MBTA tries new approach with commuter rail cuts
Aiello calls the change the first step toward regional rail
WITH NO EXPECTATION of a quick turnaround in ridership, the MBTA is preparing to move ahead with bus and subway service cuts next month while adopting a more revolutionary approach on commuter rail that spreads trips out across the day and does away with the traditional concept of peak travel times.
Jeffrey Gonneville, the MBTA’s deputy general manager, said the new approach will spread service out across the day at regular, often hourly intervals rather than concentrating it at morning and evening peak periods. A marketing campaign promoting the new approach is expected to roll out over the next 30 days leading up to the April 5 launch.
Gonneville said the new schedule will also allow the T to operate trains and deploy staff more efficiently, saving an estimated $30 million annually. He said the new approach would use 11 percent fewer trains and enable a 20 percent reduction in operator hours.
The concept is fairly simple. Ridership has vanished on the commuter rail system during COVID and particularly at the traditional peak travel times, so the T is going to experiment with a new all-day approach. On the Worcester line, for example, a train will run every hour all day long between Worcester and Boston. The same is true on the Fitchburg and many of the other lines.
“It really is a new pattern, a new model,” said Gonneville, who hopes to serve existing riders better with more regular service and possibly attract new riders.
Joseph Aiello, the chairman of the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board, said the proposed changes reflect the new reality brought about by COVID-19 and represent the agency’s first move toward a regional rail system that treats inter-city travel more like subway service. Aiello said the T should think about doing away with the term “commuter rail” entirely because the system is now designed for more than just commuting to work.
“I don’t think we want to stop here,” he said, urging the T to consolidate trains with automatic doors on lines that have platforms at the same level as the doors. Aiello seemed to be suggesting that trains on those lines could operate far more efficiently with far fewer conductors, saving money that could be used to reduce fares.
The service cuts on the bus and subway lines, which take effect March 14, were more traditional. Subway frequency will be cut up to 20 percent on the Red, Orange, and Green Lines and 5 percent on the Blue Line. On the Red Line, the change will mean the interval between trains at peak periods will rise from 4.7 to 5.5 minutes on the main line and 7 to 8 minutes off-peak.
T officials said they intent to run 90 percent of pre-COVID bus service, with one route, the 236, getting increased frequency, 22 routes getting reduced frequency, five routes getting a blend of changes depending on the time of day, and nine routes suspended entirely. (A full breakdown of the changes can be found here.)T officials offered no estimate of the overall savings.
The service cuts are being implemented over the objections of transit advocates, in part because the T’s latest projections indicate ridership is likely to slowly return from the current level of 32 percent of pre-COVID levels to 72 percent by the fall of 2023. Bus and subway ridership would rebound the strongest, to about 70 percent of pre-COVID levels. Commuter rail ridership, however, is projected to end up at around 55 percent of pre-pandemic levels by then.