Today’s Train Time conversation with Massachusetts State Representative Christina Minicucci ranges widely. We talked about issues that affect the travel choices of people in Rep Minicucci’s district, and in fact pretty much everywhere: frequency, reliability, and cost. We talked about trains, of course, but also about bike and hiking trails and safe streets. These other ways of getting around, as well as the car driving that continues to be part of most Americans’ lives, need to be considered when thinking about getting people onto trains.

Christina Minicucci serves as the State Representative for the 14th Essex District of Massachusetts, which straddles the Merrimack River and includes parts of Lawrence, Methuen, Haverhill and North Andover. Christina is a passionate advocate for progressive policy with a focus on food security, education, clean water, and public transportation. Christina can almost always be found participating in community events or enjoying her love of the outdoors.


Note: This transcript was created using AI and is imperfect. For purposes of quotation, please check the actual recording! It is time-stamped , which is useful as a guide to finding a point in the recording, but please be aware that the time-stamps may not be a perfect match to the published podcast.

Karen Christensen, Christina Minicucci
(times reflect place in final, edited interview/podcast)

Karen Christensen 01:44
Good morning. I’m so pleased to have you with us, Representative Minicucci. Or Christina, if you don’t mind.

Christina Minicucci 01:51
That’s great. Thank you, Karen. Thank you for having me today.

Karen Christensen 01:55
Yeah, it’s Thanksgiving week. It’s a little bit quiet. But it’s of course, it’s the I think this is in the United States, the busiest travel, typically the busiest travel time of the year. So we’re going to talk about travel and transit. And, you know, I thought it would be I would like to hear just a little bit about your district and about the things you’ve seen over the past year and a half or so in terms of people getting around or people not, you know, having a real change in not needing to get around so much.

Christina Minicucci 02:34
Sure. Well, I am from the opposite side of the status view. So in the upper northeast corner, right up on the New Hampshire border. I represent three gateway cities, Lawrence, Mizzou, and in April as well as North Andover, which is a suburb of Boston. We’re about 24 miles from Boston. So a little too far to run unless you’re a marathoner. But close enough that we have a fair number of commuters. Yeah, the three the two of the three cities also sit on route 93. So we do have a fair number of car commuters from there. But North Andover and Hazel also sit on route 495, which is our primary artery into Boston, which if you’re familiar with our and the state, very, very busy, very congested road and isn’t really a direct route to Boston. So for us a commute from hay roll or North Andover by car in the height, you know, when we’re not in COVID times is at least an hour and a half. There have been days with that. It’s taken me two hours. If there were an accident to go 24 miles. Yeah. And one day I came in, I showed up at the statehouse and one of the very few days actually drove my car there 12 times since I’ve been in office. And I said, if I were an elite marathoner, I would have just beat myself for two hours, and I said, an elite marathoner would have beat me today. And so yeah, but usually we’re good hour and a half to Boston. So I personally, since I’ve been in office, I’ve relied very heavily on the commuter rail, even though it’s not the quickest, it’s still 45 to 50 minutes for me to get in on the commuter rail. It’s at least I can get things done, and the time isn’t completely wasted for me. So I might be reading a book for pleasure, but a lot of times, yeah, take up my computer and sit and work on, you know, a document letters, just things I have to get done. So …

Karen Christensen 04:49
What are the trains there that, like, so that service from Boston to Haverhill. Now, is that an Amtrak service or is that a commuter train service,

Christina Minicucci 04:59
We actually have both. So the down Easter that comes down from Maine, passes through our line, and then there’s a spur in it, it. It peels off just past and over. But we it comes through April and it is possible to take the down Easter into Boston, so I’ve done it. But typically it’s the commuter rail and Hazel is the end point. So downtown Haverhill,. there’s a second stop and hay for the Bradford train station which is over the Merrimack River. So the city of April’s kind of split into half. So people on one side of the river take April, the people on the other side of the river take Bradford stop. And then Lawrence, which is actually the closest to me I live in North Andover. So the Lawrence train station is the closest and then and over. So those are really the four stations that service my district. And they’re the train schedule, this body is reading the reading slash APR line. And a lot of our commuter rail trains only go as far as reading which for me is about a 15 minute drive to get to that train station. But there’s there are more trains that go as far as reading. Some of them don’t go all the way to the end of the line. And see and so it’s interesting relying on the commuter rail, I like it the trains are great. I don’t have any issue with it, except the schedule. And so

Karen Christensen 06:40
And the schedule, in terms of frequency or the you know how early or late they run?

Christina Minicucci 06:44
Yeah, but a little bit of both, but free coffee. So it’s great in the commuter, you know, the sort of primetime commuter town. So there’s, there’s a number of them first thing in the morning early, and there’s a number of them in the afternoon. But if you work a very traditional nine to five schedule, you’ll find you will probably find yourself in a predicament one way or the other, either in the front end or the backend in having to do some hustling to get down to the train in time. Because if you missed that last commuter train, which is about eight o’clock, yeah, you’ve got to wait till about 830 for the next, you know, and now the schedules are even more sparse. Even when we’re working on a full schedule. You know, if you’re in the commuter times, you’re fine. That’s there, plenty of trains, they run with enough frequency and behavioral line is generally pretty accurate, you know, pretty accurate and on time, but if you’re trying to go outside of those commuter times, or if you have to come home in the middle of the day, for example, it’s a little bit harder.

Karen Christensen 07:51
Post pandemic? Are you seeing any shift in schedules? Or what are you hearing from constituents about, you know, different work patterns? So I’ve heard quite a bit about this, people talking about in Connecticut in New York, about just not being the same, you know, crush in commute, you know, the peak peaking times and things being spread out a bit more, you see, yeah.

Christina Minicucci 08:20
Well, you know, it’s hard for, for me to get a good grasp on it, honestly, because so many people in my community have not gone back to full time work. They’re working two days a week, maybe back in Boston, or on these, you know, rotating schedules. I’ve heard of some people that have to go in four out of 10 days, and they pick and choose. And so it seems like people have a lot more variability. And when they need to be in Boston, which I think would probably lighten up some of the car commuting, though, it seems like people are still a little hesitant maybe to get back onto the commuter rail, either because they have more flexibility in their job. So they’re not working, you know, the now going at 630 or seven in the morning on the train isn’t as necessary. And so maybe the schedules don’t work quite as well for people. I mean, I’m still trying to dig into exactly what’s happening. Because, you know, some of the feedback from people says, well, there’s still, you know, there’s still a fair amount of traffic going into Boston. So I don’t know, what’s driving that if it’s just people staying out of the commuter rail, they don’t like the schedule, or you know, or they’re still nervous about riding on public transportation as other people. I know, some people are nervous about that. So I’m not really quite sure what’s driving that I do know that our public bus and VR TA has resumed their bus to Boston, which is also an alternative to the trains so and they said they are getting an increase in people wanting to take the bus again. So it seems like maybe people are slowly easing their way back into work. You know, in North Andover, especially, there are certainly a fair number of people who work in Boston, some of the other communities a little less so but certainly in North Andover, you’ll see a lot of commuters. So and we’re going to see what goes what happens after the first of the year with like, the booster shots coming online now people starting to feel like I’m done being at home, I want some in person time with people.

Karen Christensen 10:36
I think we have still to build transition. So it’s hard. It’s an interesting time in terms of infrastructure and planning for, you know, future transport needs, because, of course we’re not living we there’s no way we can say that this is kind of just normal, yet. Even if there’s a new normal, we haven’t hit the new normal. We don’t know exactly what it’s going to be. So it’s the trends that that I am curious about, you know, certainly more flexible work certainly much more attention to climate change issue. Yes. And, and, and there’s a lot of talk, there’s especially, you know, in Boston during the mayoral election, about fares, and I wonder, do you think for the routes that you’re talking about, do you think that the cost of the fares is a major factor in people deciding where to live, where to work, how you know, what, what kind of schedule they want.

Christina Minicucci 11:49
Yeah, I’m sure. I’m sure it factors in because a round trip fare from Hey, rolls about $24 is pretty expensive. It’s a real, it’s a real, real. It’s a real train ride. It’s not two and a half dollars or something like that, you know, as you get closer, and maybe you’re getting a better fare, but I’m out here, it’s expensive, because you have to pay for the parking. Because you have to drive yourself to the train station right there very limited busing, that gets the train stations if you live if you live near the train station, and you can walk great if you live really in any of the central roads or near the central roads of our cities, you can get to the train station, there’s certainly a bus from North Andover, that goes to the train station. For me, that bus is about two and a half miles from my house. So I have to walk two and a half miles or take or take my bike or something to get onto a bus to get me to the train station.

Karen Christensen 12:55
Right. And it’s there’s all those transitions that really kill you, I used to do this horrible commute in London, that meant a couple of changes. It was just little, and it was another two and a half mile walk at the beginning.

Christina Minicucci 13:08
Right? And I tried to do it one day, I was like, How can I am going to try to be, you know, go totally car free. Let me see what happens. And I’m like, Okay, I’m gonna have to be I have to put on my reflector gear. Like, I got to make sure I got my lock, I gotta get everything I need. And by the time I thought I was like, I’m going to drive to the train. Yeah. Because then I was like, Oh, I’m gonna have to reverse this at night. And I’m going to be driving it riding my bike home at night. And you know, as you start thinking through that, you say, Well, I think I’ll drive. It’s better than traffic. But you know, I would prefer to go car free. But I’m not. We’re not there yet. We don’t have the infrastructure for that.

Karen Christensen 13:49
Right? You had said to me in an email that you have not, you know, not to have to deal with the cars. And I think that that’s more and more people are feeling that. But of course, we have to make it you know, not say you have to be a marathon runner, or sort of super, you know, a sophisticated cyclist to be to do without a car.

Christina Minicucci 14:31
That’s right. And that’s a little bit where we are now. I mean, I know that living in the suburbs as I do, it’s a little bit of a trade off where you don’t get that same. You know, everything isn’t quite as walkable as it would be if I were in the heart of the city. But there should be the option for a little more transportation to public transportation and modes to get where you need to go. And I did live in Boulder, Colorado for a while. And I don’t know if you’ve ever been there. They don’t.

Karen Christensen 14:46
Yeah. Briefly.

Christina Minicucci 14:48
Yeah, yeah, so they have a really great cycling, they have really good bike paths everywhere that are free, but then all the time. Yeah, right. And then the streets of the bike lanes, and then they have a great bus system that runs the grid, and you know, goes all over the city. And then you can put your bike or your skis on and you go and access everything they have to offer. And I just I didn’t have a car. It didn’t you know, we had one car that we shared, but I didn’t take my car to work ever I took my bike I got on the bus, you know, and I was able to access everything. And I recognize that that’s a plan city versus we’re sort of backing into hundreds of year old cities here. But I kind of see what could be and what is possible in a city of 60 plus 1000 people 60 75,000 people and those are the types of cities that I represent, you know, cities between 50,000 and 100,000 people they should have be able to have access to that kind of reliable consistent transportation to get where they need to go. And so you know, well that’s sort of like pie in the sky I feel like sometimes for people in Massachusetts I don’t think it needs to be so yeah and that’s

Karen Christensen 16:08
that’s great to have model I hadn’t thought about

Christina Minicucci 16:14
it’s not trained specifically but it is public train Yes. Right

Karen Christensen 16:18
Yes because I talk about trains so much. I tend to think about Europe or in high speed trains I think about China, but you’re quite right that that a city that really makes biking easy and any right when I didn’t have a car when I was in Boulder for six months or so and I And I just had a bike. And, and, and I don’t even remember using buses very much but you’re right it’s having the it, where it’s frequent, where it’s convenient where and this thing of being able to, to put your bike on a bus having that all be very comfortable. And the thing is with, you know, one of my concerns about the talk, the focus on fares Is that is that, I’d really like to see us focus more on improving the system. So people don’t have to have cars, because if you’re maintaining a car, and a lot of people who use public transport, they also have to maintain a car and that’s expensive.

Christina Minicucci 17:25
Exactly. And that’s where I am right now I have to maintain my car. Even when I take public transportation, I felt that means yes, because I actually do everything I need to do. And I have to maintain my bike, which by the way, I’m not really like an amazing bike maintenance person.

Yeah, now I’d like be really, really good at it. But I still end up having to take it to get tuned up once in a while. So it works. And

Karen Christensen 17:53
it might I took one, I have two bikes, but I took I took them in to get. And one of the things was actually he just used a bunch of lubricant and shoved it through the gears. And I thought God, I could have done that.

Christina Minicucci 18:07
Now as like I’ve been forced to change a tire before. And on my mountain bike, it’s one thing but I on my road bike at that thing terrifies me anyway, because some of our roads here are a little bit narrow, a little bit windy, people drive maybe a little too fast. And so scary even being on the road. And when I’ve had to change that tire, that one was much harder. And that involves me picking up the phone be like can somebody pick this tire, it’s too scary. And so, you know, I do really appreciate places that are in and I noticed right here in North Andover, and also in all of the surrounding communities, everybody is going to the safer streets to making sure that we have sidewalks and yeah, the complete streets grant program through the state, but trying to finish out the streets, making sure there’s a marked bike path on as many roads as possible. And, you know, I really appreciate that, because I have three kids, none of them have licenses, they all love to ride there, my oldest is almost 19. And he prefers to ride his bike or walk, he’s picking his mom. And he just says, you know, I don’t, I don’t need a car, it’s fine, I’ll ride my bike. And as I think about my kids being out on the road, running, walking, biking, whatever they’re doing, I like knowing that there are sidewalks and bike paths and people are becoming more aware that not everybody has a car. Yeah, and not everyone’s using their car every day.

Karen Christensen 19:39
And of course, the it’s this very positive cycle, circle. That, that, you know, the, what I’ve noticed is that cyclists are much safer when they’re more of them. Yeah, the more and I’m sure that’s true with pedestrians as well. That, that as you make streets safer, there’s going to be more people, and then it becomes this, you know, it’s a very positive feedback loop. And, and, and so we need to see, I mean, that’s really the thing, it’s this, it’s a system, it’s all, it’s all connected, it’s not just trains, or just or just paths.

Christina Minicucci 20:21
But I think with the trains, many of our there definitely are improvements that need to be done to the train stations to the platforms in my district, you know, not all of them are at grade, some of them have a little bit of a break in them. And so there are just upgrades to make sure they’re all accessible, and they all have sufficient safe parking, and, you know, kind of all of those things and that they have enough of a of a local bus route that that the services them. And then also just the reliability of them. It’s slow, you know, if there’s no high speed that happens, even the direct trains, you know, they’re not Europe or China. You’re not getting from that short distance in a short amount of time. It takes time, right it is it does take as long as it does to drive to take the train. It’s more comfortable for someone like me who would prefer not to be stressed out with the driving and I would rather be sitting there having that time as my own. But, you know, electrifying the trains is something that we we’d like to explore moving forward, improving the tracks. We have some sections that are not double track. And so requires a train to wait for another one to pass. So we have a section that really needs to be improved in that way to make sure that we can run more trains, run it with more frequency. If you take the commuter rail from, say, Lynne, or Beverly-Salem area, those run every 30 minutes, they’re running to Boston, and they take about 30 minutes. So that’s great, like, so you live in any of those places, you are just, it’s easy to say I’m going to commit to the train, because you know, you’re going to be able to get one with reasonable frequency. And doesn’t take that long. And it’s a heck of a lot easier than trying to navigate from the sea coast into Boston, which even though it is even closer than it is from here, it’s even harder to get there. Yeah, it’s one of them can’t get there from here places that we have here on the north. Like I’m like going to Beverly. But I can’t get there from here. Because they’re a little bit more remote, because I stick out into the ocean a little bit. And the arteries, the roads don’t, aren’t as, as developed as the highways are where we are. And so it takes a lot longer to get off of those little, the little neck like you know, the cape areas. And to get onto a main road like a 95, or a 495, or a 93, one of those main arteries, you have to get from your home onto one of those before you can drive into Boston. So being able to hop on a 30 minute train is gold.

Karen Christensen 23:17
Fantastic. So testing, so if you were to pick just one or two things that would make the biggest difference to the people in your district would, what would they be?

Christina Minicucci 23:30
I would say if we could improve the quality of the tracks so that the trains could run a little bit faster. I think that would help people feel more comfortable about reliability, speed, just have more comfort with knowing the trains going to get there on time and maybe save them some time. So I think that would be helpful. And I think more frequency. And but the only way to get that frequency is for people to be assured that the train is going to run on time. Yeah, Run quickly. So they kind of tie into each other. You have Yeah, people without a lot of flexibility, you know, struggle with making the commitment. And then if there’s no commitment, the train schedulers say, well, we can’t run it because there isn’t enough demand.

Karen Christensen 24:21
Right, exactly. We need to kind of cut that off and decide that you know, and there’s plenty of evidence that if you have good reliable train service, people will use it. People it’s desirable. So that’s, that’s Yeah.

Christina Minicucci 24:38
And it’s interesting with the fair piece, you know, some of the things we talked about it doesn’t you, you only gave me two wishlist items. So this will be outside of that. But with the fair piece, I’m always interested to see well, what happens if we let people travel from Haverhill to Andover for free? Or for you know, to go within our area or region? Like what if you could go three or four stops and not pay? Would people use it more? Would local folks be more apt to say I’m going to hop on the train? And so I started take the train, I was the chat with people the whole time. I’m on the train, you know, it’s like, someone’s like, Oh, are you just a rap I and other people, sometimes I’d sit next to someone and ask and I did see one guy going from behavioral and getting up and over all the time. And I was like, So what do you know, I see the train, where you going? What do you do? You go into work, and just out of curiosity, and he’s like, oh, yeah, I work right at the train station. He goes, and I live right at the other train station. And it’s easy for me just to hop on at one and get off at the other and go back and forth. And, you know, I thought I wonder if there are more people like that, that live in these more congregated area. There’s lots of housing. Yeah, each train station, there’s lots of housing, there’s dense housing that, you know, we’re with all of the Housing Choice bill and all of the housing changes that we’re doing legislatively, it’s to try to get people to build near the train. Yeah, Bill. Yeah, people don’t need to talk. And that’s what he was doing. And he did pay a fare. So I don’t know if there’s a way to make that fare free. Would more people do that, you know, if we had the last mile service.

Karen Christensen 26:14
To reduce some of those, or even just to encourage more interaction, but yeah, those short shorter trips, not just thinking of it as commuter.

Christina Minicucci 26:24
That’s right. But just so you know, I want to go to Andover. I want to go downtown. I’m going to walk through how to do some shopping, I’m going to go to work whatever I’m going to do, you know, is it possible to jump back and forth and they do they do have space on the train cars for bicycles. So you know, people will bring a bicycle on the train, it’s not super common, but you would see a couple people on every train ride. And the closer you get to Boston, the more full it gets. And I would say that I’ll that there was never an issue filling the train to the max. Every single train, so certainly gets ridership. But it’ll be interesting to see what happens after COVID I think there’s a lot left to be seen. So,

Karen Christensen 27:09
yeah, and, and, you know, just so many new so many ideas percolating. So this is actually i It’s kind of interesting to me to think about, not just, you know, getting people from the city, to outlying areas, but you know, actually promoting more movement within the, you know, like towns like the ones you represent. Well, it’s great to have a little bit of an introduction to another part of the state that I’m not familiar with. And I hope that we’ll have a chance to meet in person.

Christina Minicucci 27:45
And some that would be great. We’d love to have you come visit, we could do a mobile train. That would be Boston, and we’ll try to get from one side of the city to the other side of the city, and then we’ll go from city to country.

Karen Christensen 27:59
Can I bring my bike?

Christina Minicucci 28:00
Yeah, I’ll put you on a bike trail. Yeah. thing. Yeah.

Karen Christensen 28:05
Alright, now that I’ve got it tuned up. Great, lovely to talk to you. Thank you so much.

Christina Minicucci 28:13
Thank you for having me.