Tales from the T: Big Dig Pt. 2: Electric Boogaloo

Graphic by Kayla Drazan

In last week’s column we discussed the history of the Lowell Line that runs by Tufts, so perhaps it’s fitting to now discuss a plan proposed for its future. It’s a plan that could bring modern electric commuter trains from Tufts through downtown Boston to Allston, Wellesley and even Providence, via a true regional transportation network. But first, some context. 

The first railroads in Boston opened their own terminal stations on the periphery of downtown. Boston’s South Station opened in 1899, followed by North Station in 1928. This ended a haphazard arrangement of no fewer than eight separate terminals, with all passenger trains now funneled into two massive union stations. While the train operators have changed, this setup of two separate terminals — North Station and South Station has remained fundamentally the same.

Bringing passengers to the edge of downtown certainly made sense in the early 20th century when Boston was much more compact and centralized. However, with the rise of communities and job markets outside of inner Boston, and the subsequent shift away from downtown-focused journeys, the setup is becoming a nuisance. Passengers making cross-Boston rail journeys must walk over 20 minutes or take two “T” lines to transfer between the North and South terminals. Many end up driving — a more convenient option, but one that is far worse for congestion, pollution, urban sprawl and climate change. 

And all this is to say nothing of capacity issues. Recent increases in rail ridership have placed an increasing strain on the terminals — soon to be undersized — as well as the “T,” already the Eaton 202 of subway systems (though it remains to be seen how ridership will recover after the pandemic). Proposals exist to expand South Station, but this will only dump more passengers onto the “T” without improving cross-Boston trips. 

Enter the North-South Rail Link, or NSRL. Under this plan, the lines feeding into North and South stations would be connected by new rail tunnels under downtown Boston. Intercity and commuter trains could now run right into downtown, stopping at new underground stations before continuing outward on other lines. It’s not a new idea — similar schemes are in use in Philadelphia, Paris and London. The potential benefits are immense: Passengers would gain more convenient access to huge swathes of Greater Boston, congestion and pollution would decrease, North Station would be closed for redevelopment and downtown Boston would gain a new rail line with more frequent trains than the Red Line. These would also include new electric trains — costly, but cleaner, quieter and faster. 

Of course, as we all know, Boston has a history of properly completing massive transportation projects — especially when said projects involve digging massive tunnels under downtown (cough).

But even without the Big Dig’s cost overruns, delayed openings and arrests for fraud, a 2015 MBTA study estimates costs between $12 billion and $21 billion (or roughly the price of three textbooks) for the NSRL project. Digging the tunnels and stations themselves — with associated entrances, passages, ventilation shafts, etc. — all while minimizing ground-level disruptions, is a doable but phenomenally complex undertaking. Add in the costs of new electric trains and it’s no surprise that people might prefer cheaper alternatives like expanding South Station. The potential benefits of the NSRL are clear, but perhaps it’s the transit megaproject that we deserve and not the one we need now.


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