SELECTMEN NEWS: Board Grapples With Whether To Eliminate 5 Daily Stops At N. Wilmington Commuter Rail Station

WILMINGTON, MA — At Monday night’s meeting, Selectmen spoke with its statehouse delegation, public safety leaders, and MBTA officials about ways to avoid having Commuter Rail trains block Middlesex Avenue — and delay public safety vehicles — when stopped at North Wilmington Station.

“It appears the largest problem is for the inbound trains because there’s not really a platform for them,” said Town Manager Jeff Hull beginning the discussion. “We’ve begun discussion contemplating discontinuing the flag stop arrangement that exists for inbound trains. MBTA did a survey [this winter] and noted that particular stops — 11:18am, 12:34pm, 2:29pm, 9:30pm, and 11:19pm — had basically no activity on any of those stops… One of the thing suggested as a possibility is that, on a trial basis, the train be allowed to continue through at its normal rate of speed.”

What Exactly Is A Flag Stop?

According to the MBTA’s website, a flag stop is when the train will only make a station stop if passengers are visible on the platform, or if passengers on the train request that the train stop. Otherwise, the train will pass through the station. The train will be moving at a reduced speed, however, so the conductor can clearly see the platform.

State House Delegation Input

“We want to make this decision after hearing from the public,” added State Representative Ken Gordon, who represents Precinct 3 in town. “We’re looking for a balance and to create as little inconvenience as possible.”

“This [proposed change of eliminating five flag stops] wouldn’t impact morning commuters,” stressed State Representative Dave Robertson, who represents the rest of Wilmington. “The stops in question have had low, if any, ridership. The train is showing up to empty, dead, ghost platforms.”

“We have both a long-term and short-term perspective here,” said State Senator Bruce Tarr. “In the short-term, we want to minimize the number of times the train could be in the road…. In the long-term, we’re still committed to revitalizing the station and creating the infrastructure that will allow the train to pull out of the street at all times when stopped… We need to protect public safety but also meet the ridership needs of the commuters.”

Board of Selectmen Input

“One concern I have is the cost. We pay $513,000 to the MBTA each year. Will there be any reduction in cost if we bypass these stops? If we are giving up something, will we stay pay the same amount?,” asked Selectman Greg Bendel. 

MBTA officials said they’d have to get back to the town on that question.

“We pay a very large assessment,” agreed Selectman Mike McCoy. “We want to make sure we deliver good service for the folks in our community. I know of a couple of residents in the area that reached out to me and do NOT want to see the stops discontinued…. I’m not interested in eliminating those stops. We pay a lot of money to the MBTA.”

“This isn’t just a funding issue, although perhaps it’s the most important factor,” responded State Senator Bruce Tarr, who noted the MBTA would need to receive various ADA waivers to allow a newly constructed station to use “mini high platforms,” which would reduce construction costs and fit the geometry of the site much better than “full high platforms.” Tarr noted that there’s $2 million in the bond bill earmarked for a reconstructed station, but he and the town will need to fit for that money to be released.

“The folks in North Wilmington deserve a good station, just like in Wilmington center,” said McCoy.

“You also need to consider the residents waiting in traffic, and the residents in need of medical attention,” pointed out State Representative Ken Gordon.

“I’m hesitant to eliminate flag stops. If we lose those stops, would we ever get them back? It sets a dangerous precedent,” warned Selectman Jonathan Eaton. “As public policy, we should be encouraging commuter rail usage… With 23,000 residents, to have only 250 parking spots in town for two train stations, hopefully we can do a little bit better.”

Eaton, who takes the commuter rail to work daily, noted that both commuter rail parking lots at Wilmington Center (189 spots) and North Wilmington (53 spots) are generally filled up by or around 7am. Eaton suggested MBTA investigate increasing the parking around the North Wilmington station, which could lead to an increase in commuter rail usage.

An MBTA official told Eaton and his colleagues that the flag stops could easily be “turned back on” and wouldn’t be lost forever. The MBTA official also said that, with the waivers, a newly constructed North Wilmington station could cost as little as $1.5-$2 million. A full-blown station — with 2 new ADA-compliant platforms, ramps, canopies and lighting — would run approximately $10-$12 million.

Eaton asked MBTA officials and the state delegation to continue to push for the far less expensive option.

Public Safety Officials Input

Wilmington Deputy Fire Chief Bill Cavanaugh and Wilmington Acting Police Chief Joe Desmond backed the proposal to temporarily eliminate the five flag stops.

“Conservations with MBTA has been productive. MBTA has been responsive than what I thought they’d be,” Cavanaugh told the board. “It’s worth a shot to try it out. If we need to make an adjustment, we can.”

“From a public safety standpoint, our ability to respond to an emergency is what’s most important to us. We support these efforts,” Desmond agreed.

Residents Input

Only one North Wilmington resident showed up to speak out against the proposal.

“If you don’t allow flag stops, how will we get into Boston? To my Mass General appointments? Kids go into Boston in the summer,” said North Wilmington resident Jim Buckley, who lives in close proximity to the station. “How do I get into Boston via public transportation if you eliminate the flag stops?”

In response to another resident’s question, MBTA officials confirmed it does not have any sort of technological cure to solve this problem.

Resident Frank West wondered aloud if a platform could be built at 362 Middlesex Avenue, the site of a proposed detox facility. West noted the MBTA previously took business’s land in town back in the 1990’s.

What’s Next?

MBTA officials asked that the Board of Selectmen make a decision on whether or not to eliminate the flag stops by the week of April 22. The commuter rail schedules, which are updated every 6 months, are due to be printed in May.

Selectman Chair Kevin Caira said he would place the matter on the agenda for the board’s next meeting — Monday, April 22 at 7pm.

Watch the discussion, courtesy of Wilmington Community Television, beginning at the 5-minute, 15-second mark:

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