A southward extension of commuter train service from Boston — which currently runs through Providence to T. F. Green Airport — will give Rhode Islanders a new transportation option.
A new station — to be called Wickford Junction — is currently under construction in North Kingstown, about 12 miles south of the existing station at T. F. Green in Warwick that opened for service in December. Wickford Junction is slated to open in approximately a year.
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority plans to expand its rail service — which stops in Providence and runs to Boston's South Station — as far south as Westerly, and potentially into Connecticut.
The MBTA's line is being extended to Wickford Junction "primarily to help alleviate traffic on a congested stretch of highway down into the South County area of the state along Route 4 and I-95," said Stephen Devine, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation's chief of Intermodal Planning. "Instead of costly investments in highway infrastructure and expansion," train service on the existing tracks can be "a way of getting people out of their cars," he said.
Approximately 10 trains per weekday in each direction are planned for the extended line, according to Devine.
Currently, direct service between T. F. Green and Boston is provided by only three northbound trains in the morning and three southbound trains in the evening, according to the MBTA website.
From Wickford Junction, 80 percent of riders are expected to head towards Providence, while about 20 percent are expected to travel on to Boston, Devine said. From the airport, most passengers continue past Providence to Boston, he added.
Wickford Junction will provide about three-fifths of the new ridership from the extended line, according to RIDOT's website.
The MBTA is expected to recover the additional operating costs from ticket revenue, Devine said. RIDOT will pay for capital costs for the extension. The construction of Wickford Junction will cost about $25 million, with additional track work costing $3 million more, he said.
Building up ‘transportation hubs'
Wickford Junction will have an impact on the surrounding area. Planners anticipate retail and high-density development near the new station, Devine said.
At the T. F. Green station, 90 acres of nearby land will be developed for commercial and retail purposes, said Michael Trainor, communications director for Gov. Lincoln Chafee '75 P'14. "The governor has always said that throughout history, economic development occurs around transportation hubs," he said.
The T. F. Green station and Wickford Junction are located on separate tracks, so trains can stop at a platform while allowing Amtrak's faster trains — which run on the same tracks — to bypass the station uninterrupted, Devine said. Although the main train line is electrified, the two stations' separate tracks are not, because unlike Amtrak, the MBTA does not run electric trains.
This means Amtrak's intercity trains will not stop at either station. "The state has undertaken design and construction of only those facilities needed to support commuter service," wrote Clifford Cole, manager of media relations for Amtrak's New York office, in an e-mail to The Herald. But with several infrastructure upgrades, including additional electric wiring and another track siding, Amtrak could stop at the airport station. "If the requirements are met, we would be interested," Cole wrote.
A small state's big vision
Further extension of rail service southwest to Kingston and Westerly, and potentially to Connecticut, is currently under study, Devine said.
The University of Rhode Island, located in Kingston, has expressed interest in such an extension. Having stations in Kingston and other locations in the state would offer "a lot of possibilities and a lot of flexibility for students, faculty and visitors to come to our campus," said Robert Weygand, vice president for administration and finance.
Given that service between Wickford Junction and Boston will extend almost 60 miles, it may not be practical for MBTA to continue its commuter train service much further, Devine said. The issue of what agency would operate new or extended rail service is currently being addressed in the study, he said.
There have been preliminary discussions about extending Connecticut's Shore Line East service, which currently runs between New Haven, Conn., and New London, Conn., to Westerly and possibly further into Rhode Island, Devine said.
A station in Pawtucket along the existing MBTA line is also under consideration. Two million dollars in federal money has been allotted to study the proposed station, including preliminary design work and an analysis of possible sites, Devine said.
Woonsocket has studied options for rail connections with Boston, Providence and Worcester, Mass., recommending a new commuter line between Woonsocket and Providence via Pawtucket.
Amtrak recently proposed a Japanese-style high-speed rail service route running from New York to Boston, passing through central Connecticut and Woonsocket and bypassing the shore and Providence, which are on Amtrak's existing Northeast Corridor. "We're supportive of high-speed rail through Rhode Island," Devine said, noting that the trade-offs of a plan that skips Providence would need to be examined in detail.
Rhode Island is currently working on a new statewide rail plan, which will examine infrastructure and operational needs. "We need to take a look at the entire state and how we move forward with rail," he said.