Commuter rail should be experimenting

Facing uncertain future, it’s time to rethink operations

SOME OF THE MOST encouraging news coming out of the pandemic has been the ability of Massachusetts companies to quickly pivot and meet suddenly changing needs.  Shoe manufacturers are making face masks. Distillers are producing hand sanitizer.  A greeting card company is using it’s die-cutters to produce face shields.  Companies quickly pivoted, found ways to utilize their assets and kept their skilled employees working.

Commuter rail needs to follow the example of these firms and pivot by finding new uses for the skilled workers and the equipment that are being made surplus by the reductions in service currently taking place.  Commuter rail should be experimenting with new services, particularly with extending service to additional communities outside its current service area.

Commuter rail is facing fundamental changes.  Ridership is a fraction of pre-pandemic levels as downtown office workers are working from home.  The MBTA projects that commuter rail ridership will not come back to its pre-pandemic volumes for years.  The familiar morning and evening peaks will be much flatter.  Off peak, reverse peak, and weekend traffic will make up a much larger proportion of commuter rail ridership.  There is a pressing need to restructure commuter rail to respond to the demand changes.

The MBTA is implementing major cost cuts, but believes even with these cuts it must cut service.  Weekend commuter rail service, although proportionately holding up better than weekday service, is the first casualty on many commuter lines.  Late night commuter rail service is scheduled to go next.  These cuts will lead to employment reduction, idle equipment, and lower facility utilization.

If excellent commuter rail service is unavailable as travel demand returns, riders will shift to their only practical alternative, single occupancy automobiles.  Prior to the pandemic, the average trip length for commuter rail passengers was over 20 miles. Such trips are too long to walk or cycle; taxi or Uber are too expensive; and bus transit takes too long or is non-existent. Without a robust commuter rail system, the Commonwealth will be challenged to meet its congestion improvement and climate change goals.

How can commuter rail retain its employees and not idle equipment so it can restore service when needed?  One partial solution is to “go long.” The MBTA should extend existing commuter rail lines using the human and equipment resources made surplus by the cuts.  Services outside the traditional commuter peaks, including seasonal services should be emphasized.

The economics of extending service on existing lines are usually quite good. Commuter rail fares are distance based, so passengers traveling further using the extended service will pay more.  Operating costs of extended operations are usually lower than average costs, particularly when surplus equipment and personnel are considered.

Where could “go long” be developed?  The easiest extension would be Middleboro to Buzzards Bay or Bourne.  The Commonwealth owns the line, stations are already in place, and seasonal MBTA operations already occur on the line.

Extension of commuter rail from Worcester to Springfield or Pittsfield could be the first phase of East – West Rail.  If running times equal to the Lake Shore Limited are considered good enough for now, the principal barrier to start up is an agreement with the freight operator CSX.  Further extension of the service on the Commonwealth-owned Housatonic Line could provide a tourism boost in the Berkshires.

Extending the Fitchburg line west of Wachusett could inform the Northern Tier Rail study with actual results.

2020 was not the first time that commuter rail in the Boston area was in crisis.  Largely due to the transportation investment policies in place after World War II, rail saw a loss of about 75 percent of passengers arriving at North and South Stations from 1949 to 1962.  There was a high risk that each of the three private railroads providing commuter rail service would soon apply to abandon their commuter rail services.  Massachusetts’ response was to fund experiments, learning how passengers would respond.  The result was a commitment to commuter rail by the Commonwealth, which led to a rebirth of that service.

Meet the Author

Andrew Jennings

Retired transportation consultant, Resident of North Billerica
The Commonwealth should experiment again.  It can “go long” now, without taking the taking the time for extensive modeling and studies.  Results from the experiments can inform the necessary restructuring of commuter rail to meet the post-pandemic travel demand changes.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation has the resources, along with Keolis, to start some extended services in the fall of this year.  Such action will retain jobs and preserve assets necessary to restore a restructured commuter rail service in a timely manner as travel demand returns.

Andrew Jennings is a retired transportation consultant from North Billerica.