Commuter rail ridership up 20% since 2012
Big increase suggests increase in fare revenue is due to more users
PASSENGER TRAFFIC on the MBTA’s commuter rail system grew by more than 20 percent between 2012 and 2018, with nearly all lines posting increases, according to sources familiar with the data.
At a time when subway and bus passenger counts are trending down, the uptick in commuter rail traffic is a positive sign for the MBTA. The data could trigger the purchase of additional passenger coaches and influence ongoing studies about how to run commuter rail service in the future. Some transportation advocates believe commuter rail trains should operate more frequently throughout the day, but there has been uncertainty about whether there is enough demand to warrant it.
Commuter rail, even more than the rest of the T, has been plagued by a scarcity of information about how many people are actually riding the trains. Conductors are charged with counting the number of passengers, but little stock is put in those numbers because the conductors have a lot of other duties to perform.
Commuter rail fare revenue is up, rising 25 percent between fiscal 2015 and fiscal 2018, which ended June 30. In fiscal 2018 alone, commuter rail fare revenue increased $7.5 million, while fare revenue from all other modes of travel, primarily buses and subways, decreasing $5.5 million. As a result of the increase in commuter rail fare revenue, fare revenue for the T as a whole increased $2 million, or 0.3 percent, in fiscal 2018.
Automatic passenger counters are currently being installed on many commuter rail coaches, but that effort is not likely to be finished until late this year. In the meantime, the Central Transportation Planning Staff, part of the Boston Region Metropolitan Planning Organization, was commissioned to do an on-the-ground survey of riders on the commuter rail system. Sources say the survey is very rigorous, but it is best compared to a similar survey conducted by the same group in 2012.
The existence of new passenger numbers for commuter rail first surfaced earlier this week at a press briefing on the MBTA’s capital spending program. The presentation listed “commuter rail bi-level coaches” under a listing of anticipated vehicle contracts planned for fiscal 2019. The value of the contracts was listed as “to be determined.”
Asked why the T would be purchasing new passenger coaches in the midst of a broad study on the future direction of the commuter rail system, MBTA General Manager Steven Poftak said the transit agency may need more cars later this year if ridership numbers indicate more capacity is needed.“To the extent there is demand for additional service that requires additional coaches, we would need to start the process of addressing that,” Poftak said.
T officials have said little about how they planned to assess demand, but they have scheduled a presentation on commuter rail passenger counts to the Fiscal and Management Control Board for later this month. T spokesman Joe Pesaturo said that presentation will focus on new passenger counts conducted by the Central Transportation Planning Staff.