Ready to Ride the Rails

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While some see trains as nineteenth-century technology, modern trains are perhaps the greenest way to travel over intermediate distances, and Rhode Islanders now have more opportunities to do so than in a long time.

Providence Train Station

Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) commuter rail service to Providence, which disappeared completely in the 1980s, is now an all-day service with twenty trips to Boston and back each weekday, from as early as 4:15 am to 9:45 pm.  All of them stop at the new Pawtucket-Central Falls station six minutes after leaving Providence on the way to Boston.  Ten of them originate in Wickford Junction and also stop at the airport station in Warwick.  All but four rush-hour trains carry bicycles, for no additional fare.

On both Saturday and Sunday there are nine trains to and from Boston, all carrying bikes for free.  The MBTA has a $10 weekend pass that gives unlimited access to its commuter rail system all day for both weekend days.  That bargain can be purchased on the train.  Destinations on our line to Boston include Mass Audubon’s Moose Hill Sanctuary, which is walking distance from Sharon Station. Northeastern University, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Gardner Museum are walking distance from Ruggles Station.  MBTA commuter lines can take you to Plymouth and other South shore towns, Salem, Rockport, and other North Shore towns, Concord, Wellesley, and more to the west.  See mbta.com for schedules.

With both RIPTA and the MBTA providing transit between Pawtucket, Providence, Warwick and Wickford Junction, Providence Representative John Lombardi has proposed integrating fares between the two agencies.  Such a move would let passengers use either service depending on schedules.

Providence is a stop for all Amtrak trains on the Boston-New York line, and service has increased to eighteen trains stopping here each way on weekdays.  Ten of these are Acela expresses that have higher fares but make the trip to NY about a half hour quicker.  Be aware Amtrak fares are highly variable depending on demand. See www.amtrak.com for fares and schedules.

Amtrak, already electrified in our area, has energy-efficient steel wheels on rails and cars that shelter each other from air resistance, making it the “green” way to travel on the Northeast Corridor.  Acela passengers may see new equipment in service by the end of the year.  Amtrak may possibly stop at the airport in Warwick.  That stop can be expensive and not all rail advocates see it as a priority, especially as Amtrak faces some expensive bridge and tunnel projects in the corridor.  Peter Brassard, head of the RI Association of Railroad Passengers (RIARP,) says an Amtrak stop in Warwick can be valuable, but it is more important that the commuter frequency to the airport be increased, including on weekends.  RIARP supports the study of extending Connecticut’s Shoreline East rail service into RI, especially to Providence.  RIARP would also like to see an arrangement whereby MBTA passes are honored on Amtrak trains, similar to what commuter agencies in other states like Connecticut and Maryland have done.  Perhaps our Congressional delegation can help promote this kind of cooperation.

Amtrak is electrified, but the MBTA still uses diesels, even though the Providence line operates mostly under the same wires that Amtrak uses.  Electric trains, a long-proven technology, would make the service quicker, quieter, more reliable, and cleaner.  So the RI Department of Transportation (RIDOT) and the MBTA have a joint application for a federal grant to study electrification of the line, also a priority for RIARP.  Our Congressional delegation can help promote electrification too!

Though we may usually think of RIDOT as a highway agency, it was created in 1970 and given authority to oversee state railroads.  Indeed, on their website, go directly to dot.ri.gov/about/who/docs/Commuter_Rail_Ride_Guide.pdf for schedule and ticketing information.  You will even find a section to “enjoy the benefits of riding the rails.”  Benefits, they note, include saving money on gas, parking, and vehicle maintenance, reducing stress, and finding “time to read, knit, nap, listen to music, catch up on the news or podcasts, plan grocery lists… work projects… you get the idea.”  All good suggestions, though I must admit if not chatting with someone I am traveling with, I usually just stare out the train window, maybe sipping a coffee you can get in Providence station.  Peace of mind?

All aboard!

Amtrak waiting room services Amtrak and MBTA trains

Barry Schiller, a retired Rhode Island math professor, is a lifelong transit user and advocate.  He has served on the RI Public Transit Authority Board of Directors and the state’s Transportation Advisory Committee.

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