MBTA begins train testing on South Coast Rail Project

June 17, 2024
When complete in spring 2025, the project will restore rail service between Boston, Mass., and the South Coast for the first time in more than 70 years.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s (MBTA) South Coast Rail Project has started running test trains on the six stations the project spans across, bringing the project closer to completion. When complete, the project will restore rail service between Boston, Mass., and the South Coast for the first time in more than 70 years.  

The MBTA and MBTA General Manager and CEO Phillip Eng hosted two public meetings on June 13, 2024, to update residents on the South Coast Rail project – one at Bristol Community College in Fall River and the other at the Whaling Museum in New Bedford. Eng provided an update on the South Coast Rail project’s current progress and future plans. 

“The MBTA is deeply committed to delivering the South Coast Rail project while upholding the highest standards of quality and safety before launching passenger service,” Eng said. “We recognize this project is especially important for the Fall River, New Bedford and Taunton communities and the surrounding region. Through testing and quality control measures, we are dedicated to providing the public with a reliable and dependable railroad system they can count on.” 

After a review of the project, Eng determined that new project leadership was needed to ensure the success and safety of the project. The timeline adjustment to spring 2025 for passengers allows for more resources and attention to make South Coast Rail reliable on the first day of service and beyond. MBTA says the project is highly specialized and complex, requiring specific expertise, with the system testing phase being one of the most challenging aspects to ensure seamless integration of all components.  

“It’s clear how important South Coast Rail is to southeastern Mass. communities and since taking over the program, I’m more determined than ever to deliver on that commitment,” said MBTA South Coast Rail Program Executive Karen Antion. “Safety is our top priority for the project. Test trains will travel up to 79 miles per hour and I urge our Taunton, New Bedford, and Fall River neighbors to stay clear of track areas and abide by all warning lights and signs at grade crossings. Together, we can finish the testing period as safely as possible.” 

Construction and equipment 

MBTA notes four locomotives have undergone a comprehensive overhaul and are now prepared to provide the necessary pulling power to operate the trains efficiently. Additionally, 16 modern bi-level coaches have been specifically acquired to serve passengers on South Coast Rail. Bi-level coaches offer increased passenger capacity with comfortable seating arrangements on two levels, ideal for commuter routes. 

Out of the six stations the project spans across, four of them (Fall River, Freetown, Middleborough and Church Street) are now complete. Two stations are nearing completion: 

  1. New Bedford is 97 percent finished and expected to be fully complete by July 2024. The contractor is currently finalizing minor details.  
  2. East Taunton is 75 percent complete and anticipated to be finished in August 2024. Construction crews are focusing on completing the elevator installation and paving work. 

Multi-phased testing to ensure system integration and safety  

Following the successful completion of Automatic Train Control (ATC) testing and the transfer of dispatch to Keolis, the South Coast Rail project will progress to Positive Train Control (PTC) system testing. MBTA notes ATC acts as the foundation for PTC, like a traffic control system for trains, as It communicates with trackside signals and automatically regulates a train’s speed to ensure safe stopping distances. PTC is a safety technology that acts as a digital guardrail for trains. It can automatically prevent collisions, stop trains from entering unauthorized work zones, ensure they don’t proceed through misaligned switches and enforce speed limits. The federally mandated testing will begin in August and continue through January 2025. 

MBTA undergoes Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) New Starts process ahead of passenger service 

Once all components – stations, layover facilities, tracks, ATC and the PTC system – are built, tested and approved, the project will move to the final phase of “New Start” implementation with the FRA. The phase involves certifying train operators, final inspections and running demonstration services without passengers. MBTA notes the timeline for this final stage depends on the FRA’s review and requirements. 

The intensive, multi-phased process designed specifically for first-time rail activation projects to achieve compliance with federal regulations governing the movements of passenger trains over new territory ensures railroad operators meet the prescribed regulatory standards prior to the commencement of new Commuter Rail service. 

The New Start process is comprised of many key components, including the requirement to implement a System Safety Program, a rigorous qualification program for personnel who will be engaged in the operations of the railroad, adherence to industry design and construction standards, and a comprehensive safety certification process all completed and approved prior to the start of passenger service. Additionally, a robust Quality Assurance and Quality Control program will be implemented to ensure operations run smoothly. 

As the South Coast Rail project advances through the “New Start” process, the MBTA will continue to prioritize safety and quality in the development of this new rail system, working diligently to meet the regulatory requirements set forth by the FRA. The successful completion of the New Start process is a critical step in bringing the South Coast Rail project to fruition and providing improved transportation options for the communities of the South Coast region. 

The testing phase will involve a comprehensive array of safety measures, including track testing, signaling system testing, integration testing and safety inspections. During this time, MBTA says residents may notice increased train activity along the South Coast Rail corridor. The MBTA trains will not carry passengers and are being operated solely for testing and training purposes. They will reach speeds of up to 79 miles per hour, up from the current 30 miles per hour limit for freight trains. The certification was completed through a rigorous safety process put in place by the MBTA and approved by the FRA. 

With the track safety certification in place, the focus has shifted to testing the signal system. Initial testing was conducted at slow speeds of 25 mph and the results have been successful. The next phase involves testing the railroad crossings, ensuring that the gates function properly within the guidelines set by federal regulators. The tests will be conducted at multiple speeds, in both directions, and on all routes.  

“I extend my sincere appreciation to the public for their patience and understanding throughout this process,” Eng said. “As we continue to progress, I urge the community to remain vigilant and exercise caution near railroad crossings. It is crucial to obey all warning signs, signals and gates and never attempt to cross the tracks when a train is approaching. Safety is our priority and we rely on the cooperation of the public to help safely transform the way people travel and connect in the region.” 

 In addition to testing, the MBTA will focus on qualifying train operators, maintenance personnel and other staff on the new rail line’s specific characteristics and safety protocols. The MBTA will continue its public awareness campaign to educate the community about rail safety and the upcoming service. The commencement of revenue service will depend on successfully completing the testing phase and achieving performance and safety clearances as outlined in the New Starts process. The MBTA will continue to work closely with the FRA and other stakeholders to ensure a safe and successful launch of passenger rail service.  

Safety reminders issued for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers  

Since April 2023, the MBTA has made efforts to enhance safety at its 246 surface grade crossings, including improvements to road infrastructure, as well as technology partnerships with companies like Waze. MBTA says crews have added features such as new lane and fog lines, reflective bollards and road markers and brighter LED lights on crossing gates intended to make crossings more visible to drivers. The MBTA has also collaborated with Waze so that Commuter Rail crossings now appear on the Waze application’s maps. Drivers using Waze are alerted in advance when they are approaching a railroad crossing. 

South Coast Rail fares: Zone 8  

MBTA notes that after careful consideration of factors such as trip distance, competitiveness, operating costs, quality of service, access and affordability, the agency has determined the fare structure for all South Coast Rail stations will be priced in Zone 8. The fare structure means passengers will pay a full fare of $12.25 and a reduced fare of $6. The decision to place these stations in Zone 8 aligns with the existing fare structure of the Commuter Rail, which is organized into zones ranging from 1A (the core metro area) to 10, as well as Interzone fares for trips that do not enter Zone 1A.  

The placement of the new Middleborough Station and the similarly distanced East Taunton Station in Zone 8 is consistent with the current Zone 8 designation of the Middleborough/Lakeville Station, which will be replaced by the new Middleborough Station. Furthermore, a comparison of the straight-line distances of the new stations (Freetown, Fall River Depot, Church Street and New Bedford) with existing Commuter Rail stations across various lines supports their placement in either Zone 8 or 9.  

MBTA notes setting fares for new service is at the discretion of Eng, who has taken into account the principles of trip distance, competitiveness, operating costs, quality of service, access and affordability in making this decision. The MBTA remains committed to providing a fair and equitable fare structure for all passengers while ensuring the sustainability and efficiency of South Coast Rail service. 


Office of Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker
A South Coast Rail groundbreaking ceremony was held July 2, 2019.
Federal Railroad Administration
Fralogo 11071436