North–South Rail Link

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South Station from Dewey Square, August 2012.jpg
South Station, the southern terminus of the proposed tunnel.
Type Commuter Rail
Status Proposed
Locale Boston, Massachusetts
Termini South Station
North Station
Stations 3 proposed
Owner MBTA
Operator(s) MBTA
Line length 1.5 miles (2.4 km)
Number of tracks 4
Track gauge 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm)
Electrification Yes
The North–South Rail Link would close a 1.5-mile (2.4 km) gap at the center of the regional rail network.

The North–South Rail Link is a proposed pair of rail tunnels, each about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) long, that would connect North and South Stations in downtown Boston, Massachusetts.[1]

The tunnels would better link Amtrak's various trains into and out of the city, and would significantly benefit the MBTA Commuter Rail by connecting its northern and southern lines. Currently, the Amtrak Downeaster line from Maine has no direct connection to the Northeast Corridor routes south and west.[2] Both Amtrak and the commuter rail lines currently terminate at the separate North and South Stations.

Earlier studies indicated that the proposed tunnels would save MBTA more than $67 million in annual operating costs. The tunnels would not be able to handle diesel locomotives and therefore would mandate the electrification of MBTA main lines. This electrification would also help Massachusetts and the MBTA reach their greenhouse-gas reduction goals, ensure more reliable service, and obtain quicker train accelerations and significantly shorter travel times. The tunnel would also feature a direct link from the commuter rail system to Logan International Airport, via the Blue Line (currently the only MBTA rapid transit line with no connections to the commuter rail network).[3]

Historical connections[edit]

From 1872 to 1969, the freight-only Union Freight Railroad provided a direct, street running connection between most of the south-side and north-side railroads, and served local customers and wharves in between.

From 1901 to 1938, the Atlantic Avenue Elevated provided direct passenger service past North and South Stations. The elevated trackage was not connected to any of the conventional railroad tracks.

Present connections[edit]

Public transit connects North Station to South Station only indirectly through two of the MBTA Subway system's quartet of "hub" stations: requiring two subway lines, either the Green Line and the Red Line through their shared Park Street station, or the Orange Line and the Red Line's shared Downtown Crossing station. The underground Winter Street Concourse connects the upper levels of the pair of mentioned "hub" stations. Amtrak recommends that passengers with young children or luggage take a taxi between the stations.[4]

It is possible to traverse the gap via the Orange Line from Back Bay Station to North Station, but not all of the southern lines pass through Back Bay; the Old Colony Lines, and Fairmount Line on the Commuter Rail do not. However, this does provide a connection for Amtrak passengers who want to transfer from the Northeast Corridor to the Downeaster. Similarly, it is possible to connect between South Station and the Fitchburg Line via the Red Line to or from Porter station. The weekday-only MBTA Bus #4 connects the two stations. The North–South Rail Link is proposed to fill all these awkward gaps in service, with a direct connection requiring no transfers.


The Back Bay portal, serving the Northeast Corridor and Worcester Line, would be located in this area east of Tremont Street

There are several proposals to link South Station and North Station by rail.

The leading proposal, called the "Dorchester Avenue Alignment", would dig two 41-foot-diameter (12 m) deep-bore tunnels beneath Boston, extending beyond the present rail yards north and south of the city. The tunnels would pass about 20 feet beneath the I-90 extension, and would reach their maximum depth of 130 feet (40 m) at a possible Central Station and at North Station.

Carrying a total of up to four tracks, the tunnels would have steep inclines. Trains entering or exiting the tunnels would climb or descend 3% grades, each nearly a mile long.[5]

Because the tunnels would continue well south of downtown, three portals would accommodate separate connections to Back Bay Station to the west, the Old Colony Lines to the south, and the Fairmount Line running southwest. To the north, the tunnels would cross the Charles River about 70 feet (21 m) below its surface (bypassing an existing drawbridge), and connect via portals to the Fitchburg Line and the other northbound rail lines.

The plan would require two or three new underground stations; stations are proposed roughly beneath the current North and South Stations, and possibly a new Central Station near Aquarium Station. Central Station would have an 800-foot (240 m) platform; North Station and South Station would have 1,050-foot (320 m) platforms.

Pilings for a planned high-rise tower at South Station complicate a proposal to put the tunnels directly beneath the present South Station. Instead, the Dorchester Avenue Alignment proposal would move the tracks just east of South Station, and would build an underground facility about 100 feet (30 m) below the surface of the Fort Point Channel at the Summer Street crossing.[6] Tracks at the underground South Station would have a 0.61% incline.

The new Central Station would connect with the Blue Line at its Aquarium station via an underground concourse, as the Blue Line is the only rapid transit line in Boston that does not already connect with either North or South Station. The new station also would eliminate or reduce transfers to the rapid transit system for many commuter rail passengers with destinations in the central part of the business district. This would relieve transit congestion in the downtown core. Like Philadelphia's SEPTA system after the similar Center City Commuter Connection tunnel was built and connected two commuter rail systems, some of Boston's trains would be through-routed from one side of the system to the other. Many services would still terminate at North and South Stations, on existing tracks that do not lead into the tunnels. This could also allow trains to pass parked train cars.

The DEIR/MIS assumes that about one-third of Amtrak trains to and from points south would be routed through the tunnel, stopping only at South Station, but with a new stop north of Boston in Woburn, Massachusetts. The Downeaster service from Maine and New Hampshire was assumed to stop at North Station only, with a direct connection to more southerly service in Woburn rather than Boston. Thus, some operations would continue above ground at North Station and South Station, and all track and facilities would remain in place.[7] The tunnels would not be equipped to handle diesel locomotives, which may not be suited to the planned steep grades and closely spaced stops.[8] That would require the MBTA to buy and run locomotives equipped for electric operation.

Route map of the North–South Rail Link (Dorchester Avenue Alignment)
Lowell Line and
Amtrak Downeaster
Fitchburg Line
Haverhill Line
Commuter Rail Maintenance Facility
(MBTA employees only)
Newburyport/Rockport Line
Proposed route
Charles River
Orange Line
Green Line
North Station Amtrak MBTA.svg BSicon SUBWAY.svg Green Line (MBTA)
Green Line
Orange Line
Central Station
Blue Line
BSicon SUBWAY.svg
Red Line
South Station Amtrak MBTA.svg BSicon SUBWAY.svg Silver Line (MBTA)
Framingham/Worcester Line
& Amtrak Lake Shore Limited
Fort Point Channel
Amtrak NEC; Needham, Franklin,
& Providence/Stoughton Lines
Bass River
Red Line
Fairmount Line
Greenbush and
Old Colony Lines


In May 2006, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts withdrew its sponsorship of the project due to its high capital cost (projected at several billion dollars, with wide variations depending on which option is chosen). Without matching local funds, the project was ineligible for federal funding, and was no longer listed as an approved project in state and Boston MPO capital plans.

The April 2007 document Journey to 2030: Transportation Plan of the Boston Region Metropolitan Planning Organization said "the MPO feels that a study of the right-of-way requirements should be conducted for preservation of that right-of-way so as to not preclude this project's going forward in the future."[9]

In December 2007, the Federal Railroad Administration was interested in funding this project if the Massachusetts Executive Office of Transportation was interested in sponsoring it.[10]

In August 2009, the project was brought back into the spotlight as a component of the New England transportation plan, a coordinated effort by the six New England states to improve rail transportation infrastructure by competing for the $8 billion allocated for high-speed rail in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.[11]

In December 2011, former Governor Michael S. Dukakis reiterated his long-term support for rail service, saying he had been trying to convince the current Massachusetts administration "to get serious about building a rail link" rather than expand South Station.[12] In January 2014, Dukakis said he would prefer to have the North–South Rail Link named after him, rather than South Station, as the Massachusetts House of Representatives had voted unanimously to do.[13]

In August 2015, former Governors Dukakis and William F. Weld co-wrote an op-ed calling the link "One of the most important and cost-effective investments we can make".[14] Based on their advocacy, MassDOT agreed to fund a $2 million study in February 2016.[15]

As of April 2017, the project is awaiting a $2 million feasibility study. This study has been pushed for by the North-South Rail Link Working Group. The working group, a group of supporters, includes Senator Ed Markey, Representatives Niki Tsongas and Katherine Clark, with Representative Seth Moulton leading the charge. It also includes more than half of Massachusetts mayors. The state began soliciting bids for the study on March 1, 2017.[16]


As of 2017, the MBTA and Amtrak use the Grand Junction Line for non-revenue vehicle moves between the two sides of their networks. This alternative connection splits from the Framingham/Worcester Line near Boston University and the Mass Turnpike Allston/Brighton exit ramps, and the track then crosses the Charles River into Cambridge. From there, it runs through the East Cambridge neighborhood and into Somerville, where it connects to the commuter rail lines running from North Station, just below the McGrath-O'Brien Highway.

The line is single-tracked and slow, with a large number of at-grade crossings. Several of the crossings (e.g. Massachusetts Avenue, several streets around Kendall Square, Cambridge Street, and Gore Street) require trains to come to a near-complete stop before proceeding at their maximum allowed track speed of 10 miles per hour (16 km/h).[17]:12 The line would potentially be served by a new West Station which is proposed as part of the Beacon Park Yard redevelopment.[18]

The Grand Junction corridor has also been proposed as part of the Urban Ring light rail or bus rapid transit project, or a possible pedestrian trail.[17] However, only Worcester Line trains would be directly served, while all other trains from South Station lines would have to detour and reverse all the way to the west of Back Bay and Yawkey stations to reach the Grand Junction connection.

An above-ground rail link between South and North Stations was once proposed[citation needed] by the Boston-based Association for Public Transportation (which also supports the underground North–South Rail Link). This would eliminate the need to use multiple rapid transit lines to travel between terminals, but would still require two transfers for Amtrak and commuter rail passengers passing through downtown Boston. Unless grade separated, the link would have to operate at slow speed through very congested downtown traffic.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Sigmund, Pete (June 6, 2007). "Triumph, Tragedy Mark Boston's Big Dig Project". Construction Equipment Guide. Retrieved December 10, 2007. 
  2. ^ "Please note that in Boston, Amtrak Downeaster trains arrive and depart from Boston's North Station. All other Amtrak services in Boston depart from South Station and Back Bay Station. Passengers transferring between the Downeaster and other Amtrak services must make their own arrangements for the transfer between stations in Boston."
  3. ^ "North South Rail Link Operations Study" (PDF). 
  4. ^ "Downeaster - the Train between Boston and Portland, ME". Amtrak. Retrieved April 18, 2012. Transfer by taxi is recommended for passengers traveling with significant amounts of luggage or young children. 
  5. ^ MBTA, et al., North South Rail Link Project, Major Investment Study, vol. I, figure 2.5–7 (June 2003).
  6. ^ MBTA, et al., North South Rail Link Project, Major Investment Study, vol. I, figure 2.5-4 (June 2003).
  7. ^ MBTA, et al., North South Rail Link Project, Major Investment Study, vol. I, figure 2-38 (June 2003).
  8. ^ MBTA, et al., North South Rail Link Project, Major Investment Study, vol. I, 2–36 (June 2003).
  9. ^ "Long-Range Transportation Plan - Archive". Boston Region MPO. Retrieved March 31, 2015. (see page #2–10)
  10. ^ (PDF) Archived from the original (PDF) on July 25, 2008. Retrieved January 12, 2008.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  11. ^ Dukakis, Michael S.; O'Brien, Robert B. (August 23, 2009). "Finally, a rail plan for New England". The Boston Globe. 
  12. ^ Grillo, Thomas (December 16, 2011). "South Station expansion chugging along". Boston Business Journal. Retrieved December 23, 2011. 
  13. ^ Sweet, Laurel (January 31, 2014). "Michael Dukakis decries terminal honor?". Boston Herald. 
  14. ^ Dukakis, Michael S.; Weld, William F. (August 18, 2015). "Finally, a rail plan for New England". The Boston Globe. 
  15. ^ Leung, Shirley (February 23, 2016). "North-South Rail Link gets another look". Boston Globe. Retrieved February 23, 2016. 
  16. ^ Dungca, Nicole (March 1, 2017). "State asks for bids in $2 million North-South rail link study". The Boston Globe. Retrieved April 16, 2017. 
  17. ^ a b City of Cambridge, Mass.: Grand Junction Rail-with-Trail Feasibility Study – Oct. 2006
  18. ^ Allston I90 Interchange Improvement Project, MassDOT

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]