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.
At just under 50 miles, the Fitchburg Line is the second-longest line in the system (and was the longest until the Providence/Stoughton Line's 2010 extension to T. F. Green Airport and later to Wickford Junction), 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.
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, rebuilding two others, and building a new layover yard.
- 1 History
- 2 Trackage
- 3 Station and junction listing
- 4 References
- 5 External links
Boston & Maine
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. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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. On March 1, 1975, the line was cut back to South Acton, dropping stops at Ayer, Littleton, and West Acton.
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. 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". The train used includes a car equipped with ski racks; a shuttle bus to Wachusett Mountain connects at Fitchburg.
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. By 2000, there was a 9 miles (14 km) section of single track between South Acton and Ayer, and a shorter section in Waltham. This limited the number of trains which could continue past Acton to Fitchburg.
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. 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.
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 from North Station – outside normal commuting distances. 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. 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. 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. As an immediate change, the MBTA began running express trains on the line.
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. Few of these expanded alternatives were ultimately pursued.
The MBTA applied for a federal Small Starts grant in September 2005, and the Montachusett Regional Transit Authority filed a scoping package in April 2007 that began the analysis of construction alternatives. The Fitchburg Commuter Rail Line Improvements Project Alternatives Analysis was released in September 2007 and outlined six options: no build with the addition of some continuously welded rail to the line, a $30 million baseline with a new layover facility, and three build options ranging from $150 million to $239 million. Build Alternative 1, costing $150 million, was chosen.
Funding and construction
In November 2007, following the completion of five years of conceptual studies, the MBTA announced $150 million in projects to significantly upgrade the Fitchburg Line. The project focuses on reducing travel times, increasing service frequency, and improving on-time performance. With the addition of several smaller funding sources, the improvements are now a $277 million project with five major components:
The first work completed was the addition of CPF-43, a new interlocking located at Derby Curve in Leominster. Financed by $10.2 million in ARRA funds, the work was intended to "provide commuter rail operational flexibility and to minimize conflicts with freight". CPF-43 includes a universal crossover between the two mainline tracks, plus a new connection to a siding with 1,000 feet (300 m) of space for maintenance-of-way equipment storage and 1000 feet to connect to existing freight customers. Construction work began in October 2009 and finished by the end of 2011.
North Leominster garage
Located just off Route 2, the North Leominster station was often crowded for commuter parking spaces. After 5 years of planning, construction began in March 2012 on a three-story garage which provides 340 parking spaces. The $7.7 million project, which was funded by the FTA through earmarks and formula funding, includes a covered busway and charging stations for electric cars. Originally to be completed in August 2013, the garage was delayed due to high summer heat which prevented pouring concrete as well as contractor's financial problems. The garage opened on May 20, 2014.
Construction of full-length high-level accessible platforms was considered as part of the project, but the platforms would have cost an additional $18 million and created clearance issues with passing Pan Am freight trains. The freight trains, which are slightly wider than standard passenger cars, frequently impact the mini-high platforms and would cause severe damage to full-length platforms.
$42 million ($40 million in ARRA funds and $2 million from the state Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development ) provides for the restoration of 8 miles (13 km) of double track from Central Street in West Acton to Willows Junction in Ayer. This leaves a short section in Waltham as the only single-track section of the line. Like many of the outer stations on the line, Littleton/Route 495 was built in 1980 with a bare low-level concrete platform (not accessible for handicapped riders) serving a single track. Beginning in early 2012, it was rebuilt with a full-length island platform serving the original track and a new second track.
The new station opened in June 2013. In August 2014, with the double tracking nearly complete, all South Acton short turns were extended to Littleton. The double tracking work, including 8 grade crossing replacements and a new interlocking just east of Littleton station, was completed in November 2014.
Small Starts funding
The largest piece of the project, funded by $159 million in state money and Federal Transit Administration "Small Starts" funding, involves incremental improvements to existing infrastructure. Work started in 2012 and will be complete by the end of 2015.
South Acton station is the busiest station on the line, with 902 daily riders. Like Littleton, it formerly had a single low-level platform. After significant design changes based on community input, construction started on a new station with two full-length high-level side platforms in September 2012. The new station will be completed in late 2015. An additional 1.7 miles of double track is being installed through the station, filling the gap between the separately funded double tracking to the west and existing double track to the east.
Previously, the section of the line east of Acton had an older signalling system which permitted operations in one direction on each track, which prevented express trains from passing locals and limited schedule density. Fiber optic cable is being installed over this segment and new signals installed to permit full bidirectional operation. The double-tracked section west of Willows, which already had bidirectional signalling to permit passenger and slower freight trains to mix, is receiving incremental upgrades. The new signals, along with concurrent track work, allow maximum speeds on the line to increase from 60 miles per hour (97 km/h) to 80 miles per hour (130 km/h).
Seven bridges are being replaced or significantly repaired, including one over Route 62 in Concord which was a late addition to the project. Thirteen grade crossings are being replaced, nine interlockings built new or improved, and dispatching of some segments transferred from the outdated tower at Waltham to the MBTA's control center.
By August 2014, eight crossings and several bridges were completed, and new signalling and crossovers in service between Lincoln and Acton. The second track infill was complete except for through South Acton station itself, and work in Ayer including a new freight crossover and undercutting the East Main Street bridge to increase clearances was completed. The Small Starts-funded work was completed by the end of 2015, with the new South Acton station opening on December 19.
Per the recommendations of the mid-2000s studies, the line is being extended 4.5 miles (7.2 km) west of Fitchburg to a new Wachusett park-and-ride station. The work is funded by a $55 million federal TIGER grant awarded in 2010. Construction started in mid-2013, and the station is expected to open in late 2016.
Funded by the same grant is a new layover yard in Westminster, just west of the new station, which will replace a smaller yard in East Fitchburg. The town of Westminster opposed the project due to noise pollution issues, and filed complaints about the MBTA alleging that proper permits had not been obtained and that the agency had misled the town about construction delays. Construction was eventually allowed to proceed, and the layover yard will be opened in 2015.
Weekend service curtailments
Work like laying track, connecting switches, and testing new signals is difficult or impossible to perform during regular daily service. In order to accommodate this work, during 2013 through 2015 service was curtailed on weekends when ridership is significantly lower. Full service is operated during winter months, when snowy weather may make driving a less palatable alternative. In 2013, weekend service was cut back to South Acton from June through August and to Brandeis/Roberts from September to November. In 2014, it was cut back to Brandeis/Roberts from late April to July, and discontinued entirely until November. In 2015, weekend service was discontinued from April 25 to November 22nd except on holiday weekends.
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. Pan Am runs both through freights and Fitchburg-based locals west of Willows; there is no regular freight service on the line east of Willows.
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.
Station and junction listing
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.
|City||Station / Junction||Connections and notes|
|0.0||Boston||North Station||MBTA subway: Orange Line, Green Line
MBTA Bus: 4
MBTA Commuter Rail: Lowell Line, Haverhill Line, and Newburyport/Rockport Line
|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||Porter Square||Red Line; MBTA Bus: 77, 77A, 83, 96|
|4.2||West Cambridge (station)||Opened 1886, demolished 1933. Originally Brickyards.|
|4.3||West Cambridge (junction)||Former junction with Watertown Branch loop (passenger service ended in 1938; freight service ended in 2007).|
|4.5||Former junction with Lexington Branch|
|5.5||Belmont||Hill's Crossing||Former junction with Fitchburg Cutoff; station was abandoned in the mid-20th century|
|6.4||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||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||Brandeis/Roberts||MBTA Bus: 553|
|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.|
|25.3||Acton||South Acton||Clock Tower Shuttle; terminal station for some trains until August 2014.|
|26.8||West Acton||Closed on March 1, 1975 and was not reopened when service was restored|
|30.1||Littleton||Littleton/Route 495||Not a historical station site, Littleton/Route 495 opened as a replacement for the former Littleton station in 1980; terminal station for some trains since August 2014.|
|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 and King streets.|
|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|
|45.1||Leominster||North Leominster||MRTA bus: 1, 3|
|49.6||Fitchburg||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||Wachusett||New station under construction; planned to open in late 2016|
|64.9||Gardner||Gardner||Junction with P&W Gardner Branch
Closed on January 1, 1987
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- Stewart, Matt (20 July 2012). "New Look for North Leominster Station". Leominster Champion. Retrieved 19 July 2012.
- Minch, Jack (23 August 2013). "July heat stalled work on Leominster rail garage". Sentinel and Enterprise. Retrieved 24 August 2013.
- Sato, Hiriko (18 February 2014). "Builder of Leominster project had Groton woes". Sentinel and Enterprise. Retrieved 16 May 2014.
- "MART: North Leominster commuter rail parking garage to open Tuesday". Sentinel and Enterprise. 19 May 2014. Archived from the original on 13 June 2014. Retrieved 13 June 2014.
- "Fitchburg Line Schedule" (PDF). Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. 4 August 2014. Archived from the original (PDF) on 30 July 2014. Retrieved 30 July 2014.
- Burgess, Anna (28 November 2012). "Commuter rail will reopen Saturday". Sentinel and Enterprise. Retrieved 28 November 2014.
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