Commuter rail network ‘failing’ riders, report shows, systemic overhaul needed

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A scathing new report from transportation watchdog TransitMatters finds the state’s commuter rail system is in need of full-scale overhaul if Massachusetts hopes to meet self-imposed Net Zero carbon goals by 2050.

The report, titled “Turning Vision into Reality: the Moment for Regional Rail is Now,” indicates the state is at a transit crossroads, faced with the choice of maintaining an outdated and ailing diesel fleet, or investing in the kind of regional transportation that actually works for residents.

“The MBTA’s commuter rail system is failing the people it should serve,” the report reads, in part. “Riders from Gateway Cities like Haverhill and Fitchburg must pay high fares for trains that come hourly or worse.”

“Environmental justice communities like Dorchester and Chelsea are exposed to dangerous black carbon emissions from diesel locomotives and are forced to contend with long bus trips because of commuter rail’s expense, low frequency, and unreliability. White collar workers with flexible schedules drive instead thanks to commuter rail’s infrequent schedules and poor reliability, adding to the region’s traffic congestion while frustrating emissions reductions targets,” the report says.

According to the report, problems with the commuter rail service come following decades of heavy investment and despite increased government backed subsidies when compared with the MBTA’s rapid transit system.

Ridership levels have not returned to pre-pandemic levels, hovering around 30% short of those numbers, “speaking to a need to move beyond Commuter Rail’s peak-oriented model to boost ridership and avoid a negative feedback loop imposed by possible service cuts.”

TransitMatters is proposing the Commuter Rail, under a Regional Rail model, should be entirely electrified, its platforms raised and made accessible, stations standardized to improve construction speed, and service increased by up to 300%, which means trains arriving at stations as far as Haverhill every 30 minutes, all day every day.

“As the last three years have proven, increased remote work has not measurably reduced traffic congestion or vehicle miles traveled. We continue to believe that (former) Governor Baker’s Commission on the Future of Transportation had it right when it declared that Massachusetts needs to move more people in fewer vehicles,” they wrote.

Electrifying the entire system and putting the corresponding electric trains on the tracks could cost upwards of $8 billion, according to Jarred Johnson, executive director of TransitMatters. Still, the cost of not doing so will be higher, according to the report.

“EMUs trains are roughly 10 times as reliable as diesel locomotives, requiring less maintenance; their lifecycle costs, including acquisition and maintenance, are half the cost of diesels,” the report states. “Because operating costs are largely driven by the peak; increases in off-peak service incur little additional cost. High all-day frequency would mean the same number of conductors and engineers working the trains could make more trips per shift, reducing the cost per trip.”

The report also calls for fare adjustments. Under the current model, a rider boarding a train at the furthest commuter rail zone pays as much as $26.80 for a round trip ride to and from Boston; and that’s before paying for parking or a subway transfer, which could push the price closer to $40 for a single day’s commute.

Under the proposed plan there would only be four commuter rail zones, instead of the current 10, and when coupled with a low-income discount, a ride from the furthest zone could cost as little as $7.20 round trip.

“In the short term, a move to cheaper fares represents a commitment to mode shift and transit accessibility for all income levels – a regional and social equity win. In the long term, efficiencies from electrification and higher ridership mean an increase in ticket revenue,” the report reads.

Herald reporter Gayla Cawley contributed.

Commuter rail passengers make their way to trains at South Station. Staff file photo by Matt West

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