There already was a North-South Rail Link

Sort of, and long ago.

The elevated railway leaving South Station. Courtesy of Bradley H. Clarke Collection

It wasn’t quite the North-South Rail Link, the fabled tunnel that would connect the rail systems that end at Boston’s North and South stations, which has gained new political life in the last few months. But for nearly 40 years, a rail line provided passage between the stations: the Atlantic Avenue Elevated Railway, which operated from 1901 to 1938.

North and South stations were originally built to consolidate several different rail terminuses in the city, according to Boston transit history expert Bradley Clarke, the president of the Boston Street Railway Association. The elevated railway connected the two stations, while also making other downtown stops in between.

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“It was very useful for several decades,’’ Clarke said. “It wasn’t primarily for [connecting the stations] but it fulfilled that function. The management of the Boston Elevated Railways recognized that they had two important points to connect, and that’s how it was done.’’

The original link between the stations stopped running because of lack of demand in 1938, and its materials were scrapped for the war effort a few years later, according to Clarke.

Two former governors who favor the more modern North-South link—Republican Bill Weld and Democrat Michael Dukakis—have urged their successor, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, to take up the cause by paying for a feasibility study. Baker has spent much of his first year in office dealing with mass transit, especially the financial issues at the MBTA, which include a backlog of more than $7 billion in repairs to get the system back in good working order.

Clarke said he thinks a project similar to the Atlantic Avenue railway, such as a monorail that traveled along the Rose Kennedy Greenway, could make for a cost-effective alternative to the North-South link. (The idea has been broached this fall by the Boston City Council.)

Simply connecting the stations isn’t exactly the goal of rail link advocates. Instead, their aim is to get Amtrak and commuter rail passengers from north or south of Boston through the city without having to unload. Continued passage would also help improve train capacity at both stations, advocates have argued.

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A separate link between the two stations, such as the Atlantic Avenue Elevated, would not bring either benefit, nor would it be likely to convince somebody who works north of the city that it’s worth living on the South Shore or vise versa.

But it would at least make traveling by train through the city a little easier, Clarke said. Today, if passengers want to connect between the two stations using the MBTA, they need to hop on the Red Line at South Station and switch to the Green or Orange Lines to get to North Station.

Clarke also noted that for some commuters, there already are rail links between the northern and southern tracks. Amtrak trains and some commuter rail lines heading south of Boston can be met at Back Bay Station, making it just an Orange Line trip away from North Station. And one commuter rail route north of the city can also be reached at the Porter Square station on the Red Line, a straight shot from South Station.

What Boston public transit used to look like:

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