trip from Hyannis to Buzzards Bay and back.

The Cape’s railway also sees lighter use for standard freight, which is also handled by Mass Coastal, which moves food, construction materials, chemicals, and heavy equipment. “Mass Coastal literally ships dozens of different commodities and products,” Mr. Wahle said.

Cape Rail picks up where national rail freight company CSX’s coverage ends—and, notably, it was Mr. Cahir who, during his tenure as deputy secretary of rail and intermodal programs, negotiated CSX’s purchase of railways between Worcester and Boston.

“Freight rail has really improved and become more abundant across the country,” Mr. Cahir said, and, in doing so, has removed trucks from highways, thus reducing traffic as well as fuel consumption.

“Rail has the environmental card down pat. We beat the trucks hands-down,” Mr. Wahle said, and that is one reason why the state is very supportive of expanding freight rail service.

However, Mr. Wahle added that the state, which is “very very pro-rail,” does not want to directly subsidize freight rail service. Rather, it wants to make it cost-competitive with truck-based transportation, which requires high-volume railways—the kind of infrastructure that the state is more willing to invest in.

Mr. Wahle refuted claims that freight rail service for distances less than 20 miles was not an economic option, calling it “one of the great misconceptions” of freight service.

Rather, Mr. Wahle said the biggest hurdle for expanded freight service is the lack of proper freight depots; most freight is collected by rail-adjacent clients at on-site sidings, or at a designated drop-off point for non-adjacent clients, which then carry the freight to its destination by truck.

Mr. Wahle said the heyday of regular freight rail service “is past us; however, we are not of the belief that it’s gone...we continue to look at the more traditional rail commodities to see if there’s value to customers on the Cape.”

The most infrequent use of the rail system is for military purposes. The section of rail connecting the Massachusetts Military Reservation to the Woods Hole Line in North Falmouth is identified as part of the Strategic Rail Corridor Network (STRACNET), which includes 38,800 miles of rail connecting 193 defense installations across the continental United States.

Mr. Wahle said Mass Coastal has transported heavy equipment onto the MMR by rail, and the company has been in discussions with the MMR about its future rail needs, and at present there is “no definite future mission that would require rail.”

The MMR was once under consideration as a host site for a regional transportation center due to its Otis Branch connection. According to the 1998 master plan created by the Cape Cod Commission and the Community Working Group, that idea was dismissed due to the possibility of such a service interfering with military operations.

The only solid recent interest from a federal entity in maintaining rail service came nearly a decade ago in the form of the US Army Corps of Engineers’ Buzzard Bay Railroad Bridge rehabilitation project. Mr. Wahle said that $30 million project, which ran from 2002 to 2003, was driven by the federal government’s desire to support a rail infrastructure serving a variety of needs.

“The bridge was refurbished for a rail infrastructure project,” he said. “It wasn’t specifically to support the trash train, it was specifically to support freight or passenger [rail].”

To view the rail transportation portion of the Cape’s regional transportation plan, go to www.gocapecod.org/rtp/RTP2011docs/Ch2-4Rail_09302010.pdf.

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