As a native New Hampshire resident who grew up in the state and still spends a lot of time there, I value the proximity of small town New England to our major population centers. And as someone who also spends a considerable amount of time in the Boston area, I appreciate the economic and cultural engine the city has become. What I do not value is the endless amount of time spent in traffic between both. I am clearly not alone in being frustrated by the situation as is evidenced by the increasing number of discussions concerning infrastructure in the area.
The conversation most frequently centers on commuter rail. However, the vision for what efficient and competitive commuter rail looks like lacks ambition. Greater Boston commuter rail improvements include projects like track upgrades, engine refurbishments and some minor expansion in service and lines: most notably, the extension of the Merrimack Valley corridor into southern New Hampshire.
It’s not good enough. The basic problem is this: commuter rail simply does not present a more efficient mode of transport than using a car and none of the proposed or active improvements will make it so. It takes just as long, or longer than driving and service is often infrequent. Subsequently, the roads in the greater Boston metro area extending south to Providence, west to Worcester and north to Manchester and Portsmouth, are a traffic nightmare. This detracts from the quaint and often semi-rural way of living that exists in the aforementioned radius, hampers opportunities for many greater Boston residents who need access to the city’s high paying jobs and generally reduces the local quality of life. Also, because current and proposed rail improvements are not market competitive with cars, they will not act as an environmentally viable alternative. Additionally, the trains are still run on diesel fuel.
Opponents of rail investment often point out the fact that people still prefer cars and that it is not profitable. They are currently correct, but neither they nor the proponents of rail take into account what could be possible if rail were truly modernized.
One need not reinvent the wheel (or the track in this case) to find good examples of commuter train systems that can compete with cars. Just look to northern Europe where commuter trains are frequent, travel at regular speeds of 100mph – 125mph, and run entirely on electric power. Rail moving passengers at this speed would be a more competitive greater metro mode of travel, thereby reducing congestion and pollution and making the opportunities that the mix of New England urban and rural spaces have to offer, sustainable.
There is no good reason that the greater Boston area cannot set a national example with modernized transportation infrastructure. We must not let lack of imagination and ambition impede us.