Commuter rail ridership, once dismal, continues to grow

Keolis experiment would extend $10 weekend fare to holidays

COMMUTER RAIL ridership continues to grow, suggesting more people are returning to work downtown and finding on-time rail service an attractive option.

Average weekday ridership on the commuter rail system at the start of the pandemic in May 2020 fell to a ghost-train level of 2,724 passengers. It started an upward trend a year later and started gaining significant momentum in 2022.

In October 2022, ridership reached 78 percent of pre-pandemic levels (pre-pandemic is defined as 119,354 average weekday passengers), dipped somewhat over the holidays, and then hit 79 percent in April of this year.

The numbers suggest more and more people are traveling into and out of Boston on weekdays. What’s unclear is whether the numbers will continue to grow or whether they have maxed out with hybrid work schedules. The answer to that question is huge because the commuter rail system, on a per passenger basis, is expensive to operate.

Even as the commuter rail tries to return to where it was pre-pandemic, the system is about to start replacing some of its aging rail cars with initial deliveries of 80 new, two-level coaches manufactured by Hyundai-Rotem under a $345 million contract with the MBTA. The new rail cars will first show up on the Providence, Franklin, and Middleboro lines on the south side of the system and  the Newburyport/Rockport, Lowell, and Fitchburg lines on the North Side.

One factor in the resurgence of commuter rail is on-time performance. Several years ago, Keolis had a very spotty record on on-time performance, defined as a train arriving at its destination within five minutes of the scheduled time.

In October 2019, for example, the commuter rail system as a whole had an on-time performance of 84.6 percent, with performance on individual lines ranging as low as 79 percent. For the first four months of this year, on-time performance overall was 94.3 percent.

Weekend commuter rail passenger traffic has made impressive gains, with ridership exceeding pre-pandemic levels. In April, weekend passenger counts totaled 169,089.

Keolis Commuter Services, the company that operates the commuter rail system for the MBTA, announced on Tuesday that the $10 fare for unlimited weekend travel would be extended under z six-month pilot to all federal holidays. Under the pilot, $10 will get you unlimited trips for the entire three-day Memorial Day weekend May 27-29.

Regular fares on commuter rail vary by distance, but a standard one-way fare for trips to Boston from the relatively close-in Zone 2 costs $7.