Savings estimates from commuter rail cuts vary a lot

Savings estimates from commuter rail cuts vary a lot

Halting weekend service would save between $7m and $18m

THE INABILITY OF MBTA OFFICIALS to say definitively how many passengers ride commuter rail on weekends is making it difficult to push for elimination of the service.

The T last week said it was considering eliminating the weekend service to save $10 million as part of a budget-balancing package for the coming fiscal year, but that estimate was $8 million below a projection of cost savings from less than two years ago.

T officials acknowledge they don’t have a good handle on how many people ride commuter trains on weekends, and are taking steps to improve their information on passenger traffic.

In November 2015, the T released two reports within weeks of each other that gave very different estimates on potential savings from eliminating weekend service. The first report, on Nov. 18, said commuter rail provides an average of 40,000 trips on weekends – 23,000 on Saturdays and 17,000 on Sundays. The report said the weekend subsidy was $23.52 per trip. It also said the total net cost of weekend commuter rail operations was $51 million and the net marginal cost was $18 million. The net marginal cost is the amount that could be saved by discontinuing service.

On Nov. 30, 2015, an MBTA presentation on the tough choices necessary to bring the fiscal 2017 budget into balance estimated the savings from discontinuing weekend commuter rail service at between $7 million and $14.4 million.

Then last week, when T officials recommended eliminating the weekend service, they estimated they could save $10 million by discontinuing the service and said the operating subsidy per trip on weekends was $34, compared to just $5 on weekdays.

Brian Shortsleeve, the T’s chief administrator, said he couldn’t immediately reconcile the different savings estimates, but a spokesman for the agency noted the current $10 million estimate is roughly midway between the $7 million to $14.4 million savings range outlined in the Nov. 30, 2015, presentation.

The MBTA currently relies on conductors to estimate how many people are riding on trains. That effort is imprecise, so in 2015 an accounting firm was hired to conduct a more thorough analysis. T officials are now rushing to gather more information. They are spending $300, 000 to equip 11 passenger coaches with new technology to count passengers as they board. The passenger-counting system is expected to go live by the end of the month.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

The T has also given Keolis, the commuter rail operator, the green light to launch a five-year campaign to cut down on fare evasion and increase ridership. The $9 million-a-year cost will be paid by Keolis, which will be reimbursed from increased fare revenue if the program works. By installing fare gates at South, North, and Back Bay stations as well as other measures, T officials estimate fare revenue may increase by $30 million — $20 to $24 million from reducing fare evasion and $6 million through boosting ridership. It’s unclear how those estimates were derived, since estimating fare evasion would presumably be even more difficult than estimating riders.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    In other words, it’s the MBTA management that’s the problem. How is that not fixed by now?