Rail service between Boston and Bedford ended 36 years ago this month
Submitted by Jim Shea, President of the Friends of Depot Park
Thirty-six years ago this month, a passenger train struggled over icy rails to reach Bedford. When a small group of commuters stepped onto the snow-covered Depot platform, a century of railroading here came to an abrupt end.
January 10, 1977, started as an ordinary day for the daily round trip train between Bedford and North Station. The self-propelled Budd Rail Diesel Car (RDC) departed from the Loomis Street station at 7:08 in the morning. But its late afternoon return journey was treacherous. Snow melted to slush under mild temperatures, then froze solid when Arctic air flowed into the area. The Boston & Maine Railroad put a Diesel switcher ahead of the lone Budd RDC to provide additional traction. Even this extra horsepower was inadequate to overcome the perils of an unplowed branch line and numerous grade crossings that were encrusted with ice.
Could those who labored to build our railway have envisioned such an ignominious ending? The Middlesex Central brought the marvels of steam-powered rail transportation to Bedford in 1873 as an extension of its line between Boston and Lexington. Six years later, the track was extended to Reformatory Station in Concord, across the street from the State Prison; and in 1885, the branch reached North Billerica over the roadbed of the defunct narrow-gauge Billerica & Bedford Railroad.
The railroad’s arrival changed everything. Bedford during the 1870s was a sleepy agricultural village. The economic and social benefits of convenient communication with Boston and Lowell were quickly felt by the citizenry. The town prospered because the railroad provided a fast way to ship and receive goods, and people rode the train to the city for entertainment and employment. The influence of rail transportation during the late 19th century can be compared with the impact the Internet has had on society during the early 21st century. It was profound.
Local railroad service peaked during the 1920s with 24 passenger and 2 freight trains on weekdays. Business remained strong enough into the 1950s to support 3 daily rounds trips with 7-coach trains. But the rapid rise of the highway system and the public’s love for the automobile became too much competition. Service was reduced to a single daily round trip in the fall of 1958. This train was later cut back from three cars to two, then from two to one by the mid-1970s as passenger counts further dwindled. The service interruption caused by the 1977 storm provided the MBTA an opportunity to accomplish what the agency and B&M had for years wished to do: abolish the unprofitable commuter train to Bedford, Lexington and Arlington.
Eventually, the 10-mile line was “rail-banked” to enable construction of the popular Minuteman Bikeway between West Cambridge and Bedford. The preserved Passenger Station, Freight House and Budd Car at Depot Park, the bikeway’s terminus, provide a reminder of Bedford’s booming railroad age and are symbols of a quaint time in our history.