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Towns see mixed blessing in extra trains

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By John Dyer
Globe Correspondent / May 18, 2008

Congressman Jim McGovern stood in front of a crowd of state and local officials, representatives of both freight and commuter rail operations, and about 50 other interested observers and promised to do whatever it takes to get more commuter trains running to Boston's western suburbs.

"There's a nice way to do it, and a not-nice way to do it," said the Worcester Democrat, as he threatened to use eminent domain laws, federal regulation, or other methods to strong-arm Florida-based railroad giant CSX. Officials want CSX to sell its 21 miles of track between Framingham and Worcester to the state, in a deal that would be worth as much as $400 million, as one step toward expanding commuter rail service.

With the possible exception of several CSX representatives, McGovern could count on reaching sympathetic ears as he addressed the Statewide Rail Summit in Worcester on May 9. Along with a number of state officials, he and Lieutenant Gover nor Tim Murray, the former Worcester mayor who hosted the summit and who also called CSX on the carpet for standing in the state's path, have participated in years of talks aimed at boosting the number of Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority trains linking Boston and Worcester.

But what's good for Worcester may not be so good for towns along the way.

Although more commuter rail service might serve suburban residents in general, said Framingham Town Manager Julian Suso, he worries that additional freight or passenger trains to Worcester would increase congestion in his community's downtown.

As it is, MBTA trains now halt traffic every time they pass through nine street intersections in Framingham's downtown and five away from the middle of town, Suso said. More trains might result in more blocked traffic, he said, taking the town "from gridlock to crisis."

Suso admitted that he couldn't be sure that more Boston-bound trains would add disruption to Framingham. It would depend on how their route and how they are scheduled, he said.

About 40 commuter trains run between Framingham and Boston on weekdays - 20 round trips, plus one extra train heading east - according to the MBTA's schedule. Approximately half of those trains run no farther west than Framingham. The rest travel the full line, reaching stations in Ashland, Southborough, Westborough and Grafton en route to Worcester.

Referring to any expanded schedule, Suso asked, "Are these existing trains, or are they turning around, or are they additional trains?"

Ashland also has traffic blocked by freight and commuter trains traveling through its downtown area, where the tracks cross Main Street and Cherry Street, said Town Manager John Petrin.

"When the trains come through, it cuts our town in half," he said. "We have concerns about the use of the track currently. So any additional use is going to add concerns."

In an interview, Murray minimized the threat, noting that during the last two years, the state has given Framingham $500,000 to study how to mitigate train traffic through its center. Any changes to CSX's train yards or commuter rail schedules would be phased in, he said, so the state could help towns deal with extra trains.

"We'd have to address some infrastructure issues," he said. "We understand that additional trains, particularly at 126 and 135 and in Ashland, create some problems."

The Legislature has appropriated $500,000 to fund a study of Ashland's center, but Petrin said the money has not yet been allocated

Another aspect of negotiations with CSX could have an effect on local communities.

The freight carrier is seeking to expand its use of rail yards in Framingham and Westborough, where locomotives, passenger cars, and freight are stored and maintained. The new facilities would replace CSX yards in Boston and could free up space for commuter trains, according to CSX representatives, who said they studied 32 sites outside Boston where they might relocate operations now at the company's Allston rail yards.

Harvard University is considering purchasing the 48-acre Allston rail yards, which have become less useful to CSX in recent years because so much freight must be transported by truck to Boston's expanding suburbs, said Lisa Mancini, CSX's vice president for strategic infrastructure.

Mancini said that with few workable sites available beyond Worcester, CSX is looking to move its Allston operations to the western suburbs. Mancini wouldn't single out any towns, but she said the new sites would need to be far enough from Boston to make moving worthwhile.

"It's very hard to find acreage," she said. "I don't want to cause a stir in any community."

Of existing CSX facilities that could be expanded, the largest along the Framingham-Worcester line are in Framingham and Westborough, said Robert Sullivan, a CSX spokesman at the summit.

State transportation officials are already discussing expansions at Framingham. At the summit, Cahir said a state-funded consultant's study from 2006 suggested adding a mile-long third track to the main line on the west side of Framingham to accommodate extra freight trains while allowing commuter trains to pass. The third track would cost around $6 million, Cahir said.

"It's one of several options that have been suggested that would address some of the capacity concerns of CSX," he said.

Framingham's Suso said no one had approached him about expanding the town's rail yards. There are three CSX-owned train yards in Framingham, according to Sullivan. CSX uses them for freight, the MBTA uses them for commuter trains, and General Motors uses one yard on the south side of town to transport cars.

CSX also has a rail yard in Westborough near the Interstate 495 and Mass. Pike interchange. It is used for transporting goods to the immediate region. Mancini said the yards could not replace the Allston operations completely, but she didn't rule out CSX building new facilities in Westborough.

Westborough Selectwoman Lydia Goldblatt said she needed more information before she would say whether an expanded CSX presence would be positive or negative for the town. She could foresee some positive effects.

"Sure, let them park their trains," she said, "if it means tax revenue."

One holdup in negotiations to have the state buy track from CSX involves the rail carrier's refusal to sell unless the deal includes a no-fault clause that would shield it from liability in case of passenger injuries or deaths from accidents on its tracks. State officials who campaigned on delivering more train services have blasted CSX's position as a deal breaker.

"The no-fault concept as demanded by CSX in this transaction is bad public policy," Murray said at the summit. "Even in instances when CSX was grossly negligent, the MBTA would still be at fault."

Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray (left), one of the summit's hosts, criticized CSX for blocking a sale of local railroad tracks to the state.

BOOST FOR COMMUTER RAIL

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