COCHITUATE RAIL TRAIL
(Natick and Framingham, Massachusetts, USA)
by A. Richard Miller, Chairman Emeritus
Natick Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee
39690 visits since 970926; last updated 090430.
 
Schedule of Related Events
MassPike ROW: An Appeal for Help; also,
MassPike ROW flier(450K)
Getting On Track - Mass. Legislature report (see May 22, 2001)

Rail Trail Studies
CRT Design and Construction Issues
Reconnaisance Study of the Saxonville Branch Right-Of-Way (CTPS, Jan. 2000)
Preliminary Report of Natick Cochituate Rail Trail Task Force (Nov. 2006)

CRT Slideshow (Nov. 2006)

CRT Brochure
(Dec. 2001)
(outside+map)
(inside)
(800K each)
Orthoimagery of CRT and Lake Cochituate 
(latest color/Google Maps)
(1994-95 grayscale/MIT GIS)
(USGS Topo Map of same)
CRT History

Sketch Map
of Cochituate Rail Trail
CRT logo 

The Cochituate Rail Trail may open as early as 2005 in Framingham and 2007 in Natick. A new role for the old Saxonville Branch Industrial Railroad corridor, the CRT's "Tunnel of Green" will serve as the four-mile-long trunk of an extended trail network for pedestrians, bicyclists and other non-motorized users. From downtown Natick's commuter rail station, library, restaurants and The Center for Arts in Natick, past Pegan Cove Park, Natick Labs (U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center), Lake Cochituate and the Cochituate State Park day-use area (with boat rentals and swimming), a greatly-expanded Natick Mall and the adjacent "Golden Triangle" shopping and office buildings, the corporate headquarters for T.J. Maxx, the American Cancer Society and 500 Old Connecticut Path, and the trout-fishing in Cochituate Brook, to the historic district of Saxonville with the new Amazing Things Arts Center and the Carol J. Getchell Nature Trail, the CRT will connect a phenomenal combination of recreation, business, shopping, and greenway opportunities, while reducing or eliminating significant alternative-transportation obstacles in our populous communities.

History:
The railroad might have come through South Natick, which hotly pursued that goal. But Natick Center won out and became heavily developed. Reaching west from Boston, the Boston and Worcester Railroad was serving Natick in 1834 and Worcester in 1835. West of downtown Natick, this route passes Lake Cochituate just north of Route 135, between Fisk Pond and the south end of South Pond. Later extensions and corporate mergers grew this into the main route from Boston to Albany and all points west. (In 1895, the Massachusetts rail system looked like this.)

Saxonville RR Station, 1880
The "Saxonville" about to haul some passenger cars from the Saxonville RR Station. (1880 photo courtesy of the Framingham Historical Society.)
In 1846 the Saxonville Branch Line was run north four miles from Natick, along and across Lake Cochituate. One can imagine that the Mass. Legislature's commitment that same year to build Cochituate Reservoir for Boston was a great incentive to the start of this spur line. The new line indeed was utilized for much hauling of construction materials, equipment and manpower. However, train traffic between the large Saxonville Mills (later Roxbury Carpet Company) and Natick's own booming community and the railroad main line would have been incentive enough.

In 1973 Roxbury Carpet closed its mills, as the textile industry moved to the American South. Now the Saxonville Branch RR track only reaches north from downtown Natick through Cochituate State Park and alongside Lake Cochituate almost to Route 30, just west of the entrance to the day-use area of Cochituate State Park. North of Route 30 (and the Natick/Framingham town line), the right-of-way remains intact all the way up to the Sudbury River in Saxonville (northeast Framingham), but tracks and ties have been removed. Framingham has been negotiating multi-use trail easements with the current stewards of that defunct right-of-way: the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

Disappearing Freight Use:
The Saxonville Branch Line's major recent user was a once- or twice-weekly freightcar exchange at Continental Baking Company's "Wonder Bread plant" (across Speen Street, just north of the Natick Mall). As early as 1996, we predicted the imminent elimination of the Wonder Bread factory; Interstate Bakeries Corporation's acquisitions of Continental, J.J. Nissen and other bakeries had left it with too many no-longer-competing factories, and the current real-estate value of this site (adjacent to the Natick Mall, largest mall in New England) made it an extraordinarily expensive place to bake bread and Twinkies. In December 1998, Continental confirmed that the plant closure would occur about mid-1999, and it did close that June. In late 1999 a NYC firm bought the site and remodelled the Wonder Bread building to become a Tech Commons "data hotel", filled with a lot of computer data storage and a few technicians. But that plan fell through with the "dot-com" bubble and the property again changed hands.

In 2000, the Town of Natick removed the rails crossing Speen Street; that spur ROW remains for future trail use. Natick has an easement to extend that trail along the north and west perimeters of the old Wonder Bread site, and is including major multi-use trail design as part of the Natick Mall expansion project.
Saxonville Branch RR Line
From the RR bridge over Route 9 in Natick, the green view north toward Route 30 and Saxonville. An important urban goal: Preserving great views and that green screening!
Also in 1998, Conrail sold vast New England railroad holdings to CSX, including the Boston-to-Albany main line and this Saxonville spur line. Closer to Lake Cochituate on that same short side track, the only remaining CSX freight customer is new: S & D Meats/Metro Freezer and Storage. On Chrysler Road near Lake Cochituate, it shares a building with a child day-care center and averages less than one train visit per week (often at night).

So now the once-busy and lovely Saxonville Branch Line is little used. Rails and the lake shoreline are poorly maintained. Trains run at walking speed, which is just as well; even so, in one year beginning October 2000 there were three at-grade collisions of a locomotive with a vehicle at Lake Street in Natick, and one of these collisions demolished a truck! Trains are expected to cease their traffic through Cochituate State Park in 2006, and the Towns of Framingham and Natick are planning accordingly.

Natick Mall Expansion:
Currently, Chicago-based General Growth Properties, the owner of Natick Mall, has acquired this adjacent site and proposes to greatly enlarge Natick Mall so much that it probably will become the largest mall in New England! They proposed to also include a hotel, then changed that to two apartment towers, and, in 2005, proposed to include the apartment towers and a hotel! Furthermore, modified plans have also been submitted to build as a separate mall -- as a way to confound Macy's lease-guaranteed veto of competing stores (specifically, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom's). So Natick (and adjacent Framingham) may get the integrated mall that was planned, or two separate ones, and with an ever-growing list of add-in projects. It has, to say the least, been time-consuming and confusing for the local review agencies.

Through 2003, the Natick Mall Expansion proponents avoided working with local and regional groups regarding its link to the CRT. At the end of 2003, that was a key reason that its Draft Environmental Impact Report (including a proposed hotel) was found deficient by the Mass. Environmental Policy Act Office (MEPA). Through 2004, the CRT groups were slightly included, but their minimum design goals were not met; at the end of 2004, the resulting Final Environmental Impact Report (now with two still-unplanned residential towers instead of the hotel) was still judged inadequate by MEPA. The NBPAC and other groups asked the Natick Planning Board (a) to include at least one local-trails-savvy consultant and (b) to include at least one nationally-prominent design group to add a new level of bike-ped design savvy to its own planning review team for this project, and also (c) to request (again) that MassHighway swing its own bike-ped experts onto this important regional project. The only part of that which was delivered was a walking consultant (without bicyclist-design skills), and this failed to achieve better agreement.

In December 2004, MEPA wrote re the Natick Mall Expansion project:
The proponent should be diligently working with the proponents for the rail trail to find a mutually agreeable alternative to its proposed at-grade, activated, signal-protected crossing of Speen Street to connect the portion of project site's pedestrian/bicycle trail to the Cochituate Rail Trail. The Proposed Section 61 Finding for MHD should update the discussion on this topic, as well as provide some preliminary cost estimates of a grade-separated crossing of Speen Street for the proposed rail trail connector. It should also identify if the pedestrian/bicycle trail on the project site can be widened to 12 feet with two to three-foot shoulders as recommended by the AASHTO guidelines and the proponents for the rail trail."
(MEPA's full text is online at:
http://www.millermicro.com/NatickMallFEIR-MEPACert041230.pdf )

The proponent and the Natick Planning Board ignored that requirement until April 2005, when EOTC made it clear that the project would not get a State permit for curb cuts until the conditions were met. As of June 2005, two working meetings have been held to consider alternate crossings of Speen Street; the other issues have yet to be discussed.

Other Regional Rail Trails:
A few towns to the north, the Minuteman Commuter Bikeway through Bedford and Lexington to Arlington is an excellent example of new usage for a retired rail line. Any nice weekend day finds its eleven paved miles teeming with bicycles, skaters and folks out for a walk. Once-skeptical neighbors find it far better than train traffic or idle disuse; good for relaxation, health, and property values. Other Massachusetts bikeways are in use and on the drawing boards across the Commonwealth (see MassBike, Mass. Highway Dept., multi-use trail projects map) and beyond (Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, Trails and Greenways Clearinghouse). Rail trails can even coexist with busy rail lines, so either a slightly-used or abandoned Saxonville Line can serve.

A Water View from CRT Bridge over Lake Cochituate
From the notched RR bridge just north of Route 9, the view southwest over Carling Pond to the boat tunnel at Route 9 (once the historic Willow Bridge).
The Proposed Cochituate Rail Trail:
The Cochituate Rail Trail will utilize this Saxonville Branch Line roadbed to give downtown Natick a recreational route north along Lake Cochituate and to the day-use area of Cochituate State Park, plus car-free bike and pedestrian access over major highways to the very popular Natick Mall. The northern extension -- along the west bank of Cochituate Brook and up to meet Route 126 at the Sudbury River -- will provide the same advantages to cyclists and pedestrians from Saxonville and other communities north of the Massachusetts Turnpike. The entire path offers a protected, varied, lovely and functional four-mile bike and walking trail -- an incredibly untouched route through a very urbanized highway network. (See CRT map.)

The Cochituate Rail Trail's trailhead in Saxonville is only a few blocks from where the Carol Getchell Nature Trail (created in 2000) runs downstream along the Sudbury River, and only a mile from another wonderful trail being planned along the no-longer-used Weston Aqueduct, on which Callahan State Park lies another 3.3 miles to the west.

A western, "Bannister's Meadowland" branch for the Cochituate Rail Trail has been proposed, stretching west to extend the Wonder Bread spur line right-of-way past the Natick Mall and the General Cinema complex to Shoppers World in Framingham. This could be routed alongside the existing circular roadway, but the Framingham Conservation Commission and others are exploring how it can be routed through the large, central wild area -- Bannister's Meadowland, which supports many birds, plus deer and beaver -- for greatly enhanced separation and natural beauty. The Natick Conservation Commission is exploring another western route, from Natick Mall southwest to the signalized Route 9 crossing to Natick Promenade (until 2004, Loews Theaters) and beyond. Wetland preservation groups work to add boardwalks in such areas; shopping-mall owners and Town agencies have expressed general support for a similar project here. A large number of adjacent hotels, office buildings, bicycle dealers, and others also can help their communities and themselves by pitching in. While final plans must wait, the Natick Planning Board proactively establishes easements along the way.

Snake Brook Trail
Walking bikes along the new boardwalk on the Snake Brook Trail.
An eastern branch, the Snake Brook Trail, was built in 2000, and connects via a walking trail through Cochituate Brook Reservation. It runs east from Cochituate Dam, on Lake Cochituate's North Pond in Framingham and just across Cochituate Brook from the main Cochituate Rail Trail, to Route 27 on the Natick/Wayland town line, just south of downtown Cochituate. In Sept. 2000, Matt Linehan's Eagle Scout project laid a boardwalk that opened its Route 27 end for public use. A logical future extension east to Wayland's Lower Snake Brook Conservation Area is under consideration by the Wayland Conservation Commission. A footbridge over Cochituate Brook or a path along it, linking the Snake Brook Trail with the Cochituate Rail Trail, is a logical western tie-in project for Cochituate State Park and the Framingham Conservation Commission. The western section of the Snake Brook trail, from Cochituate Dam east to Route 30 at the north side of the Massachusetts Turnpike, is open to hiking and biking. The eastern section, also on wild land owned by Cochituate State Park, is open to hiking and may be improved for biking later. CSP has provided trail signs on the roads. Entrance stairs from Route 27 and some bridge improvements are to be provided by CSP; they were expected by Summer 2001.

Many thousands work along the proposed Cochituate Rail Trail; of them, hundreds would find it useful for bicycle commuting to work, and many more would use it for local shopping trips, noontime biking, jogging and strolling. It also serves thousands of residents
Trail clearing, May 2001
May 12th, 2001: With loppers and shears, CRT volunteers remove a decade of brush and greenbriar to reveal the trail.
along its route. For less local users, convenient automobile parking -- as well as food and other facilities -- is available near both ends and the middle. The Mass. Dept. of Environmental Management supervises other hiking and bike paths. Cochituate State Park staffers already are proficient at that; they also manage Callahan State Park, where hiking and biking are major attractions.

A year of our local efforts to organize resulted in late-1998 requests from the Selectmen of Framingham and Natick -- and support from the Mass. Dept. of Environmental Management -- to study the feasibility of converting this spur line from railroad use to recreational and alternate transportation use. In March 1999 metropolitan Boston's Central Transportation Planning Staff received authorization to begin that study, and delivered its Reconnaisance Study of the Saxonville Branch Right-Of-Way in January 2000. In general, it said the Framingham section north of Route 30 could be developed easily, while conversion of the Natick section was delayed by continuing train usage. It did not consider the two side branch options in depth.

Access to the already rail-free Framingham section is being jointly pursued by the Town of Framingham and the Mass. Dept of Environmental Management. Current owners are the Mass. Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA)
Trail cleared to Route 30, October 2001. [Click to enlarge.]
October 20th, 2001: In the eighth CRT clean-up day of the year, CRT volunteers complete initial Framingham trail-clearing from School St. south to Route 30 (where this encroaching wall also is to be moved out).
north of the Massachusetts Turnpike, and MassPike from there south to Route 30. Unfortunately, MassPike plans to sell off all of its 60-80'-wide right-of-way to adjacent companies, so they can extend their buildings and parking lots close to a remaining 18'-narrow trail easement. Instead of a linear park, MassPike would leave little more than an alleyway, with bicycle-unfriendly curves between extended parking lots, fences, and possibly new buildings. Keeping the wider ROW, with plenty of trees and brush for good linear-park screening and straight view lines, is a major rail-trail priority. A May 2001 Massachusetts Legislative Report, Getting On Track: Common Sense Ideas to Expedite Rail Trail Development in Massachusetts, urges the free transfer of public open spaces to appropriate government agencies. The report specifically mentions this trail (on its pages 14-16/footnotes 75-79). MassPike has not yet joined the other agencies that subscribe to that policy, so in July 2001 we issued an appeal for help, with further discussions in 2002.In October 2000, Mass. DEM (now DCR) awarded a $20,000 grant to the Town of Framingham, to clear that northern section of the CRT and to stabilize and redeck its rusting bridges. A first trail-clearing day, on May 12th, 2001 (the first day of Massachusetts Bike Week), saw 45 volunteers open most of the trail from School Street south to the Massachusetts Turnpike. By fall, further improvements were made and the trail was extended to Route 30, the entire 1.3 miles in Framingham. One short stretch just northwest of Old Connecticut Path will require a detour until the two old railroad bridges can be redecked, but in August 2001 MassPike awarded a $100,000
Moving the encroaching wall, July 2002. [Click to enlarge.]
July 12th, 2002 (looking back from Route 30): The old encroaching wall is being removed. For now, a lower, straight one (foreground)  is being built along a staked line - still well inside the CRT ROW.
tourism grant to the Town of Framingham for that and more. We still await interim (pre-transfer) general-use permissions from MBTA and MassPike.

To celebrate the opening of a first section of the Cochituate Rail Trail and to increase public awareness, "CRT-shirts" were donated by The MathWorks, Inc. of Natick. They are on sale for $10 each (to benefit CRT projects) at REI in Framingham. A new CRT brochure also was designed and became available in December 2001. (Brochure printing is made possible by a gift from REI. Text is by A. Richard Miller. The CRT logo and CRT brochure design are volunteer contributions of commercial artist Steve Broadley, and the map editing is by Tom Branham.)

A proposed commuter-rail parking garage, on South Avenue in downtown Natick, would tie in well for bicycle commuters using this rail trail. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has begun to implement multi-modal improvements. Diverse groups (Town of Natick, MassBike, MassBike/MetroBoston) are urging the MBTA to include inside, visible, safe and free bicycle parking here -- an incentive to shift more commuters from parking their cars in busy downtown Natick, as it uses the train to reduce car pressures in downtown Boston. West of downtown Natick, Middlesex Path connects to the CRT via Pegan Cove Park,
Discussing commuter-rail parking garage. [Click to enlarge.]
August 27th. 2001: At proposed site for commuter-rail parking garage, NBPAC Chair Dick Miller and Natick Director of Community Development Sarki Sarkisian explain the proposed CRT-to-MBTA Commuter Rail linkage to Mass. Senate President Tom Birmingham and Mass. Senator Dave Magnani.
Natick's downtown waterfront park on Lake Cochituate's South Pond.

A walk along this railway now is lovely, and the improvements will make it exquisite -- a linear park, well-screened from the bustle just beyond. Natick and Framingham and Cochituate State Park are blessed with this gift from the Age of Rail. Natick's Selectmen have appointed a Natick Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Committee, and Framingham's Selectmen have appointed a Framingham Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Committee and, as detailed plans became necessary, a Framingham Cochituate Rail Trail Committee. At the June 2000 Lake Cochituate Annual Meeting, Massachusetts Secretary of Environmental Affairs Bob Durand and Commissioner of Environmental Management Peter Webber committed their high-level resources. Local legislators who support Cochituate State Park and the Cochituate Rail Trail include Framingham's State Representatives Debby Blumer and Tom Sannicandro, Natick's State Representatives David Linsky and Alice Peisch, and State Senators Karen Spilka and Scott Brown. They, and through them, the Metrowest Legislative Caucus and other legislators, are helping to install effective bicycle parking inside the proposed garage. Most of them, and many others, have provided strong support letters for the transfer of MassPike's full-width corridor. If you support these projects, let them (and us) know!


Natick Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (NBPAC)

John Magee, Chairman (1-508-720/3439).
A. Richard Miller
Chairman Emeritus and Assoc. Member (1-508/653-6136, 9am-9pm; TheMillers@millermicro.com; http://www.millermicro.com/crt.html).
Monthly meetings: Normally in Natick Police Conference Room on first Mondays, 7-9pm.
See special
NBPAC events and related events online.
You are invited to
subscribe to the free Natick bike-ped e-mail list.

The NBPAC was founded in 1997, recognized by the Natick Selectmen in 1998, and reconfirmed in 2001 with seven voting Members (plus non-voting Associate Members). The purpose of the committee is to make Natick more bicycle and pedestrian friendly and to work with Town and regional agencies and local organizations to those ends. The committee serves as a facilitator of State and Federal funded improvements for alternate transportation, for recreational trails, and for street crossings and sidewalks in Natick.

The committee also sponsors public talks and promotes the Cochituate Rail Trail (along with the Natick Cochituate Rail Trail Task Force, Framingham CRT Committee, Framingham BPAC, and Cochituate State Park Advisory Committee), a trail along the Sudbury Aqueduct, two trails from Natick Center to South Natick, and other Town and regional trails (along with the Natick Conservation Commission, Natick Open Space Committee, Natick Walks, etc.). It leads easy walks and bicycle rides to feature local routes and recreational areas, channels public safety suggestions to appropriate agencies, and generally informs and acts in these interests.

Supportive regional groups include the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition (MassBike), the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, the League of American Bicyclists, and WalkBoston. MassBike's "Your Guide to Forming a Bike Advisory Committee" is an excellent reference for many issues confronting groups such as ours.

Key reference materials (some in need of updates) include:
NBPAC Annual Report (for 2006)
MassHighway Project Development and Design Guidebook (2006)
MA Statewide Bicycle Transportation Plan (1988)
MA Pedestrian Transportation Plan (1998)
 
MA Bike Path System (current and proposed)

 

This Web page has been created by Dick Miller of the Natick Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee and the Cochituate State Park Advisory Committee. Please e-mail your comments to him at TheMillers@millermicro.com
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