At the turn of the last century, South Station included 28 tracks, as seen in this view of the tracks and original train shed in 1904 (photo courtesy Detroit Publishing Company). 18 of the original tracks were demolished during the construction of the Post Office in the 1960s. By 1972, only eight tracks were still in use. After the station was renovated in the 1980s, the number of tracks rose to 11. Two more were added for the restoration of the Old Colony lines in 1992.
Looking to the future, planners estimate that 553 trains a day will move in and out of South Station by the year 2035, representing an increase of 20 percent over today. MassDOT must redesign the station to smoothly manage that anticipated traffic.
An essential goal of expanding South Station is to improve its “rail capacity” – the ability of the station to efficiently and safely handle the movements of many trains in and out of the station – in order to provide for more and better service for Amtrak and MBTA passengers. Simply put, more capacity makes it possible for more trains to use the station more quickly and with fewer delays.
Rail systems include railroad tracks, train control and signaling systems, communication systems, electrification systems, and a variety of supporting structures. The MassDOT South Station Expansion rail engineering team includes specialists in the fields of rail operations, architecture, and urban design in order to make sure that all aspects of the project are well integrated. Their work is part of a complex design puzzle.
MassDOT rail engineers are exploring ways to add up to seven new tracks and four new platforms at South Station, all east of the existing thirteen tracks and seven platforms. Other rail infrastructure improvements include reconfiguring tracks at interlockings (interconnected signals that control train movements) and yards outside of the station itself.
While developing alternatives for tracks, “special track work” such as switches, turnouts, crossovers, and other rail systems components, rail engineers are faced with the physical constraints around South Station itself: the highway system network of ramps, tunnels, and ventilation buildings; Fort Point Channel; and the MBTA Red Line tunnel. Other challenges include the need to accommodate longer Amtrak and MBTA Commuter Rail trains to carry more passengers to and from Boston.
The rail engineers’ efforts are focused on optimizing flexibility at the station so that trains can be efficiently dispatched, while also planning for anticipated future growth in the number of trains traveling in and out of South Station. Once different alternatives have been evaluated and a preferred alternative is chosen, impacts to the environment will be analyzed, construction costs will be estimated, and the major project elements will be further defined.
Rail engineering is looking ahead to make sure today’s planning will keep pace with tomorrow’s needs – and that every track, pole, and signal is in the right place.