Fitchburg Line

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MBTA 59 outbound in West Concord.jpg
An outbound train near West Concord in 2012
Type Commuter rail
System MBTA Commuter Rail
Locale Greater Boston
Termini Fitchburg
North Station
Stations 18
Daily ridership 9,648[1]
Owner MBTA
Operator(s) MBCR
Character Commuter rail line
Line length 49.6 miles (79.8 km)
Track gauge 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm)
Route map

The Fitchburg Line is a branch of the MBTA Commuter Rail system which runs from Boston's North Station to Fitchburg, Massachusetts. The line is along the tracks of the former Fitchburg Railroad, which was built across northern Massachusetts, United States, in the 1840s. It is one of the more scenic commuter rail lines, passing by Walden Pond between Lincoln and Concord. Weekend service includes a specially equipped seasonal "ski train" to Wachusett Mountain.[2]

At just under 50 miles, the Fitchburg Line is the second-longest line in the system, and ranks as one of the worst lines in terms of on time performance. The Fitchburg Line has the oldest infrastructure in the system, and commuter trains must share trackage with freight trains on the outer segment of the line.[3] Despite poor performance, the Fitchburg Line still draws about 10,000 daily riders, which is expected to increase after the completion of the current improvements project. The $150 million project includes adding nine miles of double track, building one new station and rebuilding two others, and building a new layover yard.[4]

Only eight of the stations, including both terminals, meet MBTA standards for wheelchair accessibility. South Acton is currently being rebuilt with fully accessible high-level platforms.


Geographic map of the Fitchburg Railroad
A branch line train at South Acton station in 1911
Former platform at Gardner, the terminus of the line from 1980 to 1987

Boston & Maine[edit]

Main article: Fitchburg Railroad

The Fitchburg Railroad opened between 1840 and 1845 from Boston to Fitchburg. The Boston and Maine Railroad leased the Fitchburg Railroad in 1900 and bought it finally in 1919.[5]

In 1948, The Master Highway Plan for the Boston Metropolitan Area proposed the construction of eight radial expressways around Boston connecting to the Inner Belt, Interstate 695. A section of the Northwest Expressway, carrying a concurrency of Route 2 and Route 3, was to run along the Fitchburg right-of-way from Union Square in Somerville to Sherman Street in North Cambridge.[6] This expressway would have taken up some or all of the trackbed, which was then four tracks wide in that section. After successful highway revolts, Governor Francis W. Sargent placed a hold on all highway construction inside Route 128 in 1970. Following a study, Sargent permanently canceled the 1948 plans in 1972, thus also securing the corridor's future for railroad use.[7]

Passenger service ran only to Fitchburg after 1960, after the Boston and Maine eliminated its through service to its western terminal in Troy, New York.

MBTA era[edit]

When the newly formed MBTA began subsidizing the Boston & Maine Railroad's intrastate service on January 18, 1965, service was only kept to communities in the MBTA's limited funding district. All service on the Fitchburg Line west of West Concord was cut, as was the low-ridership stop at Riverview; several other northside lines were cut or run at reduced service levels as well.[8] The MBTA scrambled to find funding; subsidy agreements were soon reached with towns along the lines. Service was restored as far as Ayer on June 28, 1965, along with the outer Rockport Branch and full schedules on the Lowell and Ipswich routes.[8]

Although some gains were made, including the reopening of Belmont Center and Waverley stations on March 4, 1974, the system continued to hang on by thin margins. The Central Mass Branch, which shared trackage with the Fitchburg, was cut on November 26, 1971.[8] In December 1973, state subsidies for towns outside the MBTA funding district were halved, resulting in the MBTA needing to renegotiate subsidies from 14 municipalities. Ultimately Ayer, with just 14 daily commuters, refused to pay its $8200 bill in 1974; Littleton also refused $12,300 for its 21 riders.[9] On March 1, 1975, the line was cut back to South Acton, dropping stops at Ayer, Littleton, and West Acton.[8][10]

Two lightly used stops in Waltham - Clematis Brook and Beaver Brook - closed in June 1978.[8]

On December 27, 1976, the MBTA bought the Boston and Maine Railroad's northside commuter rail assets, including the entire length of the Fitchburg Line.[8] The closure of the Lexington Branch the next month represented the limit of the contraction of the northside lines; as a results of the 1970s energy crisis and especially the 1979 energy crisis, a period of rapid expansion began in the end of the 1970s. Service was restored to Fitchburg and beyond to Gardner on January 13, 1980. Gardner service was ended on January 1, 1987 when Amtrak took over the MBTA contract, due to a dispute between Amtrak and Guilford; the MBTA only owned the trackage to Fitchburg.

In December 2006, the MBTA began branding certain winter weekend round trips as "ski trains".[11] The train used includes a car equipped with ski racks; a shuttle bus to Wachusett Mountain connects at Fitchburg.[2]

Improvement project[edit]

Newly laid second track in Boxboro in November 2011

Due to the cyclic expansion and contraction for the first three decades of the MBTA's existence, the Fitchburg Line was largely neglected and its infrastructure began to decline. The Fitchburg route was once double tracked from Boston to Troy, New York; however, the second main was removed in many sections as passenger service declined. Double tracks currently extend only to Acton; all trains on the line stop at South Acton, and some are short turned there. Until the extension of the Providence leg of the Providence/Stoughton Line to T.F. Green Airport in 2010, the Fitchburg Line was the longest line on the MBTA system; it is now the second longest, and still the longest without full double track.

In 2000, the Massachusetts State Legislature passed a bill that directed the MBTA to "conduct a feasibility study regarding the reestablishment of the commuter rail line to the cities of Gardner and Athol on the existing Fitchburg/Gardner/Athol spur line" as one of many expansion and improvement projects.[12] In 2001, the MBTA began taking public comment for the decadal update to its Program for Mass Transportation. Following response from legislators from communities along the line, the MBTA initiated a study of potential improvements to the line, including not only westward extension but also station improvements and travel time reductions.[3][13]

Construction of the new South Acton station in 2013

The 2004 edition of the Program for Mass Transportation found that restoration of service all the way to Gardner, much less Athol, was deemed impractical for several reasons. Gardner is 64 miles (103 km) and Athol 81 miles (130 km) by rail for North Station - outside normal commuting distances.[5] The line between Fitchburg and Gardner would cost $104.2 million to double track, and speeds are limited due to the grades going through the Wachusett Mountain range. Because the Route 2 expressway is faster along the corridor than rail service would be, the station at Gardner would have attracted just 50 riders per day.[14] Instead, a 4-mile extension to a previously considered station in West Fitchburg was recommended.

The Fitchburg Commuter Rail Line Service Expansion Study was released in February 2005, drawing off the PMT conclusions. Recommended short-range improvements included station consolidation, track upgrades, and station improvements; longer-term projects included double-tracking, increased service frequency, and an extension to Wachusett or Gardner.[15] The report priced out $55 million in infrastructure upgrades including double tracking through downtown Waltham and from South Acton to Willows, signal improvements, rebuilding Littleton/Route 495 station, and grade crossing modifications. An extension to Wachusett was to cost $39 million, with Gardner costing an additional $50 million.[16] As an immediate change, the MBTA began running express trains on the line.[3]

Wachusett station under construction in December 2013

The Fitchburg Commuter Rail Line Improvement Implementation Plan, released in September 2005, included a longer list of possible improvements, and outlined a goal of reducing travel time between Porter Square and Fitchburg to one hour. The $300 million list included high-level platforms at all stops from Porter to Littleton, grade crossing eliminations, a flyover at Willows, and stop consolidations. The three Weston stops were to be combined, Ayer and Shirley combined into a Devens station, and Waverley and Belmont stations combined.[17]

In 2007, the MBTA announced a $150 million project to significantly upgrade the Fitchburg Line.[18] Double track is being extended from South Acton to Ayer, leaving one-third of a mile in Waltham as the only single-track section of the line. Littleton/Route 495 reopened with a full-length high-level platform in June 2013, and a rebuilt South Acton station will open in 2014. The new stations are fully handicapped-accessible, and designed such that all South Acton short-turn trains will be extended to Littleton in 2015. Additionally, service will be extended 4.5 miles west of Fitchburg to a new Wachusett park-and-ride station, to be opened in 2014.[19] Weekend service will be suspended on various portions of the line at various times through the fall of 2015. Full weekend service will run on the entire line between December 2014 and March 2015 as well as holiday weekends.[20]


The MBTA owns all track between Boston and Fitchburg. The line west of the old Stony Brook Railroad (which joins at Willows, east of Ayer) is used by Pan Am Railways as part of their main line between Mattawamkeag, Maine and Mechanicville, New York. Pan Am owns trackage west of Fitchburg, which will be used for the Wachusett extension.

The Walden Street Cattle Pass crosses beneath the Walden Street bridge in Cambridge, adjacent to the tracks; it was last used in the 1920s.[21]

The Union Square Branch of the under-construction Green Line Extension will share the right-of-way of the Fitchburg Line from the Inner Belt area to Union Square station. Reconstruction of the Medford Street bridge began in March 2013 as part of initial work; the station is expected to open in 2017.[22]

Station and junction listing[edit]

This listing shows only stations and junctions that have been active since the creation of the MBTA in 1964. A full list is also available.

A train at North Station, the inbound terminus of the line
Waverley station
West Concord Depot
Newly rebuilt Littleton/Route 495 station in 2013
City Station / Junction Connections and notes
0.0 Boston Handicapped/disabled access North Station MBTA subway: Orange Line, Green Line; MBTA Bus: 4
MBTA Commuter Rail: Lowell Line, Haverhill/Reading Line and Newburyport/Rockport Line
Amtrak Downeaster
0.9 Somerville Commuter Rail Maintenance Facility A flag stop with a wooden platform for MBTA employees only
Lowell Line, Haverhill/Reading Line and Newburyport/Rockport Line split
3.4 Cambridge Handicapped/disabled access Porter Square Red Line; MBTA Bus: 77, 77A, 83, 96
4.2 West Cambridge Former junction with Watertown Branch loop (passenger service ended in 1938; freight service ended in 2007). The station was likely closed in 1938.
4.5 Brick Yards (Fens) Former junction with Lexington Branch; was never a station site
5.5 Hill Crossing Former junction with Fitchburg Cutoff; station was abandoned in the mid 20th century
6.4 Belmont Belmont Center MBTA Bus: 74, 75
7.4 Waverley MBTA Bus: 73, 554
8.3 Waltham Clematis Brook Was located off Clematis Avenue in Waltham; closed in June 1978. Former junction with the Central Mass Branch, on which passenger service ended in 1971.
9.3 Beaver Brook Was located at Massasoit Street in Waltham; closed in June 1978
9.9 Handicapped/disabled access Waltham MBTA Bus: 70, 70A, 505, 553, 554, 556, 558
Former junction with Watertown Branch
10.6 Riverview Closed on January 17, 1965 when the MBTA began subsidizing service
11.5 Handicapped/disabled access Brandeis/Roberts MBTA Bus: 553
13.2 Weston Kendal Green
13.7 Hastings Limited service: five inbound trains and six outbound trains on weekdays.
14.7 Silver Hill Limited service: two inbound trains and three outbound trains on weekdays.
16.7 Lincoln Lincoln
20.1 Concord Concord
21.9 Handicapped/disabled access West Concord
25.3 Acton South Acton Clock Tower Shuttle; terminal station for some trains
26.8 West Acton Closed on March 1, 1975 and was not reopened when service was restored
30.1 Littleton Handicapped/disabled access Littleton/Route 495 Not a historical station site, Littleton/Route 495 opened as a replacement for the former Littleton station in 1980
31.5 Littleton Closed in 1975; it was replaced by Littleton/Route 495 when service was restored in 1980. The former station building, Harwood depot, still stands at the intersection of Taylor Street and King Street.
33.7 Ayer Willows Closed in 1961; it was located between Littleton and Ayer and served both communities. Junction with Pan Am Railways Stony Brook Line
36.1 Ayer Junction with Pan Am Railways Worcester Main
39.4 Shirley Shirley
45.1 Leominster Handicapped/disabled access North Leominster MRTA bus: 1, 3
49.6 Fitchburg Handicapped/disabled access Fitchburg MRTA bus: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 11, GLink Gardner/Winchendon

Shuttle bus to Wachusett Mountain Ski Area during winter

53.7 Handicapped/disabled access Wachusett New station under construction; planned to open in early 2015
64.9 Gardner Gardner Junction with P&W Gardner Branch
Closed on January 1, 1987


  1. ^ a b "Ridership and Service Statistics". Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. 2010. Retrieved 2 May 2013. 
  2. ^ a b "Ski Train To Wachusett". Wachusett Mountain Ski Area. 2012. Retrieved 2012-12-30. 
  3. ^ a b c "Fitchburg Rail Line Improvement Project Alternatives Analysis". Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. September 2007. Retrieved 18 January 2014. 
  4. ^ "Fitchburg Commuter Rail Line Improvement Program Project Map". Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. 2012. Retrieved 18 January 2014. 
  5. ^ a b c Karr, Ronald Dale (1995). The Rail Lines of Southern New England. Branch Line Press. pp. 200–205. ISBN 0942147022. 
  6. ^ Joint Board for the Metropolitan Master Highway Plan (1 February 1948). The Master Highway Plan for the Boston Metropolitan Area. 
  7. ^ Weingroff, Richard F. (July–August 2013). "Busting the Trust". Public Roads (Federal Highway Administration) 77 (1). Retrieved 17 January 2014. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f Belcher, Jonathan (12 November 2012). "Changes to Transit Service in the MBTA district" (PDF). NETransit. Retrieved 23 December 2012. 
  9. ^ Amory, David (20 January 1975). "MBTA puts bigger bite on 14 'outside' towns for rail costs". Boston Globe. Retrieved 19 January 2014 – via ProQuest Historical Newspapers. (subscription required (help)). 
  10. ^ O'Keele, John (2 March 1975). "MBTA ends Boston & Maine's Ayer, Littleton, West Acton service; cites deficit". Boston Globe. Retrieved 19 January 2014 – via ProQuest Historical Newspapers. (subscription required (help)). 
  11. ^ "Take the T to Ski!". TRANSReport. Boston Region Metropolitan Planning Organization. December 2006. Archived from the original on 16 January 2014. Retrieved 6 February 2014. 
  12. ^ "An Act Providing for an Accelerated Transportation Development and Improvement Program for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority". Session Laws: 2000. Massachusetts State Legislature. 30 June 2000. Retrieved 19 January 2014. 
  13. ^ Peterson, Scott (26 December 2004). "Appendix D: CTPS Documentation". Fitchburg Commuter Rail Line Service Expansion Study. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. Archived from the original on 18 March 2006. Retrieved 19 January 2014. 
  14. ^ Central Transportation Planning Staff (May 2003 (revised January 2004)). "Chapter 5C: Service Expansion". 2004 Program for Mass Transportation. Boston Metropolitan Planning Organization. Archived from the original on 20 February 2012. Retrieved 17 July 2012. 
  15. ^ McMahon Associates (February 2005). "Fitchburg Commuter Rail Line Service Expansion Study". Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. Retrieved 20 January 2014. 
  16. ^ "Appendix E: Cost Estimates". Fitchburg Commuter Rail Line Service Expansion Study. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. 26 December 2004. Archived from the original on 18 March 2006. Retrieved 20 January 2014. 
  17. ^ "MBTA Commuter Rail Fitchburg Branch Improvements". Fitchburg Commuter Rail Line Improvement Implementation Plan. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. September 2005. Archived from the original on 29 January 2014. Retrieved 29 January 2014. 
  18. ^ Monahan, John J. (30 November 2007). "$150M smile for MBTA: Fitchburg riders get the nod". Worcester Telegram & Gazette. Retrieved 10 August 2011. 
  19. ^ "Patrick-Murray Administration, U.S. Transportation Secretary LaHood, Congressman Olver Kick off Wachusett Commuter Rail Extension Project". Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. 18 October 2010. Retrieved 10 August 2011. 
  20. ^ "Suspension of Weekend Train Service – Fact Sheet". Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. Retrieved 1 July 2014. 
  21. ^ "Cambridge Cattle Market", in Cambridge Historical Commission-North Cambridge Stabilization Committee report, 2002
  22. ^ Sheeran, Elizabeth (20 March 2013). "MBTA gets set to lay tracks". The Somerville News. Retrieved 17 January 2014. 
  23. ^ Held, Patrick R. (2010). "Massachusetts Bay Colony Railroad Track Charts". Johns Hopkins Association for Computing Machinery. Archived from the original on 8 October 2013. Retrieved 18 January 2014. 

External links[edit]