Following up on my proposal for improving regional and intercity rail service between Providence and Boston, let me propose a line from Providence to Woonsocket, acting as an initial line of a Providence S-Bahn. The basic ideas for how to run a small-scale regional railroad, as usual, come from Hans-Joachim Zierke’s site, but are modified to suit the needs of a line with a larger city at one end. It is fortunate that the road connecting the two cities is not a freeway, and takes 24 minutes, allowing good transit on the same market to be competitive.
RIPTA’s bus route 54 goes from Providence to Woonsocket, generally taking 53 minutes one-way, with a few express runs taking as little as 39; the frequency is about half-hourly both peak and off-peak. A regional line would effectively railstitute it. Lincoln Mall, which is on the bus route but not near the rail line, would be served by a branch bus with timed connections to the train. See map here, together with some proposed intermediate station locations. Depending on the stop pattern, additional buses could be replaced, most readily route 75.
To avoid degrading service, frequency must be at least half-hourly. Of course, complete fare and schedule integration with the buses is non-negotiable: the fare on the train should be the same as on the buses it’s to replace, and transfers should not cost extra money.
As in the case of Zierke’s proposal for regional rail in southern Oregon, this is impossible under FRA regulations. Unlike the case of MBTA-HSR compatibility, getting a waiver here is difficult, since RIPTA is a small agency and can’t afford to conduct the studies required for a waiver request. In addition, north of Pawtucket, the line is an active freight line owned by the Providence and Worcester Railroad, and passenger service with high platforms (low-floor equipment is ruled out by the high platforms at Providence) may well require a new passenger-dedicated single track, raising capital costs by tens of millions of dollars.
Nonetheless, in a regulatory environment more favorable to passenger rail, such a line can succeed. Travel time of about 25 minutes, comparable to driving, is realistic. The length of the line is 25.5 km, and could still support a minimum speed of about 90 km/h even in its curvier northern half. The technical travel time is about 15 minutes plus 1 minute per stop. To ensure one-way travel time remains well under 30 minutes, enabling two trains to provide half-hourly service, there’s a maximum of about 9 stops. The map above includes 7 stops I believe are necessary for the line’s success, and a few optional locations. The explicit assumption for the following schedule is 90 km/h speed north of Lincoln Junction and 120 km/h south of it. Together with 7% padding, we obtain:
Trains meet south of Lincoln Junction, requiring at a minimum two tracks at and south of the station. If trains leave both ends simultaneously, then they stop at Lincoln Junction within 2 minutes of each other, making timing the connecting bus easier.
This meshes with the sped-up trains to Boston well. Travel time from the junction with the NEC in Pawtucket is 7:30 minutes, versus 3 minutes on a 200 km/h intercity trains. Under the one-overtake option, intercity trains arrive in Providence 3 minutes after regional trains from Boston, giving the DMUs an ample window to make local stops (8 minutes with a 2-minute headway and 15-minute Boston service), even with the flat junctions at the split in Pawtucket and at Providence Station. Under the two-overtake option, Boston regional trains arrive about 5 minutes after intercity trains assuming no additional stops in the Providence area; adding the same three stops made by Woonsocket trains to the Boston trains would turn this into 9 minutes, and the DMUs would have a window between the intercity and regional trains, combining to provide intense local frequency between Providence and Pawtucket.
In other words, capacity constraints at Providence do not exist under this service pattern, answering concerns raised in comments on a post Greater City: Providence. The post itself has important ideas for pleasant development near Providence Station, which is currently urban renewal hell. The only drawback of railstitution is that Kennedy Plaza is closer to the jobs of downtown Providence than the train station, and even with the trip time cut from 53 minutes to 26, it’s essential to provide easy pedestrian access from the station to nearby city destinations.
Modern DMUs have fuel consumption similar to that of buses and are maintained in the same shops, so with higher speed RIPTA can expect similar or lower operating costs and higher ridership. If a passenger-dedicated track is not required, then 9 high platforms, a passing siding, and 4 DMUs should suffice; capital costs would be very low, especially relative to ridership, and may well receive federal support. Based on Zierke’s German examples, daily ridership in the low to middle thousands would be good but realistic; 10,000 would be a miracle and 2,000 a bust.
(With thanks to Jef Nickerson for the idea.)