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Updated: February 19, 2024

Marlborough train station? A Mass. advocate is proposing a station for the MetroWest economic capital, but city officials don’t see it as a realistic option

A stop sign in front of a railroad track Photo | Edd Cote The site of the former Marlborough Junction station near Maple and Mill streets is now largely inaccessible to foot traffic.

In the wake of Gov. Maura Healey in January announcing significant funding to improve the MBTA and in the midst of state and federal pushes for an overhaul of passenger rail, Boston-based public transportation advocacy nonprofit TransitMatters seized the moment to propose a somewhat radical concept: Overhauling the Framingham/Worcester Commuter Rail line to create a thriving transit corridor to serve as a viable and cleaner alternative to MassPike.

Without naming a funding source, TransitMatters proposed various improvements to the line easily totaling in the high nine figures: electrifying the entire line to eliminate diesel trains, adding a third line to the tracks to speed up travel times, and installing new stations to make the train accessible, especially to people without cars.

One of those proposals called for the reopening of the old Marlborough Junction station, bringing passenger rail to the unofficial economic center of the MetroWest region and the largest community in Central Massachusetts without a Commuter Rail station, despite having an employee population of 25,000 and being home of global and national headquarters for the likes of Boston Scientific, TJX, and Quest Diagnostics, among others.

Yet, even as a pie-in-the-sky concept, Marlborough business and government officials are skeptical. A Marlborough Junction station would be too expensive and little used, and the city has other transportation options, including its bus system and maintaining a commuting culture using cars, especially since the community has ideal highway access.

“I don’t know if I really see the value in adding a stop,” said Steve Messinio, president and CEO of the Marlborough Regional Chamber of Commerce. “Why would [the state and MBTA] want to spend money on something like this?”

a portrait photo of a main in a suit
Steve Messinio, CEO of Marlborough Regional Chamber of Commerce

Marlborough ceased to have passenger rail service in 1937. The reopening of the Marlborough Junction station near the intersection of Maple and Mill streets would require reactivating a line known as the Agricultural Branch only used by Florida-based freight service megaprovider CSX.

“The Agricultural Branch is a bit more of a blue-sky concept,” said Jackson Moore-Otto, regional rail project manager for TransitMatters. “Once you make the fundamental investments [we’re proposing], these ideas become a bit more feasible.”

A passenger rail corridor

The TransitMatters vision for a thriving Framingham/Worcester line with a Marlborough branch comes amid both federal and state pushes for an enhanced passenger rail system.

The President Joe Biden Administration has announced more than $30 billion toward the creation of a nationwide passenger rail corridor, specifically funding better connections between the Northeast Corridor and Northern Virginia and the rest of the Southeast. Improving passenger rail is part of both the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act, which total $2 trillion in funding.

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MBTA ridership across all modes of transportation rose 8.9% from 2022 to 2023, but concerns over the current state of the Commuter Rail remain.

In Massachusetts, Gov. Healey is seeking to bring the West-East Rail passenger system to fruition, linking Boston to Springfield and New Haven, Connecticut, where it could link with the Metro-North system into New York City. The project received $108 million in federal funding to start the necessary trackwork, and Healey in February named Andy Koziol, a former Rhode Island official with 16 years of transportation experience, to lead the effort.

“We have never been closer to making West-East Rail a reality,” Healey said in the Koziol announcement.

The TransitMatters proposal sees the Framingham/Worcester line as a vital artery in this system. The Framingham/Worcester is the third busiest Commuter Rail line, and ridership is growing, though it’s still only 60% to 70% of pre-COVID levels, according to the TransitMatters report. The line averaged 14,500 weekday riders in January, MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said.

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Jackson Moore-Otto, TransitMatters rail project manager

TransitMatters’ proposed improvements include an estimated $290 million project to electrify the Commuter Rail, which Moore-Otto said is an important part of reaching the state goal of becoming a net-zero carbon emissions state by 2050. Also necessary are additional stations and platform upgrades and walking path infrastructure to make the commuter rail fully accessible and decrease ride time. Some of this work is already underway. A notable project is slated for completion at the end of 2024 for the Natick Center Commuter Rail Station, one of the MBTA’s busiest.

Marlborough station not seen as viable

More details on the Marlborough station and the Agricultural branch are planned for a white paper to be issued by TransitMatters in the future. It will likely include connections with local regional transit authorities to make commuting without cars feasible for employees of destinations outside walking distance.

Marlborough government leaders echoed the skepticism from the Marlborough Regional Chamber of Commerce and weren’t eager to discuss the prospect. Mayor Christian Dumais said in an e-mail statement there needs to be buy-in from the state government for such a concept, and to date, there’s been no indication of that.

“I am always open to discussion about improving and increasing transportation options in Marlborough,” Dumais said.

Dumais said he’s worked with the MetroWest Regional Transit Authority on “viable and attainable transportation solutions and options.”

A chart showing the increase in Framingham/Worcester Commuter Rail ridership since 2021
Commuter Rail ridership data

Meanwhile, Meredith Harris, executive director of the Marlborough Economic Development Corp., declined to discuss the TransitMatters report specifically given the uncertain nature of the concept. Harris said providing transit to people who commute in and out of Marlborough on the Commuter Rail is an important topic. The MEDC launched a shuttle service to and from the Southborough MBTA station in 2019, a program funded by the state that Harris hopes will continue. There are 14 regular riders on the shuttle bus. “We’re getting a good mix of people that are going to and from their workplaces,” Harris said.

For the chamber’s Messinio, a number of factors give him pause about the train station concept. One of the most important is people simply aren’t clamoring for MBTA Commuter Rail service into Marlborough, he said. He questioned how the financially troubled MBTA would pay for the needed upgrades to add a new Commuter Rail branch, including last-leg shuttle service to local office parks.

TransitMatters estimates 16,000 employed residents live within a two-mile radius of the proposed branch. Framingham stands to see an arguably greater net gain from the theoretical new branch, particularly for Framingham State University and Massachusetts Bay Community College students and employees, and those working at the 9/90 Corporate Center. Each of these destinations are within walking distance of potential stations on the Agricultural Branch.

More public transit is something Framingham State officials have lobbied for over the years, said Dale Hamel, executive vice president of administration and finance.

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Dale Hamel, executive vice president at Framingham State University

About half of FSU students are commuters, he said, and a good portion of students and faculty travel to the campus by Commuter Rail. They take an FSU shuttle from the station in downtown Framingham to the FSU campus abutting Route 9.

“We certainly have interest in it,” said Hamel.

FSU worked with Framingham city officials and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation about 10 years ago to explore reopening the Agricultural Branch. The idea hit roadblocks with freight line owner CSX, which had priorities conflicting with extended rail service to the two colleges on the north side of town, Hamel said.

Ultimately, the parties proposed something more like a trolley service from the Framingham Commuter Rail station to campus. A similar idea might be more realistic than a new Agricultural Branch, Hamel said.

MWRTA is agnostic but inclined to support

Jim Nee, administrator for the MetroWest Regional Transit Authority highlighted road infrastructure as a challenge to overcome for the Agricultural Branch proposal. The fact that Marlborough leaders are puzzled at the concept is rooted in the fact business parks and offices are based around a car culture.

“We’re agnostic at this point because we haven’t really thought about it and it really comes down to that infrastructure,” Nee said. Transit planners generally support more access to MBTA services, Nee said.

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Ryan Gagne, owner of Venture X Marlborough

But in Marlborough, people working there aren’t itching to get on a train to Boston, said Ryan Gagne, owner of Venture X coworking space at Marlborough’s Apex Center. Gagne’s clients rent offices so they can work close to home with access to meeting space as an alternative to a home office. Most clients come from neighboring towns, and only a few commute by train.

Gagne wondered if demand for more rail service would warrant the large cost. The MBTA, plagued by financial struggles and ridership declines, isn’t a model for the future, he said.

“Their model is failing,” Gagne said.

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50% of WBJ readers said that the state should prioritize adding an additional track to the Framingham/Worcester line to reduce travel times.

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