Mass transit advocates urge R.I. to develop its own rapid rail system

By Patrick Anderson 
Journal Staff Writer 

Posted Apr 21, 2019 at 6:49 PMUpdated Apr 22, 2019 at 4:45 PM

In a “Rapid Rail” plan released last week, Grow Smart proposes starting a high-frequency Rhode Island rail shuttle between the under-construction Pawtucket station and T.F. Green Airport. It would leave out, at least initially, the more lightly used and much maligned Wickford Junction stop in North Kingstown.

PROVIDENCE — Urban planning advocates Grow Smart Rhode Island say the state shouldn’t rely exclusively on Massachusetts to improve commuter rail service here and should create its own passenger train operation instead.

In a “Rapid Rail” plan released last week, Grow Smart proposes starting a high-frequency Rhode Island rail shuttle between the under-construction Pawtucket station and T.F. Green Airport. It would leave out, at least initially, the more lightly used and much maligned Wickford Junction stop in North Kingstown.

Further down the road, Grow Smart calls for new stations in Providence’s Olneyville section and around Park Avenue in Cranston, with service returning to Wickford Junction and extending down to Kingston Station in South Kingstown. The MBTA would continue running trains from Boston to Providence, under the plan.

The group pitches improved mass transit as a way to effectively increase the size of the shrinking Rhode Island labor force by allowing more people to get to access employers.

“In regions with relatively low population growth, like Rhode Island, the best way to grow the labor force is by improving worker mobility,” the report says. “By minimizing commuting times, more people can gain access to a wider range of jobs, and businesses become more productive when they can draw from a larger pool of workers.”

House Majority Leader K. Joseph Shekarchi made an economic development-based pitch for a Rhode Island intra-state commuter rail service last year.

Grow Smart is diving into commuter rail advocacy as Rhode Island this year works on a master plan for all forms of mass transit in the state called TransitForward 2040. The planning is being led by the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority and will be finished by the end of the year.

Grow Smart Deputy Director John Flaherty acknowledged “Rapid Rail” is more a concept than a detailed plan — there are no cost estimates here — but said he hopes it spurs the state to look beyond the status quo to a more ambitious transit vision.

“We think the concept has merit and we would like to have a debate about it,” Flaherty told The Journal. “Let’s not say we will tweak the system at the edges and make some incremental improvements. We are saying take a bolder approach to unleash the potential of transit for Rhode Island.”

Grow Smart unveiled the plan last Tuesday at a joint event with the Boston group TransitMatters, whose 2018 plan for transforming the Massachusetts’ old-fashioned commuter rail system into a much faster, frequent regional transit system is being studied by the MBTA.

By running self-propelled electric trains instead of diesel locomotives and raising station platforms, TransitMatters says trips from Providence to Boston would take 45 minutes instead of 70 minutes. And since self-propelled electric trains are more reliable than diesel locomotives, the chronic breakdowns that now plague the MBTA should ease significantly.

But how likely significant investments in passenger rail are given the MBTA’s perilous finances and Rhode Island’s automobile dependence is an open question. (Massachusetts’ tortured attempts to expand commuter rail to the South Coast also haunts the conversation.)

Although Gov. Gina Raimondo’s transportation policy focused on highways through her first term, she appears to be paying attention to transit, or at least the idea of allowing faster travel to Boston. (TransitMatters’ work on the Providence Line was at least partially inspired as a corrective to Raimondo’s call for special express trains to Boston.)

Deputy Chief of Staff Rosemary Powers, who is also Raimondo’s point person on a regional transportation climate change initiative, attended the TransitMatters event last Tuesday and said Rhode Island officials are in contact with the MBTA about a key aspect of the TransitMatters plan, moving the Providence Line from diesel to electric.

“We are interested, we want to try to support this more frequent service,” Powers said in a phone interview. “There are benefits for both [Massachusetts and Rhode Island]... But I think the fact is that all the decisions are Massachusetts decisions.”

Powers said Rhode Island is encouraging Massachusetts to try a pilot program on the Providence Line using electric locomotives as a step toward electrification, even if locomotives won’t create the same speed benefits as self-propelled cars.

The MBTA is currently studying electrification as part of a master plan for the future of its commuter rail system.

The Northeast Corridor tracks that carry the Providence Line and would carry any future Rhode Island commuter rail are already electrified for Amtrak, but moving to electric commuter rail in any form would require electrifiying some sidings, a rail yard and acquiring new trains.

Peter Brassard, chairman of the Rhode Island Association of Railroad Passengers, TransitMatters member and GrowSmart plan co-writer, said a good place to start improving Rhode Island commuter rail would be electrifying the Pawtucket rail yard. It would likely be necessary as a way to store and maintain trains for an MBTA pilot program or Rhode Island intra-state rail.

Rhode Island Department of Transportation spokeswoman Lisbeth Pettengill said last week electrifying the Pawtucket rail yard is not currently in the agency’s long-range plans.


Please join us for a presentation and discussion of progress to date on development of the state's first multimodal Master Transit Plan, or "Transit Forward RI" on Monday, April 8, 4:30 pm at the RI Foundation


The Project Team, including representatives from RIPTA, RIDOT, the Office of Statewide Planning, and project consultants, will share their research and ideas with us, and we in turn can provide them with valuable feedback as they continue to envision how our passenger transportation network should look and operate in the future.  


The Transit Master Plan (TMP) is being developed by the Division of Statewide Planning, RIPTA, and Rhode Island Department of Transportation alongside the Bicycle Mobility Plan and Long-Range Transportation Plan (LRTP).  The TMP will: 

· Develop a transit vision for Rhode Island over the next two decades

· Identify the specific improvements needed to achieve the vision

· Identify potential new sources of funding for the improvements

· Identify governance changes that could help move the plan forward and improve service delivery

We are inviting Rhode Island's transit and environment organizations to join us for this workshop on Monday, April 8, from 4:30 to 6:30 at the RI Foundation, One Union Station, Providence.

March RIARP Meeting

We  have reserved the room at the North Providence Union Free Library at 1810 Mineral Spring Avenue (between Douglas and Smithfield Road) on Monday, March 25. We will start the meeting at 6:15 PM.  Several of us will be having supper earlier at 5:00 PM at The Fire Wood Oven Pizza & Bar at 1874 Mineral Spring Avenue, North Providence which is also just called “The Fire”. Anyone who wishes to join us is more than welcome. 



1. Amtrak  and other Federal Appropriations 

2. Other Amtrak News.

3. Report on the Mini-Day on the Hill meeting with some new members of Congress

4. Grow Smart  RI Paper: Rhode Island Rapid Transit: A Strategy for Economic Growth

5. MBTA Fares

6. Preview of the NARP New England Membership Meeting.