The MBTA line that runs through Attleboro and Mansfield is — along with its Stoughton branch — the busiest part of the commuter rail system.
That’s a mixed blessing.
According to the T’s own figures, more than 26,000 daily boardings take place on those trains. And, since Massachusetts and Rhode Island commuters for the most part stoutly refuse to carpool (How many drivers do you actually see using the HOV lane on the Southeast Expressway?), that probably represents about 13,000 single-occupancy vehicles that are not further clogging up Interstates 95 and 93 back and forth at rush hour.
The other side of that figure, however, is that when things go wrong on the Boston-Providence line they impact an awful lot of people. And things go wrong on a regular basis.
Those daily boardings represent thousands of individuals who rely on the commuter rail system to get to work, school and medical appointments in and around Boston. Not to mention those who avail themselves of the opportunity the system presents to sample shopping, entertainment and, of course, sports — when it works.
Out-of-town travel writers frequently describe Boston’s public transportation system as “charming.” That’s an excruciatingly polite way of saying “creaky and out of date.” It’s easy to be charmed by it if you don’t have to rely on it every day.
For Attleboro and Mansfield, however, failures on the T are more than just an inconvenience. Both communities have staked a large part of their economic futures on the fact that they host commuter rail stations with available parking.
Now, even Pawtucket and Central Falls are seeking to get in on the act. A new commuter rail stop for those cities is scheduled to open in 2022.
Attleboro in particular has pinned its plans for the revitalization of its downtown on that area being a transportation hub. That’s what’s driving the conversion of former industrial or retail spaces — long past their prime — into condominiums and apartments. People will be drawn by access to rail service, will happily avail themselves of housing options that will be much more affordable than anything in Boston and will stay to patronize shops and restaurants. That, anyway, is the theory. But none of that works if the T doesn’t.
That’s why we think it’s important that the MBTA move forward with plans to improve service and reliability. Recently, the system’s oversight board voiced approval for a $1.5 billion plan to bring service up to date. Key to that is swapping the older, unreliable and notoriously polluting fleet of diesel engines with electric locomotives.
In that, the Attleboro line has somewhat of an advantage. Part of the line was electrified nearly 20 years ago to accommodate high-speed Amtrak trains and those overhead lines could be reworked to be used by MBTA rail.
Public officials in both Massachusetts and Rhode Island have said they are committed to improved rail service. Now they just have to be ready to pursue funding — which rail advocates hope will be forthcoming from the federal government in the future.
It could be a long trip. But the journey should be worth it in the end.