Is scrapping of bus service bad sign for South Coast rail?

THE SOUTH COAST’S only bus link to Boston is shutting down next month because ridership is so low, which is raising questions about the viability of commuter rail service to the region that is scheduled to begin later this year or early next year.

 DATTCO operates three-times-a-day bus service to Boston’s South Station and Copley Square from the communities of Fairhaven, New Bedford, Dartmouth, and Taunton. Return service runs four times a day. The company announced last week that it is shutting down the route on April 16 after several years of deficits.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation, which owns the buses DATTCO uses, said passenger levels on the route have been dropping since before the pandemic, and currently only 30 to 40 people take the bus each day. 

Those paltry passenger numbers raise questions about South Coast Rail, a $1 billion project providing roughly 90-minute commuter rail service connecting Boston to New Bedford and Fall River via separate tracks branching off from Middleborough.  

Current MBTA plans call for three morning peak trains and three evening peak trains to both New Bedford and Fall River, which translates to six morning and evening trains to Taunton and Middleborough because all the trains will make those stops. During off-peak periods, trains will operate every 3 to 3½ hours.

The last time state officials estimated how many passengers might ride South Coast Rail was in 2017, long before the pandemic. Even then the numbers weren’t that great – 4,400 total daily riders and 2,110 new riders.

In a statement, MBTA spokeswoman Lisa Battiston acknowledged a lot has changed since 2017. “While these pre-pandemic ridership estimates may seem optimistic today given telecommuting and other workplace adjustments in today’s ‘new normal’ that have impacted commuting patterns, commuter trains offer a number of benefits versus cars and buses that make them an attractive alternative – perhaps, most notably, their predictable schedules/timetable,” Battiston said. “Due to traffic, highway configurations, and other factors, driving Route 24 from New Bedford in a car or within a commuter bus is often much longer than an hour and a half.”

Battiston also pointed out that South Coast Rail will make many more stops than the DATTCO buses, giving riders more travel options.

Charlie Baker and Karyn Polito, the former governor and lieutenant governor, pledged to build South Coast Rail after decades of broken promises to the region by their predecessors.  

At a press conference for a new train station in Freetown late last year, the two politicians didn’t focus on ridership or the economic benefits of expanded rail service to the South Coast. Instead, they called South Coast Rail a matter of fairness.

“How are we going to claim to be an inclusive Commonwealth if the South Coast of Massachusetts – Fall River and New Bedford, in particular – don’t have access to public transportation that is available, as I said before, to all of the other communities of any significant size within 50 miles of Boston,” Baker said.

“I think about this as more than a rail project,” Polito said. “This is about equity and opportunity.”




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