Some service cuts will be restored in June
THE MBTA’S Fiscal and Management Control Board pressed agency officials on Monday to accelerate the rollout of commuter rail trains that run on electricity instead of diesel fuel, but it was evident it will be years before that happens even in the most ideal conditions.
The control board adopted a series of resolutions in November 2019, including one calling for more subway-like service on the commuter rail system and full or partial electrification of the Providence, Fairmount, and Newburyport-Rockport lines. Officials from communities along those lines and transportation advocates have been pressing the Baker administration to follow through as quickly as possible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in communities along those lines.
T officials provided an update Monday, and it was clear some progress is being made but many challenges lie ahead. The T on April 5 began the move toward more subway-like service, reducing the number of trains at traditional peak periods and spreading trains out at regular intervals over the course of a day.
According to Monday’s presentation, a series of feasibility studies are underway to determine what would need to be done to electrify the three lines. All but 1.7 miles of the Providence line are already electrified, but the other two lines have no electricity infrastructure in place. The studies are exploring what kind of electricity infrastructure is needed, how much power is needed, and an assortment of other modifications to bridges and platforms.
T officials said they are talking with three other transit systems that have already placed orders for electric multiple units – self-propelled passenger cars that run on electricity. The T is trying to purchase the options those systems have to procure additional vehicles.
The MBTA’s capital budget for fiscal 2022, which begins July 1, currently contains most of the money needed for the feasibility studies but no money to purchase electric multiple units.
Joseph Aiello, the chair of the control board, indicated he would support carving more money out of the proposed $2 billion capital budget for the studies and the electric multiple units, if the units become available. Negotiating contracts for vehicles on the fly is not something the T does very often, but officials indicated the chance to purchase the vehicles without going through a long procurement process would be appealing.
MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said some risk is involved. “There are going to be some risks and it will be up to the collective wisdom whether those risks are manageable,” he said.
Officials said it’s unlikely electric vehicles could be operating on the Providence line until 2024 or 2025 and it could be 2030 before the Fairmount and Newburyport/Rockport lines are electrified. Those three lines account for only 10 percent of the existing commuter rail system.
The debate over the future of the commuter rail system comes at a time when passenger traffic on the system as a whole is way down – roughly 11 percent of pre-pandemic levels.
Still unclear when T service cuts will be restored
In late June, the MBTA will restore service on several closed bus routes, add frequency on the highest-ridership bus lines, and boost trips on the core subway system, early steps in the agency’s effort to walk back unpopular COVID-era cuts.
Two weeks after the T’s board voted to resume pre-pandemic levels of service on most of the system “as soon as possible,” officials outlined the first major batch of changes coming to the bus network starting June 20.
MBTA Deputy General Manager Jeff Gonneville told the board on Monday that the T will resume running buses on Routes 18 in Dorchester, 52 from Dedham to Watertown, 55 in Boston to Copley Square, 68 in Cambridge and parts of the 465 that runs from Danvers Square to Salem Depot — all of which were partially or fully suspended on March 14 in a package of service cuts — in a summer schedule that takes effect June 20.
The T will also further boost service on some other bus lines that are already running more frequently than they did before the pandemic hit, such as the Route 32 in Boston, the 77 from Arlington to Cambridge, the 111 and 116 between Revere and Boston, and the 117 from East Boston to Revere.
The latest plan calls for increased service on the Red, Orange, Blue and Green Lines starting this summer as well, though Gonneville did not provide many details on those lines Monday. Officials intend to bring more service back in the fall as well, Gonneville said.
In December, the T’s board approved a package of cuts affecting all modes, aiming to recalibrate service while ridership languished at less than a third of pre-pandemic averages. The proposal drew sharp criticism from federal lawmakers and others, who said the T should not trim service after receiving nearly $2 billion in aid, prompting the agency to pivot late last month.
Gonneville said efforts to restore service quickly are complicated by staffing challenges. The MBTA did not lay off employees in response to its COVID-fueled budget crunch, but its workforce still shrunk from close to 1,680 to about 1,660 due to attrition. Hiring has been slow to fill openings and COVID-19 has also reduced staff levels temporarily – as many as 40 employees in recent weeks.
The T’s goal is to have roughly 1,670 bus operators by the fall of this year and 1,780 by the spring of 2022. T officials plan to keep a fairly large contingent of employees in reserve to cover absences rather than the current practice of paying workers overtime to handle the shifts. STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE