The Lowell Line running from Boston, Massachusetts to Lowell, Massachusetts, originally the Boston and Lowell Railroad, is the oldest continually operated passenger train line in the western hemisphere.
In the early 19th century, Francis Cabot Lowell decided to build a model mill town in a Massachusetts town near Boston that was promptly reincorporated in 1822 as Lowell, Massachusetts in his honor. This industrial town began to produce large amounts of textiles and other products which had to get to people so they could be used. It also had to get raw materials such as cotton from which to build these products. At the time, the best way for the factory owners to do this was to transport to and from Boston and let Boston merchants deal with the rest there.
Before the Railroad, there were two main ways of moving goods between Boston and Lowell. The first was the Middlesex Canal, built previously to bypass a circuitous coastal route from the Merrimack River. The other consisted of stagecoaches running on the road between Boston and Lowell. These sufficed for some time, but as Lowell grew and more industrialists built mills there, problems with both modes soon overwhelmed them.
The Canal was a very efficient way of moving large amounts of heavy goods cheaply and with minimal labor. It was slow, but no one had any delusions that it was suitable for perishables or other time-sensitive goods, passengers included. Unfortunately, it would freeze in the winter and the towpath was muddy in spring and late fall. This made it impractical for a burgeoning mill-town that needed year-round freight transportation.
Stagecoaches provided the passenger aspect of the transport, moving 100 to 120 passengers per day. There were six stagecoaches in operation at the time of the building of the railroad, for a total of 39 fully loaded round trips per week. This was sufficient passenger service for people who had to make an occasional trip but was much too expensive for daily use or what we would now call commuters.
One of the first railroads in the Americas was nearby Quincy's Granite Railroad in 1826. It was a three-mile, horse-powered railroad, built to move large granite stones from the quarries in Quincy, Massachusetts to the Neponset River. As was believed to be the most sturdy _ and convenient, in this case _ method at the time, it was built on a deep foundation of granite, setting a precedent for all railroads that could afford it. The Granite Railroad showed the Lowell mill owners that a railroad could be a practical method of freight transport.
The owners of the Lowell mills decided that they needed to do something about their transportation problem. They looked at the recently completed, nearby Granite Railroad and took inspiration. A railroad would supply exactly what they wanted. It could run year round, was expandable with as many tracks as they might need, and could use the new locomotives that were being highly praised in England.
Once convinced that they wanted a railroad, they formed a group called the Boston Associates. This new group had the task of convincing the state legislature that a railroad was a good idea, and later building the railroad itself. The former proved very difficult, as the investors of the Middlesex Canal were very much against them building a bypass that seemed designed to replace their canal and drive them out of business.
Because there was no provision in Massachusetts State law for chartering railroads prior to 1872, all railroads had to be chartered by special acts of legislature. This made it slow and inefficient to charter a railroad because the politicians had to agree; the issue would become partisan. This also meant that the legislature would not let the Boston Associates build the line unless they could show it was completely necessary.
The case of the Canal investors seemed reasonable and compelling at the time, though some aspects are humorous in hindsight. Their argument was mainly:
- Their investors spent a lot of money on the Canal.
- The Canal currently deals with all freight between Boston and Lowell.
- There is a finite amount of freight to be moved.
- The railroad is being built with the main purpose of transporting freight between Boston and Lowell.
- All the railroad can do is take business away from the Canal.
- This will ruin the canal.
- The railroad should not be built, or it should be forced to pay compensation to the canal's investors.
- Failure of the court to force compensation would decrease investor confidence and make it much less likely that people would be willing to invest in major projects in the future.
The Boston Associates won because they convinced the legislature that the Canal was inherently incapable of providing what they needed: reliable, year round, freight transport.
The Canal operators were also unable to foresee the future worth of canals. Before the State Legislature of Massachusetts, the Canal spokesperson testified that, "It is believed that no safer or cheaper mode of conveyance can ever be established, nor any so well adapted for bulky articles" than the Canal. This does not really reflect negatively on them because it was a common attitude at the time, but today is is ironic and amusing.
The Boston Associates got their charter on June 5, 1830, with no provision for reparations to the Canal's investors. It was a favorable charter because it allowed for, in addition to the right to build and operate a railroad between Boston and Lowell, a thirty_year monopoly on the right to have a railroad between the same. The people along the road and in terminal end cities bought large amounts of stock, financing half the company. These two ideas, monopoly rights to discourage competition and public interest in the company as shown by the large amount of publicly bought stock, were exactly what the argument over the Canal was about. The legislators seem to have realized the growth value in giving a monopoly that they more or less stole from the Canal, but the Canal's investors seem to have been wrong with their final point; people were eager to purchase stock, showing no decrease in confidence at all.
Building the Railroad
The Boston Associates, armed with their charter, now had before them the task of surveying and building the line. They brought in Mr. James Baldwing to do the surveying, and charged him with finding a gently sloped path from Boston to Lowell, with few grade crossings and well away from town centers. This latter point ended up being quite inconvenient later on. The general popular view toward railroads in the late 1820's, when Baldwing was preparing to do his surveying, was that railroads were smoky, noisy, dirty, fire-causing nuisances that should be kept as far away from people as possible. No one had any idea of the future possibility of railroads acting as public transportation, or if they did they were not paid any attention by the builders or financers of the road.
The right-of-way that Baldwing surveyed did well in each of these characteristics. The path sloped up at a gentle ten feet per mile at the maximum and there were only three grade crossings over the entire 26 mile distance. The path was close to the older Middlesex Canal path, but was straighter - as boats can turn sharper than trains. To achieve this superior linearity it needed small amounts of grade elevation in places. The route ignored Medford center entirely, going through West Medford instead, and totally bypassed Woburn. These would have to be corrected later with various spurs but were always sources of annoyance to both the riders and the operators.
The proposed route was accepted by the Boston Associates and work began the on building phase. The road was begun from both ends at once and some sources say that they both started on the right hand side of the right-of-way, missing in the middle and having to put in an embarrassing reverse curve to tide them over until they built the other side. British iron rails with a four foot deep wall of granite under each rail. They did this because it was commonly believed that the train would sink into the ground if they neglected strong support.
The first track of the road was completed in 1835 and freight service began immediately. The solid granite roadbed proved to be much too rigid, jolting the engine and cars nearly to pieces. Repairs on the locomotives (there were two at the time) would sometimes take most of the night, trying to get them ready for the next day's service. The much poorer Boston & Worcester Rrailroad could not afford a granite bed and so was built with the modern wooden ties. This turned out to be far superior so the owners of the Boston and Lowell decided they would upgrade their entire railbed to wood when they added a second track.
The original Boston terminal was at the north corner of Causeway Street and Andover Street (halfway between Portland and Friend Streets), at the westernmost edge of the current North Station. The original Lowell terminal was at the south corner of Merrimack Street and Dutton Street.
The quantity of freight traffic on the Boston and Lowell was large from the first, as everyone expected it to be, with several large mills needing to be supplied with materials and to have someone take them away after processing. The level of passenger traffic, however, was not anticipated. People all over were fascinated with the trains, and loved that they could get from Boston to Lowell in twenty minutes. Twenty minutes meant travelling at over sixty miles per hour and on unwelded track on a granite roadbed, sixty was extreemly bumpy. Passenger complaints about the rough ride were another reason that the B&L ended up switching to wooden ties.
The B&L was now faced with a problem; it had a reputation for passenger speed which made it very popular and highly competitive with stagecoaches. Many people, however, did not want to go from Boston to Lowell but instead to and from places in between. The B&L decided to order another locomotive and some cars for local passenger rail in 1842, and have them make six stops along the route. Passenger rail proved to be almost as profitable as freight.
The Boston and Maine Begins
Another railroad began about this time who's fortunes would be closely tied to those of the B&L. This road was the Boston and Maine Railroad (B&M). This road ran down from Portland Maine, through a bit of Southern New Hampshire, to Haverhill in Northeastern Massachusetts, connected to the B&L in Wilmington, and then used B&L track to Boston. This route was conceptualized in 1834, but took a long time to be built, mostly because, unlike the B&L, it did not have a secure base of funding like the Lowell Mills. It took two years to get to Andover, another to get to Haverhill, three more to get to Exeter, and did not get to Portland until 1852.
This extra traffic on the B&L line, especially with the line still over granite, provided the extra impetus to double track and upgrade. In 1838, the B&L began two years of extensive track improvements, first laying a second track on wood, and with that one built, going back and re-laying the old track on the more forgiving wood as well. B&L traffic continued to increase and even with double tracks, the schedule became tight enough that the B&M trains, as renters, began to be pushed around to annoying hours, often having to wait over an hour in Wilmington before being allowed to proceed on to Boston.
The B&M soon tired of what they perceived as selfishness and decided to build its own track to Boston from Haverhill so that it would not have to rely on the B&L. The B&L tried to fight the B&M in court but failed because the monopoly granted in its charter was only good for traffic between Boston and Lowell. The shortcut, today's Haverhill line, was started in 1844 and was in use by 1848. While the B&M was building it, they were still running their trains to Boston on the B&L. This made for a lot of messiness, with the B&L trying to squeeze every last penny out of the B&M before it lost the opportunity. The B&M tried to deal with this in court, and got the judge to forbid the B&L from raising rates until the case was done, but by the time they were close to an agreement, the Haverhill bypass was complete.
With B&M business gone, the B&L realized how much they had been relying upon their renters. Additionally, the Lowell mills began to decline somewhat and there was less freight traffic for the line to move. Over the next four decades, the B&L declined until the more successful B&M bought it in 1887.
Life as a B&M line
Over the next 70 years or so, things were reasonably stable and constant for the Lowell line as a track in the B&M's Southern Division. Passenger train round trips per day hovered in the low 20's and while freight from Lowell itself did not last too long, the Lowell line got some traffic from railroads that connected from the west.
In the early 20th century, things began to change. Trucks began to increase in popularity, and they got the Eisenhower Interstate System to help them. More and more companies began to send freight by trucks. This was a bad time for a decline to happen, as the B&M, like most other railroads, had just switched over to diesel locomotives, meaning that they had large debts. By 1976 the B&M was bankrupt.
This did not effect passenger service, just freight on the Lowell line, because in 1973 the MBTA bought the Lowell line, along with the Haverhill and all other local Greater Boston passenger lines. Along with the sale, the B&M contracted to run the passenger service on the Lowell line for the MBTA. After bankruptcy, The B&M continued to run and fulfill its Commuter Rail contract under the protection of the Federal Bankruptcy Court, in the hopes that a reorganization could make it profitable again. It emerged from the court's protection when newly-formed Guilford Transportation Industries (GTI) bought it in 1983.
When GTI bought the B&M, commuter rail service was in jeopardy. The MBTA had owned the trains and the tracks since 1973, but it had outsourced the operation to the B&M. When GTI bought the B&M in 1983, it had to honor the B&M contract, but GTI management was very much against passenger rail, and, in 1986, as soon as the contract expired they let the job go to Amtrak.
Amtrak has since run the trains for all of Boston's commuter rail. It has done decently, though at times had strained relations with the MBTA. Quibbles have centered on equipment failures, how many conductors should be on a train and who is responsible when trains are late. Because of these bad relations and Amtrak's repeated announcements that the contract was unreasonable, few people were surprised at Amtrak's decision not to bid again for the Commuter Rail contract when it came up for renewal in 2003.
When the MBTA asked for new bids on the Commuter Rail operation contract, Amtrak did not bid but Guilford did and so did the MBCR. The MBCR ended up getting the contract. The MBCR began operating the Commuter Rail in July of 2004, nothing changed for the commuters as it is the MBTA that owns the trains, tracks, and sets the schedules.
Another recent change on the Lowell line is the addition of the Downeaster. The Downeaster is an Amtrak train running from North Station to Haverhill and up to Portland. Due to scheduling conflicts with the MBTA, the Downeaster runs up the Lowell line to Wilmington and then out the old B&M wildcat crossover line to Haverhill. This route allows the Downeaster to pass a commuter train on the Haverhill line without slowing anyone down. The route is also historically significant because it is the same route that the original B&M took on its route up to Portland. It has been very popular and profitable, running four round trips daily.
- MBTA - Lowell Line (http://www.mbta.com/traveling_t/schedules_commuter_linedetail.asp?line=lowell&pagefrom=commuterrailmain)