The Codast: Dogged advocate for putting more bodies on trains
In the world of transit advocacy, there are those who push for sweeping changes such as regional rail, connecting the Red and Blue subway lines, or doing away with transit fares. And then there are people like Richard Prone, who advocates for smaller, nitty gritty initiatives that nevertheless play an influential role in the broader debate.
Prone spent most of his working life as a train engineer and now, in retirement, serves as the Duxbury representative on the MBTA Advisory Board. He is a relentless advocate for the South Shore at meetings of the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board, where he shows up week after week during the public comment period and uses his two minutes of speaking time to doggedly make the case for policies he believes will help his neighbors and increase commuter rail ridership.
“You have to be persistent and you have to make sense,” he said on the Codcast.
Prone watched with alarm as the T did away with special commuter rail family fares in 2012 and then in 2017 briefly considered doing away with all weekend commuter rail service to help balance the agency’s budget.
For Prone, the solution was to move in the opposite direction. Give passengers a more reasonable fare (from his station in Kingston the round trip to South Station was $23) and schedule service at more convenient times. The last trains from Boston to the South Shore left before 11 p.m., in some cases well before 11. “That’s good for about six innings of a [Red Sox] baseball game,” he said.
The $10 weekend fare has been a success. In its first six months, 180,000 weekend passes were sold and, despite the lower fare, revenue was up 4.6 percent, or about $350,000.
Prone also lobbied for later departure times for the last trains leaving South Station for the South Shore. Prone argued someone wanting to attend a play, a concert, or a sporting event couldn’t run the risk of missing the last train so they would instead drive into Boston. He proposed moving the departure times of the last train leaving South Station to around 11:30 p.m. “This was such a no-brainer,” he said.
Behind the scenes, Prone marshalled support from every community on the South Shore and demonstrated how the proposal wouldn’t cost the T any additional money. But meeting after meeting, Prone’s appeal for later departure times fell on deaf ears. “I couldn’t understand why change was so slow to come by when to me it was just common sense,” he said.
Just when the T appeared to be warming to the idea, the proposal hit a snag in early May. Paul Regan, the executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, said during the May 6 public comment period of the Fiscal and Management Control Board that the T appeared to be backing away from an earlier commitment. He said he was skeptical of the T’s claim that shifting an existing train to a later departure time would cost the transit agency an extra $200,000 a year. Even so, he said, adding 10 additional riders to each train would generate $218,000 per year in new revenue, enough to offset any additional costs.
Prone told the control board he felt betrayed. “Give me a break,” he said. “I’m sick and tired of getting the short shrift from the MBTA.”
A week later, the T came around, agreeing to move back the departure times starting this fall. Prone said he never understood the T’s reluctance to embrace fares and schedules that could put more bodies in seats and maximize the value of the T’s investment in its commuter rail lines.
“I don’t want to call it a secret society, but it’s very hard to penetrate the different levels of bureaucracy at the T,” Prone said.
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